“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 dunes and bouncing along undefined rocky paths on the way to Merzouga. Although I felt I acquitted myself admirably in my maiden desert voyage, the extra rattles and buildup of sand in the carburettor 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. 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 were saddled, water 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 gaping wrent in my shorts as I climbed on my camel, although the pronounced 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.”
Ebb and flow of the Sahara
He had a point. The shifting sands and unending dunes were strangely discombobulating, and it proved difficult keeping a grasp on any conventional 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. The sand, unforgiving and malleable, compounded the dune’s steepness, and I often lost my balance before sliding back down to the bottom to begin the ascent again. It was only later, upon finally reaching the summit of the peak and peered far below to the basin, that I noticed a much gentler, less perpendicular, route. However, in my fervour to catch the sunset, I decided the only possible way was the direct one.
But my misguided endeavour also brought its 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 looking around, I saw a few other visitors enjoying the gloaming spectacle, the fading light rendering them as silhouettes slowly fading into the encroaching void.
A nameless yearning for what lay ahead formed in the pit of my stomach as the sky rapidly bruised. Determined to arrive back at the base before night fully draped itself across the Sahara begun the descent back down the dune, concerned only slightly with the gaping tear in my shorts.