At 5 a.m. there’s a knock on our door. This is the signal that the weather has cleared enough for us to venture into the Sahara Desert.
Flooding in the Sahara. I tend to imagine the multitude of things that can go wrong during a trip that scares me like this one. But even I did not come up with fear of flooding in the Sahara.
It’s been a two-day drive from our elegant ryiad (guesthouse) in Marrakech to Merzouga, a tiny outpost of a village at the foot of the vast Sahara desert. Lying in my narrow single bed, my hair caked with sand, my nostrils filled with dust, I think about our two-day journey from Marrakech. We are traveling in a four-wheel drive with a kind elderly Moroccan driver who speaks no English and uses all pit stops as opportunities to roll out his prayer rug. I hope that he is praying that we will arrive safely. His double talking employer back in Marrakech assured us that this driver is a veritable master at navigating these difficult mountain and desert roads. This turns out to be quite an exaggeration. After one of several missed road signs, our driver admits that he’s never been to Merzouga. It seems this is as much of an adventure for him as it is for us.
The first day of our journey takes us south through the Atlas Mountains to Skoura, an ancient oasis. The mountains are dotted with tiny villages with color variations of the same extraordinary deep pink as the city of Marrakech.
By day two the landscape has changed. The flattened terrain looks otherworldly, like the surface of a distant planet. The sky is the most extraordinary periwinkle color. The villages are pale okra. Along the road, locals sell ancient fossilized rocks from the desert. They are round and baseball-sized, looking like black snowballs that have been cracked open to reveal blood red minerals, the same intense red color as the seeds of pomegranate trees that line the village streets. Inexplicably, for the first time during the trip, our driver pops in a cassette; Bob Marley.
I am exhausted. My sinuses are screaming. The long days of seven hours driving on bumpy roads with detours around flooded out roads have not been enhanced by our roadside meals. My travel pal Tali , toughened by her service in the Israeli army, bounds out of our sand covered vehicle at the roadside tourist restaurants along the way and invariably orders raw salad with fresh squeezed orange juice. Terrified of contracting the North African version of Montezuma’s Revenge, I stick to bread, mint tea, and coke. This zero protein all sugar, flour, yeast all the time diet is doing nasty things to my body and my mind. Tali seems to finds it hilarious when, at each stop, I make a point of ordering my Coke without ice; as if ice is actually available at these remote desert pit stops.
Was it worth it? I wonder at 5:05 a.m. as we step outside into total darkness. I had planned this outing to coincide with the full moon, but no moon or stars are shining. Not an auspicious beginning. We are bundled up in thermal underwear, sweaters and jackets to protect us from the pre dawn cold desert air.
A four-wheel drive maneuvers around damp sand dunes taking us well into the desert. Suddenly, the car’s headlights cut through the darkness illuminating the two most beautiful, perfectly groomed camels I’ve ever seen. Both are blond, one with straight hair, the other curly, and are accompanied by our two amicable Berber guides, Mohammed and Abdul.
I am gliding silently through the dunes on the warm back of my camel, his long serpent- like neck in the center of all vistas, as the sun rises above the dunes.
My guide instructs me to lean backwards whenever we ride down dunes. This is the only conscious thought I need in my brain, and soon even this becomes instinctive. My mind feels incredibly clear; all my fears fall away. I am in the Sahara.
We dismount our camels at the foot of Erg Chebbi, an 820-foot sand dune near the Algerian border. As we begin this final climb by foot, I learn that my soft Moroccan leather slippers were a poor footwear choice. They won’t stay on. My guide offers me his enormous sandals for the climb. I refuse. I pull them off and then my socks. This is why I came here. I am walking barefoot in the Sahara!
The trip down Erg Chebbi brings me back to childhood. Our guides instruct Tali and I to sit on their rug, one behind the other, as for a sled ride. They give the front of the rug a quick hard tug and suddenly Tali and I are flying down Erg Chebbi like on a Magic Carpet Ride. When we arrive at the bottom, Mohammed and Abdul are seated on the ground solemnly unwrapping burlap packs containing round newspaper covered packages. “Hashish?” I ask hopefully. But no, this is not 1960’s Morocco. Each package contains rocks, minerals, and fossils they have collected in the desert. It’s a shopping opportunity.
I am immediately attracted to a pale grey and sand colored rock that reminds me of a clamshell. When I pick it up, it feels cool and smooth with gentle ridges. I had noticed that the sand in the Sahara is not the pure white I imagined in childhood dreams, but instead is a pale fine reddish brown. The rock is cleanly sliced in two; its insides are gorgeous shell-like marbleized spirals of the true colors of the Sahara.