Saturday, January 12, 2013

In the Empire of the Desert

“In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.”
-Mehmet Murat İldan

We left Erfoud and headed south toward Erg Chebbi and the first dunes of the Sahara.  Along the way we saw puddles, on the road and beside it.  The rain last night was evident and I wondered how it would change the desert.  As we climbed the dunes the wind picked up.  Omar told us it came down from the mountains because of the rain.  It was a steady wind and it caught my scarf.  I felt like a kid with a kite.  I was so excited and happy to be in the desert at last.  It felt like the edge of an adventure. 

 A young boy brought a desert fox for us to see.  

Then we headed on south, close to the border with Algeria, looking for our rendezvous with our Bedouin cameleers and camp crew.

The road was a trail now and our four wheel drive was in constant use.  There was water at the low points in the trail and finally we had to go off road and make our own way.  Our route was through camels scrounging for food and we came upon their old Bedouin owner.  Our driver stopped to discuss the route with him.  He said we could not get through, it was too wet, and so we scouted the way.  The mud was beginning to dry already in the constant dusty wind.  Great cracks were forming and the top layer shrank, but below it was still mud.  Our driver thought he could make it through, so we walked and the drivers gunned their way.  Then it was back to the vehicles for the drive.  The wind remained a persistent force creating a sandy haze over everything.  It was strange to see the desert in such a sandy fog.  Camels appeared as though through the mist. 
Our drive was now at speed to keep from bogging down.  The sand was deep and seemed to shift in the wind.  It felt like we were slaloming around moguls of sand and rock.  Our driver and our guide were focused forward, looking for a route and finding it.  Then we saw the top of a tent, peaking over a dune.  We had arrived.

We got out to the full force of the wind with our new sheshes tied around our heads and tucked across our face.  It was sticky hot, but the sand was scouring anything uncovered, so we went into the tent for lunch.   Inside it was stifling and the dust still managed to filter in.  Omar poured some wonderful mint tea, and we discovered that the flies loved it too.  In fact the flies loved everything.  It seems that between the date harvest in the Ziz valley, and our camels, the flies flocked to us.  Our food was eaten quickly with many a swatting hand, and the tea and the food was crunchy from the sand.  The tent rattled with the wind. 

I think that lunch was when our group really formed.  I have traveled with groups before, and at some point someone emerges as the whiner who will make you uncomfortable for the duration.  I was thinking in the tent, that this was that moment.  I thought, we knew this was the desert, we knew we would be camping, this is what can happen.  What did happened is that everyone kept talking, and laughing, and sharing hints about avoiding flies, and drinking hot mint tea.  That is when I knew we really had not just a great group, but a group of great people.
We wrapped our heads in our sheshes, covered up from the blowing  sand, and went out to meet our cameleers, and our camels.

Riding a camel is really tough at the mount and dismount.  As each of us got on, Omar helped as the camel rose, yelling “hold on, hold on”.  The cameleers, who had walked 3 days with their camels to reach us, laughed each time the camel stood.  In fact they proved to be a jolly group, talking and laughing, first with Omar, then with each other.  I noticed that at the slightest bump my cameleer would shout “hold on” then laugh.  They only spoke Berber, but I assumed that they had learned the meaning of this from Omar.

We rode for a couple of hours through the desert, and the ride was not rough, but sitting on a camel is hard on the thighs and butt.  There are no stirrups, so you can’t shift your weight or take it on your legs.  I tried to put one leg over the “saddle horn” the way we did in Jordan, but we were not on a flat road and the cameleers would not allow that. A number of people chose to walk. 
I was grateful when we saw in the distance the tents of our camp.
It was in a beautiful desert scene surrounded by dunes and the wind seemed to die down as the sun began to sink.  We all decided to climb up to the great dune to get a great desert view.  It was a tough climb and I was carrying my big camera, which had come to feel like a lead weight.  A day in the blowing sand was taking a toll on the camera too.  I did get some great shots of the dune climb.  It looked like everything I had envisioned.   I could not wait for a night in the desert.
The wind came back, blowing fiercely.  At least the flies were gone.  They rise after breakfast and sleep before dusk, so it was only lunch that was a food battle.  The camels were bedded down in the dunes around us, as we ate a wonderful tagine dinner.   Our guides and drivers were no strangers to camping in the desert, so they chilled the wine we brought by wrapping it in wet newspaper.  In the dryness, the quick evaporation chilled it nicely.  We drank wine and looked at the sunset.
Red sky at night...

We had a camp fire and the wind was like a blow torch sending sparks along the ground for 30 yards.  At least there was nothing to burn.

 As we were talking about the day, I told Omar that our cameleers were such jolly cheerful people.  All day, they were talking and laughing with each other, and they were careful too.  They wouldn’t let me ride sidesaddle, and they kept telling me to hold on, even when it wasn’t bumpy.  Omar told us that they were all sharing a great joke.  When he told us to “hold on” in English, it sounded like another word in Berber.  That is why they were using their new English word and laughing all day.  What did it mean, I asked, of course.  He didn’t want to tell me, but he did.  It meant “balls”.  So just like the cameleers, we all learned a new word that day, in Berber.  At the most opportune time, someone would shout out “hold on” and we would laugh, the cameleers would laugh, and life was good.

It was an early night, too dusty and windy to linger by the fire.  The wind made my tent ripple like sheets drying  on a clothesline.  The noise was constant.  I put in my headphones and sometime in the night I fell asleep.  I woke at around 3 am.  Omar had said the wind might die down by 2 or so, but it was still howling.  I got up and made a trip to the privy tent.  Coming back I almost lost my way in the dark and dust. 

The next time I awoke it was just at dawn.  It was silent and still.  I thought I heard a noise, like a cat.  It was time to get up.  It was the morning of the feast of Eid al-Adha.  A quiet clear morning, and the beginning of a new day in the desert.

Salaam alaikum.

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