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Sitting atop camels with knobby knees and yellowed choppers, our group of young travellers trekked single file into Eastern Morocco’s Sahara desert.
The scene was very Lawrence Of Arabia: Camel caravans, white gossamer head scarves and a setting apricot sun casting shadow puppets onto nearby sand dunes.
This was day one of a two-day camel trek through Erg Chebbi, a giant dune near the scruffy little town of Merzouga. Boasting some of the largest sand dunes in all of Morocco, Erg Chebbi draws adventurous tourists looking for an alternative to the bustling souks of Marrakech.
After a few hours commute by camelback, we arrived at camp. It wasn’t much more than a few thin woven mats scattered in the sand but I made myself comfortable. I plopped down and chugged back a glass of so-called Berber Whiskey, a fancy name for simple mint tea.
While waiting for dinner, I grabbed the sheepskin drum I’d purchased in Marrakech. Ali, our English speaking guide — who answered “fantastic plastic” to just about everything — showed me some moves.
As he demonstrated a few simple rhythms, I followed clumsily. My hands flopped around like goldfish out of water. Clearly, I needed some practice.
As his hands swept over the instrument, he hollered “Africa!” The rest of us clapped to the rhythm and danced around the candlelit tables. “Africa!” we chimed in. This was a raging nightclub — desert style.
Our drumming circle was put on hold when a teenage boy emerged from the kitchen tent carrying platters of steaming couscous, chicken tajine and vegetables. Lacking cutlery, we dug in with sandy fingers.
Post dinner, Ali proposed a pleasant stroll up one of the sand dunes. He slung my drum over his shoulder and led us up the giant hill.
Within minutes, my heart was pumping and I was feeling the burn. Bare feet sinking into the sand, I lagged behind the rest of the group. The wind started to howl. The sand stung my eyes. Our pleasant post-dinner stroll had turned into a mid-sandstorm death march.
The boy who served us dinner offered me his arm and asked, in French, if I was ok.
Wheezing, heart pounding, skin tingling from the snarls of sand that whipped across my face, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.
I abandoned my pride and clung desperately to the tiny teen. We locked arms and he guided me along the edge of the dune.
The view from the top was worth all temporary suffering. It was a magical scene: A vast desert plain, tiny twinkling lights from the camp below and a bright full moon overhead. Our group plunked down in the sand, talked philosophy, tapped on the drum and made full-body sand angels. It was one of those peaceful perfect nights.
My mind was calm and I felt connected with nature. I guess camping in Morocco’s desert will do that to a girl.
Back at camp, I spread my thin woven mat in the sand, curled up and fell asleep beneath the stars.
In the words of our guide Ali, my camel trek experience truly was “fantastic plastic.”
Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.