Camel trekking and Christmas in the Sahara Desert

It never really occurred to me what the term White Christmas meant until I experienced one during my college years. Growing up in Hawaii meant warm tropical winters, and while warm Christmases are nothing new to me, Christmas 2014 was about as far away from a White Christmas as you can get. Welcome to the edge of one of the largest deserts on Earth, the Saharan Desert.

After saying bye to our German saviors, we walked over to the hotel next door. At the gate, I saw a young man who looked like he just woke up, but he looked familiar, "Hassan?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied. He looked just like the avatar he had on the emails we had exchanged earlier in the year. Short curly black hair, a young round friendly face and dark olive skin colored by the desert sun.  I booked a camel excursion through his company, Morocco Excursions (and they come highly recommended as you will read why). We exchanged hellos and he brought us the traditional Berber whiskey (tea - sans the alcohol) out on the sky terrace of the hotel. Hassan was very welcoming and just wanted to hang out, which caught me by surprise. He didn't try to push anything on us or sell us more junk, he just want to talk story and show us a good time. He even knew of Mr. Mohammed from Rissani (see the "it all started with a guitar" blog post). He showed us around Center of Merzouga just for fun until he had to prepare for our desert excursion.

After a light meal, we returned to the hotel packed our bags and went out back to the hotel. There sat eight, single-humped dromedaries, snorting and farting away, ready to trek to camp. I know this is about as touristy as it gets, but hopping on one of those living desert cars and headed towards nothing but orange sand, lit by the low desert sun was surreal. Our former nomad guides, Youssef and Said, lead us and the camels by foot, towards the dunes. Our mini caravan of 6 camels trekked over 7km, across dunes as far as the eye could see. Some dunes were taller than 300 meters, simply incredible. None of us could get over the fact that we were riding dromedaries, into the Saharan desert, in Africa, on Christmas eve. 

 desert trek go!

desert trek go!

Our guides dropped us off at a tall dune just short of camp, leaving us to hike to the top to catch our first Saharan sunset. It felt like we were children again, running up and down the dunes, laughter drifting in the quiet desert air. Was this really happening? We were in the Sahara Desert! After an obligatory mini photo shoot, we dug in and sat on the edge of a sand dune, boots off and toes in the sand, and watched the sun disappear in the distance. Perfect, simply perfect. 

We and our empty stomachs walked back to camp, ready to gorge ourselves on traditional Berber cuisine. Berber whiskey, rice with salad, and the delicious tagine chicken. We made new friends with the other tourist staying at camp with us, sharing stories of our travels so far and where we come from. Dinner was served and devoured. After washing dinner down with tea and real whiskey, we gathered around the camp fire under the moonless sky.

Under the seemingly infinite amount of stars, we listened to the nomads play their traditional songs around the camp fire. They let us in on the fun afterwards. We got to play their drums and sing along, and perform for them as well. We told jokes and riddles all night, laughing, questioning and learning from each other. Tourist dropped off one by one, leaving a smaller and smaller group around the fire. Gwen, Sarah and I chatted with Hassan until the coals went out and could not heat our bodies in the cold, dark, desert night. The most interesting thing about the nomads is they have no concept of time. Being born in the desert, they live on a day to day basis and live their lives regardless of what happens in the world, thus none of them know how old they really are. I love it.

Tired from the early morning shenanigans in Rissani, exploring Merzouga, climbing dunes and a late night camp fire stories, Sarah, Gwen and I cuddled in bed to deter the desert cold (35-40 degrees F) because the tents had no heat source. We piled the blankets on and drifted to sleep. 

 morning sun causing shadows on the dunes

morning sun causing shadows on the dunes

We woke up to a chilly Christmas sunrise over the dunes. Wait, let me say that again, we woke up and watch the sunrise on Christmas day, in the Saharan Desert, unreal! While the one-nighter tourist headed back to town, everyone but Ryan headed up the dunes to do some sand boarding. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like, we took a snow board and used it on sand. It's not as fast as snow, but it was fun on the steep dunes. We boarded back to breakfast set on top of a dune. How cool was that?

As if an hour half of camel massage (how Hassan refereed to riding the dromedaries, and being pretty sore afterwards) from the day before wasn't enough, we sucked it up and went deep into the Black desert, riding about 2 hours in, to see a real nomad family. They were shy as we dropped in to their desert dwellings, but the children were out, in the shade watching us peer into their lifestyle. We juggled a football (soccer ball) around for a while, search for some cool rocks and learned about some nomadic ways of life. Funny enough, everyone there, including the nomads, are light years beyond me in football skills. 

Nomad life isn't as rough as I imagined. I thought they lived entirely off the desert land, but they venture to the markets to trade every once in a while. I thought that this place is arid and dry, but the river beds will full of mud, still soft from the previous rains. However, once the water wells run dry, its time to move. They leave the houses built of mud brick behind for someone else if the well should ever replenish. From the Sahara to the Atlas, the nomads are constantly on the move. After an hour, our appetites made their needs known.

A short walk lead us to a small oasis where lunch was served. Other tourist were there as well, as it seemed to be where everyone brings their guest. A handful of cars were parked outside, for those who didn't make it by camel. We had Berber pizza for lunch, a big loaf of bread stuffed with all sorts of "toppings" in it. Egg, onion, chicken, peppers and rice, somehow worked. Add a giant plate of vegetables and a warm kettle of tea, and we were set. During lunch, our camels got  angry and ran away, so it took some time for our guides to find them and get them back to the small oasis.

We sucked it up and hopped back on the dromedaries, asses and thighs reawakened to the pains of camel massage, to head to one of the tallest dunes for sunset. We passed several oases on the way, all with nomad tents around them. I could live there, I thought. Onward towards the dune.

"Wait, were climbing up that one? Fuck," said Sarah when she realized what we were about to do. Before us stood a towering sand dune, the tallest in the area, with footprints along the ridge that lead to the top. We packed our cameras and water bottles, and started our ascent. We climbed up a 300+ (over 1000 feet tall) meter dune, all uphill along the ridge, in deep Saharan sand. Needless to say, it was tiring, but the view was rewarding.

 the view from 300m up

the view from 300m up

Truly a special moment, watching the sunset 300m above the desert floor, ankle deep in the sand, on a steep dune in the Sahara. Merry Christmas indeed.

Christmas night was even better. Camp was full, nearly 25 total fellow tourist, some of them wasted, singing and dancing around the fire. It was amazing to say the least. People from all over the world all having a good time around the camp fire in the Sahara. The Berber nomads encouraged every one to join in, all while having an even better time themselves. We danced and sang the night away, with drums and even a guitar for Thanecha. When our turn to sing a song came up, we rapped the fresh prince of Bellair, naturally. All the English speakers joined in about a story all about how my life got twisted upside down.... We told jokes and riddles again, under the stars that seemed to be so bright that they could cast shadows. We partied the night away, having the time our of lives. Not your typical Christmas, but definitely one to remember.

 saharan jam session

saharan jam session

I will come back and edit this, but I am in Madrid again, on my way to London for a fun-filled New Year's Eve. 2014 was the best year of my life. Here is is to 2015 being even better.