Into the Sahara Desert
Today, I might get to see my first Moroccan camel. An exciting prospect, don’t you agree? And, if the postcards in Er Rachidia are anything to go by, it may even be wearing a Fez and sunglasses. Ah, the unacceptable face of Mass tourism – we salute you.
To: The Moroccan Tourism Initiative (Sahara Outpost)
Message: Return to base, boys, you’re work here is done.
From: The guys back at HQ
Ps: We’re having a do back at the office this evening and hope you can join us. Apparently the strippers can’t make it now but we’re still on for the 3 dancing bears. Hurrah!
The dress code is smart/casual or sunglasses/fez. Oh, and feel free to bring your wife/girlfriend/monkey on a leash…
The first leg of the journey took us by Grand Taxi to the small desert town and tout stronghold of Rissani. Before I had even had a chance to get my bag out of the boot we had already been accosted by the first of several guides offering to show us the numerous, incalculable treasures of the Sahara – and all at a very cheap price.
The problem with the town of Merzouga, we were told, is that it’s spread out over a large area. It’s essentially a sparse scattering of dwellings, guesthouses and tour group orientated resorts lining the edge of Erg Chebbi – the vast expanse of sand dune that were heading toward – and none of the guesthouses, we were told on several more occasions, were in walking distance of each other. This may simply have been a ploy to get us on their transport that went to their guesthouse and for us then to take them up on their tours, but if there was an element of truth in to these claims then it would be impossible for us to just rock up (as is usually our way) and check a few places on foot.
Even the mere thought of trudging across vast expanses of nothingness in well over 100 degrees of midday heat, all with a backpack, was enough to get me grasping at the water bottle, so instead we would pick a guesthouse at random and, from our current location, make our way there independently. If upon arrival we found out that the tout’s spiel was unfounded and there was a bit of choice, then we could shift the plan accordingly. As ever, we would remain pretty flexible with our arrangements.
With Lauren taking charge of the bags in the shade of a nearby café, I left her and a mint tea and trotted off to find us some wheels to cover the last 20 Km or so to a small village a few Kilometers to the north of Merzouga called Hassi Labied, and hopefully to a bed for the night at our chosen Auberge.
According to the waiter in the café, I would find plenty of Grand Taxi action just around the corner from where we were sitting. Alas, the waiter’s claims proved ever-so-slightly optimistic. I failed to locate this fleet of glinting Mercedes, all willing and decidedly eager to whisk us away to Hassi Labied, and instead only found another string of cafes, a rather forlorn and scabby looking dog, and a guy in the midst of breaking the current Guinness World Record set for the longest ever pee up against a wall. Seriously, I was expecting to see Norris Mcwhirter and his large, black book appear at any moment. It was incredible.
After talking to a few folk (in itself an act that never fails to showcase my ineptitude at learning foreign languages) I got ever closer to obtaining our wheels. Soon enough I was pointed in the direction of a tall, rather rotund Moroccan guy wearing a red T-shirt covering approximately 2/3 of his belly. As well as being the proud owner of this brown, bulbous, partly obscured mass, he also laid claim to a small, white van and, as luck would have it, he was heading to Merzouga within the hour. We fixed a price, shook on it, and agreed to meet back up in a short while.
I returned to the café and shared the good news with Lauren. We hastily grabbed our bags, made our way back to our proposed ride, and loitered beneath a shady overhang for white van man to return. 3 PM came and he appeared, along with two rangy tribesmen in full desert get-up. Their presence, their clothing, and indeed their most dignified – almost noble – manner did much to impress me. Apart from on the odd documentary back in the UK, never before had I seen people actually wearing this kind of garb for real. These long, flowing robes and intricately wound, white headscarves belonged to the Tuaregs, the predominant Berber group of the Western Sahara. And more about them anon.
After the tribesmen’s supplies had been loaded, one by one we squeezed into the back of the van. Lauren was first in, and by that virtue alone got the far seat next to a small, curtained window, and I climbed in next – and by that virtue I got to tickle her knees. The two Berber men then climbed in and joined the party. And by that I mean the ride to Hassi labied, not the tickling bit.
Contrary to popular belief, desert robes aren’t actually designed and made with the intention of being loose fitting garments. Sometimes, the vast amount of cloth needed to make these garments isn’t so required to make them baggy, but instead to successfully cover all shapes and sizes of human frame. A bit of a ‘one size fits all’, if you like. I’m sure you will be interested to learn that even some of the largest frames will still manage to slip into these robes effortlessly, and the gargantuan wearer is still left looking the same size as, say, a small boy in the same robe – this is particularly the case with the colossal, gangly frames of Tuareg tribesmen, possibly some of whom choose to shop in Rissani on a Tuesday afternoon.
These guys were surprisingly big – way, way bigger than your average Moroccan, if there ever was such a thing. Even more surprisingly, given our current and rather dry location, our fellow passengers (or their cargo, which was in equally close quarter) held a musty odour similar to that of estuarine mullet – it’s a strange observation, perhaps, but it’s quite a distinct aroma and one you don’t forget in a hurry. In hindsight, it must have actually been their cargo as I haven’t had another whiff of mullet since, and I’ve been sniffing Tuaregs for some days now – but just to be certain, you understand.
Anyway, this all led to it being quite a cosy ride. I spent most of the journey looking over my left shoulder, past Lauren’s nose and out of the newly made crack in the curtain; I had little say in the matter. Had I looked ahead, I would have only seen another face, equally as full of anguish and just as wickedly contorted, wincing back in my general direction. It was a tight fit all right.
From what I could glean through the crack in the curtain, I wasn’t really missing much on the odd occasion that I did glance forward and check out my new travel buddy’s dentistry. In short, the whole landscape just appeared to be, well, bare and desolately sterile, or at least so it seemed at the time. Throughout the journey we were privy to a swiftly moving array of sand, rocks, a few more rocks, and then a bit more sand. Apart from the odd (and distinctly lost looking) shrub here and there, it all seemed so completely void of life. I’ve seen more living things in a single squat toilet cubicle. It was absolutely barren. I began to wonder how anyone could even exist in this harsh, forbidding environment. But exist they did, and soon we would meet them and their fez wearing camels with the cool dude shades. I couldn’t wait.