Sunday, August 10, 2008

Saharan Dunes: Erg Chigaga, Morocco

Arriving in Tagounnite, I met Hmad and my first reaction was that of trust and friendliness. He explained where we would go and the trip program. There was a couple nearby, a French woman and a Moroccan man, older than me, and I didn’t speak to them. It turned out they would also join to go to Erg Lehoudi, where I was headed.

At the campsite, I have to admit that my first reaction was that of disappointment. I have been lucky enough to see gorgeous sand dunes in both Death Valley, California, and Wadi Rum, Jordan. In both of these places, the sand dunes are not necessarily tall or vast, but they are extremely beautiful. Erg Lehoudi was a beautiful place, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the stereotypical image of sand dunes in the Sahara that I had imagined. At this point I learned that the other tourist couple, Catherine and Mohamed, were planning to go to Erg Chigaga the following day. I had really wanted to head out that way, but at this time of year it’s only possible by 4WD, and there was no way that I would pay for the whole vehicle by myself, so I had decided against it. I discussed with them that I was interested in going, and then the whole drama started.

To be honest from the start, I had serious doubts about visiting Morocco from before I arrived. Egypt is without doubt the place that I liked least during all my travels, and I would say that West Africa was difficult for me in general. Of course, a lot of this was conditional with my personal situation at the time but nevertheless, it wasn’t easy going. When I left West Africa, I vowed that I would probably never return. I said the same about Egypt…well, genius Yuri, look at a map, and Morocco is kind of the in-between of these places. And, well, Southern Morocco especially. You have this mix of Saharan culture with Africa, continental Africa, so the feeling I got in Zagora and Tagounnite was a sort of Timbuktu but with more Arabs than blacks. Strange sensation. I digress.

The night deteriorated into the traditional Moroccan game of bargaining and discussing. There was a time several years ago when I literally loved bargaining and debating and the banter and the whole process of coming to agree on a price. Those days are gone though. Now, I want to be offered an honest and fair price, agree to it, and pay for what I get. Welcome to Morocco. Mohamed, who lived the grand majority of his life near Ouarzazate, and is Berber therefore speaking Berber and Arabic, did all the talking for us because in this country there is undoubtedly much more respect and importance placed on the man. I had earlier been thrown off a very grumpy dromedary, and so had some muscle cramps and was 100% not willing to get back on the same animal to take me back to the main road as we had discussed earlier. After 2 hours of discussing, if you can call it that, some intermediary tentative agreement was reached.

There were several characters involved. My guide was Hmad, who I had agreed with to pay 250 dirhams (approx. 25 euros) for the tour which comprised of transport to Erg Lehoudi, a dromedary ride, dinner, breakfast, and transport either back to Tagounnite or to the road to catch the bus which was heading north from M’Hamid. Then there was his cousin, Salah, who I have no idea what his role was. In Morocco (and many other countries I’ve been in), there is an array of cousins, brothers, friends, whoever, that is always involved, whose role you are never quite sure of, and who you just have to accept is getting a slice of your money just so that more people can have some sort of income. I believe Salah was one of these cases. Then Abderrahim, who was in charge of the domestic hospitality duties; as far as I know, he was in charge of setting up camp and presenting food, preparing tea etc. Then, M’bareq, who was the driver of the 4WD. So here we were in the desert, with 4 guys, who at the start I had tried really hard to be a good smiling kind tourist with. After I fell off the dromedary, I was of course not thrilled at the idea of going on the dromedary. My guide expressed very little concern. I found out that Catherine and Mohamed were going to pay 800 dirhams for the day trip out to Erg Chigaga. It would be optimal, of course, if we could split that in 3 by me joining, and not have the price go up at all.

This wasn’t going to be easy. I was not happy with what I received, which was a sore leg, and an unwillingness to change the program despite the fact that there was only one dromedary around, not 2, to take me back to Tagounnite, and there was a huge argument which erupted around what the price should be if I chose to go to Erg Chigaga. A totally nasty side of Hmad and Salah emerged; I pointed out that we had arrived in Erg Lehoudi too late, and only been able to visit the larger dunes of that area after the sun had already set. They responded that I had arrived too late in Tagounnite, which was completely ridiculous since I had arrived at 5pm, and we sat at Boulangerie du Sud until past 7pm because the heat of the day was too hot. I had no problem with this, I agreed, but I also was not going to be held responsible for a missed sunset. Then when the issue of the dromedary arose, and all 3 tourists said that the guide was responsible for not controlling his animal, he claimed that it was my fault that I was not positioned well. But shouldn’t the guide tell you where exactly to sit on the animal (if I was poorly positioned anyway?) Needless to say, tensions arose and Catherine and I decided that it would be better for Mohamed to proceed with all the discussions. I was ready to leave the next morning if what we were asking for wouldn’t be given, as I didn’t want a day tainted with arguing and ill feelings.

Too hot to sleep inside the tent, too windy to sleep outside, I ended up outside at 3am and passed out. We had agreed upon a 5am wakeup to head to Erg Chigaga, some 40km away from Erg Lehoudi.

I awoke to a bright sun…no way it was 5am. I fumbled for my bottle of water, squinted to find my camera, checked the time…it was 6:40am. What had happened?

I saw Mohamed and Catherine strolling on the dunes near camp and headed that way. My leg was sore. We decided to wait for M’bareq, and sure enough, as we were almost at camp, he arrived. A few minutes later, we were off.

The journey to Erg Chigaga is surreal. The desert expands in all directions, without any visible end. The rocks and cliffs and mountains are all exposed vulnerably to the brutal blue sky. Occasional trees stand out like staunch defenders of a land they have forgotten why they are protecting. There are 4WD tracks, but all headed the same way. You come here to pass through, not to stay.

The heat. My god, the heat. I have never experienced anything like this in my life. Cold water becomes hot tea temperature within minutes. Your body craves liquid so much that drinking hot water is pleasurable, necessary. We finally emerged at the foot of tall mountains, which were the sand dunes. It was about 11am. We began to climb up the dunes, which were astonishing. How does so much sand arrive here, and how does it get formed into these mountains with the twists and curves? We walked up the highest sand dune, which must have been at least 300m high, and then it was back down to the small settlement. Inside the mud house was infinitely cooler, and cool well water was brought by the bucketful. I kept wondering why I had come here at this season. But in the same way I enjoyed being in Patagonia in the middle of a blizzard, I could appreciate, I believe, even more this desert in the heat of high summer. You realize that you are nothing. Humans are nothing. We can create cities with buildings high up in the sky, we can fly airplanes, connect to the internet, use telephones, cars, whatever, but ultimately we are animals, weak and helpless, and you better not forget it. Get lost in the desert, or run out of water, and you are dead, no question about it. The desert, since the first time I went in California in 2002, has been the landscape that has most captivated me. It hasn’t changed.

After our break, we drove to another side of the dunes where there is an oasis, and we nested under a huge palm tree. We went to the well where we had our “douche” – buckets of water thrown all over the body, completely clothed, and it was utterly delicious. Soaking wet, you would feel cool for a few minutes, until the sun parched you and you were bone dry again. By 2pm, we had eaten and been told that it was time for a ‘raha’ – siesta, soneca, sieste, nap – one of my favorite words in the world. Like in Marrakesh, the sleep was more a rough collapse awakening with thirst and heat, rather than a gentle snooze.

At around 5pm we headed back towards Erg Chigaga, and by this point I was fully heat exhausted, heat poisoned, all of the above and all I remember of this ride was painful thirst and the group taking care of me, helping me with handkerchiefs soaked in water that needed to be re-wetted every 10 minutes. We arrived back in Tagounnite, and decided to stay the night as all were way too exhausted to carry on any further, and off we were to a campground, where I collapsed into a deep sleep on a mattress in the sand.

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