In which I learn more than I wanted to know about agriculture; Berber carpets and the attempted selling thereof; Cold stream in a hot place; The Water Issue; The Arabic Camel Joke; Milie's marriage proposal; Into the wasteland; On camel-back into the Sahara; At last, I am warm enough; Dinner with the Berbers; Creepy-crawlies; Sleeping under desert stars

A bit of confusion ensued this morning - Sheryl went out early to explore the caves in the cliff, while Emilie and I slept in. She was a bit later getting back than we’d thought, but I was very sluggish getting to breakfast since I thought we were leaving at nine, when we were really leaving at eight. Apparently more than one person thought that, since the guide had to round people up. Tourists, eh? Like herding cats.

The morning was taken up with a visit to an agricultural oasis and a village kasbah, with a stop to see some traditional Berber carpets. The oasis was interesting, but the guide, Aziz, was some sort of agriculture enthusiast, and so I learned far more about the gender of date palms, crop rotation and irrigation than I ever really wanted to know. It was interesting in its way, though.

The kasbah was very cool - a mud-and-straw pile that looked like a human-scale anthill. In previous centuries, these kasbahs were filled with families, but only twelve live in this one at the moment. I suspect they live there mostly for the atmosphere, since there was a great fuss made over receiving us with proper Berber hospitality and giving us mint tea, and then giving us a sales pitch about carpets. The carpets were true works of art, I have to admit, and even though I’m homeless and would have had to carry it in my backpack, I was briefly tempted to buy one. They’re the most intricately woven pieces, made of sheep’s wool, camel hair, and cactus fiber, with their own codified language of colours and symbols. A Berber woman begins her first carpet at age 18, as a wedding gift for her husband (via an arranged marriage). Some of the tiny embroidery work can take years to complete, and the women go blind by age forty and can’t work any longer. They were quite beautiful, but none of us on the tour were precisely the target market, and the family failed to make a sale that morning.

The lunch stop was in another gorge, with a huge cold spring coming up from underground. We got our feet wet and filled all the water bottles with cold, clear water. We knew we’d have to purify it before drinking, but I suspected (correctly) that it would taste very good. We knew we were going into the desert that night, and that we’d have to carry all our water with us as there would be none available, and we were a bit nervous about not having enough. We reckoned on three liters each for twelve hours in the desert, and two or three each for the rest of the current day - making 18 liters. We had empty bottles for only 14, so we planned to buy some more before the desert.

While we were waiting for lunch, Emilie befriended one of the young boys who wandered up and down the gorge selling necklaces in the shape of camels, woven from grass or palm fronds or something similar. He gave her one for free - she’s shameless, really. Aziz the guide, who was chasing her hard, let her in on the Arabic Camel Joke afterward: You don’t give a camel necklace to a man, only to a woman… because camels are only happy when they’re on the hills.

After lunch there was only one stop, at a fossil shop. There’s a lot of sedimentary rock in the area, and all of Northern Africa was once a shallow sea, so there are fossils everywhere. This shop had a very good selection and some quite impressive specimens. There were a few fakes, but overall I was surprised and impressed. They were mostly ammonites and crinoids, and some of the best trilobites I’ve ever seen - excellent detail, and some of them were ten or twenty centimeters long! It hurt leaving them behind, but I couldn’t really fill my pack with rocks, could I? Sheryl bought me a beautiful little curled phacops - he was the smallest one there, so he doesn’t add too much weight.

Trilobite fossil

The shop owner was a bit of a joker, and complimented me on my two wives. He asked if he could take one of them off my hands. I said I needed them both, as Milie cooked and Sheryl cleaned (five points to anyone who comprehends the full depth of sarcasm in this sentence) but that didn’t stop him making an offer of five thousand camels. Five thousand! Pretty impressive, and I was very tempted, especially when he threw in a donkey to be given to her mother. I told Milie that we’d come back for her and steal her away in a daring raid after we had the camels, but sadly she didn’t go for it and my dreams of camel-ranching were not to be.

The fossil shop turned out to be the last stop before entering the wasteland - quickly the buildings and then even the road faded away, and we drove overland, jolting our spines and rattling our teeth, over hard-packed sand, gravel and shale, for an hour south and east of the village of Merzouga. We caught our first sight of camels wandering freely over the waste, and finally pulled up, overheated and aching, to a walled hotel compound in the middle of nothing at all. This was the staging area for the camel trek - we stretched, bought water and had a quick bite to eat from our stores, showered and assembled small packs to take with us for the night. We’d always been told that the desert gets cold at night, but when we asked, the Berber guides looked at us like we were morons and told us it was a desert, and deserts are hot. Chastened, we left the thermal garments in the van. Well really, how were we supposed to know? The heat during the day had been, and still was, stunning - in the literal sense of a thing which stuns you. Everyone was wilting, but I have to admit that I loved the heat and the dust. Everyone knows how I feel about the cold - well, I had to go into the Sahara Desert to find it, but I finally found a place where I was warm enough.

I was too excited and jittery to sit still, wild with the thought of going into the desert on camels and feeling very much the adventurer. Sheryl and Milie both thought I was angry, for some reason, but I was happy and excited. Finally the time came and we threw blankets over the camel saddles (felt rings over wooden frames which fit over the hump, with a T-shaped metal bar to hold onto) and mounted up. Camels are very strange creatures - even stranger in person than in photos - but these were very docile, sweet animals. Mounting a camel is a complicated three-stage process in which the camel unfolds and sorts out its legs, pitching the rider forward, backward and forward again, and from side to side as the animal shifts its weight.

I wouldn’t call a camel’s gait comfortable, but I found a decent seat that was completely unlike the seat used for a horse. I had my ankles hooked behind the camel’s front shoulders and was sitting just forward of the hump, bracing myself with tensed thighs and keeping my back very straight. There were no stirrups, so I needed to use my legs a lot when the camel was descending a dune. The good thing is that camels are a lot sturdier than horses - their bodies are like concrete covered with hair - so you don’t need to worry about hurting them with your heels or squeezing too hard. I had originally named my camel Lillian because of its lovely nose ring, but it turned out to be male, so I changed its name to Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. Milie named hers Mohammed, and Sheryl named hers Aziz because he kept sniffing after Emilie.

We rode for an hour, led by the guide at a walking pace, out into the evening desert. The Sahara is one of the most beautiful and alien places I’ve ever seen, filled with weirdly sculpted dunes like a sand ocean, filled with ripples. I can certainly see why they’re sometimes called dune seas. Every so often I’d catch sight of tracks in the sand from a tiny lizard or bird, but mostly the dunes were empty. We passed through a small oasis with a tent encampment - there was no open water, but a few scrubby trees and a spot of marshy ground - and a cat hiding under a palm tree.

We arrived at our own camp just as the sun was going down. We descended gratefully from the camels and squinted up at the tallest dune - which was probably two or three hundred meters high. Race you to the top, some idiot said (me, I seem to recall) and we were off. Deividi, Kato, Emilie and I left the others behind and made it halfway up before dying - running uphill in loose sand is hard. We persevered despite the slipping, the heat, and the dust coating our throats, finally reached the top in a state of utter exhaustion, and nearly slid down the far side of the dune. We’d missed the sunset, but we watched the sky darken and the first stars come out, gazing out over the endless dunes, and finally descended to camp in complete darkness.

The evening was dinner - more tagine, naturally, with melons for after, and some drumming by the Berbers, which was fun to listen to. There were probably forty people in the camp, since three strings of camels had come in, one after the other. Almost everyone apart from our group was French, but they were fun people and Milie got to speak something other than English, which made her happy. Excitement was provided by the various creepy-crawlies that came in from the sand onto the carpets, attracted by the light - beetles, mostly, but a couple of camel spiders (not spiders at all, but huge ten-legged relatives of the scorpion family) that terrified everyone except me and a Spanish girl, who were chasing them amidst the shrieks and general panic.

Sheryl and I grabbed a blanket and snuck away from camp for awhile, and lay holding each other, on our backs in the warm blackness, staring up at a sky burning with more stars than I ever knew existed. Later, we went and found Milie and the others, watched the moon rise, and slept on blankets in the sand under the Milky Way.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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