After being rushed out of our 15-seat van we had occupied for the previous 3 days, we were being assigned one of the camels lined up at random. Amauri was assigned to the first camel that was holding all the supplies, while I was sent to the back with the Australian girls. It happened so quickly that we had no time to protest our separation. The Berber men were in a rush to get us to the campsite before the sunset.
I had never encountered a camel in real life. I saw them on TV, in movies, maybe a few cartoons. Friends warned me that they usually carried a strong odor and could be aggressive. I walked up to the camel sitting on the ground, a little hesitant at first. Funny looking creatures, they are. To my delight, my camel appeared to be well taken care of and had no distinct odor.
Then it was time. The camel stared me – unblinking, curling his bottom lip in distain as I attempted to gracelessly maneuver myself onto his back. I clutched the wobbly handlebar for dear life and desperately hoped that if I accidently kicked its side, it wouldn’t take off like a horse. Fortunately, the Berber man was on hand, face expressionless as he coaxed the camel to its feet. Pleased I hadn’t disgraced my nation just yet, I comfortably settled into what would be my perch for the next hour and tried my best to admire my surroundings.
Amauri and I had traveled to Merzouga in Morocco to experience a little slice of the Sahara Desert. During the 11-hour a day road trip, we encountered long stretches of road (calling it a road is generous) that showed zero signs of life. Often, I would wake up from the small personal space I etched out for myself in the van and peeked across the vast stretch of land. You know, pondering philosophical questions such as “I wonder how much time I have left before we stop to pee?” Occasionally, I would see a man walking with absolutely no sense of emergency in his step. “Where is this person going?!”, I would think. “How did they even get here?!” This idea baffled me and I wondered how long they had left to reach their destination considering it had taken us hours going 80mph in the van. The driver didn’t seem to be bothered by it, so I assumed it was just another day in the desert.
After the long and dusty 3-day drive down from Marrakesh, our group was herded out of the van and onto our camels for our trek into the endless sea of desert. The sunlight was rapidly fading, and the great fireball in the sky had covered the dunes of Erg Chebbi like a gold painting as it inched towards the horizon.
We began trudging onwards on our sandy stairway to heaven. In general my camel seemed altogether uninterested in the whole encounter. A few of us noticed though, that it seemed a bit heavy in the stomach. “Is this camel pregnant?” we asked the Berber man. “No”, he seemed confused with the question, “old and fat.” Self-consciously, I started to wonder if the camel choosing was indeed not done at random.
Nearing our campsite, the only sound we could hear was the soft padding of camel feet along the shifting ground, alongside a strong breeze blowing particles of sand into what seemed like every inch of our bodies. After an hour, it was with some relief that I peeked ahead and saw the small gathering of black Berber tents through the dunes. My camel knelt down; most likely thankful, glad to be rid of its American baggage that suggested it was pregnant, when in reality it was just carrying a bit of extra weight. It proceeded to show the extent of its contempt by emptying its bladder as I slid gratefully to the sand.
Shortly after I regained my balance, there was a rush to get to the top of the sand dune to view the sunset. A bit sore from the ride, our group of intrepid travelers imitated a John Wayne-style walk towards the sunset.
There was a limited time before complete darkness, so we decided to straight line it up the dune, first attempting to run, then wearily crawling on our hands and knees up the sheer wall of sand. For every inch gained, a mile was lost. It was impossible. We gave up about two thirds of the way, figuring it was worth it to experience more of the sunset and less of our exhaustion. In the end, it was worth every step for the spectacular view.
After the sunset we headed to the campsite to settle in. After a surprisingly good chicken tagine dinner, accompanied by the obligatory mint tea and campfire drumming, we enquired about the bathroom situation.
Our hosts simply laughed.
“The desert is your toilet my friends. Enjoy!”
It took me a few minutes to consider which path I was going to choose. A) Do I venture out into the dark desert by myself and stand firm on my pre-marriage independent traveler status? Or, B) Cash in on the marriage vows and drag my husband along?
For better or for worse, I chose the latter. I changed my name for him, so he officially has to be my lookout for any risky bathroom situations in the future. There could be wild beasts out there.
Having dug my hole, I squatted under the vast Saharan sky, looking up in awe at all the stars I’ve never seen before. Our adventure had rewarded us with some clear-as-day stars, so bright it seemed as if you could touch them. The prettiest bathroom I’d ever been in.
We went back to our tent and got comfortable, spending the night laughing with our two Australian tent-mates about the differences in our language and culture. After an hour of giggling under our sheets like kids at camp, we fell asleep by the glowing embers of the fire.
You can’t, of course, spend the night in the desert without rising at some god-forsaken hour to see the sunrise. We welcomed the new day by trekking back, and in a butt-numbing hour later, we were back in Merzouga for breakfast. As quickly as it began, the entire adventure was suddenly over. I bid my camel farewell and thanked the Berber men for their efforts.
While camping in the desert was never on our bucket list, it was certainly an experience that will be impossible to forget.