Insights from My Camel Trek Into the Sahara Desert

by STEVE BLOOM

Sahara Desert Camels

I’ve had a long fascination with the Sahara desert.  When I was a little kid, I watched TV shows depicting the desert as teeming with bandits, nomadic tribes, oases and high adventure.

So when I heard you could actually trek out into the Sahara and spend the night in a nomadic Tuareg camp, I jumped at it.  I was able to arrange it while student teaching in Morocco.

Even though I knew the bandits were mostly fantasy, I still expected a grand adventure.  And it was.  But it also taught me a lot of lessons about life, travel and my place in the universe.

Camel Trekking – Lessons Learned

Before I even thought about mounting a camel, I had to overcome one major obstacle: who to trust to take me out into the Sahara.

I’d heard a lot of stories about guides taking people out into the desert only to demand an extortionate amount of money to take you back.

If you think about it, you’re putting a lot of trust into someone you’ve just met.  For all you know, they’re only taking you out there to rob you.

So I did my due diligence.  I did a lot of online research with forums, Tripadvisor and company websites.  Eventually I picked a guide service that seemed honest and reliable.

Lesson Learned: Be careful who you trust while traveling.

There were four of us – me, my wife and my parents.  In addition, we’d be joining two others on the trip.  A van would pick us up outside a Riyadh in the old medina quarter in Marrakech.

The driver was taking us to Merzouga where we’d be departing on our camel trek.

If you look at a map of Morocco, you’ll notice the distance between Marrakech and Merzouga isn’t that much.  If it were a straight shot, it would only about a four hour drive.

But there are mountains.  We had to zip back and forth, up and down several mountain paths along the way.  When you factor that in, the drive takes over seven hours.

We eventually reached a flat vacant field with a dozen sitting camels (technically speaking they were dromedaries).  From there, we loaded our stuff, mounted the camels and headed straight into the Sahara.

Our guides were Tuaregs, nomadic people.  They didn’t speak much English, but knew French.  Since I was the only one in the group who spoke French too, I acted as a translator for the rest of the group.

Riding camels can be tough.  If you can’t find a good position, it’s going to be uncomfortably bumpy.  They’re fun to ride for the first 20 minutes, but after an hour, you’re ready to just get off them.

Needless to say, with the long car ride and rough camel trek, all our butts were sore.

Lesson Learned: The journey isn’t always better than the destination.

Where There’s a Will…

The campsite made the rough journey completely worthwhile.  It was in the middle of the desert with no signs of civilization – only desert.

We ate dinner and drank mint tea.  Afterward our Tuareg guides took us into the middle of the campsite, lit a fire and played music for us.

I planned on surprising my wife with a bottle of wine, but I hit a snag: I forgot a bottle opener.  I asked the guides if they had one, but they didn’t.  One of them offered to get it open without one.

He grabbed the bottle and shoved his thumb into the cork.  He jammed it harder and harder with his thumb until he unblocked the bottle by shoving the cork completely back into it.

I was impressed.

Lesson Learned: If you want something bad enough, you can find a way to get it.

As night fell, the stars came out.  My wife and I snuck out of our tents in the middle of the night solely to look up at them.

We had to be quiet as everyone else was asleep so we silently looked up at the galaxy.

It’s amazing how many more stars you can see when there isn’t any city light to crowd them out.  There are so many you don’t normally see.

I was in awe.

I’ve always been fascinated with looking up at the stars.  It makes me ask questions.

Are we alone?

What’s the meaning of life?

When you see how large everything is, it makes you feel so small.  For some reason all my problems seem so insignificant in the vast open space.

Lesson Learned: No matter how big your problems seem, they’re just a small insignificant part of the universe.

A Sahara Sunrise

In the morning my wife and I awoke before dawn.  A guide took us up a hill so we could watch the sun rise.

About ten minutes later, the sun finally came up over the horizon.

It was so clear and beautiful.  I find it amazing that something so simple and commonplace can be so remarkable.

Lesson Learned: Never forget about the beauty of everyday life.

After breakfast, we packed up our stuff and headed back to civilization on our camel convoy.

We were all tired including the driver.

The whole drive, he blasted music and drank coffee to stay awake.

Under normal circumstances that would make me uneasy.  Add to that, those narrow mountain roads and it becomes even scarier.

Fortunately there are guide rails in case he veers too far to one side, but still those steep drops didn’t comfort me.

Lesson Learned: Don’t let an overtired man drive you on mountain roads.

Ok, I shared my lessons. What lessons have you learned while traveling?

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Comments

  1. What a great story, Steve! And the life lessons are terrific. I especially love the one about the wine bottle. Excellent. :)

  2. Wow…you must have some crazy stories. I wouldn’t have even thought of the guide turning on you. Just think of what you would have missed if you hadn’t been willing to take a risk and get out there.

  3. It’s amazing what we can learn through different life experiences. I’ve not done a lot of traveling(Yet) so don’t have any cool stories or lessons. I liked your point about enjoying everyday beauty, I live in San Diego and make sure not to take for granted the beaches and weather.

  4. This story sounds really beautiful and like a real adventure. It’s good that you could bring your wife on a trip – it’s always more fun to have company of a loved one.
    As far as adventures and lessons learned I will share this one with you: never loose your passport while traveling abroad. It’s a nightmare to get back to the States. May be I will write a story about it one day.
    Thanks for a really insightful article. Traveling is lots of fun. Most of the time… :)

    • Travel is always more fun when you get to share it with someone. I’m very thankful that I could go with my wife.

      I’m also thankful I’ve never lost my passport while traveling. That would be a pain. I can imagine it would be a nightmare to try and get back into the U.S. without one. Even with a passport it can sometimes be a pain.

  5. Pushing the cork back into the bottle! He would make a good student in the UK !!

    Your trip sounds amazing – like a dream come true.

    For me, lessons are usually around research before you go, and keeping your wits about you. When I was in Pakistan a couple of years ago, it took a bit time for me to realise the lay of the land (like how much money to spend getting through customs at the airport BEFORE luggage is scanned!).

    • It often takes me some time to understand the lay of the land too when I travel. But that’s because I often don’t mind getting lost. I’ve discovered some really fun things by just wandering around. At the same time, you want to be able to find your way. I’ve gotten used to asking for directions from locals which is a decent way to interact with people.

  6. Great article. I particularly love the lesson – ” No matter how big your problems seem, they’re just a small insignificant part of the universe.”

    We tend to get weighted down in our own problems and it’s good to be reminded of where we actually stand and that there are always people worse of than you.

    The greatest lesson in life that I have learned to date is – ” That I am responsible for my own life and in the end no one is coming to my rescue. Wish I had know this earlier in my life!”

    John

    • That’s a good lesson too. I wish I had learned that one earlier in my life too. It’s good to take responsibility for ourselves and make our lives into what we want them to be. No one is going to come around and do it for us.

  7. Great story (and lessons) – thanks for sharing.

    Your comments about the stars resonated. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been rural enough to see a whole sky full of them, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    • I used to do it all the time when I was younger. I’d just lay in my parent’s backyard and look up at the sky. It was so great to do it on this trip and see all the stars I was missing out on.

  8. Steve,

    Sounds like a really cool adventure. I can relate to the discomfort experienced on your journey. I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable situations, like sleeping on the floor in an airport or being stuck on a long car ride with very little sleep. To me, it’s these experiences that make travel interesting and worthwhile. I’ve found that the best thing to do when you realize that things are going to be uncomfortable is to smile. Smile because you know it will eventually be over and because you know that you will soon be smiling back on it anyways.

    So that’s my travel lesson: smile at the bad parts because you can, because it will make them better, and because it’s the challenges that make great travel stories.

    -Scott

    • It’s strange how some of those uncomfortable situations can be the things that make your travels more interesting. Weirdly enough I look back fondly on many uncomfortable things I’ve done. When I flew into Shanghai I met a friend of mine who was staying at a local university. I slept on the floor in his room the first night – that’s all the room he had. I used a t-shirt as a pillow. It was uncomfortable, but it’s a fond memory of my first night in China. Like you said though, you have to smile. I smiled the whole time I was there.

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