Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Morocco - Deep into the Sahara

That afternoon, our 4X4 was loaded up and we enthusiastically jumped in to head out to the Erg Chigaga dunes. Our enthusiasm lasted all but 5 minutes as reality sunk in that we had a very long two hours ahead of us on extremely bumpy roads. After only 10 minutes, we lost the tracks and had to circle back to town to get our bearings and reestablish the route. It made us appreciate the hard life of the bedouin nomads, who travel for months on end with very little by way of landmarks out in the open desert. The kids were already starting to complain about being tossed around like rag dolls in the back seat. After about 20 minutes, I started to seriously question the wisdom of continuing further. Suzanne was giving me the evil eye and Kellen was starting to feel carsick in the back. Perhaps we should have just opted for the 1 hour camel ride!?! I was just on the verge of asking Hammadi to turn around and cut our losses when the road started to get better and we all started to settle down. As we got closer, things started looking up, as the dunes were even more spectacular than I had envisioned. The tallest dune in Erg Chigaga is over 300 M tall and the dunes seem to run as far as the eye could see. We passed a few tent camps along the way, but overall things were pretty desolate out in the desert. When we finally arrived at our camp, we were shocked to see it was much more than some tents in the sand – there were about 15 adobe structures with thick blankets on top and the camp itself was very comfortable, with a big dining area with berber carpets on the sand and plenty of couches and pillows for lounging around. They even had flush toilets and sinks with running water! It turned out that we were the only guests staying in camp that night and basically had a crew of 5 staff taking care of the 5 of us! The sun was getting low in the sky and bathed everything in a warm, golden light. We wasted no time venturing out to the dunes before dinner. I had my eye set on the tallest one, but it seemed too far away. As we started walking on the dunes, it became challenging to do in shoes, and we all ended up taking off our shoes to let the super fine, warm red sand sift between our toes. The winds which had been blowing all morning stopped in the afternoon, leaving the dunes with an amazingly smooth, untouched texture – which almost resembled a perfect powder day in the mountains (albeit with “red snow”!). For lack of a better term, we were “giddy” with delight running up one dune and tumbling down to the next. Sand was getting everywhere, but nobody seemed to mind. Suzanne and I both agreed that this definitely goes on the list of one of the coolest life experiences we have ever had, and it certainly made up for the rough 4X4 ride. Before we knew it, the largest dune was directly in front of us and we scrambled to the summit and enjoyed the sunset in relative silence, save for the shouting of our 3 kids, awed by the vast expanse of the Sahara stretching out for hundreds of miles around us. We returned to the camp by nightfall, exhausted and extremely satisfied as we enjoyed a bottle of wine and a chicken tangine (okay, I forgave them this time, given our fantastic experience!). Christian promptly fell asleep on the couch and Casey on my lap as the staff started a fire and began singing traditional bedouin songs to the hypnotic beat of drums and empty 10 gallon paint cans. In many ways, I found this to be similar to chants of native American Indians and was mesmerized by the concert. Finally, we could not keep our eyes open any longer, and collapsed in our tent. In spite of our exhaustion and the comfortable setting, it was difficult to sleep, first because of the heat radiating off the desert floor and the absolute silence around us, and later by the sound of sand grains pelting against our tent as the winds picked up in the middle of the night. I finally got up at 5 am to find everything and everyone covered with a super-fine layer of silt. I decided to head back to the dunes to enjoy the sun rising over the Sahara in solitude. It was a magical experience and I found myself overwhelmed with appreciation and awe for being able to experience this and so many other amazing things on this adventure year. Sure, things haven’t always gone as planned and we’ve hit bumps and setbacks along the way, but moments like this make it all worthwhile. I made my way back to camp to find the boys up and running around, so back to the dunes we went, looking for dried up animal bones and tumbling down the dunes yet again. Suzanne and Casey joined us shortly after and we enjoyed playing together before breakfast before our trek back to M’Hamid. The ride home was not nearly as painful as the ride out, perhaps because we were more prepared, but also, because I think Hammadi found a better route out.

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