View Morocco Photography
We had been driving for about 4 hours when we turned off the bumpy road onto the flat expanse of desert. You could see for miles. There were no roads, just a few tire tracks and a bunch of signs sticking in the sand advertising various hotels that were nowhere to be seen. I was anxious – similar to the feeling I had when I first turned into a game park in Kenya for my first safari. I was entering a world in which I had only previously seen on television and movies. A world that I never thought I would experience in my lifetime. A world that was unthinkable to me. I knew immediately this was going to be an adventure unlike any I had experienced before. We were going into the Sahara Desert via camels to camp for the night. I had never really seen a desert before…at least not one with camels! Sure, I had made the drive from San Diego to Las Vegas before, but it didn’t prepare me for what I was about to see. This was remote. I was so excited I was giddy and my body tingled…much like when I first arrived in Hanoi or when I set my first step in St. Mark’s square – in awe of the moment.
Arriving at our Sahara Desert campsite
Our truck proceeded very slowly along the bumpy trail of tire tracks. The driver had to continuously move the steering wheel so that we wouldn’t get stuck in the sand. It reminded me of Bo Duke driving the General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard – moving the steering wheel back and forth to make it look as if he was really driving a car instead of a prop. Every so often the tire tracks would split off into a ‘Y’ shape and we would choose a side and continue driving deeper into the desert. I could start to see the dunes, glowing orange-red in low sun. Every so often we would pass a random camel, wandering around grazing…on what, I have no idea. It honestly looked like no life existed out here. Pretty soon off in the distance you could see a little building or two and another little sign that seemed to be dwarfed by the vast landscape. Eventually we pulled up to our starting point hotel and first set foot on the fine sand. I’ve been on many beaches around the world, however I’ve never experienced sand like this. It was a fine dust that immediately coated you and everything you were carrying. So imperceptible that you didn’t really realize it was there until you ran a hand over your arm and felt the layer of sand coating your skin. Apparently, they’ve found sand from the Sahara as far away as Greenland on the icebergs.
We left our large suitcases at the hotel and took just a small pack with the things we would need for the night. That basically consisted of water, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a long sleeve shirt, a sleep sheet, and my cameras wrapped in bags to try to protect them from the sand. I actually decided to leave my telephoto lens behind at the hotel as I didn’t even want to be tempted to change lenses in this environment. The sand particles were so small that there would be no way that I would be able to keep my sensor clean.
We met our guide Mubarek all dressed in the bright blue most of the people in this part of the Sahara wear – a stunning contrast to the orange sand dunes. I was told that they wore blue because it was a bright color that was easy to spot but it didn’t absorb as much sun and heat as black. Mubarek provided us with bright colored turbans and taught us to tie them in order to protect our faces from the sun and the sand. I also donned my sunglasses since my eyes were already burning from the dry conditions. I had left my vanity behind somewhere on the un-air conditioned local bus ride a few days ago….I knew I looked ridiculous…but I honestly didn’t care. After all, I was about to ride a camel!
My first camel ride
Mubarek led us out to our camel train and started to explain how we were to get on and off the camels. The camels were all tied together in a long train so that we didn’t have any control of the reins and they just followed each other ensuring that we didn’t have to think! I do find it amusing that in the last year I haven’t driven a car, but I have been on a camel! I chose a good looking camel…seemed well tempered, and not too smelly. The camels were relatively easy to get on as they sit down on the ground so that you can mount them, but the real trick is to hold on tight and lean back when they stand up – else you may end up doing a header in the sand. Once my camel was standing, I was a bit amazed at how high up you really were, and how uncomfortable I was. Granted, I wasn’t expecting a cushy ride, but I immediately knew that I would be saddle sore the next day!
The camel train took off into the dunes. We rode for about an hour and got deeper and deeper into the sand dunes. You could see the fine sand blowing off the tops of the dunes, reminding me I was experiencing an ever-changing, ever-moving landscape. Technically I wasn’t on solid ground. Add that to the fact that the camel ride was rather jerky, and the sun was quickly disappearing – it made it nearly impossible to get a clear photography shot. I never knew it was so hard to hold a DSLR camera (big, heavy lens and body) in one hand while trying to adjust the shutter and aperture with that same hand and keep things steady. My other hand was out of commission as I had to hold on to the ‘saddle’ of the camel else I would end up in the sand! The camels had no fear, they would walk on the edge of a dune, just plodding away. Finally, in the distance you could see some black tents and a small bit of green grass – our home for the night.
We arrived at our camp as the sun went under – yet the temperature seemed to stay the same…hot. In the other direction the moon was rising…a full moon tonight! Once we set down our packs, Karina immediately challenged us to run up to the top of the dune that was surrounding us – she said that there would be a great view. Sure- it looked easy enough. After about 30 seconds of walking up in the deep sand feeling as if I was getting nowhere – I realized that this was going to be a long, long journey to the top. It was very challenging as you had no point of reference to determine just how high the dune was. It looked as if it was only about 150 feet – however it was probably about 10 times that distance! After resting in the sand for a bit for about the third time, most of the group bailed out as we realized that we were only about halfway up the dune. By this time though I was covered in sand, gasping for air, and I was determined. I changed my tactic to crawling on all fours…which seemed much more effective!
Rob, Sara, and I eventually made it to the top – and it was dark by the time we made it there! We were able to see the view somewhat, but the feeling of accomplishment was all I needed. When I tried to take a couple of photos, the flash went off and you could see the millions of tiny sand particles in the air floating around us. They were undetectable to the human eye, but the flash lit them up in the photo. It was amazing to think that all of these tiny particles were in the air around us! None of the pictures really turned out due to the lack of light, however we were able to enjoy our run down the dune back to our camp…much easier than going up! It’s a fun feeling to run down a dune without any fear of hitting anything or landing on anything dangerous – the worst that could happen is that you would end up rolling down in the soft sand…no problem.
Overnight camping in the Sahara Desert
That night Mubarek made us a chicken tanjine for dinner and provided melon for dessert. I was impressed with his ability to cook up a delicious meal in the desert. We all agreed that is was way too hot to sleep in the tents where there was little air flow so we all decided to sleep out on the mats outside under the full moon. Little did I know that the real adventure began when we fell asleep around 11PM. It was still rather hot when I fell asleep but there was a pleasant breeze blowing. I did get inside my sleep sheet more to mentally protect myself from the bugs than to keep warm. For those of you who don’t know what a sleep sheet is, it’s the best item in my suitcase! It’s a very thin, silk-like sleeping bag sheet that you can use when you are in questionable hotels, or for camping for some extra layer of warmth, etc. I love my sleep sheet!!! That night, the only sounds you could really hear was the camels snorting and farting in the distance. At 2AM I was awakened by a loud wind and the sound of sand hitting the mat surrounding me as well as my sleep sheet. The wind had really picked up and I realized that my sleep sheet was covered in a fine layer sand as was everything else around me! I noticed that I had accidentally left open my backpack, which was now covered in a layer of sand…crap. I tried to turn around and forget about it but every so often you would get these big gusts of wind and sand that would blow directly into your face! It was still warm, so the tent still wasn’t really an option. I ended up putting the sleep sheet over my head and trying to use it as a little cocoon to protect myself from the sand! I woke up at least 3 more times during the night covered in more sand. At one point I got up and actually took some pictures of the full moon. With the moonlight the whole desert was lit up brightly…as if you had a night light on in your bedroom. Amazingly, I somehow slept until about 5AM and then gave up the pointless attempt at any further sleep and dug myself and my stuff out of the sand layers and decided to get up and take pictures. By about 5:30 everyone had woken up as the sun was quickly coming up, lighting up the sky, and heating up the sand.
Around 6:15 AM we took off again on our camel train back to ‘civilization’. The colors were beautiful and the sun was strong, and my legs were sore from the prior evening’s ride! We had to make a stop half way through the trek as Karina’s thongs fell off her camel so her and Mubarik walked back to find them. I was happy for this diversion as it allowed me to take some photos that were not so movement challenged! I was actually very sad for this experience to end despite the lack of sleep and smelly camels! Not only would I have a ton of blurry pictures to remember the time, but I would also be carrying the miniscule grains of sand in my backpack and camera cases for years to come!