Thursday, September 19, 2013

Casually Conquering the Sahara

So ya know how I said I was going to be more regular with this and not let such a gap go without a new post? LOL, that clearly didnt happen. It has been almost two weeks to the day since I posted, and I hope you understand the sincerity in my apology. Its difficult to find enough time to sit down and do a post justice, and the last three times i've tried I have been called away to watch movies or eat. I am working on my discipline though, so allah willing next time will be a closer post. Of course there is still a chance that every update will start with an apology, so maybe we should just skip all this and go into story time.

So, the Sahara. The most famous desert around the world, and a source of fascination for a variety of reasons. Stretching over 9,400,000 kilometers (or 3,600,000 miles) the Sahara reaches from the Red Sea all the way over to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean, making it roughly the size of China or the United States. Its huge, hot, and sparsely inhabited. In Morocco, camping in the Sahara is one of the most popular attractions and brings people from all across the globe. Roughly a week and a half ago, The Breakfast Club (to recap, thats myself, Chase, Melanie, Matt, Meridith, and Sydney) decided we wanted to go camping there before the weather started getting cold. We also decided to see if a few other people wanted to go, because camping is always fun with a few more people and we knew how high the demand was for such a trip. 

Now, a lot of what we do here in Morocco is last-minute and hardly planned, just kind of hopping into a grand-taxi or on a bus and going until we stop. But for this trip, a certain degree of co-ordination and planning was required. So Melanie and I sat down to discover. After lots of google searches and trip advisor comparisons, we selected a company with which to tour and emailed the guide for more information. The package we selected was a full day and night deal- starting with breakfast on the saturday and going through breakfast the next morning. We finally heard back from him on Tuesday and plans were set in to motion. In a group that started with 6, we soon found ourselves with 19 people. So until Thursday afternoon our plan was to take taxis from Ifrane (our town) to Fez (a bigger city roughly an hour away) and then an overnight bus down to Merzouga (the village on the edge of the Sahara) and do the same thing coming back. The problem with that ended up being the overnight bus would put us home around 8am Monday, and several of our group members had 8am classes. Then from there we discovered there was no official bus station, bus schedule, or way to purchase ticket in advance. That set off alarm bells all over the place, so once again Mel and I sat down to figure out an alternative plan. We ended up finding a private bus company, and with her mad French skills Mel managed to negotiate a bus to pick us up at school, drive us the 7 or so hours down to Merzouga, wait there, and then bring us home Sunday. It was a miraculous discovery that saved our sanity, time, and wallets. So everything was hunky dory and arranged. We ended up with 17 people, and finalized our plans less than 24 hours before our departure.

So Friday afternoon around 4:00pm we all assembled. Everyone had their backpacks, passports and a water bottle, and we piled on the bus to go. The ride down to Merzouga was relatively uneventful- I ended up watching World War Z with Chase (which is actually a terrific movie), and we had a half an hour gas station stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We finally reached our hotel at around 12:20am, and they had dinner ready for us when we pulled in. Guys, you haven't lived until you have consumed home-made Moroccan food. The flavors, colors and spices they blend are both a work of art and delicious on so many levels. I wish I could explain what they made for us, but its too difficult. A sum would be eggs, lamb meat, bread, and lentils. So good. So after we were all stuffed we went to our rooms and slept.

Saturday morning dawned cloudy and cool, with enough of a breeze to be comfortable. We got up and had breakfast, then piled into four 4x4 offroading vans to set out for our daytime romp round the Sahara. Our first stop was a little village maybe two miles away, where we spent a while listening to and dancing with Sudanese musicians. They fed us tea and nuts, chanted and we had a grand old time. After that we drove across a volcanic rock field and looking for desert foxes. They are cute little white animals, with huge ears and gangly legs. The reason this is significant is because for the past two weeks or so our group has been in love with the new Ylvis song called "The Fox". We were hoping these desert foxes would give us a hint a to what the fox does in fact say, but they merely sat silently staring at us as we ooooohed and aaaaahed over them.

After we had our fill of fox, we hopped back into the jeeps and set off to find the fossil mines. These mines were basically holes where they dig for quartz, fossil rock and other cool stuff that they then use to carve pretty statues, jewelry, etc. From there we traveled north to look at some abandoned fortresses, and to see the Algerian border. We unfortunately couldn't get close to the border, but it was neat looking out across the dunes and knowing that just beyond these three hills was the country of Algeria. So back to the awesome rocks, we kept running in to nomads selling their carved wares.  I ended up purchasing two of this little figurines, an elephant for myself and a camel for my Chase. It's always fun to buy trinkets out in the middle of nowhere, because you get to bargain and know that you are directly contributing to someone's livelihood. This is where I am a bad Arab- I like to get the price down, but still allow myself to be overcharged because I know every bit help. In a place where haggling is a way of life, I probably fail pretty spectacularly more often than not.

So post haggling and climbing and watching the guys strike gladiator poses, back in the vans to go find the lunching pad. I'd like to pause here and bunny trail for a second. Mel, Chase, Matt and I were in the "lead van"- the one with our main guide that was always in the lead. Mel decided that we needed code names for each van, so we could better keep track of who was where and so that each group would have a name. She ended up dubbing the vans Squad Alpha, Beta, Charlie and Delta. Of course we were traveling with several military kids, and it was hilarious listening to Chase explain to her why her reasoning was flawed and then letting her have her way in the end. Yet another bunny trail involves explaining the "family" dynamic that I have yet to mention: we are all very close anyways, and have reached that family attitude. Within that, the breakfast club and company have adopted specific roles. It's kind of hard to explain, but just know that if you hear me causally say daughter or husband, it is within that realm. ANYWAYS! Lunch time. Our guide took us to a little cropping of buildings on the edge of some huge dunes. We were given roughly an hour to just relax, take pictures and enjoy the fact that we were IN the Sahara. Lots of due rolling, running, laying in the sand and pictures ensured. Lunch was delicious, they cooked what is called "Berber pizza" for us- think a huge pita pocket that is buried in the sand and cooked thoroughly. We had a great time sitting on the ground around the low tables, eating as much as they offered and laughing.

After lunch we did some more hardcore desert driving, stopping at an outcrop of rocks to take more pictures and look at the vast difference between the desert to our left and the volcanic rock land to our right. We headed back to the hotel after that to clean up, change into warm clothes, grab our backpacks and head out into the heart of our Sahara for the epic camping trip.

We reconvened around 18:00 (that's another thing, time here is all military) and set out to the camel parking lot to choose our rides and head to camp. I was in the lead string with Chase and Landon, and  we had a grand time choosing names for our camels and watching the sand go by. I named my camel Philipe, Chase named his Ben and Landon's ended up being Walter. They were all lovely creatures, plodding along steadily ad trying not to throw us off. Side note: camels in Morocco are VERY different from camels in Jordan. They are smaller, single humped and the saddles are much less secure (at least in my opinion- I prefer having a front and back horn on my saddle, and lacking that was difficult) their pace was interesting; the Saharan sand is soft and deep, so half the time when they step they sink in. It isn't so bad until they start going downhill and you suddenly see yourself falling head first off the camel and being trampled. Luckily that didn't happen to anyone, and we arrived at the camp eagerly awaiting what was coming.

The first thing we did after arriving was put down our luggage and check out the camp. I removed my shoes (I know, barefoot for two days in a desert that is supposedly full of scorpions, beetles and other yucky things. All I can say is I took my BFF Joy's challenge of YOLO to heart, and didn't concern myself with what ifs. I would have been miserable in shoes) and headed out to check out the dunes. Our guide provided us with sandboards (like snowboards, but for the sand) and we spent the next few hours watching people sandsurf, sandsled, roll down the dunes, and other fun frolicky type stuff. It was a really good time, and an excellent workout climbing the dunes up and down. Although the whole day had been cloudy, a section of those clouds broke just long enough for us to watch the sunset. Honestly, I was born and will forever be a desert child. I love the sites, smells and feels of the desert more than anything, and one of the most beautiful parts of all that is a desert sunset. There are no words in any language I know that can adequately describe the feeling you get as those colors change, the quiet looms and you really feel like there is so much out there to discover. It is a sensation that cannot be compared, and something I hope everyone gets to experience once in their lifetime. But I digress. So after watching the beautiful sun set over the dunes, we trekked back to camp and sat around conversing. There were tea and biscuits, and delightful company. After that they started bringing out dinner, and as always it was completely delicious. For this meal the appetizer was rice, and it made me so very happy.

So after dinner noms, people kind of split off in to smaller groups to walk around, relax or sleep. I ended up laying out in the sand (on a blanket) with Mel, Meridith, Tyler and Chase, and we spent time just watching the tiny patch of stars peeking through the clouds and talking. Mel informed us that "THIS IS AFRICA" and we watched the earth rotate. We all fell asleep after that, and stayed out there until roughly 3am when we realized how cold it was. So we migrated to the tents and finished the night inside, dreaming of camels and s'mores. We woke up the next morning (didnt get to see the sunset, the clouds came back) hopped on our camels and headed back to the hotel. Everyone cleaned up a bit, we grabbed breakfast and hit the road.

We all assumed that was the end of the adventure, and settled in for the long ride back to school. About an hour away from campus our bus ended up getting pulled over, and we found out it was for speeding. It was an adventure dealing with that whole fiasco (the bus driver was trying to tell us we had to pay the ticket, which wasnt true because it wasnt our responsibility) but with some intimidation from our Westpoint men and some Arabic, we got back on the road and made it home in time for dinner.

3 days, 17 kids, and exploring THE Sahara. It is so much fun experiencing such a beautiful place with so many people that I adore, and getting to know my "family" better ever time we travel. I have been continuously blessed so far beyond anything I could have imagined, and am so grateful for just the opportunity to get to do half of what I am.

So that was the Sahara! There was a lot more detail, but much of it revolves around inside jokes that would merely bore you or other such things. For anyone curious I am absolutely having the time of my life, and waking up each morning knowing I am living in Africa is dream I have yet to tire of. I bid you all adieu, and Inshallah you will be hearing from me sooner!

Peace, love, and lots of shawerma!


  1. Thank you Anna for this beautiful story of your Sahara adventure. I really enjoyed reading it. So thankful all of you are having such a good time and nice to here that you all have become such a close knit group. thanks for sharing with me. Sincerely Matt's Mom

  2. As always, your writing was entertaining and detailed. It was well worth the wait. I am so glad you are having so much fun! I miss you! Tell your "family" your mom said HI!!

  3. Dear Anna,

    I'm Hassan Mouhou your desert tour organisation, i'm more then happy to know your trip was amazing and your dream become true.
    If you have more friends who need informations about the desert pls give them my contact:

    Morocco Excursions Company
    PHONE: 00212 673 55 54 08

    Say hello from me & the camels to all the friends, inchallah we will see you again.