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Notes from the Sahara Retreat, Morocco 2011

It couldn’t have gone better.

I walked down the street of the Moroccan town of Erfoud, one day before the Sahara Retreat was due to start and not a road junky in sight. Had they all missed the bus? Had there been massive snowfalls overnight in Europe and all the planes got grounded? I had their money in the bank so where the hell were they?

They were, of course, waiting for me in the rundown hotel with cold water showers and fetid toilets where I had spent the past week negotiating for camels and carpets for our five days in the desert. A motley bunch of travelers of all ages and backgrounds, they’d all made friends on the 12 hour bus ride from Marrakech and I was late for the party.

The Retreat

It’s a dangerous thing, having an idea. Especially if you happen to be in a position to publish it. People start believing in it and before you know what’s going on it’s up to you to make it a reality. 2 travelers had even flown in from the US to head out to the dunes with us and now it rested on my shoulders to make sure that the retreat was worth it.

Well, only partly on my shoulders as the dunes themselves did more than half the work. As Richard Burton said about the desert, where do we hear of a traveler being disappointed by it?

The Moroccans I had arranged to drive us out to the dunes were typically late and as it turned out they didn’t have licences to take tourists, we had to drive across the desert gravel for an hour, everyone packed in to the rattling metal shells as we left one reality behind to enter another.

I had planned to take everyone on a 3 hour trek to reach the camp but at the sight of the gasping lungs after they’d climbed the first set of dunes I decided on the short cut. The camels had gone ahead carrying the bags and now everyone was learning how when you climb dunes you take two steps forwards and one step back.

We stayed in some tents made of a wooden frame with blankets wrapped around them and a camel hair canopy, plenty of mattresses and blankets to go round – something that ended up with a huge cuddle puddle of travelers sleeping out under the stars on successive nights.

The Magic of the Desert

We had an opening circle to introduce ourselves and there were polite nods when I told everyone that just being in the desert was like meditation, that the space and the silence and looming horizons would take them deep inside without even trying.

That had always been my experience of the desert and why I had organised the retreat in the first place and it was touching to see how that same feeling grew on people as the days passed – tears streamed down more than one face as we sat on top of a high dune at sunset and the full moon rose at the same time as the sun sank.

this image by Beth Allen

“I’ve never seen colours like that before.” one girl told me, overwhelmed with the beauty of the moment.

And so the days slipped by with chi kung sessions in the early morning, yoga and travel tales in the afternoon, music around the fire at night and a wild party for the full moon, everyone quite high on nothing more than cups of sweet tea.

By the evening that I made a storytelling session of tales from 1001 Nights, everyone’s restlessness had been subdued by the emptiness of the desert and they gathered around wrapped in blankets as the moon on the wane rose above the horizon – perfect timing for the stories, the heroines of which were inevitably ‘as lovely as… the moon!’, gesturing for the fifth time towards the silver orb that prepared to flood the dunes with a nocturnal blue.

Making Magic Come True

I had spent plenty of sleepless nights leading up to the retreat wondering if enough people would come, if they would be bored in the dunes, if people would get along and for the duration of the retreat I kept one eye open at all times, making sure everyone’s needs were being met.

But things couldn’t have gone better. Beautiful friendships were formed as people chatted in the shade, others took time for themselves on long desert treks to catch a sight of Algeria in the distance and the only real complaint was that the retreat was too short.

There’s such magic when people of different backgrounds come together and share an experience like this. In the desert all the pretense dropped away, phones were turned off, intoxicants left behind and we discovered that when we go to reconnect with yourself in the company of like-minded souls, magic happens all by itself.

All photos (except one) by the talented Kristin Coomber!

Next year’s Sahara Retreat will probably be from the 6th to the 11th of February. If you’d like to be notified just drop us a line or sign up for the Road Junky newsletter.