Our 4×4 jeep was trouncing over hardpan sand at the edges of the Sahara Desert when I noticed an ominous black cloud rising behind the low hills over my left shoulder.
“I think there’s a sandstorm on the way,” I said to the driver.
“Is nothing,” he tossed back casually.
I hesitated. I was certainly no authority on the Saharan Desert or Morocco, so I was inclined to trust him, but having lived in Arizona for 12 years, I’d been through my fair share of sandstorms. “No, I’m fairly sure it’s a sandstorm, and a pretty big one at that,” I reiterated.
As we drove the last few kilometers to our tent camp the driver casually suggested to our tour host, Dror Sinai, that we could do a sunrise camel ride the following morning rather the evening sunset ride. Before he could reply we crested a final rise in the dirty washboard sand and descended into a Laurence of Arabia landscape. Wave after wave of caramel-colored dunes stretched to the horizon. Scattered around the sinuous peaks and valleys, a caravan of ratty-looking camels nonchalantly chewed their cud.
The drovers wasted no time getting us mounted. I held on tight as the beast straightened its hind legs, pitching me forward, then jerked up on its front legs, tossing me backward like a rag. Nose to tail, the camels headed into the dunes, surefootedly climbing the shifting sands. I snapped a few photos but each time we crested a dune the graceless downward gait had me grabbing for the pommel with both hands.
I was so intent on capturing photos that I had forgotten about the sandstorm in the Sahara Desert, so it took me completely by surprise when it roared in from behind. One moment the sky was perfectly clear; the next moment sand was being driven through the air at such a velocity that it felt like thousands of shards of glass were slamming into my bare legs and arms. I switched to video mode and managed to capture a few seconds of footage before realizing that I needed stow the camera or risk severe damage. More importantly, I needed to protect my $800 prescription glasses, without which I am helpless.
As we plodded on I struggled to remove my backpack and put away camera and glasses, praying that I didn’t fall off in the process. The winds roared through the valleys between dunes, swirling up the loose sand until it was impossible to breathe. I’d just managed to zip my bag up when my camel came to a sudden halt and the handler tugged at the reins, forcing it to sit.
“Thank God, we’re going to hunker down until the worst of the storm passes by,” I thought.
My handler helped me to dismount and began unwrapping the long scarf wound around his neck and face, intending to wrap it around me instead. Horrified, I refused. Without his scarf he would be totally exposed to the elements. Instead, I struggled into a travel jacket that I had stashed in my backpack and pulled the hood tight around my face. Grabbing my hand he dragged me, unwillingly, to the crest of a high dune that was apparently the sunset viewing spot. I stood for a few obligatory minutes at the top amidst swirling sand so dense it had entirely blotted out the sun before tearing off my shoes and sliding back down. All I wanted was get back to the camp and out of the storm.
Unfortunately, getting back to camp meant facing into the storm. I climbed back on my camel and clutched the pommel with one hand, while the other tried to keep my hood from being ripped off. Sand invaded every orifice and cranny of my body. It ground between my teeth, clogged my ears, and was sandpaper in my butt. With eyes shut tight I was blind, unable to anticipate the movement of the camel. Each time it reached a crest and galumped downward, I very nearly toppled off.
When we finally stopped my guide once again helped me to dismount and led me to the side of a long black tent, where he rolled out a blanket and motioned for me to sit. With the storm still swirling, he pulled jewelry and crafts from the flowing folds of his robe and laid them out for my perusal. It could have been 24 karat gold, for all I could tell without my glasses. I waved him off and headed for the lobby.
Dror was waiting for us with a contrite expression. “I thought you guys were going to kill me,” he confessed. “There were signs, if I’d paid attention. The driver asked me twice about doing the ride tomorrow morning instead of tonight but everyone was so excited about riding camels that I didn’t want to disappoint.”
Most laughed it off; a few were even delighted by the experience. I wasn’t quite so thrilled. I’d taken my glasses off quickly enough that they were not damaged but my camera hadn’t fared so well. But my camera lens was pitted and auto-focus would no longer function. It was a very expensive camel ride for me. Then again, how many people can say they’ve ridden a camel through a sandstorm in the Sahara Desert?
Author’s note: check out this story by Leigh McAdam at Hike, Bike, Travel, to read more about what it’s like to visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco, without a sandstorm.
I was a guest of Best of Morocco Tours during my stay in the Sahara. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.