Into the Sahara

I watched from the rear of our camel procession as our guide Muhammed casually dropped the lead, walked twenty feet to our left and plunged his hands into the sand. What on earth is he doing? I thought, as he kept digging. A moment later, he lifted up his left hand, a small creature now squirming in his grasp. He had found a sand salamander burrowed in the desert with less effort than it takes me to find my car keys every morning.

The camel caravan into the desert. 

We had mounted up on our camels about an hour earlier in the evening - a hilarious process where you get on the camel while it's still sitting and hold on for dear life as it pops its hind legs up first, pitching you forward, then straightens its front legs, hopefully with you still on its back. Jonathan and I joined one other American, a Canadian and three Belgian ladies for a one-night stay among the sands. It was a pleasant enough crowd, but we were all strangely silent as our camels plodded along what was a well-worn path in the desert (the droppings gave that away). With each hill we crested, the town of Merzouga and our base for this adventure slid away, leaving only the waves of orange. 

A sand salamander found by our guide. 

It wasn't long until we arrived at our "camp" for the evening - a well-established group of nomad-style tents, bathroom (no shower) and a solar panel to power the few lamps. We dropped our few items in the tent, and headed for the closest dune to get a better view. The weather that evening was spectacular - clear but not too hot, with no wind to disturb the sand. The sand, by the way, was the softest I've ever felt. It almost melted between your toes, and made the flip flops I had brought utterly unnecessary. It also made climbing dunes tricky work, each step becoming a puddle of grains in an instant. But the view was well worth the climb. Just mountains and mountains made of the finest sand, all shaped by the wind, stretching endlessly into the distance. 

Our camels finally get a break. 

We hung around on the dunes until sundown, taking our turns at sand boarding and resisting the temptation to roll the 100 meters or so down to the bottom. Our guide and his two young sons prepared a tajine for dinner, which is a clay pot to mix vegetables and meat and cooks in a oven. It is a very common meal in Morocco - almost their version of cooking with a crockpot. After a cup of tea or two, our party scattered to their respective tents. Jonathan and I hiked up the dune one more time to get a better look at the stars since it was such a beautifully clear night. The desert had been silent all evening, and come nightfall it was one of the most peaceful times I've ever experienced. Sleep came easy.

Playing on the sand dunes at dusk. 

The previous days in Morocco I had been woken up by the local mosque's call to prayer early in the morning. In the desert, it was the wind. The heavy tent flaps and walls shook and sand whipped into our little camp. By morning, the carpets that had been laid down in the camp were covered with piles of the tiny granules, and all our footprints from the night before had been erased. 

Morning arrives at the camp. 

We climbed the dune one last time to watch the sunrise. We saw the sands change from a deep, cool brown color to a warm amber hue - one of the more dramatic transformations I've seen in a sunrise. Soon after we mounted back up on our camels and our procession began again. We left the desert as silently as we came, our footprints again fading with the wind, and it was as if we had never been there at all. 

On the way home. 

Trying not to fall as my camel stops with the caravan