Sun and stars in the Sahara

I remember reading years ago about how, as you approach the Sahara Desert, the whole horizon is occupied by what seems to be a never-ending range of mountains which loom out of the ground in all their burnt amber glory. Ever since reading about them, I have dreamt about the dunes of orange sand that are tall enough to reach the sky and stars. I’ve imagined the long-limbed, lumbering camels that carry their masters for miles upon miles, their steady, swaying strides never faltering. For me, this encapsulated the ultimate adventure: the hardship of the intense sun and persistent sand, combined with the beauty of the inhospitable desert and the exhilaration of travelling high on the back of such a foreign four-legged animal. Finally, after years of impatiently flicking through photos and reading accounts of camel treks in the Sahara, it was my turn.

Having made it to the summit of North Africa’s tallest mountain (read more about that here), it was time for our group of eight intrepid explorers to enjoy something a little more relaxing… After a restful night and hearty breakfast, we felt recharged and ready to look ahead to the next phase of our trip: a two-day road trip to the Sahara. A quick look over the map with our guide Youssef and we were ready to hit the road, grateful for the air conditioning on the minibus; even at this early hour of the day, the temperature was already soaring.

We spent the morning meandering along steep and often precarious mountain roads, the barren and dry landscape unfolding around us. Our first destination was the ancient fortified village of Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Ouarzazate. This hilltop collection of red mudbrick buildings was familiar to most of us and for good reason; it has featured in numerous films and TV series over the years, including Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Though largely uninhabited now, the village is exceptionally well maintained and the constant presence of people (be it tourists or traders) gives it the feel of a living museum.

We took our time climbing the narrow, walled streets. We ducked under low arches and peered through darkened doorways which revealed the sprawled out figures of shopkeepers who were wisely choosing to sleep through the afternoon heat. Reaching the highest point of the village, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the dusty valley and a breeze that made the intense afternoon heat that bit more bearable.

A quick pit-stop to stock up on cold drinks and ice lollies and we were ready to continue our journey. The remainder of our day was spent driving to the impressive Dades Gorges. As we arrived, the late afternoon sun cast a deep glow over the great heaps of red sandstone that loomed high above the Dades River. Piling out of the minibus, we stood in awe of the sheer magnitude of nature’s spectacle in front of us. The warm hues of the rock forms were accented by the lush green of the fertile land cloaking the riverbanks below, and the flawless blue sky overhead.As the sun finally disappeared behind the high sides of the gorge, we made our way to our accommodation for the night; a traditional riad built into the steep rock wall of the gorge. After dinner, we climbed the stairs to the rooftop and watched as the many thousands of stars made themselves visible against the darkening night sky.

 
 

The following day we were up early to drive to the top of the infamous Dades mountain road, feeling slightly worse for wear having discovered the hotel bar the night before. We zigged and zagged our way up to the very top of the snaking road, the minibus spluttering in protest against particularly steep sections. The view from the top was certainly worth the nail-biting ride however; leaning gingerly against the mudbrick wall at the top, we could look down as the gorge dropped away steeply below us, and watch other vehicles slowly chug their way up the mountain pass.

From there we headed to the imposing Todgha Gorge, stopping en route for a short walk through a date palm oasis that lined the banks of a river, the lushness a sharp contrast to the crumbling towns just beyond. Reaching the gorge, we once again opted to explore by foot, following the shallow river that flowed between the unfathomably high, tawny-coloured sides of the gorge. We splashed through the cool water, enjoying the brief respite from the heat of the day.

The fun and games of our two-day road trip over, the last phase of our adventure was calling. Approaching Merzouga, a town on the Moroccan-Algerian border, I finally got a glimpse of the mountains of deep red sand that stretched across the skyline. After years of patiently biding my time, it was now time to step into the Sahara Desert, time to feel the warm sand between my toes, time to experience the ungainly swagger of sitting atop a camel.

 
 

Meeting our camels for the first time, it’s safe to say nerves were running slightly high in the group. Walking gingerly out into the sandy expanse, we were greeted by a troop of camels who, quite frankly, clearly could not care less that we were clearly intending on clambering onboard… One by one we were allocated a camel and instructed to mount. Without hesitating, I christened mine Larry King Camel. Then came the somewhat harder task of getting up onto Larry’s back. It became apparent that I was going to have to swing my leg up and over the saddle, still surprisingly high despite the fact that Larry was sitting down. One incredibly ungraceful half-jump, half-scramble later and I was straddling my trusty steed. Alas, the ordeal was not yet over. Larry then proceeded to stand up, an act which almost unseated me (through no fault of his own, he’d never do such a thing intentionally). The difficulty arose in the fact that his rear end went first, immediately propelling me forward, just to be met by the counter force of his front legs straightening.

The whole group successfully astride their allocated dromedary, we began the trek out to the camp where we were to spend the night. Larry’s gait was just as lumbering and unwieldy as I’d imagined, but I soon gained enough confidence to release my tight grip on the saddle, turning in my seat to laugh at the looks of intense focus on my friends’ faces. The low evening sun cast long, stretched-out shadows of our small train, our beasts even more leggy than before. The ridged dunes surrounded us, lined and wrinkled on one side, smooth and flawless on the other, the crest forming a perfectly smooth curve.

 
 

As the waning sun crept ever closer to the sandy horizon, we made it to our camp. Realising that the sun was soon to set, we immediately set out to scramble our way up the highest nearby dune for a better vantage point. Within a few moments we came to the conclusion that we’d vastly underestimated this task: every step was a battle as our bare feet sank deep into the sand. Not ones to give in to a challenge, we persevered on and soon made it to the top. Collapsing atop the crest, we caught our breath and absorbed the magnificence of the view before our eyes.

The puckered dunes unfurled in every direction, interrupted only by the pastel hues of the dusk sky.As the sun finally dropped below the horizon, our evening playtime really began: snowboards were ridden down the slopes of sand with varying success, the brave person onboard often coming flying off in a flurry of sand. Someone was buried up to their waist, learning the hard way that sand is surprisingly hard to get out of when buried under that much of it. Regardless of the activity, the red sand made it into every little nook and cranny, camera lens included…

Our energy burning out and sky darkening, we eventually returned to the camp for a hearty dinner, comprising of platters of curried vegetables, meat tagines, salads and fresh bread. Plates wiped clean, it was time to set up our beds for the night. The camp provided luxurious tents with generous, comfortable beds, but this wasn’t what we had in mind. Dragging a number of thick carpets and pillows out into the desert, we settled down in a uniformed line. Forget having the material of a tent above our heads, we were going to sleep under the canopy of the stars.

The next morning, after only an hour of sleep, it was time to drag our weary bodies back up the dunes to watch the sunrise. I’ve often thought that sunrise is the most powerful and magical time of day and that morning proved no different. The light had taken on a distinctly crisper quality compared to the softness of the previous evening. Emerging from behind a far dune, the sun brought into focus the ocean of rippled sand encompassing us.

Riding back to Merzouga on our camels, it began to sink in that this truly awesome whirlwind adventure was coming to a close. We’d conquered mountains, explored ancient villages, paddled in rivers lined by grand gorges… And I’d finally ticked off the top item of my Life To-Do List: sleep under the stars in the Sahara.