Sand Dunes and Nomads

Posted on January 13, 2015

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My first full day in Merzouga started with me flinging on a fleece, hat and scarf and jumping into my hiking boots, camera in hand.

The chill hit me hard as I turned the handle to my door. I had slept in my clothes it was so cold. As I hit the soft sand outside the courtyard of my Auberge I was struck by the most vivid and radiant of skies. The sun had started to come out and there was a spectrum of colours all around me. It was magnificent. I had woken up and I was in the desert watching dawn break! I could hardly believe it. I sluggishly trudged further uphill to get over a small dune to take in the view.

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When the light spectacle ended I crawled back to bed for a few more hours. The day started lazy and needed to be after quite a full on few days in Marrakech and the mountains. After breakfast I went to visit one of the Berber families living close by.

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I watched women bake bread in the open oven. They make about 8 large oval loaves a day for the family alone. Bread is eaten at every meal. They took me into their home and I removed my boots and sat cross-legged on the dusty, balding-rug laid on the mud floor. I was served sweet mint tea with bread, salty olives and coconut dusted pastries while five kids of various ages ran amok around me.

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Around 4pm Hamid my guide for the next two days picked me up. Dressed in Jabella (a male equivalent of a one-sie with a hood) We were off to do our first hike and trek to my desert camp.

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Trekking in sand is incredibly good fun but also hard bloody work. Even in heavy boots the sand feels like silk under your feet. Going up steep dunes you have to kick into the sand with the ball of you foot, like you would with snow. Except you have to keep moving relatively fast as the sand starts to slip away as soon as you think you have a firm grip. Coming down is fantastic. It’s like flying. I have never been confident trekking down steep slopes for fear of falling and breaking something. But with sand there’s no fear. I practically flew down the dunes because if you tumble the sand acts as a cushion. Huge confidence boost!

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Erg (Arabic name for dune) Merzouga is not high but near the top it does get steep. It’s only 160m but the last part of it had me panting and sweating and wondering if I could make it. Hamid effortless ran up the dune and waited for me laughing. He held out a hand saying, “The view is beautiful up here, come on!!”.

After a tough climb, some light stretching. Now that’s what you call “hot” yoga.

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It is now low season and there was not another tourist in sight – bliss. This is gonna be like a bespoke trek. We headed towards camp. These luxury tents are very impressive. There are rugs everywhere to keep the cold at bay, although in winter this is not really effective. Inside there is a bed, a shower (not so hot water) and a flushing toilet. Yowzers this was like five-star camping.

Mohammed a young Berber was at my beck and call as there was no one else in the camp. His English is very good and we talked about family and life in Morocco and the UK as he brought tea and cookies and then dinner. As the light faded he chopped up some wood and built a fire for me. I grabbed a heavy blanket and wrapped myself up falling on my back to gaze up at the stars.

“WOW!!” I exclaimed.
I had my own planetarium right here. I have never ever seen anything like it. The entire sky was filled and shinning so brightly. I was so stunned I actually felt moved to tears.
“I really wish my parents could see something like this,” I said to Mohammed emotionally. “My mother would be amazed!”
“Inshallah they will come one day,” he replied.

This magically experience only lasts for a precious window after the sun setting and before the moon rises. After that the night sky changes completely as does the light and only certain stars are visible. The rising moon is quite something though it looks like an enormous grapefruit – haunting and hypnotising at the same time.

The temperature in the desert is icy. It was minus two and I had to sleep wearing a hat, gloves, and full thermals as well as five blankets laid on top of me. My friend B in Bozeman will tell you I do not cope well in the cold. I suffer miserably and it was inevitable I got sick.

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The next day I awoke for my full day’s hike. It was glorious. Joining Hamid and I was Jimi Hendrix the camel and his owner Ahmed. Jimi was loaded up with food, water and my rucksack. I wanted to walk to Hamid’s surprise. I love the feel of the dunes under my feet.

The sky here is incredible, I have never seen so may different shades of blue. We trekked for about six hours in total. The morning starts of very cold and throughout the day you’ll be peeling off and pulling on layers as your body temperature fluctuates.

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I was taken to an oasis in the desert of Erg Chebbi where they grow date trees. The Berbers rely on this as a form of income. After a tea break we moved onto meet a real nomadic family. The Sahara has many different faces – sand; dried water beds and volcanic soil and rock. The latter is where the family live. They have absolutely nothing but shared so much with me. The mother made Berber “Pizza” stuffed bread with garlic, onions and lamb. Not wanting of offend and certainly not wanting to waste what precious they have I ate the meat. The meal was delicious. Their way of life is very simple but extraordinarily hard. They herd goats, sell meat, the milk and will make things out of the skins. The whole animal is used.

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The nomads are the only people who can legitimately set up a tent and not have to pay “rent” to the government. This family was about 35km for the Algerian border.

Berber Pizza overload I crashed inside their tent with my feet soaking up the rays.

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“Mama!” I yelled as I ran across the blacken ground to grab her before she disappeared into another tent. She looked up.

As I reached her I held out my hand and pushed some money into her palm. She smiled broadly and squeezed my hand, said something in Berber and then touched my face with her Henna dyed fingers.

I hope it was something that’ll bring me luck and keep me safe on the next leg of my journey. Next stop Fez!

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