“Hold on and lean back when the camel stands up and again when it sits back down.” Dave had ridden a camel once — in Egypt — but that is one time more than me, so I take his advice, hold on tight, and lean back as my camel pitches forward and stands.
Seated atop the soft saddle padding, I feel secure and at ease, ready to begin our trek.
Omar, a local Berber, begins leading our caravan of four camels away from the the dirt road we drove in on and toward the Sahara Desert’s golden sand dunes.
Appropriately enough, my camel is the smallest of our bunch. I pet his dark, coarse fur. His long eyelashes cast long shadows on the ground.
“What is his name?” I ask Omar.
“Two,” Omar says.
“Yes, because he is second in the line,” he explains.
I can’t possibly spend so much time on a camel’s back if it doesn’t have a name. So I name him (her?) Jeffrey. Cory, who is riding the camel behind me, names his Lawrence.
In pictures, the Sahara Desert rolls out like a soft golden carpet, and I’m surprised to find the reality isn’t that far off. As the desert dips and rolls into valleys and over hills, I spot liquor bottles and torn pieces of burlap tangled in scrub brush and wedged under the occasional rock. The afternoon ticks by. Our shadows stretch and elongate as our camels walk along ridges and wind their way through the Sahara to our desert camp.
With just one night in the desert, we don’t travel far. Our guides bring our camels to a stop near a cluster of pop-up tents as the sun begins to dip on the horizon.
We drop our bags and begin climbing the sand dunes for a better view. One step up, half a step back. One step up, half a step back. The climb is tough but worth the struggle. The golden carpet rolls out in every direction from where we stand. We see no other signs of life.
The air, still up to this point, whips into a brief frenzy. We pull buffs over our faces, and I squint my eyes to keep my contacts from scratching. Within moments, the wind dies down again, and we sit in the sand to take the moment in.
Somehow, as the sun hovers in the sky for the final few moments, the desert seems to glow.
Then the sun drops and the stars begin to appear. First one, then another, and then dozens and hundreds after that.
After a communal dinner, the staff and our guide — all Berbers — gather around a campfire. A few drums materialize, and the guys begin tapping their fingers and singing in the Berber language. The rhythm, the dark sky covered in stars, and the dancing flames blend into a singular mesmerizing entity. I feel the beat in my chest and the heat on my face, and I’m lost in the moment.
Riding a camel and spending the night in a desert like this has never been on my Life List. And it’s not those two things singularly that hold this moment in my mind. Rather, it’s feeling so far removed from what I know. It’s being in the presence of these men who are connected by history and culture and this place, who I can feel are singing from a place of meaning and love more than out of obligation to entertain us.
This is a magical moment.
That night, the desert cradles me in her arms and I immediately fall into a deep sleep. It is the best night of sleep I have the entire time we’re in Morocco: Silent. Dark. Not too warm, and not too cold.
Morning comes quickly, but we have to leave early in order to catch sunrise on our way out of the desert.
I say good morning to Jeffrey but ride another camel for the first part of our ride.
We reach our sunrise destination with moments to spare, and I race up the hill just in time to watch the sun kiss the sky. The golden carpet is still rolled out before us, but in the morning light, it’s not as intense.
Most of our group remounts their camels, but I choose to walk the rest of the way back. Before leaving the camp, I asked our guide to help me find a garbage bag, and for the reminder of my time in the Sahara Desert, I commit to picking up the abandoned garbage that’s littering the landscape.
One other member of our group also chooses to walk. Together, we trudge up and down the sandy embankments to collect shredded pieces of rope, weather-worn bottles, and pieces of cardboard. We fill an entire garbage bag, and there’s so much more we leave behind.
Our guide, who makes this walk several times a year, admits he never noticed all the trash before and vows to start picking it up every time he wanders into the desert with his groups.
I get it: When it’s part of the landscape you know, you simply don’t see it. But when I look out over the Sahara Desert, I see a landscape as spectacular as the photographs. Helping keep it clean means people can sink their toes into this brilliant golden carpet for many years to come.