Sunday, March 21, 2010


I hate camels but find deserts hypnotic and spectacular. A brief but accurate summary of my previous ventures into the desert.
Even though our brief sojourn into the Sahara lived up to my dry stereotype it is still worth a few words. I mean it is the SAHARA after all.

To the Dunes…

By numerous country miles the largest expanse of non-frozen desert on earth. Superlatives come easy, but it is hard to get your head around just how immensely large and imposing this expanse of rock and sand is.

Stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and from the Med deep into the heart of Africa. It is roughly the size of the 48 bordering mainland US States. Little old England would be gobbled up more than 35 times over. When your mind ponders these things it is no wonder that excitement passes through your veins as you set foot (or camel foot) into the Sahara proper for the first time.

Across the Atlas and three hundred miles from the sea we left our 4x4 at Merzouga and jumped on some camels. As the sun slowly fell from the sky we kerchunked (after much thought, this is the best description I can come up with for the clattery movement of a camel) through the light brush and gravel, over the first humps of sand and into the dunes proper.
What the local lads playing dust-pitch footie must have thought of all these tourists in their desert designer gear (many a khaki covered Frenchman frequents this part of the world) only part of me wants to know. At least Aziz brought us away from the minor masses, so we had a penchant of an "all on our own" sensation.

The component nature of a dune makes it inherently difficult to judge size until you are right up close. These dunes can be blown to a height of 200m (for that is how they are formed – ever continuing wind induced shift and pile). From afar these looked large, but over every growing minor dune, the ones further off, perceivably grew and grew. With a sore behind - I’m sorry, camels just aren’t comfortable - we made it to the foot of one of the largest dune and chucked our packs into the small Bedouin shelter which we would call home for the night.

Up, Down the beers and Up again…

As darkness took hold and the stars came out we set our sights on the summit of our sheltering dune and after half an hour of two steps forwards, one step back calf twinging climbing, we made it to the peak. Worth every step.

A full moon had risen on the horizon and lit up the desert with its earrie, gloomy shadow. Below, the small lights of the camp and beyond just sand and rock as far as the eye could see. Time to crack open a beer and sink it all in.

Top of a Saharan desert with two buddies, tinnies and the man in the moon. Sweet!

Short-lived serenity was appropriately blown to bits by our newly found exteme sport – dune bounding. Yup, face down the steep face of a dune and… go for it. Lunge after lunge with increasing chaos until you either make it the bottom or face plant (well done Dave). Exhilarated either way. Time to tuck into the remainder of our bevies and some cards with Aziz and Bob.

A few hours shut-eye was curtailed by a second climb. Out the tent still in a dream and start tredging up the other side of the dune. Steeper this time we criss-crossed the face until, induced by slow-progress boredom, we moved onto the crest and tottered our way to the top.
We had made it in time and the evening’s vista was surpassed.
On one side the moon was diving for the horizon while, at the opposite side of our vista the dark was breaking, announcing the near coming of the sun. A moment of planetary awareness. The three space-hurtling bodies which dominate our lives coming and going in unison.
The sun broke the Algerian horizon with a pin-prick of piecing light. Perched on a long, thin ridge, the sand blew into our eyes as the desert lit up.

With every degree the sun rose, the multitude of shadows shifted in emboldening colours. This desolate place became a palate for the sun. An enriching experience.
Before we left for some more dune bounding, we welcomed an inspiring visitor. Out of the sand at the very summit, a small beetle waddled his way searching for sustenance. It is easy to forget just how many beings cling to the extremes of life in this harsh environment. A single life is weak. Life is not. Just enough time to fall off an angry camel and head back to the hills. Kerchunk…kerchunk...
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