One of the items on my bucket list was to camp out & ride a camel thru the desert…and I am so freaking excited to have accomplished that! Who needs a SUV when you’ve got a sweet ride like that? After a magnificent camping experience (which I write about here — it includes a recap of how the night turned into the Morcoccan Blair Witch Project with alleged cow-sized scorpions…seriously), we wake up and hike the sand dunes as the sun is rising. Then, come back for breakfast and ride our camels from our camp site to the edge of the desert (about 45 minutes or so). The camel I rode is actually known as a Dromedary (because it has only 1 hump). What a great experience!!! I highly recommend you try it. The camels were very gentle and the ride was pretty smooth. I felt like a little kid at Disney World…all smiles and “more, more, more!” Honestly, this is one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. Kinda like my travel world is complete…until I find something else that I absolutely must do. Happy travels, y’all!
Photos of the Day: Nomad Girls of the Sahara
During my sunrise hike over the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, I was approached by three adorable nomad girls selling trinkets. They spoke absolutely no English, but luckily, my guide was with me and able to translate for us. I was able to find out that they are between the ages of 8 and 9 and only one of the girls attends school (she lives in the city of Merzouga with her mother but visits her father in the desert on the weekends). I was also lucky enough to visit with and interview the women of a nomad family during my camping trip. You can read the interview here. I highly recommend adding a visit to Morocco and the Sahara Desert to your bucket list! You won’t be disappointed.
Camping Out in the Magnificent Sahara Desert
How can I adequately describe the Sahara Desert? Awe-inspiring. Magnificent. Beautiful. Serene. All of those adjectives and more. During our 8 day trip thru Morocco, we decided to camp out overnight in the Sahara. Upon arriving to the outskirts of the desert, we switch vehicles from a van to a 4×4 and visit the village of visit Khamlia, a village founded by freed slaves known as the Gnawi brotherhoods who play spiritual music. As we entered the tent, we were given mint tea then treated to a performance which was really nice! During the performance, they asked us to form a circle and dance…it sort of turned into the Soul Train line. It was LOADS of fun!!!
After the performance, we take a 4×4 into the Erg Chebbi dunes of the Sahara Desert to watch the sunset and spend the night in a deluxe Bedouin-style tent (because, um we aren’t really “roughing it” kind of girls). The tent had 2 twin beds (complete with mattresses on frames), bathroom (which included a shower) and sitting room.
After we get settled, we head over to the “dining tent” which was gorgeous. We were the only people in camp that night so it was kind of quiet but we ended up having a lot of fun. After a delicious dinner and great conversation with our guide, Tata, and driver, Haji, we walk over to an area set up with pillows, rugs, a small table, lanterns and music equipment (mostly various types of percussion instruments). Tata and the other guys working at the camp performed traditional songs and invited us to play instruments with them (and I am not ashamed to say that I channeled my inner Sheila E on the bongos…until they asked if I’d just like to clap instead…maybe it was too much, too soon and they weren’t ready for the funk I was bringing?).
I suggest EVERYBODY visit the Sahara. At night, it was so quiet you can hear a pin drop. There were NO CRICKETS!!! I’m so used to hearing them that it was a jolt to my system to be immersed in quiet and complete darkness. Once the lanterns are extinguished, you only have the moon & stars. Tata and I took a late night hike thru the sand dunes so I could take it all in. It’s hard to describe the experience…like you truly disconnected from the world (because you also can’t get cellular service). I don’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed and stress-free!
Once I got back to the tent, my Mom was ready to turn in. But she was having reservations about the tent because she had expected there would be a door. Yeah, it’s a deluxe tent…but it is still a tent…in the Sahara. I don’t know if she thought we were staying at the Ritz Carlton – Sahara or what. Now, I had prepared myself for the fact that I would encounter a bug or 2. I already had my Avon Skin So Soft and Off (courtesy of my Mom). She was okay until she thought she saw a bat. I didn’t actually see it but she claims she did and after that, it was a wrap. She came up with the game plan that we’d just keep the lights on in the tent to keep the bats away…but then the camp operators had the nerve to shut the power off at night (they said it is to conserve energy). So my Mom couldn’t keep the lights and now feared that bats would swoop in, turn into Dracula, and bite us. What would happen if we turned into vampires? We didn’t have any True Blood in our emergency preparedness kit (there wasn’t enough space with all the toilet paper).
Around 1am, I startled awake by my Mom screaming about scorpions. She’s got her flashlight on and pointed towards her face like it’s the Moroccan Blair Witch Project. I’m trying to figure out what is going on. I mean, I know she isn’t serious. I must be dreaming this. Did my mint tea have another type of herb in it? I’m confused. At this point, she has moved into my twin bed and made the proclamation that she will NEVER sleep in that bed again because there is a scorpion the size of a “cow” in it. But, before I could find Bessie the Scorpion and lead her out of the tent, my Mom wanted me to see if her arm was swelling. Sigh. After confirming that there was no swelling, I check the bed and can’t find the Velociraptor-sized scorpion. I did see a big cockroach though. Lest you think we are going to sleep peacefully together in a small twin bed, I’ve got news for you…we are not. Labor Layaway requires counseling sessions as well (wait, you don’t know what Labor Layaway is? well, you need to read my post Travelin’ Mr./Mrs. Daisy to find out). And, my Mom had to question why there was no actual door on the tent. You read that right. And, I’m sure that will go into the survey feedback she is working on right now. See, as you get older, things don’t have to make sense. A tent in the Sahara to young people means just that. But to older people? It means a cottage with a fireplace, butler and an exterminator on speed dial.
After we survive the night, we wake up around 5:30am to hike the sand dunes and watch the sunrise…and it is AMAZING! We see various vegetation and end up meeting 3 girls from a nomadic Berber tribe. I cover our time spent them and a nomadic family in my previous blog post, Life of a Nomad.
Once we complete our morning hike, we take showers, get dressed and head off to breakfast before going on our camel ride thru the desert. And I have to say that the camel ride was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Unlike the camels in Egypt, ours didn’t stink (so yay for that!), they weren’t temperamental and it was a very smooth journey. The nomad that owns the camels was very nice, spoke limited English and provided us with the experience of a lifetime!
After our camel ride was complete, we went 4-wheeling thru the sand dunes. THIS WAS AWESOME!!! I felt like a little kid! Speeding up and down hills, making crazy turns, trying not to get stuck in sand…what more can you ask for? But, all good things must come to an end. Once we finished playing in the sand, we headed back to the city, said good-bye to our camp operators and guide, then headed to Ouarzazate.
The Life of a Nomad
The life of a nomad isn’t an easy one. Sweltering heat, freezing cold, scorpions and snakes…these are just a few things to worry about living in the desert. I had the pleasure of meeting a nomad family during my visit to the Sahara. My first reaction was one of sympathy…but by the time I left, I felt humbled.
In order to get around in the Sahara, you have to either walk, ride a camel or drive a 4×4. As we were on our way to our own camp, we were invited to visit with an interesting nomad family. Luckily we had our fabulous guide, Tata, to translate and inform of us traditional customs.
I was told that there are 9 people who make up the nomad family I spent time with (a mix of men, women and children). What immediately struck me were the “structures” that were built for cooking, showering and shelter. I assumed that nomads were constantly moving from place to place with no sense of permanency. However, I found out that these nomads usually stay in a place for 3-4 months before moving on. The catalyst for the move is usually the fact that the food source (grass, etc) has dried up for the camels & animals they raise.
The Sahara covers 3.5 MILLION MILES. And while the popular thought is that deserts are dry & barren, the Sahara has pockets of areas that are abundant with food and water sources. However, these sources aren’t unlimited which is why nomads have to move on in search for new sources. They do tend to come back to the structures they built before…after enough time has passed so that grass has been able to grow again. Kind of like these settlements are their 2nd, 3rd and 4th homes.
The ladies allowed me to spend time investigating their housing structures and asking questions. I noticed that there were 3 separate sleeping quarters. One area was completely covered on all sides to protect them from rain and harsher elements, while the second was more open to allow for air during the hot, dry months. The third seemed to be a combination of the two…walled but open ceiling. I also noticed that there were a lot of toys…big wheels, bikes, dolls, Transformers, etc. The kids had plenty to entertain them. I don’t know what the adults do…there is no television. And they don’t seem to understand how much their life is lacking because they can’t watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
While these women did not have a lot of “wealth”, they were so gracious to offer us mint tea. Which seems to be typical of Moroccans. They may not have a lot of material things, but they are the most hospitable people I’ve met. You can count on being asked to stay for tea and cookies.
Since our guide knew this family, the ladies were open to answering my questions. And I had a lot. Below are some highlights.
Q. Why do you opt to live in the desert moving from place to place? Why not living in a city with a more permanent home?
A. This is what we know. We grew up as nomads and find the desert to be peaceful. Cities are too chaotic and noisy. Too many people and sounds. We like the solitude of the Sahara and not having to constantly see other people.
Q. How do you get food & water to feed your family?
A. We dig wells to get water. Once a month, our family will drive into Merzouga [the city right outside the Sahara] and get supplies. Mostly grains to make couscous and vegetables. We are also able to find food here in the desert which we will catch or gather.
Q. How do you get to Merzouga? Do you have a car?
A. Sometimes we are able to borrow a car from another family. Other times we use our camels to get us to the edge of the Sahara then ask for a ride into town.
Q. How do you earn money to buy supplies?
A. The men offer the camels to tourists for rides thru the desert. The women and children sell trinkets. Usually small toy camels or dolls that we make from scraps of cloth we are able to find.
During this time, a little boy around the age of 2 has started crying. His mother tells the guide that she is worried that something is wrong with his legs as he has refused to walk all day. We take a look to make sure there is no swelling, redness or tenderness. Then, the guide says that he will escort them to the hospital to have the boy examined. But, the mother says that she cannot leave without permission of her husband. She pulls out a cellphone (I know…who knew they had those? And the next question I wanted to ask was where she charged it since they had no electricity?) and tries to get in contact with her husband to no avail.
As we end our visit, our guide gives the mother his number with the instruction to call him once her husband came back so they could take her son to the hospital. He even offered to pay the medical bills.
The next morning, while hiking thru the sand dunes, I am stopped by 3 little girls. They told me they were 8 and 9 years old. When I asked if they went to school, only one said yes. She lives in Merzouga with her mother but comes to the Sahara during the weekends to visit with her father. During the time I’m asking questions, they have spread out their trinkets to sell. While I didn’t buy anything, I did give them some money so that I could take their picture.
I grew up with plenty of advantages…and the expectation that not only would I graduate from high school, but I would graduate from college as well. So, it was mind-boggling to meet children who don’t go to school. While it is hard for me to grasp living without electricity (I mean, I get the shakes when my iPhone dies and I don’t have a way to charge it for a couple of hours), there is a certain tranquility in being able to unplug from the world and just enjoy the solitude. No emails or text messages to answer. No demands. No stress. No noise (not even crickets…it is dead quiet). Just stars lighting up the sky.
While some children grow up and leave the nomad life, others are content to raise animals and move from place to place following in the footsteps of their forefathers. It’s an interesting life…one that I know I’m not strong enough to live, but I am smart enough to respect. If you ever have the chance to visit the Sahara (and I strongly suggest you do…it is unbelievable), please take time out to visit with a nomad family (but definitely go with a guide…don’t just show up saying, “Hi, got some mint tea?”). The next time I visit, I plan to take them supplies (grains, vegetables, toys for the kids, blankets, etc.). If you can, I recommend you do the same. As Oprah says, “pay it forward.” The great thing about that? You can pay it forward anywhere in the world.