Saturday, November 14, 2009

Philip's Camel Trek

(Philip Beck, my Canadian companion on the Moroccan camel trek, reported on his experience. It is a lovely piece - with several corrections: I have yet to travel in South America; while I have wandered about the Himalayas, I haven't done a proper trek; I have been more in the Middle East and Africa than Arabia.

Here's Philip's impressions of the Sahara Camel Trek - and he rode the camel much more than I did, brave man that he is!)

Southern Morocco Camel Trek
by Philip Beck

“For the true adventurer the rewards are found more in the striving and the journey than the achievement of the goal.” (Author unknown)

I came across this quote many years ago and have never forgotten it. Rarely does the opportunity arise for a real adventure: a journey in a remote region where taxing physical effort is required; where the daily rewards are both social, like enjoying your fellow travelers’ company and sharing in your leader’s expertise, and more intimate, like gazing at the Milky Way or even contemplating the crystalline intricacies of a single grain of sand. Exodus’ AMC Southern Morocco Camel Trek is one of these adventures. I was lucky enough to be on this trip in October of 2009.

The backbone of the trip is a 210 km trek from Zagora to Merzouga and the dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Moroccan Sahara desert. This trip’s mastermind and designated leader, Michael Asher, is an internationally renowned desert explorer, author, and environmentalist.

Michael has received the National Geographic Society’s Ness Award for his desert exploration, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Mungo Park Medal for exploration and for his work with camels. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1996. With his wife, he was the first westerner to cross the Sahara from west to east: a 7,430 km. journey by camel that took nine months. (By comparison, it is only 6,700 km from Dawson City, Yukon to Halifax, Nova Scotia!) Michael has also produced films, directed documentaries, and contributes to leading newspapers and magazines. You could not ask for a more knowledgeable leader: a true adventurer who has spent many years in the Sahara living with nomads. Michael shared stories the whole trip about the nomads, desert life, and ecology.

Our group of eleven included six from the UK, one from Korea, one from the UAE, two from the US, and me. Our ages ranged from a 26-year-old to a woman who celebrated her 80th birthday on Day 7. The cooks made a special dessert that night to mark the occasion. This lady had just come from Afghanistan, had traveled through most of the Arabian Peninsula, trekked in the Himalayas, and hiked in South America. I learned a lot from her. One of her secrets is her can-do attitude.

Our group met in Marrakech. The following day we drove by mini-bus over the High Atlas Mountains to Zagora. We passed kasbahs, oases, and villages, and finally reached the end of the road. We met our camels and camel guides ten km past the end of the road just by the Tzi N’Tafilet Pass by 4 X 4’s. Our journey to Merzouga would take us ten days.

Each day we awoke at 5:30 a.m., before the sun rose at six. By seven we had eaten breakfast, packed up, and were ready to set off. We walked or rode for four hours, traveling five or six km per hour, with a rest and snack break every hour. At 11:00 we would find a place to have a three-hour break. We found shade from the hot sun under nearby trees or hillsides and if needed the camel men would put a large tent up for us. They also had lunch ready by around 12:15 after serving us glasses of re-hydrating and therapeutic green tea with as much sugar as we needed.

The afternoon trek likewise lasted three to four hours. The camel men again had tea ready within 30 minutes of our arrival and set up the tent. We got to our stop for the evening just before glorious colourful sunsets. Dinner was usually between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. Dinner was in the big tent by the light of a single lantern. Each evening we talked about the day and share stories and philosophies. We slept under the stars. Everyone’s last sight each night was the Milky Way and meteorites blazing across the limitless desert sky. We were there when there was no visible moon. This allowed for really clear stargazing.

The desert was mostly uninhabited. We passed only four or five settlements in the ten days. One day we met Berber nomads and visited their tent. Often we crossed paths with herds of camels or goats. We walked through mountain passes, crossed plains, bushwhacked though wadis (dry river beds), and gazed across the desert from the tops of dunes. We got our water from wells. One day we braved a mini sandstorm. Most days a breeze kept us fresh. We all had to keep our faces and heads covered to protect us from the sun. We found fossils. To our great surprise there was a lot of green: oases of palms, grasses, shrubs, desert melons and a few trees.

There were seven camel men plus a cook. Besides preparing our meals and teas and setting up the big tent, they packed and unpacked our gear, tended to the camels, ensured our comfort on the camels, and made sure we didn’t wander off track while walking. I have never seen such a team work so hard and seamlessly in my life. The meals they cooked were far better than the basic fare I was expecting. Every morning I looked forward to oatmeal porridge with fig jam spooned in to sweeten it up. Every day the team made fresh bread in the sand under a fire. These camel men greatly enhanced our group’s experience. They clearly loved what they were doing. Who wouldn't be happy living in the desert at peace, sharing your life experiences to an appreciative group? Our camaraderie with the camel men, evident from the start, developed into real friendships. We walked with them all day long and even though the majority of us spoke no Arabic other than “sukran” and “salaam alekum,” and no Berber, we communicated in broken French (on both sides), smiles, and friendly teasing. These guys spent a large part of the day teasing each other and laughing as well.

The Sahara is wilderness but we were within striking distance of roads and settlements if an emergency arose. We saw snakes and scorpions but a real concern to be aware of was the possibility of dehydration. We had to drink five or six liters of water each day, which for me that meant a few gulps every 15 to 20 minutes. One of these liters had salts dissolved in it to replenish what we’d sweated away.

Some minor annoyances I’d expected turned out to be fine. I was surprised how easy it was to stay clean for so long without a bath or shower. There were a lot of flies in the daytime and moths at night, but we just got used to them. The highest it got was during the day was 32. The evenings went down to about 12.

Our trip ended after a day and a half in the Erg Chebbi. The trip ended too soon. After big handshakes and hugs with our new friends the group realised that we had all accomplished something really big and really important. We also realised how lucky we were to have such a great experience in the desert, learning and sharing.

The highlights were:

• the beauty of the desert and learning about the desert ecosystem

• the Milky Way and shooting stars at night

• the company of Michael Asher

• trekking in a place little touched by ‘progress’

• a slower pace of life as we lived our days by the sun’s rhythms

• learning about and appreciating a nomadic way of life

Morocco is changing and modernizing rapidly. Each day in the Sahara we saw a few jeeps, a specially outfitted overland truck, or quads. Often they stopped and took our pictures. We attracted their interest because we were doing the authentic journey. I’m afraid that in five or ten years the route we took may be paved over. Go there as soon as you can.

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