The light bobbed in the dark. Like a lantern held aloft by some floating specter, it flickered and shifted in the Saharan wind. The Captain and I had made camp for the night in the dunes of Erg Lihoudi, roughly 10 miles outside the town of M’Hamid on the Moroccan/Algerian border. The camp’s only latrine was well away from the deserted circle of tents that occupied the only flat terrain in a labyrinth of dunes, and to mark its location our guide Ali had placed a single candle, sheltered by a plastic jar from the blowing sand.
It was well after midnight and the scorching vestige of the African sun had long since set below the eastern horizon. I switched on my LED flashlight to illuminate the sands below, but the glare obscured the distant marker and I was forced to use it intermittently. Without the flashlight, the darkness was visceral. Stars such as I had never seen marked the desert sky. Ali had pointed out some of the constellations the evening before, and I found myself staring up at the same stars the ancient caravans had used to navigate these vast stretches of desert. Cassiopeia, Orion’s Belt; these stars were visible from back home but here they seemed more real, more vivid. Without the barrier of pollution or city light, the sky seemed alive, as if the stars themselves were an integral part of the dark sands below.
As the camp faded into the dunes behind me, I was glad to have the Captain’s company. Barbary lions have been extinct in Morocco for almost a hundred years, but North African cheetahs still inhabit the Sahara’s western fringes (not to mention venomous scorpions and snakes) so it is always wise to travel in pairs. I was pondering how terrifying it must be for those in the continent’s interior to venture out at night in the wild, when a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye made my heart catch in my throat! But the Captain only laughed as the fleeing shape fading into the night turned out to be one of the domestic housecats that accompanied our camel driver. We shared a rueful glance and followed the cat’s trail back to camp, its footprints slowly dissolving into the shifting desert sand.
The next morning the wind had calmed and the Captain and I had breakfast outside of our tent in the lee of one of the larger dunes. Fresh orange juice, sweet pastries, and mint tea helped to shake off the chill of the night before. As the captain readied his pack for the journey, I took the chance to get up close with our increasingly restive camels. The great beasts lounged languidly in the shade of our tent, but their eyes gazed out towards the dunes as if anxious to be on their way. The Captain and I were quick to oblige, and before long we had saddled up and begun the long trek back to the main road.
Camel trains in the more touristy destinations of Morocco can stretch for over a hundred meters with dozens of tourists stacked in a line. This is especially true during the high season, but in February, at a much more remote location like this it was just the Captain, myself, and Mohammed the camel driver. With a backward glance at the deserted crescent of tents, I bid farewell to our camp and saddled the great dromedary. This time it felt much more natural than the previous day and I soon fell into the rhythm of the camel’s hypnotic, swaying gait. As we headed out into the dunes, the wind soon picked up and I could no longer hold a conversation with the Captain due to the howling of the western wind. Legend tells of dunes where the wind seems to speak and sing as it rips through the sand. An aural form of mirage, these sounds have disoriented travelers in years past. When combined with low visibility, the results can be fatal. Separated from their caravans in sand storms, they chase after the ghostly voices they swear are so close only to find a deadly labyrinth of sand and heat. As the wind increased in intensity, I could almost hear the whisper of a voice echo off the dunes. As I turned in the saddle to shelter my camera from the wind, I realized this was no illusion; on the camel behind me the Captain was shouting to get my attention! He gestured to the sand behind him and I soon saw why. The camel behind the Captain had shaken loose from his line and was off wandering freely in the desert behind us. We both tried to get Mohammed’s attention, but with the wind shrieking over the dunes there was no way he could hear us. With our camels tied to the line there was also no way to pull alongside him without untying the lines and setting more of the great beasts free. As we looked back toward the loose camel, he seemed to be debating what to do with his newfound freedom. He was rapidly fading into the dunes as his pace had slowed, but he appeared to still be following our path.
Mohammed finally recognized the situation and quickly dashed back into the dunes to retrieve the absconding camel. With a look of mixed chagrin and relief, the large dromedary was soon back in the train. After about an hour or so trekking back through Erg Lihoudi, our small caravan reached the road to M’Hamid where Ali was waiting with our 4×4. The Captain and I dismounted, shook the sand off our boots and cheches (a vernacular term for the tagelmust or Moroccan/Tuareg turban), and got into the waiting Toyota Prado. After the long camel ride, the back seat of the car felt just like heaven! Ali keyed the ignition and the road south opened before us, a stark, fragmented splash of pavement in a sea of shifting sand. A few kilometers later, we entered the outskirts of M’Hamid. This desert town marks the end of the road, but the haunting vista before us felt more like the end of the world. Sand drifted through the small line of souks and outfitters that ringed what was left of the road, clinging to its curving path as if to take shelter from the wastes beyond. A French Foreign Legion base stood like a bulwark against the encroaching dunes, but the desert loomed like an approaching storm, ominous in its stark beauty. Against such vastness, the faded walls of the fort felt less like a projection of power and more like a last defense against the unknown. For years this frontier outpost on the desert’s edge has endured the storms of both man and nature. Sandstorms roll in from the outer dunes, reducing visibility to less than 5 meters and buffeting any standing structure with high winds and stinging sand. Political storms have been no less severe. In 1979 the Polisario Front launched a raid on M’Hamid, killing several inhabitants. Given the town’s proximity to Algeria and the geopolitical tensions over Western Sahara, an undercurrent of tension blows in tandem with the Saharan wind.
We drove through the winding souks and watched as the road breathed its last breath. Abruptly and rather unceremoniously the only paved surface for almost 100 miles disintegrated into a sea of misty sand. The road stopped, but it was more than that. It was as if the world stopped with it. The world I knew dissolved with that road, leaving only the unknown; a leviathan in all its glory. My ruminations were cut short as the Prado hit the sand with a lurch. As foreign as the featureless terrain was to me, it was as familiar as home to Ali and he twisted the 4×4 through one featureless path after another, deftly dodging ravines where rock pierced the sandy earth.
The Sahara is as varied as it is vast, and only about a third of it is sand. Sun-hammered rock and scorched plateaus are just as common as the seas of rolling dunes. As we left M’Hamid behind and civilization faded in the rear-view mirror, the sand gave way to stone and we entered the hamada. Hamada is an Arabic term for a flat, stone-covered plateau in which the Aeolian process of deflation has stripped it of its sand. The rocky stones reflect the glare of the sun’s heat and this harsh terrain can be even more brutal to cross than the ergs of shifting sand.
About 10 miles outside M’Hamid, Ali brought the Prado to a stop. The dust kicked up by the 4×4 soon caught up to our slowing pace and settled around us, reducing visibility to just a few feet. Once the dust settled, Ali hopped out to show us a spot of life amidst the desert: a Calotropis Procera plant, known locally as the Apple of Sodom. A lost traveler coming across one of these beautiful plants might have thought himself saved, for the Calotropis bears green, sphere-like fruit in the spring. In the Sahara, however, even life is ringed with death. The fruit of Sodom’s Apple is toxic enough to bring blindness and death to any human foolish enough to taste it. Even camels cannot stand such levels of toxicity and become temporarily incapacitated. As I climbed back in the Prado, Ali flashed a mischievous grin and asked if we’d like a better view.
With a quick admonishment not to tell his boss he gestured to the roof of the vehicle , saying that although tourists were not allowed to ride on top due to safety concerns, family could ride where they liked. One of the most fulfilling things about ditching the mass tourist groups and engaging with the locals is the rapport you build with your hosts. Ali was more like a friend than a guide, and I quickly clambered up the rear bumper and on to the dusty hot roof. The Captain climbed up beside me and with one long stride hooked his Merrell boots underneath the shining metal of the Prado’s upper rack. Ali put the SUV into gear and sped off into the shimmering hamada. The result was visceral. I felt a thrill of excitement as I was forced to hang on tight to the rack with one hand while I maneuvered the controls of my 60D with the other. It is one thing to see the Sahara through a window, feeling the cool breath of air conditioning on your face with the only sounds the conversation with Ali and the Captain and the soft click of the camera shutter. It is another thing entirely to experience it with no barriers. To feel the sting of sand on your skin, the deep warmth of the African sun on your face, the wind whipping at your clothing as you grip the dusty chassis beneath you. I loved it.
As we lurched down the lee side of a rocky rise, I felt strangely at peace. I felt a connection with this ancient land and could finally understand the pull it has exerted on nomads and explorers for millennia. I hooked my boots under the forward portion of the rack and laid myself down horizontally across the roof. Beneath the flowing linen of the Captain’s cheche I could see his eyebrows arch in surprise. But then again he’d seen his wife do crazy things before!
As we bumped along the rocky hamada, we caught a rare glimpse of animal life as a small group of goats ambled out of the way of our vehicle guided by a young shepherd boy. “Assalamu alaikum!”, the Captain shouted as we passed by. The boy grinned and waved, whether pleased with the greeting or just amused by two crazy Americans riding on top of a 4×4 in the Sahara I’m not quite sure. A few miles on, Ali guided the Prado to the base of a nearby Acacia tree. One of the few species of vegetation that can survive in this harsh environment, the Acacia is ubiquitous in Africa with its various subspecies marking the land from the Sahara to the Serengeti (where the local varieties are known as fever trees). There we left the SUV and took refuge in the precious shade. While the Captain and I enjoyed the relatively cool air, Ali prepared an impromptu picnic! Freshly baked bread filled with peppers and vegetables; in the desert it felt like manna from heaven. All around us the hamada glittered in the afternoon sun, with heat shimmers forming water mirages just below the horizon. To the northwest the distant peaks of the Anti Atlas had finally faded into the sand-filled sky; to the east and south the desert seemed to stretch into infinity.
As we finished lunch, Ali proposed a challenge of the Captain’s navigation skills. He pointed to an Acacia tree just barely visible above the heat waves on the horizon. He challenged us to keep a straight line across the featureless hamada and navigate to the base of that tree. With several other nearly identical trees in every direction and no large terrain references it was a challenge indeed! (Albeit one the Captain and I readily accepted). Using shadows and solar angles, as well as a bit of good fortune, the Captain led us out into the hamada. Walking with a heavy footfall so as not to surprise any snakes, we walked for a half hour or so into the searing Sahara. I quickly gained an intense appreciation for the Berber tribesmen who call this hostile region home. By the time we arrived at the base of the Acacia, I was glad of the protection of my white cheche and even more glad to see the roaring dust cloud that heralded the approach of Ali’s Prado.
For miles the desert flashed past our window, ever desolate yet ever changing. Dorcas Gazelles and wild dromedaries dotted the hamada, but disappeared as the blowing sand began to increase in intensity. As Ali engaged the 4-wheel drive to traverse a gully, our destination materialized out of the mist of sand: the dunes of Grand Erg Chigaga. Seen from a distance they looked like mountains, dominating the hazy horizon, but it wasn’t until we got closer that I realized just how epic in scale they were. In an instant, everything we had seen up to that point began to pale. The dunes seemed straight out of a Saharan dream; golden sand as far as the eye could see, hidden away in this remote corner of Africa.
Sitting astride the Moroccan/Algerian border, Erg Chigaga was the subject of a long-running border dispute between these two Saharan powers, and as a result completely undeveloped and off limits for travelers until the 1990s. That fact, coupled with its extremely remote location means that very few people visit this stunning locale. The more popular Erg Chebbi has taller sand peaks and paved roads for easy access, but it is missing what has always been the siren’s call of the world’s greatest desert: that indescribably haunting, yet thrilling feeling of isolation and exploration; the lure of the unknown. As we made camp at the base of the erg, I could hardly believe that these incredible dunes were completely devoid of people! Our only companions at our encampment were a Czech couple who were completing a driving tour of Morocco. As they shared their evening meal with us, they told us how difficult it was to locate and access the Grand Erg, even with GPS. Ali replied that they were lucky to find it at all. The dunes are an animal unto themselves and actually move over time. He told us of a French tourist that had gotten lost trying to find Erg Chigaga just last year. He ended up lost in the desert for days, before he was rescued by a Moroccan search helicopter, extremely dehydrated and near death. Many more have been saved by local tribes, whose laws of hospitality still dictate aid and shelter to travelers in need. Not sure of the route back to civilization, the Czechs asked if they could follow behind Ali the next morning. (However, Ali would grow to find our Czech companions annoying and leave them behind when they failed to cross a rocky section of the hamada!) It’s ok I’m sure they made it…
As Ali went to prepare dinner, the Captain and I made preparations to journey into the dunes. We unloaded our bags at our tent, and I grabbed my 60D while the Captain made sure we were well stocked with water, medical supplies, and navigational kit. The circular array of empty tents had the distinctive feel of a base camp, with the dunes right upon its doorstep. I felt a surge of excitement as the Captain and I left the safety of the camp behind and ventured out into them alone. As we entered the dunes, the temperature seemed to increase as the wind enveloped us in a cloak of sand. We hadn’t gone 100 meters when we received a chilling reminder of just whose domain this was. In front of us lay the ruins of a shattered camp, half reclaimed by the Sahara. The mud brick foundations were all that remained and sand filed some up to their roofs. (Ali would later tell us that when the dunes moved toward the camps, they were powerless to stop the advance and would simply have to rebuild).
As we ventured deeper into the dunes it truly felt like another world. Sand swirled up towards the ridgeline, and the wind noise was nearly deafening. The Captain led us toward the peak of the highest dune, but each step forward was a concerted effort as the sand rushed back over my faded hiking boots. They had seen jungles, mountains, and rainforests, but here they were decidedly out of their element. The Captain was having an easier time of it as he had elected to go barefoot despite the heat of the sand and the off chance of death stalker scorpions and horned vipers. I decided to send him on to the summit while I took some photos and absorbed my indescribable surroundings. I watched the Captain obtain the ridgeline and promptly fall to his knees from the exertion and the fact that the shrieking wind almost blew him over the much steeper lee side of the dune. The sand enveloped me like a living cloak, the sting of the sand particles dancing off my exposed face. I looked around, and in every direction the sand was legion. The Sahara dominated my vision, every vista alive with breathtaking, visceral beauty.
The Captain caught the sunset from the summit of the highest dune and climbed down the ridgeline where I moved to join him. Neither of us had words say, but the looked we shared as gazed out into the vastness of the desert said it all. The Sahara had left its mark on us and we would never forget its call.
We descended back toward our encampment with the wind dying off behind us. Tomorrow would bring the open desert again with our path taking us through the fossil beds of the dry lake Iriqui and finally to the frontier town of Foum Zguid where we would begin our long journey back to Ouarzazate. Our adventure was far from over and Morocco would hold much more for us. Living history like the ancient Kasbah of Ait-Ben-Haddou and the climb back over the High Atlas to Marrakech, but for the Captain and I, nothing will ever surpass that feeling upon the dunes of Erg Chigaga; that physical manifestation of the unknown as we trekked through the blistering sand of one of the wildest places on the planet. It is something I will never forget: my husband and I, alone in those ancient sands, hauntingly standing at the edge of the world.