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Under Saharan Stars

A Night in the Sahara Desert

Marissa Laramie, Global EIC

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I watched at the winding roads of the High Atlas Mountains slowly became long stretches of flat highways. After a day and a half of traveling, I’d seen beautiful forests, oceans, towering red rocks, and mountains, but I was even more excited for what was ahead in the distance. The biggest thing my friends and I had been told we couldn’t miss in Morocco was a weekend trip to the Sahara desert. I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and took it the first chance I got. From the get-go, we were warned it was going to be a lot of traveling. A trip from the Northernmost point of Morocco to the border of Algeria isn’t really a Sunday drive. Packed to the brim with plenty of snacks, water, and a full portable charger, forty of us hopped on a midnight train heading south to Marrakech. While the journey on day one was long, we made many stops; including at a cafe in the mountainside and to a Berber village, Aït Benhaddou, where Game of Thrones was filmed.

The second day, staring out at the flattening land, I tried to imagine what was to come. When I thought of the Sahara, I pictured oppressive heat and strong sand-filled winds. How was I supposed to make it nearly two hours on a camel in that? Even during lunch, over our delicious Amazigh pizza, I had small knots in my stomach, thinking about what we had been told, “it’ll be the highest of highs, and lowest of lows.” Finishing up, we were told we’d be in the Sahara in less than an hour. I tried to relax for the remaining forty-five minutes, popping in my headphones and resting my head against the window. Looking out, I thought I was seeing even more mountains in the distance. To my surprise, they weren’t mountain peaks, but the tops of the enormous sand dunes that make up the Sahara. I wasn’t the only one who thought that and, one by one, we all became awestruck by the landscape in front of us. As we got closer, darkened, flat ground suddenly became orange and gold sand, almost like someone had drawn a line where it would begin. Everything felt so surreal, like it was the most beautiful thing I had seen.

Stepping out of the bus, we were greeted by our guides. One by one, we handed the scarves we had bought to them. They were tied around our heads in a turban-style. I trudged towards the camel caravan, my backpack was weighed down by at least three large water bottles. About six of us made up one caravan, and we quickly took to affectionately naming our camels. Ferdinand, Fred, Paul, and trusty Herbert, named for our president, leading the pack. The air wasn’t hot like I thought it would be, instead a cool breeze swept by us as we made our way deeper into the desert. Thankfully, the henna I had gotten earlier had finally dried because I was holding on for dear life as we made our way around sharp bends and above massive drops in the dunes. As the sun began to set, our   guides had us get off the camels, urging us to take off our shoes and feel the sand. It was soft, almost water-like when you kicked it down an embankment. Some ran up one of the giant dunes, eager to “surf” down on one of our snowboards, and some even dropped to the ground and made “sand angels.”

The sunset was unlike anything I’d seen before. Morocco is known for it’s beautiful sunsets and golden hour, but both were only amplified by the warm hues of the sand. As we got back on our camels, we twisted the best we could to watch the setting sun behind us go down. After about half an hour later, when most of our legs had gone numb from the ride, we saw  our linen tents in the distance. The encampment was essentially a small city, winding walkways in between the sectioned off rooms. Starving by the time we settled in, we slowly began to trickle out to where tables had been set up for us. Carpets and blankets were carefully layered over the sand to create a floor. Our first course of Moroccan salad was quickly wiped out, and the chicken tagine went just as quickly. With the sun completely set, it began to get cold. Ignorantly, I didn’t think it got past sixty degrees at the least here. Our hosts started a little bonfire for us and a traditional moroccan band appeared from the shadows. We danced around the fire to the music with our hosts and guides under millions of beautiful stars. With the fire and moon being our only light, everything in the heavens was visible. We’ve traveled all over this semester, but this is still one of my favorite moments. Before heading to sleep, I walked out of our camp and gathered up a bottle of sand as a keepsake.

 

After only getting about two hours of sleep, I woke up at 4:30 with everyone else to the worst realization. I was absolutely freezing. The sweater I had bought for the trip did nothing to keep me warm in the forty degree tent. I shivered under my blanket, refusing to part with it. By the time my friends pulled me from it, I made a mad dash for what was left of the fire. I was miserable, wanting nothing more than to get out, as more sticks were added.  It was all worth it though as the sun began to rise and we were ushered over to the caravan of ATVs awaiting us. I instantly did a one-eighty, excited for the rest of my morning. We hopped on, and drove through the dunes as the sun rose around us. Take it from me, seeing the sun rise in the Sahara has to be on your bucket list. It was the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen, and I realized nothing would ever beat the moment I was living in. I don’t know what’s going to out do that in my life, but it’s going to have to be pretty amazing.

At the end of our ride, we huddled into a hotel on the very edge of the desert. I hadn’t realized how covered in sand I was before now. The halls of the hotel were plastered with posters of famous movies that had been shot in the area. The Sheltering Sky, Sex and the City 2, War Dogs, and so on. I don’t know how much of the Sahara those actors got to experience, but I hope it was something close to this. I grabbed myself a coffee and crepe, a standard breakfast for me here, and quickly ate before jumping on the bus. It was over. The best weekend of my life was done. And I had no regrets.

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