Camel shadows (Heather Cole)
Blog Words : Blog of the week | 16 December

The highs and lows of camping with camels

Our featured blogger, Heather Cole, ventures onto Erg Chebbi in Morocco on a camel with mixed results

Chameux 2531 stared unblinking, curling his bottom lip in distain as I gracelessly manoeuvred myself onto his back, clutching the inadequate handlebar and trying desperately to remember whether the standing up process involved the front or back end first. Fortunately the aptly named Kamal was on hand, face expressionless as he coaxed the unwilling 2531 to his feet, no doubt thankful that his latest customer hadn’t fallen at the first hurdle. Pleased I hadn’t disgraced my nation just yet, I comfortably settled into what would be my perch for the next few hours and admired my surroundings.

Hubbie and I had travelled to Merzouga in Morocco to experience a little slice of the Sahara. After a long and dusty drive down from Fes, we were quickly bundled out of the car and onto camels for our trek into the endless sea of sand. The light was rapidly fading, and the great orange fireball in the sky had bathed the dunes of Erg Chebbi in gold as it inched towards the horizon.

I would like to say that the only sound was the soft padding of camel feet along the shifting sands, with a slight breeze gently blowing particles of the golden stuff around in miniature eddies. However…

“You like Led Zeppelin?”

Startled, I twisted round in the saddle to see if one of my camel train companions had developed a Bedouin accent and a liking for old English rock music.

The lad came from nowhere, whirling to a stop beside chameux 2531 with his vivid blue head scarf trailing behind. Grinning cheekily with a twinkle in his eye, he produced a carrier bag from beneath his robes and casually tied it onto the camel in front. Our dinner apparently.

“So you from London? You know Led Zeppelin?”

I sighed inwardly at the thought of yet another conversation trying to explain no, we’re not from London, we don’t know David Beckham or indeed your mate John who was here last week. At least a conversation that didn’t involve football might hold more promise, even if I didn’t know anything about Led Zeppelin. Wasn’t that an airship?

“Erm, sure, we’re from London. I’m Heather, what’s your name?”

“Ali. So do you like Led….” Persistent if nothing else.

“Ah, I’m afraid not…” Somebody please help me out here.

Thankfully someone else chipped in with a few song titles to keep the conversation from stalling. Ali, however, just shrugged.

“Oh, I don’t know any of their music, but I’ve heard they’re cool.”

And with that, off he scampered back into the dunes, gone in the blink of an eye. We continued plodding ever onwards on our sandy stairway to heaven. Chameux 2531 seemed altogether uninterested in the whole encounter, most likely agreeing that I’d have had more to offer about David Beckham after all. He continued his chewing.

At some undefined point in proceedings, the comfy saddle had become an irritating, itchy, chafing, sliding, stinking heap of blankets that were proving a pain in the ass with each agonising slow step. Two hours had already passed, the sun had sensibly gone to bed long ago, and we were still picking our way through the now pitch black dunes, being sporadically jolted awake by the sudden and rather disconcerting descents.

Hearing behind me several less than muted oaths about intolerable pain and whose idea was this anyway (mine, of course), it was with some relief that I spied ahead the outline of Berber tents through the inky gloom. Chameux 2531 knelt down thankfully, glad to be rid of his baggage if only for a few hours, and proceeded to show the extent of his contempt by emptying his bladder as I slid gratefully to the sand.

The intrepid travellers strode John Wayne-style towards the camp, leaving hubbie, who had somehow got himself tangled in a multitude of cameras and camel blankets, struggling alone in the dark. I did the wifely thing and went to assist, and we finally staggered after the others, bumping into 2531′s brothers and each other in the dark.

After a surprisingly good chicken tagine, accompanied by the obligatory mint tea and Bedouin campfire drumming, we enquired about the bathroom arrangements.

Our hosts simply laughed.

“The desert is your toilet my friends. Enjoy!”

Hmmm, not the best when you’re suffering from a dodgy tagine eaten the previous day, but all part of the experience hey.

It took me a few moments to consider which was the lesser of two evils:

1) Venturing out into the dark unknown by myself, but at least having some privacy whilst doing my business;

2) Cashing in on the marriage vows and dragging hubbie along for moral support, in case of wild beasts and navigational error.

For better or for worse, I chose the latter and off we trooped. Having dug my hole, I squatted under the vast Saharan sky, looking up in awe at all the stars we’ve never seen before, when all of a sudden from out of the nearby blackness, came a loud “Humph!”

I would’ve jumped out of my skin had my shorts not been around my ankles, and my heart slowly calmed as I realised I’d practically used poor chameux 2531 as my toilet. I prayed there wouldn’t be a reckoning in the morning.

Despite the dark, there really is no such thing as privacy, especially when other campers trying to find their own little patch manage to light up the entire scene with their head torches. Dinner and a show. Needless to say, we made it quick.

Hubbie and I lay out under the starry canopy after everyone else had gone to bed, and were rewarded with some shooting stars. This would have been really romantic had hubbie not suddenly leapt up when a bug landed on him. The tiny little cricket was indeed terrifying, but we settled down again to fall asleep by the glowing embers of the fire.

You can’t, of course, spend the night in the desert without rising at some god forsaken hour to see the sunrise. We’d expected to be joining other campers in a mass landslide as we all scrambled to the top of the colossal dune towering behind the tents, yet we were greeted with absolute silence. Hubbie and I wondered if we’d got our times wrong, but decided to straight line it, crawling wearily on hands knees up the sheer wall of sand. For every inch gained, a metre was lost. It was impossible. We gave up about two thirds of the way, but it was worth every step for the spectacular view and to welcome a new day.

As I went to bid Chameux 2531 a good morning I swear I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes. He was clearly in no doubt which of us would be having the more enjoyable walk back to Merzouga. Several bum-numbing hours later we made it back and for most of us, the adventure was over. But knowing how much hubbie was enjoying the ride, his camel untied itself from the train and refused to budge those last few tantalising steps, earning him several bonus minutes aboard his ship of the desert. Needless to say, the animals weren’t the only ones who got the hump!

As we drove off, taking our last lingering look at the Sahara, a voice drifted across the sand as a new bunch of tourists looked eagerly, and naively, at their awaiting camels.

“You like Led Zeppelin?”

>