Life in the Sahara | Volunteering in a desert camp

The red gorges and rocky desert scenery soon vanished as our bus drove into the night and we were left in darkness. The road ended at the small Saharan town of M’hamid which lies 24km from the Algerian border. It was 9.30pm and we were greeted by a rather unwelcoming chap named Ahmed, who would be our host while volunteering in his desert camp. He was wearing a large, kharki shesh (turban) and led us to what he called ‘The Sahara Taxi’, but what everyone else would call a tuktuk. We only had to travel 1km but it was dark and we didn’t have any other option so after some failed bartering we paid too much for a very bumpy ride to the camp. We quickly left the tarmac and had a huge bump down the curb onto the dirt track. The dirt soon changed to hard sand and we watched the village lights fade away into the distance and stars fill the sky above us. We arrived at the camp where three dogs were going crazy and barking at the tuktuk man. They seemed to like us instantly though and suddenly Sheila, a beautiful blonde dog jumped up on me, resting her hard paws on my chest.

Ahmed led us across the sand to our accommodation which was a small mud hut. He lit a candle and gave us a couple seconds to look at the blanket and pillows on the floor before swiping his hand over the candle like a magician and leaving us in darkness. We were amazed how warm the hut was at night compared to the cool outside temperature. Ahmed then led us to the main hut which had a rustic kitchen and dining area with low tables and filthy mats on the floor to sit on. Five tourists were already at the camp, three Americans, a French girl and an Italian girl, so we joined them on the floor and played some card games under candle light.

I didn’t sleep a wink that first night. The ‘mattress’ (if you can even call it that) was so old that the middle section had flattened to a sheet of foam as thin as paper so the hard ground made all my bones ache. I was up at 7am, way before everyone else, but I was excited to see our surroundings. It actually wasn’t as beautiful as I expected, there were dunes all around but they were small and undramatic. I decided to sit in the warm sunshine and do my journal. Sheila soon came to say hi, this time putting her paws up on my lap. It was a really windy morning and I tried my best to grin and bear it but there was sand blowing everywhere. My eyes were so sore and instead of sleep they had piles of sand in the corners, even my face and neck were covered in sand. I seeked refuge in the main hut and Ahmed gave me a shot of tea, because that seems to be the size they drink in the desert, strong, sweet and small. I handed the empty glass back and began wiping the sand off my face and Ahmed said “no wind, no Sahara”.

The rest of the group finally woke up and we got together for an omelette breakfast and luke-warm tea and then we began our first day of work. The camp consisted of 6 sleeping huts, the kitchen/dining hut, an open sided communal area hut, three unfinished huts and my least favourite one – the Saharan bathroom. It was a really nasty toilet. The floor at the entrance was covered in sand and then a little room had a really gross squatter toilet which didn’t seem to have a porcelain finish to it, so it seemed to absorb the poop and piss. There was also an overflowing bin of poo paper…am I selling this lifestyle to anyone yet?! And then there were lots of bottles of water which were to be used to flush the loo. I have absolutely no idea where it all flowed to though. There was also a sink with no running water or pipe leading nowhere, so I feel sorry for any newbies who spit their toothpaste in the sink and it lands on their feet. In the centre of the camp was a firepit and a very bizarre feature; a quirky village style lamppost – minus any electricity.

I was really excited that our first day involved making bricks from mud and sand. There was absolutely no instruction on how to make them but the Americans had been doing them for two days and had basically experimented with quantities. There was a big muddy pit, pre-filled with water from the well and we had to find an area that wasn’t totally flooded, and then we could hack at the ground with a spade. Beneath the first foot or so of sand was mud and we needed a small amount of that mixed with the sand. The fun began when we stomped on the muddy, squelchy mix to combine it all together, it was freezing cold but if I closed my eyes I could quite easily imagine myself in a barrel of grapes in southern France. My favourite part though was carrying handfuls of mud to the brick mould where we had to throw it down, using gravity to spread it in all the corners. While I did the bricks Craig helped the girls make a floor using the same mix. I couldn’t believe how professional it looked when they were done, it was a few inches thick and so flat and smooth on top like fresh concrete. But this was Saharan concrete!

We only had to work three hours and then we had the rest of the day to relax. I was excited to play with all the dogs, along with Sheila was a very handsome, fox coloured dog called Jack, and a rather scruffy girl called Weezer. Weezer was actually a new addition to camp and it’s a really sad story…there used to be a leader dog of the camp and a couple months ago he came back to camp with his new girlfriend, Weezer. Sadly the boy ate poison while in the village and he passed away, but Weezer stayed at the camp and to everyone’s surprise gave birth to four puppies. She actually gave birth in the new toilet block being built, and the puppies were all huddled up in a corner. They were fat little things, but very shy of humans so i’m hoping they’ll come and socialise soon. There was also a cat at the camp. I really hated that cat. I think she was a schizophrenic because after lovingly sitting on someone’s lap she’d lash out and scratch them. I also hated how she’d made her toilet our social hut. So we’d all be playing cards on the wicker mats and the cat would start digging a hole on the sand behind the mat and take a shit which would fill the air with stinky cat faeces.

Everyone left camp that day except for us and one girl. Craig and I managed to move huts into what I’ll call the honeymoon suite as it was luxury compared to our first hut. It even had a raised double bed made from mud and sand, sarongs draped across the ceiling and much to my excitement, a mattress approximately 1 inch thick. The puppies were making a right racket all night, crying and whining until we woke the next day. When we checked on them one puppy was missing!! We had a look around but couldn’t spot her so we cracked onto brick making and then I heard the noise again, but it sounded closer. I looked around and spotted a puppies face poking out a gutter in the ground! The poor thing had fallen through a hole in the unfinished bathroom and followed the gutter out.

We spent our afternoons exploring the surrounding dunes with Sheila and Jack. One day we found a beautiful area right by camp with some sizeable dunes all beautifully rippled from the wind. A Swiss guy called Pino joined the camp the next day while the Italian girl left and we had a new job of making a roof using sticks. It was a really tedious job trying to sift through the canes looking for straight ones and then tightly tying them all together. This was my least favourite job at the camp and our hands were covered in splinters and cuts afterwards. We also helped watering palm trees – they bury plastic bottles with pierced holes next to the palms and the top of the bottle is raised out the ground so we can fill it with water. Talking of water, there was a pump system on a well and it was always a disorganised affair when we had to fill the bottles. So much water would come out the pump and Ahmed never gave us any notice so we’d be frantically unscrewing the lids of the bottles while he demanded we speed up. We just had to laugh because we were volunteering, not working, I was having fun whether he liked it or not. Sadly the water from the well was salty so not ideal to wash in but on day four we walked into the village and paid for a shower in a hotel, boy did that feel good! We’d originally said we would stay at the camp for two weeks but that seemed unlikely now. It wasn’t quite what we expected, and there wasn’t much work involved so we soon realised that it wasn’t about volunteering, but actually just a business to make money. We only paid a small fee of €5 each a day to cover our food costs but it was a bit of an eye opener compared to other volunteering jobs we’d done.

The volunteers would all eat together out of a communal bowl and it was always messy as the distance from our mouth to the bowl was so far apart. We soon became accustomed to seeing glistening tagine juice on our shins and finding cous cous balls stuck to our trousers. Occasionally we’d be served soup, which usually looked like a bowl of vomit, and that was the most challenging food to balance on a spoon to our mouths. One day a few members of Ahmed’s family came to the camp and the ladies cooked us fresh bread and some interesting tagines. One of which was pigeon! It was funny because we’d seen two white pigeons hanging around camp and the hosts feeding them bread – now it all made sense!

Occasionally we’d see a nomad walking past our camp with a camel train and we’d run into the dunes trying to get a photo. The dogs would bark at any camels and could vanish for hours chasing them into the desert. One day 3 camels ran past our camp which was a rare sight, and soon a nomad came running past our camp too. They’d escaped from the village and we couldn’t help but cheer for them “FREEEEEDOM!”. Ahmed was quick to get on his motorbike, pick up the nomad and help him find his camels. They came back empty handed, so that’s about €6000 running around the Sahara now.

I think Ahmed was going through a bad patch when we first arrived as after a few days he really came out of his shell and we grew to love him. I don’t know what happened one night but Craig and Pino had the total giggles and they were so contagious that I joined in too. The simplest of things had us three in hysterics and then a new guy called Jack from England arrived at the camp and we must of looked like we were all high on drugs. I can’t imagine flying straight from London to Marrakesh and then sitting on a 10 hour bus, arriving at night to a camp in the desert and seeing us three crying of laughter. It only got worse though, because we asked Jack how long he was planning on staying at the camp and he said two to three weeks and we all roared with laughter. Ahmed and Brahim, the other host, were both in a funny mood too. I asked Brahim what the cooks name was as I still hadn’t found out. The cook didn’t speak English but Brahim looked at him and said “his name is…Ali Baba” and the cook shot daggers at Brahim and we all laughed. “Ok ok….you can just call him Baba” and again the cook looked furious to be called this and we all laughed even more as Brahim was winding the old man up. So Baba it was.

The next day was Pino’s birthday and the guys went all out buying him a huge cake and singing a Saharan version of happy birthday using water tanks as drums and a guitar. The cake was surprisingly good and we all ate under candle light. It was 9pm so we figured that the cake was our dinner – but afterwards a big dish of rice came out. What a weird order to do it in. We moved outside to the firepit, listening to some beautiful songs about the Sahara. They were giving it so much effort with every song, it was a great night! Occasionally I’d look up and focus my eyes on the sky and watch shooting stars. The stars weren’t the best we’d ever seen, but they were pretty damn good and the Milky Way was just about visible. Things were feeling pretty good now at camp and we were enjoying life in the Sahara more and more everyday.

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