Star Date: May 2017
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"A life without travel is not worth living."
(A Berber saying. Berbers are Nomads in N. Africa)
The Sahara is the world's largest hot desert and one of the harshest environments on the planet. Encompassing the whole of Northern Africa with over 3 million square miles; its size is comparable to the United States. This desert engulfs large sections of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia.
Sahara means the 'Greatest Desert' in Arabic and is the 3rd largest desert on the planet - after Antarctica and the Artic, cold deserts. Most people think of the desert as a giant furnace but during the months of December to February the night time temperature can plunge to below freezing. During the summer season the temperature exceeds 50 degrees centigrade or 125 degrees Fahrenheit, some of the hottest days on the planet. It features a mix of sandy and rocky terrain with sand dunes and scorching bare rocks, dotted with oases near water areas.
Dromedary camels are not native to the desert but have been around for ages. They are most often associated with the Sahara and were introduced approximately 200 A.D. Their advantages over horses include soft feet that are aligned so that they can move more quickly and easily through sand and their ability to go for up to 17 days without water or food.
Some of the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi (Morocco) reach a height of up to 200 meters in places (600 ft. - a 6/7 story building) and altogether spans an area of 50 kilometers from north to south and up to 5 to 10 kilometers from east to west lining the Algerian border. Moroccan legend says that the Erg Chebbi sand dunes were sent by God as a punishment for turning away a weary traveler from Morocco's Sahara desert. Moroccans believe that the dunes piled up outside Merzouga to teach them a lesson so that they would never refuse to help tired travelers ever again. The Erg Chebbi dunes at Merzouga are indisputably one of the greatest sights of Morocco.
Nomads still wander these dunes... The Tuareg, Sahara Desert nomads (see Jan 2017-Tunisia) have been forced north to trade. With each ensuing year of drought The Tuaregs have had to travel farther and farther from their fiercely guarded territories amongst the high dunes of the Sahara. We encountered many on our journey but as traders rather than as a family unit camping or traversing the dunes.
The brilliant, long blue scarf, or 'tagilmust', covering everything but the eyes is always intriguing. What or who is hiding underneath? Mysterious as well as colorful these imposing figures have struck fear in the hearts of opponents for a thousand years.
Customarily their scarves are 20 feet long as Tuareg men believe it impolite for their mouths or noses to show. They wind them loosely around their heads and faces many times, layering the fabric adds extra protection against heat, sun, and sand, which finds its way into everything here. Temperatures can climb to 120 degrees during daylight in the desert.
The indigo-dyed garments worn by the Tuareg, from which they were nicknamed ‘blue men of the desert,’ are most prized. Because water is scarce in the desert, the indigo is pounded, instead of boiled, into the cloth. This method of dying the fabric imbues the cloth with a shimmery blue-black patina. With wear, the color seeps into the pores of their skin, casting a bluish hue. Since indigo is precious and expensive, their bluish skin has become a status symbol among them: the darker blue a man’s skin, the richer he appears.
Goulemim is one of the trading towns where the Tuareg come for supplies and to have their robes made. Some men wear 'dra’a', an open poncho-style garment that can be rolled onto the shoulders to allow the air through. Others don long-sleeved robes called 'gondoras', with slits set into the stitched seams at hip level that open to a man’s trouser pockets. Colors are usually all shades of blue with rich golden embroidery around the v-neck. Moon-and-star designs are a common motif. The stars are usually five- or six-sided and considered amulets, protecting the wearer against evil or disease. Special occasions may call for a tan linen robe.
When a Tuareg woman reaches marrying age the village makes her a tent. This is her tent and the future home to her husband and children. Life is simple. Possessions few. The woman may work for years decorating a camel skin purse or small bag for her favorite things. This hangs proudly in her tent. Joseph caught me admiring an old decorated Tuareg camel skin bag in the market, decorated with turquoise, silver, coral and other beads. He bought it for his desert queen to hang on my wall should we ever settle down a bit.
Since they are nomadic, everything is moveable, and when staying for a while the floor is covered with wool carpets and the walls are lined with piles of blankets and pillows for the cold nights.
So like the nomadic Tuareg, our possessions are few, but still a quandary arose when we found ourselves faced with packing a smaller portion of our stuff for a camel adventure into the Sahara. (Check out one of the best comedy routines of all times: "Stuff" by unconventional George Carlin. Just Google "Stuff" :)
Sahara. The shifting sand sea that passes seamlessly into infinity. As we mounted our camels and secured our small bags, we looked back on the remote Berber compound we had called home for 3 nights. The sun low in the sky cast an orangish red hue over the massive dunes, forming shadows of contrast on every contour. The preparations of a sojourn into the Sahara still buzzed in our heads. This is a land of life and death; little margin of error from the relentless sun or the frigid cold of the night. Checklist: hats and scarves, WATER, extra jackets, fruit, flashlights, etc. Our small Buddha bags swung from side to side on the camels, carrying these essential items. The camel driver, Omar, had packed the food for us and the camels. Omar wasn't able to go to school, but told us he learned about life in the 'school of the desert'. Excitement was high as we headed off on what proved to be one of the most spectacular experiences of our endless adventures to date. This is the land of "Prince of Persia". This is where countless caravans have crossed and circumvented the massive sand dunes, carrying supplies to the dwellers of the Oasis inside or trading goods with merchants on the far corners of the desert for thousands of years.
Camels are the key to this life. Without them crossing the deep sand would not be possible. One only has to climb a high dune, sinking up to your knee in sand with each step, to realized how precarious this travel is. Camels have built in snowshoe type 'sandshoes', reserves of water in their humps, and double eyelids to block the blinding sand when the unrelenting sandstorms pass over them. Plus they have serious badass attitudes that seems to be a requirement for survival during difficult adventure travel. We should know. Wimps or fussy personalities need not apply.
Not all camels are made alike. Riding on 2 humped Bactrian camels through the dunes of the Gobi Desert was a mellow smooth ride, with the second hump providing a comfortable backrest. Rajasthan forays into the desert, surrounded by brightly dressed veil clad gypsies was an explosion of the senses. One humped, dromedary, Bedouin camels in Petra or Wadi Rum were slow moving and fairly well behaved. This was important as it is a long way down from perched atop a camels hump. The 'Bad Boys' we encountered were Bedouin camels hanging around the Pyramids or other temples in Egypt. Like big city street kids they had serious attitudes and seemed ready to launch you into orbit at any given moment. In all fairness I must admit that the camel driver can have a bad attitude too and this rubs off by osmosis onto his camel or vice versa.
We smiled when we realized that we had lucked out with fun, smiling driver Omar, and a couple of willing desert 'limos' to ride off into the sunset. The last thing you want is an ornery camel and even more ornery camel driver. He had rigged the camels with bags then blankets surrounding their humps. This makeshift small saddle was padded further with blankets and it made for the most comfortable ride to date. Also the deep sand made up for the lack of shock absorbers. Riding camels on hard surfaces can be like a riding a jack hammer. My 'no butt at all' appreciated the extra blanket padding and there was enough room to move around and change leg positions. No stir ups, it was hard to not be able to stand a bit but the strong handle provided secure place to hang on for dear life as we descended down the sides of great dunes. These massive dunes provided spine chilling moments when traversing the razor back summits of the up to 200 mt. or 60-70 ft. high sand mountains. In the beginning it was hard not to think of what would happen if the camel slipped and we rolled ass over tea kettle down the side of a seven story building.
This was not an adventure to be taken lightly. Only intrepid travelers allowed. It was dangerous at times yet a traveler of the Sahara soon realizes that there is more at play here than meets the eye. These camels have been traversing this sea of sand from the beginning of time. There is a flow in these dunes that carries on regardless of what wild thoughts are conjured up in our mind.
This is beyond time. Slowly our
grip on the handle begins to loosen and we are engulfed in the law
of the desert, slowly swaying to the lullaby and rhythm of our
dromedary. The wind that at certain times of the year is
fierce and lethal, subsides to a light breeze, rippling the surface.
We notice the continual art work of tracks of desert creatures
venturing out the previous night. Desert fox, kangaroo rats,
mice, snakes, fowl all scurry about their nightly business leaving
behind intricate patterns of natural artwork along the smooth dunes.
Early in the journey there are remnants of footprints hiking the
sand and climbing dunes, occasional dune buggy tracks or sand
surfers riding down the dunes on boards.
Jolting us back to reality we spotted our first sight of life. We passed one small camp as we rounded a dune. The 6 occupants were already climbing the 400 ft. high dune behind their camp to survey their territory. We waved and continued, ships that passed in the night.
Arriving at our camp several minutes later we decided to climb up the nearest king of dunes and survey our kingdom. Almost indescribable. The setting sun had cast a mysterious, mystical hue of orange over the dunes, accented by sharp shadows. It went on for as far as the eye could see in all directions; endless, serene, simply being. As the golden sun set behind the far off Atlas Mountains the temperature dropped 10 degrees immediately and with nowhere to go but down, continued plummeting all night. We jumped and frolicked through the sand back down to the camp and hurriedly retrieved our small bags from the camels and began layering on shirts, polar-tecs, gortex jackets and socks for warmth. Preferring to travel in warm climates we were immediately grateful for lugging these layers with us for the last year. We questioned the sanity of this while hiking through ancient temples in the 100 plus degrees summer in Egypt. Now we knew why.
Climbing up massive sand dunes is tough going but the view is always worth the effort and the reward of jumping down the other side is part of the fun of playing in the desert. Having rolled down in the past I chose to simply jump rather than have every nook, cranny, and pocket filled with sand. Luckily Omar had started dinner and had a cup of hot tea waiting for us in the Berber tent we were to call home. Two candles provided an illusion of warmth. Hard to believe that these wool tents would have been stifling inside just hours earlier, thus a kind of built in heating system. Omar busied himself first putting our vegetarian 'tajine' (a pottery dish with cover) on the fire to cook; then fed the now hungry and disgruntled camels, singing all the while. They noisily emptied their food bags while we talked with Omar. We then prepared our beds. The only ones in camp we piled several mattresses on the floor of our sleeping tent. On top was a wool blanket into which we would climb fully clothed, with another 4 wool blankets piled on top. Shutting the flap to lock in any remaining heat, we walked back to the eating tent as the last rays of daylight faded.
Over an hour later (the usual time of preparation for a meal in Morocco) we were ready to start bellowing like the fussy camels had earlier. Soon we were presented with steaming tomato rice and with great pomp and circumstance the cover of the tajine dish was lifted, revealing the delicious contents - 7 vegetables cooked in their own juices over the open flame. The smell filled the tent and we dug in, hungry from our time in the open air. We fell back on the pile of pillows, fully satiated. I believe a burp was the custom, and rightly deserved. We talked and rested when we heard singing drifting closer and closer across the dunes. Omar's friend Mohamed had walked in total darkness through the dunes to visit Omar, with only a crescent moon to light his way. After catching up on camel talk, I noticed the drums in the corner and requested a song. A bit shy to get started, but once they got going they drummed and sang their hearts out. I looked at Joseph, and Joseph looked at me as we often do, and asked, "Where are we now?" We ask this of each other when the feast of our eyes before us is in the realm of superlative. Timeless. Here we were in the Sahara Desert, in a wool Berber tent, eating mouth watering food cooked over the fire, listening to Moroccan singing and drumming, while reclining on soft pillows. We were definitely lost in the sands of time! And people ask us why we travel?
We ventured outside to soak up the unbelievably stunning display of stars, rivaling the Outback of Australia. The Sahara is an explosion of senses, not the virtual existence we have been led to believe exists for modern life. It is important once in a while to break free of the shackles of technology and plunge headlong into the real world. Grab a taste of the sweet and sharp reality of Nature. The rewards are immeasurable. It is so important to get a heaping measure of Nature regularly; for how can we protect Nature if we don't remember how much we love it?
Visions of days past and the colorful life of merchant camel caravans, stopping for water and food at the Oasis's dotting the sea of sand. They are like islands of refuge in the harsh surroundings. Great turbans of white, blue or black are tied in various fashions depending on the desired result to shade from the sun, block the blowing sand or provide warmth as the sun sets. Flowing royal blue richly embroidered caftans, are adorned with curved daggers in intricately carved sheaths. The law of the desert provides food and shelter for travelers of the desert. After filling their bellies a cup of strong hot tea would be enjoyed as travelers shared harrowing tales around the fire, of bandits or escaped severe weather or sand storms. Camel drivers would pick up drums as musicians grabbed 'ouds' or stringed instruments, and a great party was under way, singing in the wee hours. What we were experiencing was exactly as in days gone by. Only the bandits and daggers were missing, but one never knows what lurks behind the next dune, after all we were only 20 miles from the wilds of the Algerian Sahara!
Sighting an oasis after hours on the sand is a sight to rejoice. At first it must be determined if it is in fact an oasis or mirage, or illusion of hope. Moving closer, the striking branches of the majestic date palms welcome weary travelers, for where there are trees there is water, food and rest. It is a pleasure to walk through the shade of date palms. Small paths lead past a patchwork of green gardens, past lemon, fig and pomegranate trees. Immediately we noticed the abundance of honey bees, these life bringing insects beginning to disappear from our pesticide laden modern environments. We also noticed frogs and other creatures counting their lucky stars to be born in this oasis, rather than lost to the surrounding sea of sand.
Plunging once again into the sea of sand known as the Sahara, we made our way back to our Berber compound; with high walls braced against the periodic onslaught of sand storms. The Sahara has been known to swallow man, building and beast alive; never to be seen again.
After resting a couple days we struck out again into the Sahara but this time taking a 4x4 jeep and skirting the enormous dunes looming above. We were within a stones throw of the Algerian border. This area is called the Black Desert along the Algerian border. We followed the Khamlia (black) River as it zigzagged through the valley, often just driving across the hard sand. Out in the middle of nowhere, on the way to nowhere, would be a Tuareg or Berber man wearing a large turban and selling a small blanket full of fossils. These fossils are abundant in sharp uprisings of rock jutting out of the sand. Further along was a small mine extracting galena or lead by hand. Unfortunately the cream made of this dangerous metal is used by the desert women for eyeliner and mascara. I only purchased a small decorative jar with a wand, with which to apply the lead cream. Not having worn make-up in over 20 years I skipped the lead!
We had been a bit disappointed by the fact that we were not able to go to Timbuktu in Mali on the way to Morocco. Unfortunately civil war erupted making it dangerous for travelers. We had even seen old signs from the caravan days pointing to Timbuktu - 52 days!!! To our surprise and amazement we happened on to a band of Mali singers and dancers at a tea shop in an Oasis near Merzouga. A lively group, we had great fun enjoying their performance and had a taste of Mali after all. Before heading home we stopped for tea at a Nomad's tent, unbelievably remote. They were extremely kind and we sat on pillows under an awning sharing photos of our family and home, enjoying tea, and fresh flat bread baked over the fire.
A smile behind the veil. Burkas or Muslim coverings for women, especially the total face veil, is a little perplexing at first. I am someone who connects with people's eyes, sometimes reading into their very souls. When even the eyes are covered it is like looking into a one way mirror. Eyes revealed, the woman's story starts unraveling, one glance or thread at a time. A woman at the Nomad camp asked if she could get a ride into town. Looking at her dire situation and location we quickly said, "Yes"! Driving cross country over the hardened sand Mustafa turned the radio on. Soon we were singing and clapping, riding along with the music blaring. The burka eyes of Anila were definitely smiling!
Pulling into Merzouga we ran smack dab into the middle of a local Berber wedding. I was invited inside the large tent with all the village women while Joseph sat outside with the finely turbaned men. A several day event we visited a couple more times and basked in the sea of colors, smells, and excitement. A Moroccan Berber proverb states, "A guest is a gift from Allah." and they made us feel special indeed.
And so it goes.........................................Next the ancient, legendary cities of Fez and Marrakesh. Until then let's remember that our nomadic friends of N. Africa, the Berbers, recommend that it is time for you to take a trip. Enrich your life. Broaden your horizons. Take care and Keep in Touch!
Love, Light & Laughter,
1 US Dollar equals 9.41 Moroccan Dirham
Fatima's Apartments and
Good cafe, souvenirs and great apartments with kitchen.
Located in town so no view of the dunes but they are a 5 minute walk