The above title may appear to be a mistake but it merely an excuse for a little Arabic lesson. Most people I know, including myself, call this geographic feature of Africa “The Sahara Desert.” However, the word Sahara, is simply a transliteration of the same word in Arabic and it literally means desert. So when people say “I went to the Sahara Desert” they are actually saying “I went to the Desert Desert.” Anyway, linguistics aside, I went to the Sahara last weekend.
It was about a 10 hour drive from Rabat to a town called Merzougha on the edge of the desert. The drive took us through snow, winding mountain roads, landscape similar to Arizona or New Mexico, and finally into sand dunes. We had the pleasure of staying at a super nice hotel on the edge of the desert in bungalow dwellings fully equipped with jet bathtubs and even an outdoor hot tub. The hotel had tennis courts, a pool, a jacuzzi, sauna, spa, massages, restaurant, saloon, and even a dance tent with a DJ. They also had 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, 4x4 jeeps and dune buggies available for offroading through the dunes of the Sahara. As much as I really wanted to hop on a dirt bike or hire a dune buggy for the afternoon, it happens to be against my programs safety policy. Regardless, we were taking camels out into the desert.
We all wrapped our heads and faces in scarves and donned our sunglasses as we headed to where our camels were waiting. I was towards the front of the group. As we approached the camels there was one in particular that was not happy. He was growling and yelling and wouldn’t stay still. In fact, 2 guys were trying to hold him down. Of course, one of them motioned to me and told me to get on the camel. I thought, this is crazy. As a approached this crazy camel he jumped up before I could get on. After much back and forth and yelling on the part of the camel he came back down and I prepared to mount. Literally as soon as my weight touched the saddle the camel jumped right up and kind of pranced around. The guys near me got him (and me) under control, tied us to the camel in front of us, and apologized to me saying “He’s a young camel.” Wonderful.
Throughout the rest of this 2 hour trip into the Sahara , at our campsite, and even the next morning, my camel was growling, yelling and just generally not happy. On top of all of that, camels are not very comfortable animals to ride, particularly for men, as they just sort of plod along. From just the 2 hours into the desert I had bruises on my behind. However, even with my camel issues, the Sahara was a grand adventure. We were literally surrounded by sand dunes. We watched the sun set as sand pelted us from the wind and eventually made it to our campsite just after night fall. We enjoyed a delicious uniquely Moroccan dish of minced meat with egg (Tajine) before embarking on one the most physically demanding endeavors of my life.
Our campsite backed up against what was known as the largest dune in Morocco. Every semester, students are challenged to climb to the top with Fouad, our Moroccan resident director. Last semester, 19 students started and 2 made it to the top. Amazingly, 9 of us started and all 9 of us made it to the top. Climbing a sand dune is one of the most physically tiring things I have ever done. And what’s worse is you feel like you aren’t going anywhere because the sand is constantly moving and swallowing your footsteps. Plus, it was nighttime and this was a steep dune. I was literally reduced to crawling on hands and knees to make it to the crest of the two sides of the dune which took quite awhile.
There were 3 of us that made it to the crest together: Fouad, a guy by the name of Greg, and myself. I thought it would be easier but I was horribly mistaken. We removed our sand-filled shoes at this point and since Fouad had done the climb before he lead the way “breaking the crest” towards the summit while Greg and I followed in his footsteps. The going was very difficult and treacherous as the sand would give way on either side of the crest and the wind and sand was whipping us around the whole time. After only 5 minutes or so Fouad was exhausted so we sat down to take a breather. After a short while, we got up and I took the lead breaking the crest up the dune. I lasted all of 5 minutes as well before I collapsed in exhaustion to take a break. Again, after a short while we got up and Greg took the lead breaking the crest. But, once again, after 5 about minutes we all collapsed in exhaustion. We continued on in this manner for at least a half an hour and it seemed like we were going nowhere. Plus, that tajine wasn’t feeling too great in our stomachs. But, at long last the crest began to flatten out and our goal was in sight.
After, well over an hour and a half of climbing we had reached the summit and immediately proceeded to collapse in exhaustion. The stars were absolutely gorgeous from the top. Once all 9 of us had battled through exhaustion, cramps, and even getting sick to make it to the top, we began our decent. This was very easy and even fun except for the fact that it was literally impossible to see where you were going. Up looked the same as down which looked the same as straight out and left or right. All was black. After making it down the dune we each climbed straight into our tents and went to sleep.
(The Dune we hiked in background: you can see only 1/2 from the bottom)
The next morning we got up to watch the beautiful moment when the sun rises over the Sahara and prepared to ride our camels out of the desert. Once out, we dismounted, rubbed our sore limbs, stuffed our faces with food, and prepared for the long trip home. All in all, it was a great adventure into the great Desert Desert.