“We’ve arrived, sir,” Jakani smiled as I brought the car to an undignified halt, wincing slightly as something metallic pinged from an unseen corner of the vehicle.
We had just spent the last hour traversing sand dunes and bouncing along undefined rocky paths on the way to Merzouga and although I felt I acquitted myself admirably in my maiden desert voyage, the extra rattles and buildup of sand in the carburetor might take some explaining when I returned the rental Suzuki Alto in Ouarzazate.
But that was a problem for another day. We had reached the edge of the Sahara, a train of camels sitting listlessly in the blazing early-afternoon heat and I drew heavily on a celebratory Marquise cigarette as I absorbed the scene, bouncing along as my hitchhiking companion slapped out a drum tattoo on the roof of the car. Around us lay a group of squat, sand-coloured buildings and beyond them the vast desert lay in wait.
Our goal was Erg Chebbi, one of the Sahara’s large dune seas, and preparations were already complete: the camels had been saddled, water had been stocked up and traditional Saharan head scarves donned to shield us from the sun. Aziz, one of Jakani’s friends, had already left on a quad bike to get the camp ready for our arrival.
I prayed no-one noticed the huge tear in my shorts as I climbed on my camel, although the huge ripping sound was an unfortunate giveaway. Either way, my new companions – Carlos from Portugal and Francesca from Argentina – politely failed to mention it and soon we had set off, locking on to the gentle swaying of our dromedary transport.
Jakani kept us entertained with traditional berber tribal tales and after a pleasant half-hour’s riding I asked him how long the journey would take. “Who knows, Tom?” he said, walking alongside us. “This is the Sahara. Time is different here.”
He had a point. The shifting sands and unending dunes were strangely discombobulating and it was difficult to keep a grasp on any normal passage of time. Instead I surrendered to the ebb and flow of the desert and the relaxing rocking of my camel.
Sure enough, we eventually reached our camp at the foot of Erg Chebbi with the sun rapidly starting its descent. I had to strain my neck as I took in the staggering size of the peak and, in an attempt to match Jakani’s boundless enthusiasm, started to climb it.
This was no easy feat. The sand was unforgiving, as was the steepness of the dune, and oftentimes I’d lose my balance before sliding back down to the bottom to begin the ascent again. It was only later, upon finally reaching the summit, that I realised I could have taken a much easier, and gentler, climb up the side but in my fervour to catch the sunset I decided the only possible route was the direct one.
But my misguided endeavour also brought its own reward. The view from the top of Erg Chebbi was astounding – the sky took on the hues of the desert itself as it bid its farewell for the day and the sand seemed to glow in anticipation of the cool night ahead. Tiny flecks in the distance revealed themselves as vehicles toing and froing from the oasis town of Erfoud and as I looked around I saw a few other visitors enjoying the gloaming spectacle, the fading light rendering them as silhouettes.
I was filled with a nameless yearning for what lay ahead as the sky rapidly started to bruise and begun my descent back down the dune, concerned only slightly with the gaping rent in my shorts.