You never want to get your camel in a bad mood while you're out in the Sahara. That had to be Desert Rule No. 1, I figured.
And so, when on the first day of the journey, Ahmed, one ofour desert-nomad guides, told me that the camels sounded happy,well, I was happy.
But maybe Ahmed was just making chit-chat. I mean, everycamel utterance so far had sounded like one big grump to me. I amnot the fastest learner, but before my three-day trip was over, Iwould know, and know well, how to tell the difference betweenhappy and not-so-happy.
Our desert expedition began from Zagora, a sun-hammered townin southern Morocco branded with the reputation of hottest placein the country. My initial glimpse of the town was not what you'dcall encouraging. The word "ominous" was what popped into mymind.
The first thing I noticed was a sign that read: "Tombouctou,52 days," by camel. (Tombouctou? A light went on in my head, andI remembered a more familiar spelling: Timbuktu, the end of theEarth.) Next thing I knew a sandstorm had reduced myvisibility to zilch. Warnings courtesy of the great desert gods?
Then, in a matter of seconds, the dust settled. Now, upahead I could make out the rent-a-camel place, where my husbandand I would hook up with our two desert-nomad guides and fourcamels.
At this point, I had to wonder: How much of a bumpy ride was I getting myself into?
At 3:30 p.m., I crossed my fingers and we set off into theSahara, the largest desert on the planet, stretching some 3,000miles from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Two camels had beenloaded up with supplies, the other two camels loaded with myhusband and myself.
"Hey," I say to our two twentysomething desert nomads, Ahmedand Brahim, "where are your camels?"
"We walk," says the always chipper Ahmed, the chiefcameleer. They were wearing sandals.
Well, this must be how nomads run a caravan, I think, as Irecall all of those old desert movies and vintage photos in whichthe nomads seldom rode the animals but marched alongside thecaravan of camels hauling cargo of salt and gold. Today, Ahmedand Brahim are hauling a cargo of tourists. Cargo is cargo.
It'll take three dusty hours before we reach our base forthe night, so I pass time by trying to root out the lowdown onour camels.
Turns out, they are all she-camels. Two are mountain camels.Shorter and stockier, they are the pack animals. The other two,long-legged creatures, are the ones we're riding, and they hailfrom Mali, the country where Timbuktu is located.
And, it is my guess that all four critters are cud spittersextraordinaire.
Around 6:30 p.m., we stop smack in the middle of nowhere. Allaround us is nothing but a sun-blasted wilderness of stone andsand: Our campsite.
This trip, it is already clear, is no dune ranch. Somethingthat really hits home when I see what my desert home looks like.Sure, a tent, but not one of those high-tech nylon jobs you see advertised in Outside magazine. Ours is a classic nomad's shelter, a ratty affair made up of brown wool rugs held up by massive wooden poles.
By now it is 7:30 and completely dark. Not a puff of wind. A billion blazing stars. Tremendous silence. Everything is so utterly calm that there's really no way you can stay agitated out here. I don't give another thought to the accommodations. I will worry about whether that tent can keep out a sandstorm if and when one blows up.
Which it does. Tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Ahmed and Brahim are now knocking themselves out preparing dinner, which turns out to be five-star delicious: atajine (stew) of lamb and vegetables cooked in a clay pot over a campfire.
By 10:30 p.m., I'm dead tired and hit the tent. At 1 a.m., I wake up, peek out of the tent. Miss Timbuktu, my snow-white riding camel, seems to glow beneath a huge full moon. I walk over to the camels, who are lounging on their knees and chewing their cud. I always thought of camels as noisy and grumbling but they don't make a peep when I approach.
The next morning my ears are ringing and my head reeling, as some ungodly noise ricochets through the Sahara.
"ERROOOwwww, ERROOOwwww!" Right outside our tent, comes the howling. It is 6 a.m., and a camel is letting us know she isn't pleased about being loaded. "ERROOOwww!"
The camels had just been rounded up by the wranglers andbrought to the campsite for loading -- something camels do not like. And so, one of the camels moseys on over to those two still-snoozing Lawrence of Arabia wannabes, my husband and myself, and gives us a wake-up call.
If the dromedaries had to be up, then as far as they were concerned, the tourists had to be up. It was a simple matter of misery loves company.
Camels are smarter than they look.
At 8 sharp, we're ready to move out. This would be our first full day in the Sahara. By nightfall, it would seem as though the gods of the desert have gotten together and worked like mad to give us, in a single day, a sample of almost everything the Sahara can dish out: winds, a nice little sandstorm, and teeth-chattering nighttime temperatures.
By lunch time, I discover I am becoming more sensitive to the camel language. We stop for lunch at 11 a.m., and the moment we stop, the camels become delirious. They know they're going to be unloaded and rested. And they give their "happy" bellows, which I'm beginning to detect are a little higher pitched than the complaining noises.
I learn from Ahmed that we are following strict nomad customwith this stop, making camp during the bullying heat of the day and traveling only in the cooler mornings and afternoons. Yet by Sahara standards it's not hot now: a mere 80 degrees at high noon, according to the thermometer on my backpack. But then, we're traveling in March, the end of winter. In the summer, I'm told, the heat gets turned up to a flesh-frying 130 degrees around here.
Around 2:30 p.m., the winds are starting to pick up and the tent is billowing with each gust.
"No problem," says Ahmed. And so, we break camp, jump-start the camels and set off into a sandstorm.
As the wind whistles around me, perched up 10 feet in the air on my camel, I begin to feel as though I'm on a ship in a stormy sea. An endless ocean of gravel and sandy waves surrounds me. It's almost impossible to converse because of the gusts. With the sand clawing away at you, there's nothing to do but lower your head and press on.
Up ahead, I can see sand swirling so much it looks like a tornado. Skies are infested with black clouds.
Just as quickly as the wind crops up, it dies down. The sun's back out.
At this point, the power of a Sahara sandstorm starts to really sink in. I open my camera to change film, and I find a layer of talcum-fine sand coats the inside. Grit gnashes between my teeth. A film of sand clings to my notebook.
I pull out a moist towelette to wipe off the sand from my face. A minute after using it, I find it has shriveled into a sheet of brittle paper. Its moisture sucked out by the bone-dry Sahara, the driest spot on earth.
My husband also gains some valuable sandstorm knowledge. Desert Rule No. 2: Don't stand anywhere near the rear of your camel during a strong wind. Jerry did, and as his camel was relieving herself, a gust flung the spray full force. Smack -- all over Jerry. It was nothing personal, but still, Jerry wondered if Lady was the right name for her.
After a few more hours in the saddle, I am discovering another shocking fact about the Sahara. It is not just one big sandbox. Thing is, much of our riding has been over gravel.
My movie dreams of a duney Sahara are shattered, I think. Then around 5 p.m. we come upon a patch of Hollywood-perfect sanddunes: our campsite for this evening.
My husband and I climb up to the top of one of the dunes. In the distance, we spy a herd of 11 camels and severalshepherds keeping a close eye on this valuable flock.
Some would say priceless. I mean, camels opened up the Sahara. Especially from the 10th through the 19th century, when caravans, some composed of 20,000 camels, plied this trade route to riches between Morocco and Timbuktu. Were it not for the dromedaries with their endurance and water-conserving gifts, there'd have been no trade. Without trade, none of West Africa's great medieval kingdoms would have existed.
And I think camels know they're the top dog of the desert. Every time I took a swig from my water bottle, the look on my pack camel's face said: "I can go a month without water."
And Ahmed acts like a mother hen over his cargo. Every now and then, he'll look back at me as we're plodding along and cheerfully cry, "Is OK, Susan?"
Next morning, we're off again at 8 a.m. A few hours later, we ride into Tameg route, now a sleepy tumbledown village but once a fabled stop on the caravan route that boasted the richest library in Morocco.
Five hours later, our caravan would be back in Zagora and my dance with the desert would end. And the camels have floored me by not spitting even once.
Near the end of the journey, Ahmed turns to me, "Is good, Susan?"
"Is good," I reply. I even meant it.