Sahara Desert – Part I

Waking up in the peaceful morning, I wasn’t quite ready to move on knowing that I probably won’t enjoy the same level of comfort in a while. Breakfast was buffet again, this time with multiple kinds of pastries, bread, and – wait for it – CEREALS! Okay, I wasn’t really that excited, since I didn’t eat that much cereal back in Minnesota, but it was nice to have something familiar. There was also a kind of pancake that was strikingly similar to the scallion pancake I used to eat back in Taiwan, except without the scallion.

Giving the pool a last look, we checked out of the hotel and continued our journey to Merzouga, the city from which we will go into the desert. It was a fairly quick ride, and the more south we went, the more rough earth and dunes we saw. Even more in the middle of no where, the hotel stood alone off the road and before the dunes.

I guess the Sahara Desert is another one of those places that you hear about, read about, have a lot of stereotypes about, and never dream of going. Well, I have been having this surreal feeling ever since I first saw those huge mountains of sand. I just couldn’t believe I was about to enter the largest desert on Earth! I was a little surprised to see that there is actually a define area that you call a desert. For some reason I always thought that it’s more like a gradual transition from non-desert to desert area.

We checked into the hotel, actually owned by the same group that owns the previous hotel we stayed at, and went to lunch, yet another buffet. As we will be spending the night in the desert, we only got two rooms, one for guys and one for girls, to store our stuff and shower. At 6 pm, we gathered by the camels each with multiple bottles of water and were ready to roll. Our Berber camel-leading guides first tied head-scarves onto each of us in the traditional Berber way, and then tied our water bottles and belongings onto the camels. Getting on the camel was quite an experience. Before actually seeing the camels, I always wondered where you sit on the camel. I mean, it seems quite painful and unsafe to sit on the humps. It turned out that each camel is equipped with a wooden box and a thick cushion on top. Like the pictures that portrayed those groups of camels that travel through the desert for trade, we also got multiple groups of camels.

I picked my camel, the first one in a group and its name means “white” in Arabic, and got on its back. First lesson of camel-riding 101: hold on tight. You don’t realize how tall these camels are until they stand up. And the process of standing up involved first straightens the two rear legs, then the two frontal legs. Not holding on tight means that you will fall, from about 6 feet high or so. It was quite an adventure already being on a camel when it’s standing up.

Second lesson of camel-riding 101: be prepared. The first 5 minutes we set off for into the desert was really pleasant. The weather wasn’t too hot, we wobbled front and back on the camel, it was all good. Then the pain started to come in. Sitting on a camel is not the most comfortable mode of transportation at all. Your legs are spread open so wide to sit on the cushion, which wasn’t that comfortable after all, that the thigh area becomes very sore and literally a pain in the butt. Did I mention our trip to the camp site was 2 hours? I found that when the camels are going uphill, it’s a lot comfortable than when they are going downhill, in which case you wobble so much that it just hurts a lot more.

The view of Sahara Desert was, as expected, very sandy. There were mounts and mounts of sand, sand blowing into my face, sand sliding this way and that way, and in general a lot of sand. So much sand led to a new question: how on earth does our Berber guide find the way? Obviously there are no signs pointing towards our camp site, and it’s not like they all carry GPS devices. The answer we got is that even though the wind continues to blow sand from here to there, the desert doesn’t really change that much. The hill that’s here today is still going to be at the same place tomorrow. Plus, they are all experienced guides who have been leading camels into the desert since they were around 6 to 10 years old. The chance of getting lost was slim.

After almost 2 hours of camel-riding, we took a break at the side of a hill. I got my first experience of sliding down a dune: it doesn’t work. What happened was that I sat on the sand, slide for a few inches, and just stopped in the sand. I did get a significant amount of sand in my pocket though, if that means anything.

At dusk, we arrived at our camp site, which consisted of a circle of Berber tents surrounding a central area with rugs on the sand. The night was spent laying on the rugs to look at the stars above, enjoying some Berber music and dance, and eating Moroccan dinner. I went to the bathroom (there actually was one, with a toilet) before hauling the mattress out of the tent to sleep under the stars, in the blowing wind, and on the warm sand.

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