We journeyed for days to reach the dunes. We detoured via many striking and exotic places, but there was always a final destination on our minds. Even when we were technically in the desert, speeding across the stony ochre plains, we were still waiting for the Sahara to rise up from the dust and roll out a burnished carpet of soft golden sand to greet us.
At last, there it was: a slim strip of dark orange that ran parallel to us along the horizon for miles. We turned off the track and drove towards it, but as we neared, it proved not to be a strip at all, but a wall that grew higher and higher, looming over the kasbah directly ahead.
Within the kasbah walls we stretched out by the pool under the late afternoon sun. There was an hour or so to kill and no rush anymore, so we languished in the pallid topaz water until the time came to dress and prepare for the journey ahead of us.
We padded out across the sand to meet our camels in the early evening glow. One by one, the creatures hoisted us into the air and our caravan moved off. At the helm was a teenage boy all wrapped up in royal blue. He was confident around camels and nervous around strangers, but practiced enough to anticipate and accommodate our whims – returning smiles, taking photographs.
We trudged down steep slopes, before ascending again, each time higher. There’s a knack to going downhill on a camel, which means leaning back and gripping hard on the saddle. I slipped off my sandals and tucked them into my bag, which left my bare feet knocking clumsily but soothingly against the camel’s soft torso. Being led blindly into the desert with the warm breeze brushing up against our exposed arms and ankles lulled us all into a state of mollified silence. With all the watchfulness of drowsily enraptured children, we witnessed dusk prowl in our direction as the camel’s hooves creaked against the sand, barely disrupting the hush.
Even after the sun had overwhelmed the scene with one final, fitful burst of colour and fallen below the horizon, the light lingered on a good while before fading altogether. By the time we reached camp though, darkness had seeped into even the palest corners of the sky.
With the help of lanterns and friendly murmurs, we picked our way across the rugs to find our seats under the stars. Nestled on cushions around low-slung tables, we were served mint tea and lamb tagines and couscous by candlelight.
Just as the meat was served, a cat appeared out of nowhere, mewing insistently for scraps. This was evidently a well-polished trick with a high success rate, but I wanted its attention for the evening as much as it wanted a share of my dinner, so to cement a tacit human-feline agreement I covertly fed it a couple of morsels from my plate. I wondered how it had reached this remote spot – by camel, I suppose, just like the rest of us. A tiny squeaking ball of fur carried out here as a kitten to be the camp cat.
Our mild-mannered Berber hosts were determined to befriend us and welcomed our input into the evening’s entertainment. They were patient teachers and showed us how to join in with the drumming, as well as gently poking fun at us when we got it wrong.
The music drew to a close, and we headed out of camp on a dune-climbing adventure.
Even in the darkness, I could trace the outline of the dune and see it was huge. The incline was steep and the sand too loose to make climbing a blithe endeavour. Everyone reached a point of exhaustion, but I kept going, determined to stand upon the summit. Our hosts stayed close, making sure to lose no-one to the night.
Eventually I admitted defeat and stopped. I was climbing a mountain and I’d only set out to climb a hill, so I turned, leaning back into the dune to rest. The top layer of the sand had cooled with the day, but digging my hands under the surface, I found it had retained its heat. Another guest and a Berber guide scrambled up beside me and we stayed there for a while, catching our breath and talking a little.
“Don’t you ever get bored out here?” asked the guest. “What do you do for fun? I mean, you don’t even have a TV.”
“Why would I need a TV,” replied our host, “when I have the big TV in the sky?”
He gestured towards the night and we fell silent as we watched meteors skip merrily around the immense star-encrusted dome that contained us.
I remembered back to when the African sky first took me by surprise. I expected it to be big, but to spread, not rise. Then from a Nairobi skyscraper I watched it build its clouds high, and I realised I had underestimated its aptitude for overwhelming vastness.
Coming down was easier than going up. We slid most of the way, our trousers filling with sand. The Berber people are steady on their feet in this terrain after years of practise, so grabbed our ankles and ran, forcing an even speedier descent that resulted in shrieks of fear and amusement.
Back at camp, we heaved the mattresses from the tent out onto the rugs and our hosts heaped on extra layers to keep unwelcome chills from our bones as we slept.
As I shuffled down under my blankets I made some universally acknowledged cat beckoning noises, and sure enough, the little scamp trotted out of the darkness and settled right next to my mattress, well within reach of my stroking arm. With my two best friends sleeping noiselessly to my left and the cat purring contentedly to my right, I wondered how long I could keep my eyes fixed on the night sky before fatigue would steal from me this blissfully happy moment.
We awakened before dawn, packed up and clambered onto our humped friends for the half-lit plod back to the kasbah. It’s funny how little time it takes to become accustomed to the heavy and awkward, but reliably rhythmic tread of camels. If someone had told us we had a day’s bumpy ride ahead of us, I’d probably have happily accepted the news, having quickly slipped under the spell of the Berber ways.
I didn’t think it was possible, but the shifting light of sunrise in the Sahara was even more dramatic and beautiful than sunset.
We bumped into a caravan of local Berber people, before saying goodbye to our camels and whizzing back the rest of the way by Jeep.
Over a breakfast of mint tea and honey-drenched cake, two of us presented birthday cards to the third. We made a collective wish that this peaceful September morning, which marked a full 13 years of friendship, would be an omen for adventure and excitement in the year to come.
My trip to the Saharan dunes in Merzouga took place in mid-September and was arranged through Splash Morocco Adventure Tours. I’ll write more about the logistics of the trip in a future post.