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Traveling to the Moroccan Sahara Desert

The more Ivan smoked, the more stoned I got…

Ivan was another long-term road junky who happened to have gone to university in my home town in England. He’d hung around with some old friends of mine and so we had an instant connection. He’d come to Morocco to get himself and everyone else around him happily stoned. Interestingly, he had with him a 5 kilo Yucatan hammock he’d brought from Mexico . In the next two weeks we travelled together in this arid desert land Ivan was forever on the lookout for two trees close enough together that he might be able to use the damn thing.

Arriving on the edge of the Sahara we fell out of the bus after a bruising night of shunting around on impossible seats. Every joint in our bodies felt like it had been expertly beaten up. We headed down to the market to get some supplies and found 100 stalls each selling dates. I wondered whether a passing vegetable salesman would have cleaned up. How was it possible for so many people to subsist on one commodity alone?

As I pondered this I looked down and saw a 50 Dutch Guilders note on the dusty ground by my foot. It seemed the most unlikely place to just find money at random and I quickly worked out that it did in fact belong to me; my money belt had burst and my world wealth of around 300 bucks in Guilders was slipping down my trouser leg and into the desert. Much to the amusement of the traders I proceeded to conduct a kind of one-legged dance as I hopped around trying to recover my funds without making a indecent display in public. Had I not looked down at the ground in that moment there would have been a mass stampede for my cash.

Back at the taxi stand in this dull town we waited around for a few other backpackers to show so we could share the costs of driving out to where the dunes started. One of the drivers with the look of an ex heavy-weight boxer grew impatient.

“So what’s going on? You want to stay here all day?” He bellowed. With the lack of sleep and growing heat I snapped:

“Is it your problem if we do?”

“You want to hear about my problems?” He threatened. I looked away and wondered in just how many seconds he could put me in hospital. Of course, I was imagining things; there were no hospitals out this far in the sticks. A tense atmosphere prevailed for a minute or so and I could hear him scowling. Finally I just walked right over to him and stretched out my hand:

“Forgive me. I am sorry if I caused offence.”

He looked up at me, stunned. Emotion flooded his face and he grabbed my hand enthusiastically:

“You’re a very good man. We will play music together in the desert – I am the best drummer here.” Now the best of friends, he stood up and argued with an acquaintance until he got us a taxi at discount price and we were on our way to the sands.

We arrived at a concrete guesthouse in the middle of nowhere but on the edge of the dunes. The setting was spectacular; in the scale of things the dunes were probably quite small but it still took a good ten minutes to climb them as our feet sunk with every step. On the top of every ridge the fine sand formed a perfectly straight line before sloping down the other side.

From the top the shadows of the dunes cast a shifting web of shades across the sands as the sun coasted across the afternoon sky. Other than the dancing lights and the tumbling grains of sands there was so little to see that you got the same sensation as being far out to sea. The undulating dunes and ridges were sculpted by the wind over centuries and it looked as though an ocean had been frozen in time and turned into sand. In one of the driest regions of the world all I could see was water.

And, just as when you’re far out to sea, the surface was so uniform that every single feature stood out a mile; a black beetle popping out of a dune was enough to occupy your attention from twenty metres away. Life as the exception here rather than the rule.

The dunes grew ever more beautiful as the day matured into a sunset that turned the sands amber and then pink. Darkness fell fast and a wind inevitably kicked up, making the desert feel a very hostile place to be. But then the full moon rose and again the dunes were transformed into a place of magic; everything was daubed in hues of blue and I could not remember having seen anything as beautiful anywhere on the planet.

The only drawback about where we stayed were the fifteen or so Bedouin that hung out there. Probably they were cousins of the owner and he had no choice but to let them mope around annoying the guests. With the advent of cars the Bedouin days have lost most of the master of the desert they once possessed but much of their character remains intact. They were vulgar opportunists and I thought of Wilfred Thesiger who had spent so much time with the Bedouin in Arabia:

“In my more bitter moments, I thought that Bedouin life was one long round of cadging and being cadged from.”

They wasted no time in getting to know us and trying to borrow a few dirhams. They asked if we really needed the sleeping bags we carried and if we didn’t feel like leaving them behind when we left. And surely I could buy another guitar for myself once I returned back home? They couldn’t rob us whilst we were under the shelter and thus protection of the guesthouse but we had the feeling that was all that held them back.

The next a group of English tourists turned up to go on a camel trek to a nearby oasis. Ivan and I let them get just out of sight and then set out into the desert behind them, following their camel tracks while the sunlight held. We caught up with the party just after nightfall and their Bedouin guide had already put dinner on the fire.

“Salaam Aleikum!” We called, arriving like two wanderers in from the desert.

“Aleikum salaam.” The guide smiled. He was cool and knew as well as us that no Bedouin could ever refuse hospitality to guests in the desert. I’m not sure that the English tourists quite caught on but anyway their culture prevented them from complaining even if they wanted to.

Dinner was cooked camel meat and it was as tough as we imagined it would be. The tourists had nothing interesting to say for themselves and so Ivan and I raced up a dune face to watch the rising of the full moon. Hyper-ventilating we reached the top ten minutes later just in time to watch the silver orb pull itself clear of the horizon and take command of the sky. Then we made our bed around the fire and the desert made one of the safest camps I could have imagined.

We almost paid the price for our cheek the next morning as left the camel trekkers and took a short cut back to the guesthouse. We’d climbed and descended two dunes when it suddenly occurred to us we didn’t know where we were. The sun was rising fast and in each direction the view looked much the same.

“I think we’re lost.” I said and turned around to see Ivan finish the last of the water. We collapsed in hysterics at the thought of dying of thirst in the Sahara. It was too funny be true. Delusions setting in it took us the better part of the morning to find the guesthouse and we arrived dehydrated and sunburnt. A source of great amusement for the resident Bedouin.

The latter were pissing us off too much by now and it was time to get going. Of course we were once again at the mercy of the taxi drivers who now wanted double what it cost to get here in the first place. They didn’t know where Hungary was but they had no doubt that I could afford it.

“Ha! He is from England.” One of the drivers sniffed. “He make big money there.”

Ivan tried a different tactic.

“Yes, he is from England and it is a rich country.” He agreed. “But he is very stupid so he has no money.”

This logic seemed to appeal to them -they were able to compromise on the price and insult the other party in the process.