The stars hang like an unfinished choreography, dancers suspended in mid-air. The North Star sits straight above – or is it Venus?
It would land on my forehead if it fell.
The space between each speck of light is deep navy, the kind of blue that exists only when light is absent and here, in the northern fringes of the Sahara Desert, the only light is our tiny campfire.
I’ve come here for the night, one of several short trips into the desert, to run my toes through the sand and discover the colors of the sun, which I’m told run through a rainbow of reds, oranges and yellows in a single day.
We are three: myself, Anne, who is capturing this beauty with her photographs, and Mbarak, who silently guides our camels through the dunes.
We are in Morocco’s South, two dozen kilometers from where the road ends and Algeria begins. My mind panics for a moment as I recall a recent story of kidnapping in southern Algeria. That wretched thought is pushed aside by a dazzling memory, one of youth and joy and beaches, of a year spent in that country next door before the military-Islamist carnage of the early 1990s. The border has been closed since 1994 and the neighbors are no longer on speaking terms, split over the fate of the former colony of Spanish Sahara.
Despite the proximity, we couldn’t be safer. The Moroccan military makes sure the thousands of visitors to the dunes stay protected, and as one Moroccan friend jokes, not even a stray camel could cross the border without being spotted.
From Merzouga to the Dunes
The jumping off point for treks in this area is Merzouga, but we head straight for the edge of town, passing dozens of seated camels waiting for riders, like cars aligned in a parking lot.
I have ridden a camel briefly but nothing prepares me for the surprise and violence of forward and backward jerk of a camel getting up. My knuckles are blue from gripping the metal bar that keeps the panniers – and our food – squarely on Hammadi’s back because yes, of course, my oatmeal-colored beast has a name.
Hammadi has a party trick: each time we head down a dune, he skips a step and I almost slide off, forgetting to lean back as I’ve been repeatedly told.
We pass tourist caravans and I cringe, even though we are tourists too. I don’t want to spend the evening with music and drums and singing and drinking. I can experience noise almost anywhere in the world.
Here, I want silence. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’m relieved as the giggling and chatter fade down a path, quickly dropping off, becoming invisible behind a dune.
Hammadi doesn’t walk, he squishes. His broad hooves sink lightly into the sand and create mini-hills with each step. We pass a bedouin camp, whose children materialize silently to sell us toy camels made of bits of wool and scraps of metal.
As we round a dune a small camp comes into view, a motley assortment of seven tents made of old wool blankets and scattered berber rugs used for decoration as wall hangings or camel saddles or for bartering and selling. Mostly though they sit on the ground, absorbing sand that would otherwise be tracked into every corner of every tent.
Tonight, we are told, the camp will be empty and the three of us will be alone.
Dinner by Candlelight
As we approach the sky’s blue deepens and a few colored clouds appear, first white, then pink until they explode into deep unimaginable purple. After the sun dips below the horizon the dunes themselves change color, transformed from rust to deep orange to ochre, tricking me into believing it might still be daylight.
It is so quiet we can hear Mbarak strike a match and the air is so dry the smell of phosphorous carries across the camp. He needs candles to see the small gas stove on which he’ll be cooking the beef and vegetable tajine we’ll eat tonight. Anne and I sit outside, watching the sunset, next to an old fire whose ashes are now cold and around which people thankfully won’t drink and sing tonight. Soon it will be lit again.
In this country where women handle the cooking, this is an unusual tableau, dinner being prepared by a lone Berber man wearing royal blue robes crouching next to a candle, two cats patiently waiting at the entrance for scraps.
Once the three of us sit and eat, even polite conversation is difficult. We manage to understand that his family lives in a town somewhere while he walks the sands with foreigners. Mbarak is fluent in Arabic and Berber but doesn’t know more than a dozen words in any other language. He’s keen to learn and points at things, asking for translations which he instantly repeats.
Like many Berbers he’s a natural linguist, a skill perhaps anciently developed when this region was crisscrossed by trading caravans; today, salt and dates have been replaced by foreign visitors but the Berbers remain.
I’m reminded of a stay in Mozambique, off the Bazaruto Islands, in a Red Cross hut some friends kindly loaned me, with no electricity, food prepared on a wood fire, nothing but the crashing of waves to rock me to sleep. Tonight, as we finish our meal, a gentle breeze flaps into the camp’s blankets. A distant cricket breaks into my thoughts, reminding me that indeed, the desert is inhabited with scarabs, scorpions, snakes and birds, whose fresh tracks will be all over the sand by morning.
The light has gone, but sound carries easily and I can hear people I’ll never see. Mbarak leaves the tajine to cook on the stove while he gathers dry wood for the campfire, which he will somehow keep going all night. To the naked eye there is no wood across the sand but if you look closely twigs collect in small bunches in the lee of dunes, blown there by the wind.
Mbarak lights the twigs and spreads the embers into a small circle, feeding the fire frequently by blowing on it. He boils water in a small turquoise teapot, adds a handful of tea, boils it again, pouring it into glasses and back into the teapot several times. When he’s happy with its strength and temperature, he adds a lump of sugar the size of a plump apricot. He hasn’t stopped singing.
The food is predictably delicious and as night deepens, the distant drums force an image into my head – that of my ancestors, nomads laden with goods to trade, meeting along desert routes for a night of business and camaraderie on what was the region’s commercial super-highway not so long ago.
Sated, the three of us lie next to the fire, covered in blankets, mattresses aligned in a circle like the rim of a wheel. The cold air whistles through the smallest gaps. We talk, or try to, and eventually fight to keep our eyes open, desperately wanting to watch the sky forever.
As a teenager my science fiction fetish led me to astronomy and I look for familiar constellations. They are everywhere and I desperately want to know the unfamiliar ones but my phone, which has my space map, won’t work here. There is no signal, no wifi, no anything, the only sign of the 21st century being the bottles of water we’ve carried with us.
In the middle of the night, I hear shuffling as Mbarak gets us more blankets. It seems we’ve fallen asleep outside.
I look up at infinite specks of light, stars behind stars, planets, and the occasional meteorite, upon which I wish, I wish, I wish I could just stay there, on the ground, watching the universe unfold above my head.
I’m escaping the world as I know it, even if only for a night. Here, on the edge of the Sahara, we could be plucked off the face of the Earth like so much lint brushed off a sweater. The world as we know it isn’t far away, but it couldn’t be further.
A Sahara Night Ends
My eyes fly open as the first rays appear, jarred awake by the unexpected crowing of a rooster and the clucking of hens, undoubtedly owned by one of the nearby nomad camps.
The dunes are razor-sharp in the sunrise, their shadow dark against the brightening day. The heat arrives quickly and we must return before the sun is high in the sky. Ascending Hammadi is easier this time, and I almost swing on top of him. His double-jerk doesn’t throw me off, because I know it’s coming.
We begin the return journey and run into a film crew, not unusual out here in the lunar landscape of the desert.
No matter. We detour and spend an extra hour getting back, an hour of silence, of aloneness, an hour of unlimited possibilities and dreams that underline my own insignificance. Spots and microphones may be blaring over that distant dune, but we can’t hear a thing.
It is a silence of gentle oppression, an absence of sound, where only the squishing of Hammadi’s hooves breaks the monotony of centuries. Tonight, after I’m long gone from here, a trillion stars will reappear in the Sahara night, catching the gaze of someone else’s eyes.
What every Woman on the Road should know
- I spent three nights in the Sahara, part of a one-week tour organized by Felicity Greenlaw-Weber. Felicity runs Desert Majesty, a wonderful travel agency based in Ouarzazate, south of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains, with whom Women on the Road partnered. If you want to spend more time in the desert just ask – that’s easy to organize. Next time I’ll be going for longer!
- If you’re planning on spending time in the desert, think of taking the following: a flashlight or headlamp (to find the bathroom), toilet paper, water (this is usually organized for you but check), bug repellent (depending on the season), sunscreen, and a plastic bag for waste.
- In the more distant camps, like this one, you’ll be traveling a bit rough – no toilets, no showers, and the desert is your bathroom, just as it is for the camels – so watch where you step. And please remember: if you leave anything behind, there are no maids. It will still be there when the next person arrives. If you bury a bit of toilet paper, the next bit of wind will uncover it; sand is always on the move so take everything that isn’t direct waste with you.
- After the trek, we stopped in the Sahara Garden Hotel for breakfast. If spending the night in the desert isn’t your thing, the hotel has upmarket tents, furnished, with facilities.
- I know the desert is full of creatures and I should not be running up a dune in bare feet. But… once you feel that hot sand between your toes you’ll never want to put your shoes back on.
- Traveling solo? Here’s some great advice on Morocco travel for women.
Photos by Anne Sterck