There’s just something about the desert.
Deserts are one of the most unforgiving and inhospitable landscapes on our mother earth. Not only can the heat peak over the 50 degree mark, erosion and weathering gives them an ephemerality that few environs have. Yet, walking around the sand, you start to notice things. Little scratches from beetles and asymmetrical footprints from desert mice line the ripples. Leaving these shifting sand dunes and coming back a few weeks later, you’d see a completely different place, as if it were a lifeless blob enveloping any and all things where only the strongest survive. There’s just something about the desert.
It was for that reason that we left Fez and drove to the town of Merzouga near the Algerian border to come face to face with the monstrosity known as the Sahara. The Sahara desert is the world’s largest and occupies nearly 10 million square kilometers and stretches from Mauritania to Eritrea with an area that rivals continental Europe. On our way there, this blob made its presence known as the sand drifted over roads and swallowed small buildings as if to tell us who was really in charge here.
“Just don’t get caught.”
We met our guide ‘Yousef‘ who arranged for herders to take us to to the Sirocco camp about 3 miles through the dunes on one-humped, dromedaries. The last time we rode camels was in Mongolia a year ago and the larger, Bactrian camels with their two humps made for a natural ergonomic saddle and thus, a slightly more comfortable ride.
We stopped amidst the dunes to watch the sun go down and I was able to get some drone footage for the first time in Morocco without fear of confiscation or imprisonment. Recently in the news, two Australian travel bloggers were arrested and imprisoned in Iran after having flown their drone without a permit, so I haven’t been exactly eager to tempt fate. “Just don’t get caught.” Yousef told me.
Arriving at our camp in the dark, we were greeted by ‘Mohammed‘ who is a tribal Touareg of Berber culture who had been living in the desert his whole life. We had some time before dinner to spy constellations and the lack of light pollution made for the Jackson Pollock-like milky way which was as clear as ever. I downloaded a few star gazing apps on my phone and we pointed out Sagittarius, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Minor, Cygnus, and why way finders use the north star for navigation. It brought Lisa and I back to our CELP days of teaching astronomy in California and sharing the myths behind the legends that dot the night canopy.
The next morning, we caught the sunrise over Algeria and went sand boarding after breakfast. I could sense Mohammed was sizing my skills up as I picked out a Libtech 164.
“Are you sure you want to try sand boarding? Don’t hurt yourself old man!” He said to me.
“Don’t worry punk, I got this.” I said back.
What was hardest about sand boarding is not the ride down, but the walk up the dunes. For every step up, you foot sinks down to practically the same level it was before, like running in your nightmares and not getting anywhere. It took Ava and I about a minute to walk up a meager 30 feet of dunes and we were exhausted by the time we got up. “You go.” I said panting. “I’ll just watch“.
And watch I did, over and over and over. Funny how kids can tire so easily and get a second wind when they see a playground or park. “My legs are tired!” was one of Ava’s go-to mantras as we walked miles around Europe last summer. “It builds character” we always said back, realizing that we had turned into our parents and yes, our parents were right all along. It did.
An hour later, we loaded up our corn-dog like, sand covered child into the car and drove west to Ouarzazate. Four hours into our drive I got my second speeding ticket in Morocco for driving (yet again) 69 in a 60. Standing there as the cops fumbled and filled out their triplicate forms, I took in a most beautiful ruined Kasbah in front of us next to a palm-tree smattered oasis that looked like it was part of a movie set. I didn’t mind the ticket much, I needed to stretch my legs anyways.