There are moments when you travel, when you just sit down, observe your surroundings, and say to yourself: “I’m in a totally different part of the world. I’m far away from home.” You don’t feel it as much when you’re in a city, surrounded by cars and skyscrapers. You see people using cell phones and shopping at stores. While it all can seem different from what you’re used to- the people, the buildings, the cars all look different- there really is that hint of familiarity. For me, I feel like I’m really traveling, like I’m really far away from home, when I recognize nothing around me. I had that moment in Morocco, on a camel trek in the Sahara desert.
After a 9 hour bus ride in the middle of the night from Fez, Phil and I arrived in the small town of Hassilabied. Located just a few kilometers away from the more popular desert destination of Merzouga, Hassilabied is a small Berber village on the edge of the Sahara desert. We got off the bus around 5am and were greeted by our local guide, Mohammed, who we connected with through Couch Surfing. He led us to his home, which was made from stone and dirt, and showed us to our room. A couple of mattresses lay on the dirt floor with thick blankets covering them. Mohammed said we should get a few hours of sleep as he assumed we didn’t get a great night sleep on the bus. He was correct.
We woke around mid-morning, and went to the main part of the house to meet Mohammed and his family. They quickly sat us down at a small table in the courtyard and fed us a breakfast of bread, cheese, jam, olives, and of course, endless tea. I remember the family just smiling at Phil and I as we ate. Mohammed’s brothers also lived in the home with their families and there were 5 to 6 kids running around. We finished up eating and Mohammed wanted to show us around the village. We followed him through the dusty streets of Hassilabied, where small dirt buildings were either being assembled or falling apart. Within minutes we were at the edge of the Sahara desert. Mohammed showed us the communal farming space where each family in the village had a plot (more like a patch) of land. The plots were irrigated with a series of interconnected canals. He told us that each family takes turns using the water (by blocking off the canal with a mound of dirt), as it had been a year since it rained.
We made our way back to Mohammed’s home after a short detour through some of the smaller sand dunes at the desert’s edge. The sun was beginning to blast down on us as there was not a cloud in sight. When we arrived back at Mohammed’s home, we agreed on a plan (and a price) for him to take us into the desert by camel and spend the night. After some tea (lots of tea), and a light lunch of stewed veggies with what appeared to be tripe, Mohammed told us to get our stuff together for the trek as we would be leaving in an hour or so. Phil and I took a quick walk around the village to work off the mystery meat stew and returned to pack a small bag for our night in the desert.
Around 4pm we met Mohammed and our camels outside his home. Our camels were named Bob Marley, both of them. The 5 of us (including both Bobs) headed back through town toward the desert’s edge once again. Once the packed dirt road ended and the sand began, Phil and I mounted our camels. Mohammed led us in front by foot, guiding the camels with a rope. The further away we got from the village, the deeper the sand became. The dunes began to double and triple the size. Soon Hassilabied was no longer in sight, as we made our way up and down the vast sand valleys, deeper and deeper into the Sahara.
After an hour or so of ball busting and ass cramping on the camel, we began to approach the tented campsite. The sun was slowly beginning fall behind us, and Mohammed had guaranteed us the most amazing sunset we’d ever seen. Once we arrived at the camp site, which was already set up (this wasn’t Mohammed’s first camel trek), we unloaded from the camels and threw our stuff into our tent. To prevent the Bobs from running away in the night, Mohammed tied one of legs of each camel at the knee, so they stood on 3 feet. Mohammed told Phil and I to go explore the dunes around us. He pointed to one of the taller ones, and said we should go climb it and watch the sunset. After the sunset, we would head back to camp and have some tajine for dinner.
With the warm sand between our toes, Phil and I ascended dune after dune until we found ourselves atop the large one Mohammed suggested. As the sun was setting, the sand turned a different color every few minutes. From the top of our dune, we could just barely make out our campsite and further in the distance, the village of Hassilabied. We jumped around the dunes, crashing into the warm sand. The sun began to move further down toward the horizon. We sat there and watched each second of it. Mohammed did not embellish his statement one bit- it was the most amazing sunset I have ever witnessed. I sat there, with my feet buried in the sand, my turban wrapped around my head, surrounded by a landscape I had never known to be so beautiful. The sand began to turn red as the sun moved to the horizon. The thin, sharp lines that formed the tops of the dunes combined with the endless unmarked red sand was something otherworldly to me.
We made our way back to camp with just enough light to follow our trail of footprints. I saw the Bobs tri-podding around, trying to run away I assumed. We were joined at the camp by another party of campers, who would stay the night at our site with their guide. We all dined on tajine of chicken, eggplant, carrots, potatoes, and onions with lots of bread to soak everything up with. The night was spent playing traditional Berber instruments and singing in the tent. Instruments and songs I’d never seen or heard before, in the middle of the Sahara desert, a place I’d never expected to be. Before I went to bed, I walked out to the dunes once more. I remember looking out at the stars as I brushed my teeth. The moon was so bright that it actually obscured the constellations. I observed the silhouettes of the dunes in the night sky, and noticed the sand glistening in the moonlight. I felt far away from home.
If you are in Morocco, and wish to camel trek or take tours around the country, look no further than my friend Mohammed. I recommend him big time! Visit his website: www.seearoundmorocco.com