Sahara Sunrise – Morocco Camel Safari

Pablo Time, the New Time Zone for a Sahara Sunrise

I awoke to the sound of sand in my ears and the scurrying of a beetle aggressively trying to move me or perhaps turn me into a super-size snack. For a few seconds I felt disoriented and confused and then it came back to me. I was alone, sleeping in the lee of an enormous Sahara sand dune. It was still dark out but the horizon to my east was already back-lit. I estimated that dawn was 20-30 minutes away. I flicked the persistent beetle away and began to crawl out of my camel hair blanket without dislodging anymore sand and thought about how lucky I was to be here.

It all started with a simple Internet search. I was online, in Italy, checking flights from Malaysia to Sri Lanka and decided to hop onto the Ryan Air site and see what deals were available. My first impulse was to search Pisa (a short distance from where I was staying) to Marrakesh, Morocco. I’d been to Marrakesh two prior times by land and vowed never to return, but the prospect of simply flying in tempered my resistance. A round trip ticket cost only $60 so I booked it and that is usually how my adventures begin.

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Once in Marrakesh I did the usual tourist things, but was tired of the shopping mentality very quickly. I considered my options and discovered an abundance of package tours (excursions) to the Sahara desert. Should I go it alone, as I did on my previous visits or should I chose a packaged approach? I’d met three Spanish girls the previous day that had done it independently by taking two local buses to reach Tinerhir and then finding no onward options had paid 100 Euro each for a guide and taxi to take them to the Erg Chebbi dunes. It seemed like a lot of work and quite expensive so I took the advice of my Hotel owner and spoke to his personal tour operator (AKA commissioned connection). The deal sounded good, but got even better when I met Pablo, an Argentine, living in Barcelona. He wanted to visit the great Sahara and ride a camel and agreed to join me on an excursion. Let’s face facts. Morocco is all desert, but dunes are what we visualize as desert, so dunes are what we were after. We paid our 900 DH ($110) each for the three day and two night package and start out the next day.

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Pablo turned out to be the ideal travel companion. He spoke Spanish, Italian, English, and enough French to be functional. Plus he had a burning desire to learn every language under the sun. He had been studying Arabic with friends in Barcelona and Berber with friends in Tanger over the past few weeks. He made instant friends with every local he met when he started to speak to them in broken Arabic or Berber.

We set out from the hotel early the next morning to be shuffled around the Jemaa el Fna Square a bit as people were assigned vans based on the packages they had selected. By 8 am we were comfortably seated in the front of a 17 passenger van (with 14 friendly cohorts).

The Package

Our package contained a lot of drive time (about 10 hours a day on average) but our driver was happy to stop on any impulse to let us take photos, drink tea or simply to wait for Pablo who somehow always got lost in conversations with locals or simply wandered away. It became the standing joke that we would have to search for Pablo before setting out. He became my responsibility at some stage but even I couldn’t keep tabs on him.

The first day we stopped at all the recommended roadside sights to take photos and examine trinkets and rocks. The big trade in Morocco seems to be carpets, trinkets, and rocks (real and fake). So after a long day of stops we reached our hotel in the Gorges du Dades Valley late in the evening. It was a nice place and the food was excellent, consisting of large shared clay bowls of baked stuff (called Tagines) that tasted great. We ate until immobile and sleep beckoned.

The following morning we were up early and enjoyed a full breakfast of coffee, tea and crepes (clearly the French influences were appreciated). By 8 am we were all in the van and ready to depart when I noticed that Pablo was missing. The hotel sent a boy to search for him and found him in bed. I laughed while many in the van groaned. A short wait and out came Pablo looking like a street person, dragging bags and bundles of clothing while getting dressed.

The second day was a repeat of the first with a stop at the impressive Gorges du Todra, which included a guided tour of a Berber village and tea in the home of a local who educated us about tea, carpets and rugs like vintage persian rugs, and then naturally locked the doors and tried to sell us carpets. The prices were very good but the logistics of carrying carpets around on a camel and then getting them past the ever vigilant Ryan Air staff was too daunting. The rest of the day was spent driving cross country at high speed or stopping to take photos and search for Pablo. As the sun set we were racing across the dry open plains as dunes appeared on the horizon.

We pulled into the Casbar in darkness and the shouts of the annoyed owner. Apparently we were the last group to arrive and the camels were getting restless. Without courtesy or patience the staff told us to leave all our baggage in the van, grab a day bag at most, and get on the camels. A short time later we were sitting on our dark and itchy beasts, strung out in two docile lines, waiting for Pablo. Somehow his camel had been misplaced. A boy was sent in search of a spare as we set out with Pablo following on foot. We zigzagged our way out into the dunes of the Sahara like excited children. Eventually the boy caught up to us with Pablo’s camel. Within an hour we reached our bivouac and scrambled about in the dark to claim vacant (but sand filled) tents. We then sat down to another wonderful Berber style meal in a communal tent. After the meal we were entertained by our hosts who sang strange Berber songs to the beat of their drums. It was pitch black out and none of us had thought to bring flash lights so it was quite comical to watch as people searched for friends, made new friends, or simply settled down to enjoy the music. After the singing we were told the next day’s plan was to get up early to see the sunrise over the dunes and that we would be leaving the camp at 7 am sharp to return to the Kasbah since the return journey to Marrakech would take more than 13 hours.

I went over to Pablo and asked if he wanted to join me for a climb. I told him that I was going to take one of the provided blankets and climb the giant sand dune next to the camp (a two hour venture at best). I intended to sleep on the dune so that I would be able to catch the sunrise from the top. He said he would consider the plan but I could tell he wasn’t really interested, so I set off alone. A long time later I saw that some of the camp had gone off to explore the dunes as the moon appeared over the horizon. I continued to climb towards the high summit. Well after midnight I reached the summit and then worked my way down into the lee of the crest, about 100 meters to the north. I awoke later in the night to the sound of a strange bird and immediately knew it had to be Pablo who was also learning bird languages. I called out his name and he replied from some place close but out of site due to the dunes and shadows. I rolled myself tighter in the blanket and fell back to sleep.

Now with the sky growing brighter I rolled up my gear, flicked the persistent beetle away and started back towards the dune’s summit. Sure enough, I spotted Pablo making his way to the same place. It turns out he was sleeping a short distance from me on the other side of the crest. We joined up at the summit, took photos and then sat and enjoyed the moment. We were the only two on the high dunes. As the sun rose the world caught fire, the dunes turned orange and then pink, and Pablo stood and spoke hushed words that stayed with me. He said, “This is the best sunrise of my life!” I smiled and felt the cold sand beneath me and the warmth of the sun instantly heating the air. The moments stretched out and eventually the sun cleared the horizon. We were in full daylight while down below the camp was still dark. Eventually we were pulled back to the world of people and I stood to make my way down to the camp. By the time I reached camp most of the other groups had already left. I gathered my things and then sat on my camel as our group waited patiently for Pablo, who was still in the dunes. In time we spotted him strolling down the slope. He wasn’t in a hurry and was clearly still running on timeless Pablo time.

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