Wednesday, March 8
My French degree just paid off. My guide up the dunes, Ali, was not comfortable speaking English, but was fluent in French, so we were able to chat quite easily during the time we were together.
We were awakened at 5:30 by a server bringing us hot water to wash up, then hot coffee to wake us up. Then, at 6, we were hiking into the dunes. A group of nomads was waiting for us, to help us up the dunes. A young Berber in royal blue robes and yellow turban—Ali Nogot—was my assistant, helping me up the steeper dunes. I decided after about half an hour that I wouldn’t even try to make it to the top of the giant dune—no point in completely destroying my bad hip—so Ali and I sat on a smaller but still impressively high dune nearby and waited for the sun to rise. Ali pointed out the Algerian border in the distance and told me that it was once easier to pass back and forth over the border, at least for the Berbers traversing their traditional routes, but now the Algerians made it difficult for them. He chatted about his family (3 girls, 5 boys, though two other boys have died). He wrote my name in Arabic in the sand, as well as in my notebook, wrote down how to say “merci beaucoup” in his dialect (saha bizaf) and took my photo after winding his turban around my head.
As we walked back to camp, he pointed out the tracks of mice, gerbils, lizards, beetles, and fennec foxes, and he dug up a scarab beetle to show me. The beetle was as shiny as a jewel, and looked exactly like the scarabs one associates with ancient Egypt. He explained that it was good to be the first to walk on any given section of dune because of the “peau du matin,” the “morning skin,” a very subtle crust on the sand created by the dew. It doesn’t create a solid surface, but it does make the sand a tiny bit more stable, and therefore makes walking on the dunes easier—but only if you are the first to step on the “skin.” Ali also pointed out the route, at the far side of the dunes we were facing, of the Morocco section of the Paris-Dakar Rally. Hard to imagine what the local nomads must think of those cars roaring through the desert once a year.
We continued up and down the dunes, Ali taking my arm on the steeper, uphill sections. Just outside of camp, Ali crouched down and started to unpack the bag he was carrying. Aziz had told us that the chance to sell fossils was the reason these nomads offered their help. There were many lovely specimens, but I took only one, a handsome ammonite fossil. I tried to bargain, but to no avail. The price was higher than I would pay in a rock shop back home, but as I handed him the money, my own little Master Card ad was beginning to run through my mind: fossil: $40; spending the morning speaking French with a Berber nomad on a sand dune in the Sahara: priceless.
Then it was time for breakfast: tea, saffron pancakes, and scrambled eggs—the eggs we bought back in the green hills three days ago, before we’d even gotten to Fes.
At 9, the Touaregs who had entertained us last night returned, this time leading a long string of camels. The image of the gorgeously robed “blue men” leading the saddled dromedaries across the dunes was too perfect. Even more perfect was having the opportunity to ride the camels across the Sahara. The ride was only an hour, but it was wonderful. Because of the camel’s height, the view from the camel’s back was impressive. We passed dunes, oases, Berber tents, other camels, a herd of goats, and more dunes. We moved at an easy, comfortable pace. The camel’s distinctive stride created a rhythmic lurching that was actually less uncomfortable than a horse’s trot.
After an hour, we reached a spot where grazing camels and a small building let us know that our ride was about to end. Getting up and getting down are always the most exciting/disconcerting part of a camel ride, but we all “landed” safely. The 4x4s were waiting for us, and we climbed aboard and began our journey toward Sahara camp 2.
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Come along as I travel through Morocco, from ancient city to endless desert. Enjoy the history and beauty -- as well as the excellent food (I'm food historian -- I have to write about the food) as I circle this wonderful and ancient country full of...