SaharaTrek: The idea of the trip was to live with the Nomads; to travel across their desert on camels, make camp in a Berber tent, and sleep under the stars in the vast desert sky.
If you yearn for the experience of a simpler, quieter life, and want to feel a closeness to the earth and the elements, a sojourn off the beaten track in the dunes of the Sahara may be just what you need.
This is the idea behind SaharaTrek, created by Ted and Luiza Reinhard, an adventurous couple in their late twenties, who had “discovered the ‘real’ Morocco” and wanted to share their unique Moroccan experience. The idea of the trip was to live with the Nomads; to travel across their desert on camels, make camp in a Berber tent, and sleep under the stars in the vast desert sky.
The Sahara summons images from the movies, galloping across the sands, trailing tail of turban and yards of caftan. This trip was to be the realization of my Arabian night’s fantasy.
Ted and Luiza met us (their groups are limited to 2-12 people) at Kennedy Airport. They were easy to identify, looking casual and rather Banana Republic, and very tall (a definite plus for tour leaders). We traveled via Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca, where we got a brief glimpse of the city. Our compulsory sightseeing included the Hassan II Mosque (an enormous and imposing tribute to the Muslim religion), and a bus ride through the old city center, the Medina.
Casablanca is filled with the warm colors of the verdant earth: the terra cotta in the soil, the reddish tan of the sand, fuscia and bouganvilla draped against the tan adobe-style buildings, the rich greens of the palms, and street peddlers’ fruit stands piled high with oranges. Brightly painted pottery and vibrant hand-woven rugs are displayed on the outer walls of markets.
Although Casablanca is bustling, like most major cities, the Medina still has the ambiance of the traditional Arab culture. While men sip mint tea in the open-air cafés, the Muslim women move like shadows, in black hooded garb, set back from the street life.
Be aware: if you leave on a night flight from New York, you arrive in Casablanca the following morning. The best plan might be to book a hotel in Casablanca the first night and not push yourself to do any more major travelling until you have had a good night’s sleep. But we did it the more exhausting way.
After a few hours, we returned to the airport and flew to Ouarzazate (pronounced: WAR-ZAH-ZAHT). Ourzazate is midpoint between the coast and the desert, about an hour’s flight. We were met by our desert guides who took us in their jeeps on one of the most “edge of our seat” hairpin turn drives along the Tizi-n-Tinifft Pass, down the Draa Valley. It is a 4 hour drive from Ouarzazate to M’hamid, where we were headed. Despite our fears, we arrived safely in M’hamid (the end of the road before the desert) at the Hotel Sahara, where we slept our first night. We were greeted by our hosts and guides, who served us hot mint tea and ginger cookies.
The Hotel Sahara is owned by Mr. Naamani and operated by his three sons, M’Barek, Habib, and Hassan. They cook, run the office (just modern enough to have a phone and a fax) and guide caravans of camels into the Sahara. Set in a sweet, colorful courtyard, our rooms were small and rustic, but comfortable enough to settle in for a much-needed rest after an accumulated 28 hours of travel.
Up early the next morning, after a breakfast of pastries, fresh squeezed orange juice, and tea, we were each given bottled water, and were wrapped in blue turbans, the color of the M’hamid nomads, the desert tribe who are called, for this reason, “the blue men.” In front of the hotel, 20 camels waited. Adi was in charge of the camels and it was plain to see that he was an animal lover. He was reassuring and patient, and willing to do whatever was necessary to make everyone comfortable. Like the others, my camel bent at the knees all the way to the ground. I climbed on and was pitched forward as his back legs straightened. I nearly went right over his neck. Luckily, the saddle has a metal frame in front of the seat, a handy handle when you feel that you are going to fly off your steed. Just as you brace yourself at the forward pitch, the camel straightens his front legs and you are thrown toward the hind end. After being heaved forth and back, sitting upright is a breeze, because then you’re gently heaved back and forth. Camels move with a forward and back rocking motion. I found it relaxing, but not everyone in our group agreed. Some walked through the desert all the way to our evening camp, some walked just part of the way. Very few didn’t groan when they got back on their feet.
We traveled through the sand for half a day before stopping. The swaying camel, the quiet, and the vast open emptiness of the desert calmed my nerves like a gentle mother rocking and singing a child to sleep. And being a passenger, just following, nowhere in particular to go, no destination in sight was like a meditation. We stopped under the shade of a tree--quite pleasant, not too hot, and out of the whirling, scouring sand. Our guides served us traditional Nomad fare: bread, olives, goat cheese, sliced fresh ripe tomatoes, and lamb brochette. But first, mint tea. We lazed on carpets of woven cotton and wool. For dessert, we had oranges, watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew. Heavenly! And orange peels for the camels. I never had an animal eat from my hand so gently; it was almost a caress. My goodness, they are sweet, attributable to Adi’s gentleness toward them.
As we relaxed, Moukhtare, the first guide we really got to know, sat with us and told us about his life and his family. One of 9 children, his family of nomads is scattered about the country. He told us how he only sees one of his sisters (the one who lives closest) once a year. They have a plan about when to meet, but they never know where they will meet. He gets word from other Nomads who pass through M’hamid and tell him where sister was last seen. Moukhtare is a true desert man; he loves the open space, the stillness, the stars, and the freedom. School in Casablanca was a torture for him, he explained. He couldn’t tolerate the crowds, the noise, the air, and the speed. There is a comfort about the basic, old ways. Tradition is still very strong. Marriages are arranged and any advancement of the modern Moroccan woman is only seen in the large cities (Casablanca, Fez, and Marrakech) or behind closed doors. While some of the men appreciate strong women, if they married one, they would be socially outcast by the other men in the community,
My first day in the desert, it became evident why Ted and Luiza dressed as they did; there really are reasons for the design of some garb. For example, the desert boots keep the sand out of your feet and legs and the turbans keep the sun off your head and face and the sand out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. With a whoop forward and a whomp back, back in the saddle again, we continued on through the sandstorm, quietly rocking, with periodic episodes of conversation. I was happily engulfed in the simple sound of the wind and the camels’ footsteps. The vision was breathtaking, an easy softness to the picture, like a grainy photograph, of a caravan of camels going over undulating dunes.
When we stopped at dusk, there were 3 Berber tents to welcome us: a refuge from the blowing sand and strong sun. Cool and carpeted, our tents were arranged with small round tables and stools with mint tea, and cushioned. One by one we were drawn out by the view: the sun setting behind the dunes, glowing orange on the red sand.
Our guides prepared the most delicious dinner of harira (lentil soup) and couscous with tagine, (slow cooked vegetable stew) with chicken for the meat eaters and without chicken for the vegetarians. We launched into the meal with gusto and were warned that couscous expands in your stomach... best to limit the second helping, as tempting as it was. While we ate, our “blue men” built a fire and placed carpets around it. The sounds of singing and drumming lured us from our cozy tent out to the fire and the starlight. It was apparent that these desert men loved their life, they would have been making music whether we were there or not. In the light of the fire their sparkling eyes and dazzling smiles shone brightly against their tan skin. Draped in blue caftans and turbans, they were more exotic and magnificent than Rudolf Valentino or Omar Sharif had ever been.
Late into the night the music played as we arranged our beds. I chose to sleep out under the stars. As I lay on the sand, it was as though the Sahara has a different gravity, stronger, that pulls you into the earth with a greater will. I saw 5 shooting stars and slowly fell asleep to the sounds of their drums, as the Sahara pulled me into its belly.
Awakened by the sun, tea and oranges were already on a table outside the tent along with bread, cheese, honey and jam. We ate quickly as the blue team saddled the camels. I had expected the camels to be tied up somewhere, but, to my surprise, Adi told me that they are let loose to roam free over the desert until they are needed. A testament to good treatment, the camels came back easily. We fed them orange peels, fondled them, took pictures and then mounted for another half-day ride over the larger dunes.
Like an ocean of waves on a stormy sea, swells 10 and 20 feet high, we rode over the dunes on our “sea horses,” feeling like we were on the “Zipper” ride at the amusement park. I gripped tightly to my saddle’s “hurricane bar” on the descents, the camel’s padded feet sliding down the slope. Balancing over these angles was not easy. As we rode toward the oasis, the terrain gradually changed, it got flatter, and bushes appeared, tall grasses, shrubs, and trees. After the dunes, it seemed almost lush. The camels tried to sneak mouthfuls of leaves whenever they could.
We stopped at a cluster of shady trees, and sprawled out on carpets, had mint tea, and waited for lunch to be prepared. We sat in a large circle around the platters with bursts of micro conversations, and suddenly two young Berber nomadic women appeared. They joined our circle, eating with us, but not speaking. Not knowing what was respectful and expected, I just watched, aching to take a photograph. Everyone wanted to photograph these beautiful women in their djallabas and shawls, black edged with vibrant reds, blues, and yellows, their silver jewelry, framing their exotic, sparkling, dark eyed faces. Handsome Hassan asked them if they would let us take their picture, and they agreed. Like paparazzi, we descended upon them from all angles. Their smiles suggested amusement at our attention. After the flurry of snaps, they walked off with their goat, down to the mouth of the oasis.
There was a running stream, so strange to see, surrounded by desert. At the base of the water, two small nomad families were washing clothes and filling water containers: two women and six children moving from camp to camp through the desert. Their husbands were in the desert, gathering animals, trading--who knows? We saw a slice of nomadic life. It looked simple and easy, from my perspective, but from theirs...just a different type of struggle for survival.
The next leg of our journey was taken again, in the Land Rovers. I can safely say that after wheeling over 30-foot dunes I now know what a Land Rover is meant to do. We drove for 3 hours to the sounds of Miles Davis and BB King--tapes given to our driver by previous tourists. We saw only sand, shrubs, dunes, camels and goats: a vastness with no housing developments, no fences and no people, except for an occasional shepherd child with a flock of goats or sheep ... and no truck stops. The thought occurred to me, “where’s the next gas station?” And sure enough, one of our 3 vehicles ran out of gas and had to be rescued. Believe it or not, cell phones have made it beyond the end of the road in the desert, and that is what saves the stranded motorist.
By sunset we were at our second camp, in “The Big Sahara.” The blue men had the tents set up in about ten minutes, then they began making dinner, building a huge fire, and serving us tea. As the dinner cooked they danced and sang and laughed amongst themselves, while we watched, filled with joy. Dinner was served around a large fire, where our guides showed us how to bake bread by burying it under the hot coals. Almost everyone slept out of the tent and under the stars the second night, feeling safer and wanting to feel more like Nomads.
Next morning we drove back to the Hotel Sahara, where we washed ourselves and our clothes, and after lunch went out for a walk through the M’hamid Kasbah. Moukhtare was our guide and protector, keeping the children from pestering us for pens or candy. The locals really don’t want to encourage begging, so they asked that we give donations of supplies to the schools rather that giving anything directly to beggars. In the Kasbah, the people were both shy and curious. The children were bolder, trying to follow us through the alleys, while men and women, if caught unaware in their entryways, swiftly retreated into the shadows or shut their doors. It is a rare occasion and an honor for a tourist to be invited into a Moroccan home.
After our wonderful meal, we went to bed, with an early wake-up call for the morning. When we had to leave the Hotel Sahara and most of our guides, we were saddened at the prospect. In only three days we had become very fond of our blue men. Fortunately, Habib and Moukhtare accompanied us on the trip along the Draa valley to Marrakech, where we would spend our last two nights one day.
Leaving the Sahara was like leaving the experience of peace. Marrakesh was festive and colorful, dazzling and entertaining, but after being a Nomad even for just a couple of days, I missed the desert. Our trip was, just as Ted and Luiza intended, the real Morocco. I no more wanted to leave Morocco than I would want to leave a newly discovered, long awaited soulmate, but the trip was over. I was heart-broken for weeks. I wanted to ride on my camel to the town square in Sonoma, Calfornia, wrapped in my blue turban, and see no more houses cramped into the formerly open fields of the valley. I wanted to walk in pointed sandals, wearing a flowing black djellaba and hijab, my silver Berber jewelry clanking with every step, with a goat or two by my side. Alas here I am, back; writing my story for you, hoping you will take from it a glimpse of the wonderful adventure you too can have on a visit to Morocco. Pack up your desert boots, eyedrops, water bottle bag, sunscreen, and a brimmed hat. Or, let the Blue Men wrap you in one of their turbans, and let the sands of the Sahara blow you away.
For more information or help with planning a Moroccan trip, check out www.saharatrek.com.
Jane Alexander-Perry is a travel writer and photographer based in Sonoma, California. She has been a fine art and commercial photographer since 1981. She began writing while doing travel photography to express her impressions through words as well as pictures.
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