A Night with Nomads in the Sahara Desert

Squashed in the back of a small Toyota with three fellow backpackers, I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake. We were being driven across the arid land of Morocco, away from Uarzazat in the centre-east of the country and towards the expansive Sahara desert in a car driven by two strangers. Arabic music blared from the radio and although our guides sang at the top of their lungs, we sat in silence, unable to join in with the foreign lyrics.

We had been looking for a guide in Uarzazat and an assistant at a tourist’s office had offered us a great deal on a camel trek and night in a nomad encampment. Squashed in the back of the Toyota, it was painfully clear the assistant had not booked us the deal through any agency, but rather had decided to go rogue with a friend and start offering and operating packages themselves. My three friends and I were sat in the back of their car.

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Riding a camel across the Sahara Desert, South Eastern Morocco

Slowly the road became sandier and it appeared we were far enough from civilisation for the edge of the Sahara desert to appear. I wouldn’t have expected it to be so abrupt but that it is. There is a road on one side, and sand dunes begin on the other. The car stopped and we piled out, grateful to stretch our legs. The late-afternoon sun still beat down strongly on the back of our necks.

A lone man approached us, pulling along two camels. He looked distinctly unhappy to see us. He spoke rapidly and angrily to our two guides, who turned to us with fake smiles plastered across their faces. The camels could only carry one person each, so they were hoping the two male travellers would be willing to walk across the desert so the two female travellers could ride the camels. None too pleased at the idea, the men protested. Begrudgingly, our guides paid the man some extra money and two more camels were swiftly brought to us. We mounted rapidly, as the nomad had told us it was imperative we made it to camp before nightfall. We waved a cheerful goodbye to our guides, happy to be rid of them and excited to trek across the desert.

As soon as we crossed the first dune, we lost sight of all civilisation. Our nomad guide was rather taciturn, so we rode in silence admiring our surroundings. The sight from the top of sand dunes was impressive, as they stretched as far as the eye could see. Vegetation grew sparser as we rode deeper in to the desert, though we spotted some wild camels chewing on the few springs of bush they could find.

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On my way to the nomad camp

After around two hours of travelling, we finally arrived at the nomad camp. Five or six multicoloured tents were pitched in a huddle. One was a kitchen and the other were sleeping tents. There were no bathrooms and there was no running water. We dismounted excitedly and chatted while our guide prepared a Moroccan dinner: chicken and couscous.

Suddenly whilst eating, nightfall dropped. The expression pitch black is overused, but fitting for the pure darkness of the desert, unadulterated by street lights, neighbouring houses and car headlights. There is only the light of the millions of stars overhead shining brightly. My companions and I climbed to the top of the nearest dune, terrified of stepping on a snake and not daring to go any further in case we got lost and never found our way back to camp. At the top of the dune I sat on the cold sand staring at the beautiful round moon. The silence was astounding. After a while the temperature dropped drastically and I climbed back down the dune and into the pile of thick blankets laid on top of a mattress that was to be my bed.

Around 5am a hand shook me awake to see the sunrise. Being a grouch I protested for a good ten minutes before realising what an opportunity I would miss if I slept in. I sat wrapped in some of the tent’s blankets on top of the same dune as the previous evening, watching an enormous red sun slowly rise over the Sahara Desert.

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