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May 16, 2010 — Midday
No entry for yesterday. Just too damned hot. Figured I’d make the effort today, despite my fatigue, before time and distance dissipate my memories like a camel fart in the desert.
Rashid. Guide, cook, keeper of the camels (keeping them away from us, at least).
I’m not a religious man, but “prayer” is the closest thing to what was going through my mind as we struggled up and then crested each successive rise this morning only to discover yet another scrubby valley to cross—prayer that each one would be the last, that we would finally see the dunes and scattered trees that might provide enough shade for our mid-day break. But valley after valley was the same baked hardpan. All we saw was more desert. Another shadeless expanse to cross. Another few kilometers before yet another rise and the hope that this might be it. We crossed about eight of these valleys this morning alone, and the temperature is above 40 degrees out here.
I have blisters and arch pain in my right foot, as well as growing swelling in the ankle (possibly an old injury acting up). Laura is about the same, with blisters, sore knees, bites, and what she figures is heat rash on her legs.
Although it is day four of five, we still haven’t ridden the damn camels, and the black thoughts that run through my head as we lumber on, watching Rashid and two camel asses get progressively further away with our dwindling water supply strapped to their backs should not be repeated in polite company. Let’s just say I have considered several of the ways a body could be disposed of in the desert.
Rashid and the camels.
This was probably the most brutal section of the trek, with no shade or change in the rocky landscape for at least 12 km.
This is what this place does to things. This is an old pack camel who died in one of the bivouacs from disease. After it’s death, the owners brought it out to return to the desert.
Every step hurts, but we only have one more afternoon trek to reach the massive 300m dunes of Erg Chigaga, our final destination. We’ll spend the night there, hopefully after a camel ride of some sort. I’ve asked Rashid about the camels, as I know Laura is really looking forward to riding them, but his response is the same: “apres, apres.” He actually seems to feign a bigger language barrier than usual whenever I bring up the camels. It’s odd.
The Tamarist trees in the distance marked the end of one of the toughest stretches we faced, and were the answer to the prayer mentioned above. They were a happy sight indeed.
Tomorrow morning we’ll be driven from Chigaga back to Zagora, after a couple of interesting stops along the way, and it will all be over. Of course, it’s not all pain and misery. Overall, Rashid has been a great guide, if a little stoic. I’m not sure if it’s just the language barrier holding him back, or if he’s just quiet, preferring the solitude of his own thoughts to chatter. Of course, this is an ideal mindset for the desert, where even speaking, reaching for a water bottle, or bending over to pick up an interesting rock can require an iron will. The heat and exertion rob all thought and sap all extra energy. For me, retreating into my own head has helped keep me focused on just taking the next step.
Of course, we’d be lost without Rashid, at least in a figurative sense; actual navigation out here is not as difficult as I had thought. There are plenty of landmarks, including distant hills, trees, dunes, and the far-off mountains to the north. The desert is stunningly beautiful, and far more diverse in its landscape and wildlife than I would have believed. No we wouldn’t be lost, but Rashid has been indispensable in myriad other ways. As Laura and I lounge in the shade, even as I write this, Rashid is preparing tea before starting on lunch. He rises before us, prepares the meals, does most of the washing, and tends the camels. He is also necessarily relentless in marching us on to Chigaga, never varying his pace at all. Even though at times I have considered bludgeoning him with a rock, deep down I am grateful. It has occurred to me more than once that if Rashid were to take the camels and abandon us, we could easily die out here. Even though we’d know which direction to go, without food, water, and shade, we wouldn’t last long. Of course, we could probably flag down one of the 4WD vehicles that occasionally go by in the distance, kicking up dust on the rutted tracks to Chigaga, carrying tourists too lazy (or too smart) to attempt the 60km trek. We haven’t seen any other trekkers except a small group on the first day, and a few guides bringing camels back from Chigaga.
Not that we really signed up to walk ourselves. What we thought we were buying was a camel ride into the desert, perhaps supplemented with some walking. Hell, we’d have been happy to have a walk supplemented with even a little bit of riding, but so far nothing. Shariff and Mimoun, the camels, do have a large burden in carrying our water, food, gear, and other essentials necessary to sustain us out here. Not to mention our own baggage, which although only amounts to about 25 kilos, still contains such desert “essentials” as our two computers, two rain coats, and Laura’s blow dryer.
We’re not looking to strain the camels, which carry themselves like big, stinky champions, but we can’t help thinking that maybe Mohammed should have engaged a third camel if the baggage load is too much to add the weight of a person.
I have been doing my best to help out when possible (as has Laura), in setting up camp, loading and unloading the camels, and with meals and cleaning up, but Rashid is the main bread winner around here. And since it’s our bread he’s winning, we don’t let that bother us too much.
But here we are, in relative luxury. For the moment we have shade, a large blanket to lay on and our sleeping mats to cushion the stones below. We have hot mint tea, cookies and peanuts. The tea is actually good to drink in the heat; the body has less work to regulate the temperature and process the liquid. We have enough mineral water left that we should be abel to get through to tomorrow without resorting to treated well water. We have a hot lunch on the way, and one more night in the Sahara to look forward to.
Tea, cookies, and salted peanuts. Our pre-lunch snack. I’ll never be a good enough writer to be able to convey how good this stuff tastes after four hours in the desert. That’s Laura’s fossil and lithics (stone tools) collection in the background.
This is just one part of a six-part series on our camel trek in the Moroccoan Sahara. To read the full story, please click here.