The fall was not a heavy one, but it proved enough to leave me sprawled on the desert floor as I caught my breath. Overhead the rapidly fading sky saw the iridescent sunset replaced by inky blackness. From my vantage point on the side of Erg Chebbi, the giant dune on the edge of the Sahara desert, I could make out the comings and goings at the base camp far below.
I may not have misjudged the Chebbi’s massive scale when I ascended it, but I nevertheless neglected to remember the most basic rule of gravity: What goes up must come down. The next 10 minutes of my descent saw me tumbling down the deceptively steep sand mountain. My bid to find a foothold and any balance whatsoever repeatedly ended in futility.
Sadly, my shorts, already the victim of an embarrassing tear as I mounted a camel earlier on, were filling up with sand. Not to be deterred I lit a cigarette, chortling at my predicament as the stars gradually appeared over the desert.
Horizontal desert schlep
Eventually, I stumbled back into camp, my companions lying sprawled in varying states of relaxation. They were none the wiser as Carlos piped up, passing me a cup of mint tea.
“How was it, Tom? Looked steep. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it with you, my friend.”
Carlos valiantly made it halfway up the Erg before losing his footing one too many times and turning back in frustration. The poor man still looked exhausted, and the obvious disrepair of his clothes suggested he too had taken the direct route back. His wife Francesca hid her laugh with a cough as she took a swig of fresh and invigorating mint tea.
I tried to speak but instead coughed up a small cloud of sand. A refreshing draft of tea cleared the airways, however, and I soon launched into an excitable dialogue about the setting sun and the nameless, yearning excitement it left behind. The tale of the undignified return trip would have to wait for another day. We collapsed into a tent where we dined on steaming hot tagine and swapped stories of our adventures.
The evening proceeded in a beautifully communal fashion. Our food was another example of effortlessly tasty Moroccan cuisine. Before long we found ourselves back underneath the stars, the merest hint of a breeze brushing through the camp, our bellies suitably appeased and me sporting a fresh pair of untorn shorts.
Jakani had rounded up his friends along with a row of traditional tam tam drums; an impromptu concert was about to begin. A roaring fire cast a spectral glow on the scene, and before long the droning Berber chants and hypnotic percussion left us slack-jawed with amazement. The camp was its little bubble filled with laughing, dancing and wailing, and although our attempts to sing along were left somewhat wanting the intent was pure.
The less said about our efforts in emulating the complexities of traditional tribal drumming the better, however.
Later, as we watched the stars and felt giant Erg Chebbi brooding behind us, its size somehow casting a shadow on the pitch-black desert, we came to a silent, shared conclusion. Jakani and his friends had welcomed us with open arms and ensured our first desert experience was a joyful one although it remained clear that the Sahara had revealed nothing of its complexities, its myriad mysteries stretching forth under an infinite sky.