Vehicle breakdowns and camel rides in the Sahara desert

Even though we were volunteering in the Sahara, we still wanted to see the main draw card of the area which was Erg Chigaga – the largest sea of sand in Morocco. I also wanted to go on a camel ride and our camp arranged a pretty good price for an overnight trip at €70 each. It was way over our budget but we’ve saved a lot of money by staying for free at the camp and I wanted to see the biggest dunes Morocco had to offer.

There were four of us on the trip, Pino the Swiss, Jack the Brit, and us. Our jeep driver was a jolly chap named Idyea, who was wearing a big black turban with gold glitter through it. I love the over-sized turbans which are about 10m long. Ahmed joked (I think it was a joke) that his was only 7m long, it used to be 10m but he cuts bits off occasionally to wipe tables with – now I think about it it must’ve been a joke, the tables were never fucking wiped clean.

So, we set off, first going through the village to pick up water and then stopping at an area of mud houses, rows and rows of them, it was a bit like a counsel estate made of mud. With a big smile Idyea said “Nomad come too, is OK?” So of course everyone smiled and the nomad was put in the open truck at the back sat atop his sack of dates to feed his camels. We then left the tarmac and instantly hit sand. It was fun driving along the sand and swerving over thick areas. There was a large oasis to our left as we climbed up and down what seemed to be a sandy rally course. Idyea kept stopping at really dull areas saying we can stop for a photo. I was sat in the front and not interested in a photo so I stayed put and Idyea gave my leg a couple of slaps, like we were old pals. Then he asked if I was happy, “yes yes, happy thank you” then he touched my watch “nice, nice!” and attempted to touch my necklace to compliment that too but I managed to swing my head back, let out an uncomfortable giggle and search for the door handle so I could escape and join the lads outside. We were encouraged to take some group photos so we did so and Idyea’s creepy hand stroked my arm, eww. He also said the nomad was uncomfortable in the back and asked if could he sit inside the car, so the poor guys were squeezed in like sardines…oh sardines….you’ll find out about them soon.

We were driving through the Sahara and yet it looked nothing like I imagined it to. It was like driving over the moon, and just grey, rocky ground with a very distant view of the dunes. The car began really revving and I could hear the boys commenting behind me that Idyea didn’t seem to know how to drive and he wasn’t releasing his foot off the clutch. There was an intense smell of burning rubber and smoke coming from the car too and I was starting to get worried. We then began struggling to get up simple sand ramps and I had a peek down to his pedals, his foot wasn’t touching the clutch, therefore the car was fucked. As we crawled along an area surrounded by dry rocks the car finally gave up and just stopped. It had totally lost its gears as the clutch had gone, the engine would start but it wouldn’t drive so one of the guys said “good job we bought that extra water with us”.

We made a few attempts at pushing the car to get it into gear but it didn’t work so we just had to wait while Idyea made a phone call on his ancient mobile. It didn’t even have any buttons and he noticed my amused face when I watched him using the pointy end of a paper clip to dial a number and he let out a smirk. So, we took in our surroundings, of the last place we might see before we died in the Sahara; just a rocky desert floor, a faint dirt road and the odd tree. Then I looked at what we had to survive on; the sack of dates were for camels so probably poor quality, plus they have a laxative effect, so I wouldn’t want to survive off them – on the plus side there was a couple months supply of toilet paper in the back so it kind of solves the diarrhoea issue. There was a crate of eggs but no way to cook them, bread and some vegetables. As if on cue Idyea asked if we were hungry and we all perked up at the idea of eating. He made us sit on the gravel floor in the cool shade of the car as he (as have other Moroccans) said the winter sun is the most dangerous. Idyea peeled open a tin of stinky sardines and Pino’s penknife was used to distribute them, handing them out like there was no tomorrow. It was quite windy and hard to make sandwiches with dust blowing around, so we suggested moving into the car but Idyea was quick to say no to this saying the sardines were too smelly for the car. He continued to make the sandwiches, pouring sardine oil into the bread, adding the rank, floppy fish and offering it to the guys with hands absolutely dripping in sardine oil. Every few minutes he’d offer everyone more sardines and the whole sardine situation became very humorous and we were all in hysterics. Meanwhile I made myself a sandwich with cheese triangles, a raw pepper and a tomato but Pino’s knife was covered in fish so I had to tear wedges of tomato off with my thumb. After the giggly lunch we played cards in the back of the car and searched for fossils until help came nearly two hours later.

As if things weren’t cozy enough in our car, we now had to squeeze into a new vehicle with two extra people. We were well behind schedule and didn’t have time to stop at the oasis, but we did drop off the nomad and his sack of dates. Idyea was now sat behind me and that creepy hand kept trying to touch my shoulder so I spent the journey leaning as close to the windshield as possible. We soon began approaching the dunes which rose to our left and at about 5pm we arrived at our desert camp which was nestled amongst the dunes and much more luxurious than we’d expected. It had Berber style tents and we had our own tent with an actual bed frame and mattress! What a treat. We were supposed to go on our camel ride at sunset but we were so delayed that half the journey would be in the dark and I didn’t want it to be rushed so we told Idyea that we’d go for sunrise instead, he wasn’t happy about this but eventually agreed. We still had time to see the big dunes for sunset so asked to go sand boarding “yes you can go, just €10 rental” fuck off! We told him it was included and he reluctantly agreed and off we went.

It was tough work climbing up the dunes and along the narrow, sandy ridge-lines, but we soon made it to a really high dune with a view across to one of the highest dunes in Morocco, rising 300m. The boys were pretty successful at the sand boarding, while I sat down on the board like a kid and still managed to tumble and fall, hitting a really hard area of sand. We sat at the top of the dune and took in the beautiful surroundings. The sun was lowering and causing large shadows to form and the final sandy peaks glowed a vibrant orange colour. It became quite windy and sand was blowing in our faces so we all covered up in our turbans. It was crazy to think that with all the sand moving around, how an earth do the dunes stay in the same place, and how do certain ones stay so tall?

Surrounding us was a sea of smaller dunes, like golden waves and behind them were the Anti Atlas Mountains. It was a beautiful location to watch the sun set but the temperature drastically dropped once the sun dipped away so we ran back to camp and put more layers on.

We were served extremely bitter tea and a bowl of nuts back at camp which was a pleasant surprise. Everyone else staying at the camp looked rather wealthy like they were just on a week holiday, living in luxury every night, and then there was us four devouring the nuts and helping ourselves to more tea. We had a tasty tagine for dinner and a young Dutch girl had her birthday so the locals sung a song and gave her a ‘cake’ which was a round bread covered in fake Nutella and bananas. After Pino’s delicious birthday cake the night before it looked rather unappealing. There was a roaring campfire to sit around after dinner and the locals sung us more songs. They had proper drums and the most irritating metal castanets which drowned out most of the other noise. It was obvious that they sung to tourists every night and couldn’t really be bothered with it. I much preferred the music at out our camp with Ahmed and Baba playing water container drums. But it was still enjoyable and once it was all over we headed to the dunes to escape the light pollution so we could lie back and watch the stars. They actually weren’t as good as I’d hoped, I really expected them to blow me away here as we were in the middle of nowhere, but the sky wasn’t pure black, it was odd, so the stars weren’t popping and they looked the same as they did at our camp 60km away.

We had to wake at 6am the next day for our camel ride. It was freezing cold in the morning so I had all my layers on. As we waited for the staff to prepare the camels men sort of wandered off 20m to have their ‘discreet’ morning farts but they seemed to just echo back to camp and I heard it all. The camels were a lot smaller than the ones we rode in India, but of course once we were hoisted up into the air they seemed rather sizeable. I was wearing flip flops with woolly socks and my feet were frozen so I had to tuck the shoes into the seat and try to find some of the camels warm, belly-fur to rest my feet on. A man walked ahead, leading our little camel train through the dunes, it was a rather slow and unexciting ride to be honest. In India a guide sat on the back of each camel so we could go galloping through the dunes which was so much fun. But alas, I think I was too sleepy for a galloping camel even if it was offered. The sun began to hit the dunes to the right of us and slowly warmed our faces. I absolutely loved the shadows of the camels stretching across the sand beside us. I was a bit pissed off when we reached the bottom of the highest dune as the camels all stopped and we were told we had to hike up there ourselves. Why the fuck did the camels come along? To be fair it was far too steep of a dune for a camel to climb up and we were huffing and puffing when we finally reached the top and collapsed on the soft ridge-line for an amazing view across the layered dunes all around us.

Once back at camp we were served breakfast and stingy sized coffees, so when the staff left the hut we topped up all our glasses with extra orange juice and coffee. We also got to taste date syrup for the first time which was deliciously sweet. Craig wasn’t feeling too great so waited in bed until it was time to leave, he had a bit of a temperature and I don’t think the early start or cold weather helped him. We still didn’t have our vehicle so were back in the temporary car and the driver really wanted to get home in time for lunch. We were flying through the Sahara like we were being filmed for a Top Gear show. 100kmh on a dirt track is pretty crazy, especially when the car doesn’t have any seat belts. It certainly wasn’t our cheapest tour but we really enjoyed ourselves, even with the car breaking down and Idyea being a bit of a pervert.

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