One hump or two: An Arabian Camel Train in the Sahara

15 Jun

I’m starting to understand why so many non-Moroccans have their second home here. The vastness of desert and sky, the kaleidoscope of vibrant colours in tiles, textiles, fruits and vegetables, and the easygoing nature of Moroccan country folk attract cold climate people starved of warmth and colour.

It’s already day four of our small group tour, the most anticipated day of the week. We leave Fes early to drive through the Middle Atlas Mountains to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara Desert, 30 kilometres from Algeria. We pass through the ‘Little Switzerland of Morocco’, Ifrane, with its chalets and rose gardens and on up countless hair pin bends and descend through a gorge.

My heart breaks to see a handsome young man with the seat out of his jeans unsuccessfully trying to sell palm leaf plaited camels to tourists at the viewpoint. Suddenly I need a camel urgently. It swings from my seatback the rest of the day to remind me what dumb luck I have had when so many don’t.

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Lunch is a 2 euro picnic of bread, olives, fresh white cheese and tomatos purchased in a local market and eaten in a garden cafetaria with a glass of mint tea.

I bought two tomatoes from a boy no more than seven working alone at a stall and accidentally gave him four dirham instead of the two he asked for. He handed me back the two extra dirham.

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Outside the cities people have been universally courteous and honest. One of our party left his backpack in a lunch restaurant in Fes with all his valuables in it and walked back to our pick up point completely oblivious to what he’d done. I was standing beside him when a car full of men pulled up and a guy gestured at us. We didn’t understand what was going on until one of the men got out of the car and carried the backpack to hand to my fellow traveller. They’d tracked him down by driving around the city. Of course the man received a finder’s fee for his honesty but they could have made more by ripping him off.

A little cultural sensitivity goes a long way. I always ask permission before photographing anyone at close range and if they agree to be photographed we conclude the deal with a couple of small coins. It helps that Yacine has taught us some basic Arabic phrases to smooth our way.

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When we run out of sealed road we drive another hour over sand to the last auberge signposted. Everyone is excited when we start to spot dromedaries, or Arabian camels, (one hump not two) and kasbahs, the adobe fortresses in various stages of repair dotted all over the desert.

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After ten hours travel we pile out of the bus for a glass of mint tea prepared the traditional ‘long pour’ way by our host then ready our backpacks for an overnight dromedary ride to a Bedouin desert camp in the sand dunes. Well, it’s a simulation of a Bedouin camp for ‘glamping’ (glamour camping) as it has solar power, two flush toilets and running water to wash your hands. No showers until next morning. We make friends with dirt and sand.

My five minute ride in Dubai hadn’t prepared me for this experience. We were organised into two trains of six dromedaries roped together with a Bedouin man leading each train. My dromedary happened to be the last in a train led by Hassan. Last is not a happy place to be. Bob, as I named him (they’re all boys), ended up running into the rear end of the beast in front every time we went downhill and straining on the rope as he was dragged uphill. I tried to encourage him with pats and compliments which he seemed to appreciate but how do I know?

On the way back we got to ride second from last!

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Auberge Yasmina, our launching pad to the dunes.

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Moroccan men love dynamic photo shots!

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This is Bob. Check out his long eyelashes.

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Ready to snowboard the dunes.

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Hassan and Ibrahim readying our beasts of burden.

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Hassan was also chief photographer.

At one stage our rope came undone and for a couple of seconds I considered not telling Hassan about it as Bob and I were carrying on quite nicely but then thought I might get Bob into trouble.

After thirty minutes I started to feel uncomfortable in the saddle until I hit upon sitting further back and not hanging onto the saddle bar (we were not given reins) except for the tricky bits. I even got to the stage where I could bend one knee and bring my foot up onto the saddle to vary the pressure on my hip bones. I won’t lie and say it was a wholly pleasant experience but I do think camels and dromedaries get a bad rap – bad tempers and bad breath and all that. I reckon if I was Bob I would be a whole lot crankier. When we arrived at camp all the animals were hobbled on one knee to stop them wandering and just left lying in the sand for the night. Food and water would be forthcoming the next afternoon In sha’allah!

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The money shot.

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Our camp.

We arrived a little late, the sun was nearly setting, so I climbed the highest nearby dune as fast as I could with legs, lungs and heart straining to get there in time and being sand blasted for my trouble when I reached the peak of the ridge. It wasn’t to be as sand, dust and cloud cover obscured the sunset. I did however enjoy running down the dune full tilt afterwards.

In Morocco men do the bulk of the visible work in the tourism industry with women supporting behind the scenes. Hassan and Ibrahim, the other Bedouin, not only led our expedition, but organised the bedding and cooked and cleaned up. They produced delicious clay pot tagines, including a vegie one for me, followed by fresh fruit.

Our ever accommodating Yacine had ensured the travellers could stock up on wine for the trip.

After dinner the Hassan and Ibrahim produced drums and Moroccan spoon instruments and played and sang for an hour. Multitalented!

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Happy campers.

By ten o’clock the black sky with its sliver of crescent moon had become so star studded there seemed to be more stars than sky. Mattresses were dragged out of tents and most people slept under the stars. I pulled mine to the door and stuck my head out – nothing but stars and silence apart from the ocasional flap of the tent. Yacine had told us about sand storms that spring from nowhere and I’ve seen ‘The English Patient’ so I was ready for a hasty retreat.

Sunrise at 6am improved on sunset by bringing a lovely glow turning the sand from brown to gold and if you look hard you’ll see the outline of two dromedaries on the horizon. The one hour ride back to the auberge was easy now I had the technique. Breakfast and a shower were never so welcome.

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This young Bedouin lad slept over with his Dad and set up his wares in the sand early in the morning. They learn to sell young in Morocco. The prices were bargained by writing in the sand.

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Todra Gorge and an introduction to oases was next. As you see in deserts all over the world, Valle Del Elqui in Chile comes to mind, the presence of water is the miracle of life. The demarcation between parched, desolate earth and lush green palms and plantations is a straight line. Water, no water. The difference between a community surviving or not.

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We walked past grazing flocks tended by a shepherd (there are few fences in Morocco), through a Berber village next to a stream with its simple earth houses and subsistence gardens, past the small mosque and one corner shop. We were told the basics of life are water, bread and prayer – if you have those three things life is ok.

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Another guided walk through a 35 hectare oasis of palms, fruit and nut trees and tiny plots of irrigated land growing alfalfa for stock feed on the valley floor demonstrated how basic the irrigation system of earth channels is as we watch a man undamming a channel to flood a patch of bone dry earth. The community cooperation embodied in that act is immense as water is so precious.

The last excursion of the day was to the deepest part of the bottom of the Todra Gorge. The river carved it so deeply you can’t photograph the top of the cliff in one shot. Climbers come here to train but the rock is so friable it looks risky. The river gorge is a popular spot for locals to hang out in and by the water, washing motorcycles, picknicking and courting. Our auberge was downstream a little. Listening to the sound of water while sitting under the grapevine covered terrace at dinnertime was soothing after a long day. The small country hotels of Morocco are another unexpected pleasure.

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Sweetest little auberge in Morocca.

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Picnic Moroccan style.

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This was the second shot after we agreed the first did not show Mohamed to his best advantage. His olives piquante were divine.

2 Responses to “One hump or two: An Arabian Camel Train in the Sahara”

  1. Charmaine Lawton June 16, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    Love it!

    • Sharon Tickle June 17, 2013 at 7:23 am #

      Shukran Charm! New book on my reading list ‘1001 Arabian Nights’ ;-))

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