Desert always means journey. Nomads living in it, tourists traveling across it, refugees escaping through it — the Sahara is wide and the journey often long. We move across its orange-golden dunes with no sense that we will ever reach anything but another dune. Even the small part of it I visited in February, the Erg Chebbi, seemed endless when I was in it. I had traveled by minivan over a two-day span, and then by camel for another hour and a half, and the anticipation and tedium of the long journey had built up, but once I was in the middle of the desert, that all blew away to nothingness.
The Sahara was vast and immutable. I’ve been to some places that have been described as alien landscapes, like the salt flats in Bolivia, but in those places I felt more like these alien places had landed in my familiar world, whereas walking along a ridge in the Sahara felt like I was the alien coming to a place that was immediately familiar and perfect, but not mine. Our guides, young men of the local Berber tribe, were of course at home, so it’s important not to ascribe too much mystery to a place that many people are very familiar with, just because it is a mystery to me. But I was struck by how much of a mystery it was to me, despite looking exactly like every photo I’d ever seen of it, exactly like I’d hoped it would. I’ve been to a lot of places in the world, and this is one of the few that made me feel like I don’t know the first thing about Earth.
Erg Chebbi is part of the Sahara but it’s also a sort of isolated little island surrounded by a different nature of desert, a flatter one with black sand, which as it turns out is how much of the Sahara looks. I had thought of the desert as made up of constantly shifting sands (and oh the tired metaphors to draw between those sands and the nomadic people living within them!). But the ergs (dunes) are built up often over thousands of years in pockets of land, and dunes build up on dunes in pretty sturdy arrangements. Obviously sandstorms do occur and move vast quantities of sand around, but our guide told us that this erg has looked more or less the same for years now.
I’d read a lot about how uncomfortable camel riding is, but the camels walk in a rhythm that soothingly sways you from side to side. It’s the width of the camel that did me in; I should have done more stretches before flinging my legs across the camel’s back! (Our camels were not named. When asked, our guide shrugged and said, “you can name them if you want.” These are work animals.) Here is a funny video of me mounting up:
I should point out that we didn’t try to “dress up” in these head coverings; we’re wearing scarves that our guides bought for us and put on us. Hassan wrapped the bright pink cloth around my head in about twenty seconds and declared me ready for the desert. Because this was February, the sun wasn’t as intense as it is other times of year, but I still needed protection. (Also, the research I did seemed to say that riding camels is not cruel in the way that riding elephants is, but it didn’t look like the bit in their mouths was exactly comfortable, so if you’re considering your own camel trek you may want to do further research to find a tour company that suits.)
My camel was at the lead, which was a lucky thing for me, because I got an unimpeded view of everything in front of us. Just my camel’s nodding head, and the two Berber guides walking in front, chatting with each other. I gripped the safety bar fairly tightly the whole time, because although we walked in a steady rhythm, we were going along ridges, up and down hills, and while I never feared the camel was going to make a misstep, it seemed very likely that I could go pitching into the sand at any moment.
But pitch I did not. I rocked left and right as we sloped along, passing the tracks of camels, smaller desert animals, and the 4x4s that roar across the dunes during the day. During this sunset walk, though, there was no motorized anything that I could hear. I saw a few other trains of camels in the distance, and at one point, a man striding across the dunes solo, but that was it. Our guides talked to one another, until one of them split off to get to the camp faster, and then it was just my poor cold-ridden tourmate coughing, or one of the four of us pointing something out to the others. But mostly it was silence.
Our tents were way fancier than I’d expected — a sturdy bed layered in blankets for the cold night ahead, a toilet and water pump set up behind. Dinner was a delicious tagine, the Moroccan dish named for the dish it’s cooked in, made up of vegetables and meat all stewed together in an earthenware pot with a conical lid. I chatted with my tourmates, who by this point in the tour were easy travel friends, as we shared a meal with about 20 people from other tours staying at the same campsite. After dinner, we all sat around a large campfire and listened to the guides sing and play music — until they encouraged us to join in, at which point we got up and awkwardly danced. They asked us to teach everyone traditional songs from our countries, so we joined in on a Quebecois kids’ tune and a saucy Swedish drinking song.
It was nearly the full moon while I was there, which more than a few people said was a shame, since I’d miss the blanket of stars you rarely see under anything but a desert or ocean sky. Uh thanks for making me feel bad about something I literally cannot change, guys. But while I do love looking up at a sky so vast I feel myself falling into the Milky Way, I thought the bright moon over the Sahara was just as beautiful. The peaks and valleys of the dunes appeared in sharp relief, and it was as if the desert had turned on a spotlight so that it could be seen and appreciated for all 24 hours of the day.
After an extremely cold night (even under all those blankets), we scrambled to get back on the camels before daybreak, so that we could see the sun rise over the dunes as we’d seen it set on them the evening before.
We took what I think was a different route back to the edge of the desert, which affirmed my feeling of desert as journey: one way in, another out, and if you let the silence and the majesty work on you while you’re there, you come out grateful for where you’ve been.