Sunday, August 2, 2009

Erg Chebbi - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 4)

With a sudden jolt, our ride became much bumpier. Mohammed had turned off the left side of the highway at a seemingly random place. He cheerfully told us that we were almost there, and that we were turning off the highway just before Merzouga to head toward Erg Chebbi. I was a bit disappointed that we would not get to see the desert town of Merzouga, but I suppose we've had our fill of oasis towns this drive. He continued on in a seemingly random direction at a surprisingly high speed over rocky barren terrain punctuated with the occasional bush or a tired looking tree. I was afraid that the old Mercedes would fall apart from the violent jolts. Although I had no idea where we were, I figured I might as well as just sit back and enjoy the ride, as he's gotten us this far through some dubious situations.

As we joined a few other tracks in the dusty terrain, we suddenly became aware of a line of golden hills on the horizon, shimmering and reflecting in the water-like mirage that was all around us. Mohammed pointed out to us that those are the dunes we are heading for, with the tallest dune towering 150 metres over the surrounding terrain. We drove up to Kasbah Erg Chebbi, a hotel at the edge of the dunes, built using the traditional materials in the the style of a traditional Moroccan kasbah. It looked very graceful as we approached, a collection of mud buildings blending into the backdrop of gracefully rising mountains of sand. Surrounding it are a few green trees and bushes to give its visitors some escape from the scorching desert sun overhead. We were led to a room that we could use for showers changing, and were told that our camel convoy would depart in just over an hour.

We sat at a table in a dusty courtyard looking out at the dunes. We drank some lemon pop to cool off after a long sweltering ride in the car. I bought Mohammed a pop to help him cool down as well, and chatted for a short while. At some point, Mohammed asked me to give him my shirt as he wanted a tip and a "souvenir" from Canada. Since I only have four shirts, I had to decline. After resting up, Felix and I took a short stroll through the dunes by the hotel. I was surprised to see how suddenly the rocky desert transitioned to the sandy desert, as there was a clear line separating the two just outside the courtyard. As we strolled behind some dunes, I noticed how silent the surroundings became. You can hear every step you take, as well as the wind howling across the sand. I picked up a rock, threw it, and heard a soft whizz....... plop as the rocks sailed through the air and buried itself into the soft sand below. The sand itself was an interesting shade of orange-red, which I commented looked like Cajun spice, to which Felix immediately drew parallels to Frank Herber's Dune. We also saw a variety of insect trail, and caught an occasional glimpse of a scarab busily scurrying around between its burrows in the sand.

When time came to leave for the camp in the desert, we met other travellers coming with us, three Slovenians and one Canadian from Québec. We each got to our camels and sat on the saddles in preparation to depart. The convoy leader walked down to make sure we were ready and to direct the camels. When he walked by me, I heard "hold on!" and as I was still trying to figure out what he meant, the front of my camel suddenly jumped up, and jerkily tilted me at a precarious angle. I grabbed the handle in front of me by instinct and held on tight as I was about to fall off backwards! A second later, I felt the back of the camel raising up and soon I was seated comfortably surprisingly high above the sand. The motion of the camel standing up reminded me very much of the AT-AT Walkers in Star Wars. As we started into the dunes of the Sahara, I enjoyed the colours around me. I was told, and it was true, that the colours of the desert change constantly throughout the day, and that every angle yields a different palette. Nearing sunset, the desert was reflecting a warm orange-red glow all around us, except while looking in the direction of the sun, where the desert seemed to take on a pale metallic and sterile shade of blue, fading to a yellowish-brown as the sun became lower in the sky.

As we rode on, our shadows became longer and the light grew softer. We stopped once for a rest, where we climbed up a nearby dune to get a view of the desert. From the top, one can see large dunes surrounding us to the north, east, and south, and the village of Merzouga was visible at the edge of the dunes to the west, where the sand disappears into a vast flat dusty plain lined with tall hills on the horizon. I also admired watching the sand blow across an amazingly well defined ridge at the top of the dune, separating the sunny side from the shady side with razor-edge precision.

As we rode behind the tallest dune, we entered a well-used campsite with other camels and groups. The ground was a minefield of camel droppings. Camps of various sizes were scattered around the area, and were all built as a cluster of tents made of worn-through rags held up by weathered wooden poles surrounding an open space in the middle of each site. The rag walls around the mini-courtyard made this quite a cozy place for a few cushions and a table to relax at.

As the Berber guides started cooking dinner, Felix and I decided to climb up the dune to try and catch the sunset. This is when we learnt the hard way never to climb up a dune directly - always walk around to the ridge and follow the ridge up. It took an amazing amount of effort to reach the summit, as with every three steps we took, we slid back two. By the time we reached the top, the sun had long set, and night was starting to blanket the desert with darkness. We sat for a while watching caravans in the distance below us. As this small northern dune field of the Sahara is only five kilometres wide, we could see the western and eastern edges of the dune field, but to the north and south, the dunes seemingly go on forever. As it became darker, a shifting blanket of dark blue, indigo, and purple was cast above us, highlighted by the sparkling stars fading in. We could see the soft yellow glow of a few lights emanating from the oasis village of Merzouga at the western edge of the sand, and to the east, over a barren plain and distant mesas, the dim light from distant Algerian villages over the border.

When it was time to head back for dinner, we slid down the dune, which filled every part of my body with sand, which included some parts I had never felt before. As we ran down the hill, we disturbed the sand on the steepest parts of the dune which warned us by grumbling a deep ominous rumbling sound, which made us slow down and descend more carefully. When we got back to camp, the candles were lit, and dinner was nearly ready. On our way back, we heard singing and fires crackling from the other camp sites, which made for little sheltered oases of light and merriment in an otherwise dark and deserted expanse.

Dinner consisted of Moroccan bread with two huge pots of hearty Berber tagine. Although we had only two candles at the table, everything was covered in a layer of small flying insects and sand, including the food. We watched the stars come out above the dunes as we ate, talked and relaxed with Moroccan tea, lounging on the cushions, protected from the wind by the gently waving rag wall around us. We discovered that the young Québécois fellow had been diagnosed with an incurable medical condition, and was given only a few years to live. He immediately dropped what he was doing and set out on a journey around the world to learn about its people and about himself in the short time that he had left. This was a very touching story indeed, and we all wished him the best. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did, and I hope that he will live a fulfilling life and find what he set out to find in the short time that he has left in this world.

After dinner, some of use ventured out of the comfort of our camp. I dragged our a cushion just outside of camp, around to where the cloth walls blocked out any candlelight from the courtyard. I lied down there and watched the stars. Soon, some others joined me, and we chatted for a long time while watching the brightest stars I have ever seen in my life. Even though the waning moon was still quite full, this was one of the few times in my life when I could clearly see the Milky Way splashed across the night sky even without my glasses on. As we talked, I watched as shooting stars shot across the full starry night at a rate of one every few minutes.

As it became late, the guides made our beds. Some chose to sleep inside the tents, while some chose to sleep in the courtyard. Me, along with another person, chose to sleep just outside the camp. As I went to go to the washroom before sleeping, I suddenly realized I had no idea where the toilet was. I had seen some tiny tents with toilets inside them at the other camps - a form of rudimentary porta-potty, but I had not seen them at our camp. When I asked the guides where the toilet is, they looked at me and said quite casually "anywhere." With that, I used my dim camping LED headlight to walk out behind the camp near the base of the dune, and peed into the dark desert beyond.

I climbed into my bed for the night, a thick bedroll with a surprisingly thick and heavy blanket on top. It turns out that sleeping outside the camp was a bad idea. At night, the desert became cold and windy, and I found myself longing to be inside the courtyard or one of the tents where I would be protected from the wind. I had a very poor night of sleep that night, due to both the discomfort of sleeping in a windy environment and to me thinking of how many wonderful experiences I am going to go through in the next two months, seeing how much I have already experienced and learnt in the past few days. Even a year ago, it had never occurred to me that I would ever find myself sleeping under the stars at a camp in the Sahara desert which we rode to by camel. As compensation for not sleeping well that night, every time I opened my eyes, I was treated to a beautiful view of the stars and the Milky Way drifting across the sky lit up by the numerous streaks of shooting stars. Surrounding it all are the mysterious dunes in the distance lit by the pale moonlight. I drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep all night comforted that I had the company of the camels who mooed, grunted, and groaned softly in the howling wind.

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