Did you know that THE DESERT is one of the last places you could ever feel alone, even if you were in fact alone? Riding on camel over an hour into the Merzouga Desert (the beginning of the Sahara Desert) during a mild sandstorm was one of those moments that will stay vivid in my mind for a long time to come. . . like a silent film where the only characters were myself, Bob Marley (my awesome leader of the pack Camel) and young Youssef, the Moroccan Berber leading us through the desert on foot amongst the backdrop of this magical landscape in the heart of Morocco. . . But I should start at the beginning.
Powerful winds were picking up just an hour before we were set to leave for the Berber camp in the Desert, and I was atop the HIGH DUNES nearest to our hotel when sand started flitting around my body and face. I quickly learned why all good desert travelers cover up from head to toe, for unpredictability. The wind whipped sand at us and my arms and legs were exposed, as was my face partially. My ears, mouth and eyes were fair game too, CRAP I HAD SAND EVERYWHERE, though it was exhilarating to feel the Desert so Alive. I attempted to film the little storm and protect my face with my scarf simultaneously; FAILED! Difficult to see, it was even more difficult to get back down the dunes. Luckily, our guide Hicham was up there with me and assured me we’d make it back unharmed.
He had taken a group the night before up the dunes under the moonlight, my sister included. I missed out because apparently I was the only one that was exhausted from travel (having traveled an entire day from Fes to Merzouga by car, then 4X4). Google Maps says it’s about 7 hours. . . but we also stopped in the Ifran National Park to play with monkeys; so worth it. We arrived in Merzouga around sunset, which was when I got a first glimpse of those sand dunes. They were completely mesmerizing and yet, I still hadn’t seen the dunes up close or touched sand either. I wanted to walk barefoot up and down those dunes to connect with “Mama Africa”, a name Hicham taught us.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of a Moroccan adventure, they almost always include CAMELS IN THE DESERT. Personally, there was nothing I wanted to experience more in Morocco than Desert. I grew up watching Aladdin and reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, so I already had this image of the MAGIC THAT WAS AWAITING ME (better said us, sister and me) IN THE MOROCCAN DESERT. I didn’t use a magic lamp though, but instead had manifested this with heart and mind. I descended the dunes just in time to prepare our things and buy water. Hicham rewrapped the scarf on my head for protection from the sands, we mounted our camels and were off. Even though the weather wasn’t the greatest it set the mood for the reflective ride into the Sahara.
I’ve crossed these sands many times. . . But the desert is so huge, and the horizon so distant, that they make a person feel small, and as if he should remain silent / He cruzado muchas veces estas arenas. Pero el desierto es tan grande y los horizontes tan lejanos que hacen que uno se sienta pequeño y permanezca en silencio. -The Alchemist/El Alquimista
Riding into the Desert was like entering a portal to another world altogether, a world where few words were spoken. In fact, that ride was a time to listen. WIND had something to share. DESERT had a message too. The key was to listen, to be silent and to learn from this place. We rode for over an hour and it was extraordinary. There is so much exterior noise in our day to day lives, and here I finally could bask in the silence. The simplicity of life in the Desert is also something that resonates with me. Besides food, water and tents for sleeping, the only other thing needed was a set of drums. Several of the guides gathered to drum and sing for us after we ate dinner together and those drums sounded like the heartbeat of the Desert, powerful and expressive.
Surely, generations and generations of Desert people had drummed centuries before in tents throughout the Sahara. Berber tribes (or the Imazighen, ancient people of Northern Africa) traveled all across these lands before living in cities and towns. Berbers still speak their own language/s, and many still live of the Desert. For example, our guide Youssef was from a town near the Sahara and now at age 18 he leads tours into the Desert. He told me he aspired to save money to soon create a website for his tours. He also explained that before leading groups out, the younger boys serve as the cooks/caretakers of the camps (at age 14 or 15 perhaps).
After drumming finished, Youssef told me that we could go walking up the dunes. I was hesitant because it was nighttime in the Desert. Although I felt so at peace out there, couldn’t we get lost? How can you even tell what is what in the desert with sand in every direction? And at night, in the darkness it surely would be more difficult to orient ourselves wouldn’t it? My sister and I decided to go anyway with Youssef and another young guide. We walked out into the distance and there was absolutely nothing scary about this place. The darkness was relative too because that night the Desert was brighter from the waning full Moon. We must have walked for hours and Youssef kept asking me, “further?” (by the way Youssef and I communicated in Spanish). And he’d point to ask which dune I wanted to reach and I’d just say let’s keep going. The Night was perfect. Walking barefoot upon the sands, without a worry in the world, trusting more in the sense of touch than of sight because those dunes were seriously tall and steep at times too, it was invigorating. I felt completely trusting of the Universe that had gifted me with that night in the Desert. And we made our way back to the camp without any problem, surely because of the locals who know this Desert as home. I’d like to think if I ever return to Morocco that I too could call Desert home, even if just for a night or two.
Waking up around 5am in the morning, I was the first one awake in our camp. I thought we were taking our camels back to Merzouga during the sunrise hours so I made sure to set a very early alarm. When I woke up, the sky was much clearer than the night’s sky, for I could see every star and constellation as clear as crystal, and Moon too. What a sky!! Probably one of the purest skies I have seen in my life and one I’m happy to have woken up to witness in the early hours. While everyone slept, I keep my eyes looking up. What a blessing to be in that Desert precisely on that morning. When others began waking up I discovered we were leaving a bit after sunset back to civilization, so I walked a little ways from the camp and claimed space on a dune to watch the transformation of the Desert from night to day.
More silence and this time complete solitude allowed me to feel a deep connection to Mama Africa and Mama Nature’s Wonder here.
What more could I ask for? Nothing. In this moment I had everything I needed. The sun transformed the Desert sands into various shades of orange and brown. The landscape on this clear morning left me silent and moved. I took photos of sister on the dunes a bit later, inspired to capture these moments & the feel of this place for each of you who have never been to the Sahara(yet!). Shukran Mama Africa!!
I’ve learned things from the sheep, and I’ve learned things from crystal, he thought. I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise. -The Alchemist
All photos taken SEPT 2016- ARIANA DEL RÍO
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