In the last post, I left you in anticipation at the point of our trip where we were starting to see sand and camels and knew we were close to the Sahara desert!
It was quite strange how suddenly the dunes appeared. It was not as gradual as I had anticipated.
This is the point of the trip where one of the more odd things happened. Before we got to the actual sand, our driver Hossan pulled over and told the Croatian couple and the Spanish mother and daughter to get out of the van and go with a different guide. This new guy had been just waiting near the side of the road, and the whole thing felt so sketchy. Hossan didn’t explain, and we all looked on in concern as our new friends timidly got out with wide eyes and tried to make sense of what was happening. As soon as their bags were out, we were off again, and waving goodbye, hoping we’d see them again.
Shortly after that, we arrived to the mouth of the desert. There was another tour group arriving as well. And the camels were there waiting for us!
Hossan intimated to us that we’d need to leave our large bags behind and only take what we needed for the overnight. Thankfully Kevin and I had a smaller bag to use, but we had to quickly grab things out of our backpacks to go in the smaller bag. We understood vaguely that we’d be reunited with our backpacks in the morning.
The camels were laying peacefully and the local guides were waiting, so we assumed we’d be off quickly. The sun was getting lower, and we knew the ride to camp would take about an hour. The other group was loaded on the camels first.
They set off into the sand with their guide, and our group anxiously awaited our turn. But they didn’t start loading us for some reason. We all just stood around for a while, guides included, as the sun got lower and lower.
It was quite frustrating. We never heard them speaking English, so there was probably a communication barrier and they couldn’t tell us what was going on. But we barely saw them even speaking to each other or appearing to be problem-solving anything. They seemed in no big hurry at all, and we had no idea what we were waiting for. I was very concerned that we’d miss the sunset.
Kevin counted the camels and noticed that we were several short, and we thought maybe that was the holdup. However it took ages for one of the men to leave for more, and when he returned, he had just one camel. But that was apparently the catalyst, for they started getting us onto camels after that. Since we were still a few short, they just doubled people up on the camels.
Mounting the camels is quite a strange experience. You have to get onto the camels one at a time while they’re laying down. Then they stand their back legs up first before their front, so you really have to hang on to the harnesses, or else you’ll pitch off the front face-first!
I ended up on the third camel from the front. And Kevin got the very first one! I was jealous, because that would have been great for taking pictures!
FINALLY we set off, and the dirt and greenery quickly disappeared to be replaced by beautiful golden sand.
The feeling of awe very quickly overtook any lingering annoyance I felt at not leaving sooner. I talked about it already in this post, but walking through the Sahara as the sun set was simply magical.
Everyone was very quiet, taking it in. I’ve never truly watched a sunset with no distractions, and it was really amazing to watch the sky slowly change colors.
Once the sun was fully set, I had no more distraction from the soreness of sitting on a camel hump. They put a big pad shaped like a donut around the hump, but it still hurts. You have to use muscles you may not be used to engaging in order to stay on your camel as it wobbles along, especially when going downhill on a sand dune. Going uphill is not too bad. And the bottom part of my pelvis really hurt too.
We arrived to our camp in the pitch black, but our guide and the camels needed just a single flashlight to find their way. I had been expecting a beautifully lit camp with lanterns dotting the horizon like I had seen from other bloggers, but that’s not what we got. In fact, our camp was pretty dark, and not very picturesque at night at all.
We were assigned tents, and unfortunately, they were not private tents. We ended up in one with two full-size beds, and had to share with the Serbian sisters from our group. The beds were plastic covered, and had lots of thick blankets on them (camel-hair blankets??) which would keep us pretty cosy. But the pillows were small and hard as rocks! Literally, I think they were filled with sand that had solidified!
At this point we were told that the camels would be leaving in the morning at 5am, before the sunrise! But we could choose to pay a bit more and leave on a vehicle instead after 7am. Kevin was tired of riding camels, and I wasn’t going to come all the way here and not even see our camp in daylight, so it was a no-brainer for us, even if the nickle-and-diming was a bit irritating. The Serbian sisters were not into paying a penny more, though, so they said they’d leave at 5am (we inwardly sighed at the prospect of our roommates rising that early).
After dropping our bag in our tent, we walked over to the little pavilion area where they were about to serve dinner. Our table of strangers got another giant tagine to share, and this time there were no vegetarian options. I had to just pick around the meat if I wanted to eat that night. It was quite difficult for all of us to eat, though, as they had given us forks but no plates or serving utensils. There was also a bowl of rice and one of bread. We used our forks to scoop food onto our bread to eat, and it was quite inefficient.
After dinner, I asked one of the camp workers where the bathroom was, and he made a wide gesture towards the edges of camp, indicating “Take your pick of the bushes.” That was a bit shocking, considering I’d never peed outside in my entire life (I’d gone out of my way to avoid those situations). So I decided to hold it as long as possible that night and stop drinking my water at that point.
We noticed that the camp had a resident cat family. They hung around the food and garbage, waiting for scraps. The kittens were adorable, but it was hard to get good photos of them.
After a bit, they made a campfire and played music. I’m not sure how much the locals enjoyed doing it; it kind of seemed like they were only playing because the tourists expect it from the nicer camps. It probably is boring doing the same thing night after night.
So we didn’t stay at the fire too long. We wandered around the camp a bit and attempted to take photos of the stars (major fail). The night sky was absolutely spectacular. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen the Milky Way in real life, and I loved it! I laid in the sand for a while just to watch it and try to memorize the experience (usually what I use my photography for). I was bummed that I couldn’t get any photos, but the alternative would have been bringing a tripod, and traveling light is just too important to me, so I wouldn’t have changed anything.
We decided to get an early(ish) night compared to our fellow travelers. I was very looking forward to the sunrise, and wanted to make sure I didn’t sleep past it in the morning. I was able to find a somewhat private bush, aided by the darkness, for me to take “desert pee” #1. Thank goodness I had brought a roll of toilet paper! Then we went to bed. Kevin insisted we leave the overhead light on for our roommates when they came in later, so we had to fall asleep under a bright bulb.
Halfway through the night, I woke and saw that the girls had come in, but must not have been able to find the light switch (hidden behind the fabric of the tent wall), so it was still on. I got up to turn it off, and didn’t care too much that they had to be up before us in the dark.
I woke up next morning to moonlight, so I was exceedingly grateful that everyone else had stayed up late and were sleeping in so I could pee in peace. “Desert pee” #2 was much more visible due to that moon, and I decided right there, that was the last one I was doing here in this wide open desert!
Kevin and I headed out together in an Eastward direction. The three Japanese guys from our group were out ahead of us, and we sort of followed them. I had originally not wanted to wander too far from camp, but they kept going and getting in the way of my photos, and I figured, if the vehicle had to wait for them anyway, then I shouldn’t need to worry about being left behind.
The sun eventually creeped up, and more and more travelers joined us and wandered ahead. Everyone kept walking and fighting to be in the front for the best photo, so I decided to just let them have it. I didn’t want to be the furthest one from camp.
Their silhouettes made kind of a cool visual, and gave the desert some scale. At least that’s how I consoled myself.
Either way, it was another amazing Morocco moment, and I was grateful to be alive.
I had been keeping an eye on my watch, and around 7am, when they had indicated we’d be leaving, we turned around to head back to camp, which we could finally see in real light.
But they apparently weren’t in any big hurry again. So I wandered around and got some shots.
There was a small SUV there, and we knew not many of us would fit in it, but we never saw another vehicle arrive. Again, we were told nothing.
Despite our group being ready first this time, they again took the other group before us. They loaded them into the SUV, and then when it was full, they put travelers ON TOP OF IT.
We watched them all bobbing on top as the vehicle drove away across the sand. Then we waited. They gave us some mint tea to keep us occupied.
Eventually that same SUV was back and it was our turn. Thankfully we had some adventurous souls willing to climb on top, so I ended up in the back seat and Kevin rode shotgun.
It was a crazy ride!! I have no idea how those people on top stayed on!
We were driving up and down dunes at a ridiculous pace; at one point our driver revved to go up a steep dune, and the car couldn’t quite make it and we slide backwards all the way down! Our driver sort of giggled and then took the proper path over a more shallow stretch. Apparently that’s how they have their fun with us.
Miraculously, no one fell off and we all survived the ride.
We’d been told we’d have time for breakfast and showers before heading out again in our original van, but having to take the second trip back from the desert really delayed us. When we met back up with Hossan at the edge of the desert, he said we had ten minutes to eat and then be off again.
Most of the group was going on to Fes, so they all piled into a different van with a new driver. Kevin and I hopped back into Hossan’s van, and we went to pick up the Croatian couple that had been separated from us (with the Spanish mother and daughter) the day before. We chatted with them, and it sounded like they had pretty much the same experience we did, just at a different camp. We still have absolutely no idea why we were separated.
It was just the four of us and Hossan for the rest of the trip, so we were able to spread ourselves out in the van. There were no sightseeing stops planned for the return journey, as we had to cross the distance between Merzouga and Marrakech in one day, and it would take around 10 hours.
We had one stop for lunch, where Kevin and I split a cheese omelette and a plate of spaghetti. The Croatians got more mint tea and chicken skewers. Then we had a delicious millefeuille for dessert.
Again, we didn’t really have a choice in eating at this restaurant, but we just embraced that and enjoyed ourselves.
We got back to Marrakech after dark around 7:30pm. Hossan was kind enough to drop us as close as he could to our riad. We said goodbye to our new Croatian friends, and that was the end of our Saharan adventure.
At the beginning of my Part 1 post, I said I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to book this tour upon arrival to Marrakech. I’m still not sure if we should have spent more to book it online in advance. Our tour certainly did have some issues, like not being told where we were or what we’d be doing next, staying in some questionable accommodations, being charged extra unexpectedly, and having no dining choices.
But at this point, knowing that we stayed safe the whole time, I wouldn’t change it. We did get a lot for our money, and the experiences of meeting camels, being immersed in the desert, and seeing the Milky Way are memories I’ll treasure forever. A second-rate tour couldn’t diminish those wonders.