It looks like I picked the bumpiest camel in the herd, but there’s not much I can do about it now. I cling and look around me. We are adrift in a sea of apricot-colored dunes, a scene more magnificent than I could have ever imagined. But our host seems decidedly anxious.
Moments after we set off at a steady pace, I find out why. Ahead, the sky darkens from a milky tawny to a stormy hematite gray. “Any minute,” said the camel driver, leading us stubbornly. Lightning suddenly tears the clouds apart. When we planned this short camel trek through the northwest fringes of the Sahara, the last thing we expected was a storm.
Deciding to ignore both the bumps and the unpromising weather, I settle into the experience instead. Neon-lit dune buggies from another tour appear and, like props from a sci-fi movie, drive away. I feel quietly smug; going on a peaceful journey seems a much better way to bond with this silent wasteland. As we stop for mint tea by a campfire with a panoramic view, I’m convinced I made the right choice.
Our camp at Erg Chebbi – a landscape of windblown sand dunes some distance north of the Sahara proper – is spacious and comfortable, but not as wild as some might expect. When the guides of the Aït Atta tribe promise a trip to visit their nomadic family in the Sahara, they must have in mind a trip to a place like this: a semi-permanent, off-grid camp, created only for the tourists. Climate change has made traditional desert lifestyles increasingly precarious for nomadic communities in the Maghreb, so many have turned to hospitality and entertainment instead.
There are several nearby camps, and until recently there were even more unlicensed tourist sites here, raising concerns about their impact on the environment. In 2019, local authorities evacuated some of them by force. As controversial as it is, it has preserved the remaining ones, which offer something special: a taste of the desert, within reach of a main road. There are also plenty nearby: Khamlia, a hamlet with a lively Gnawa concert hall; the small town of Merzouga, meeting point for astrotourists; and the bustling market town of Rissani. In other words, there is much more to see here than endless dunes. Legend has it that the terrestrial civilizations presented in the Star Wars films were inspired by North African cities such as Rissani, a former Saharan caravan relay where desert tribes mingle. Along the way, we stop at scenic viewpoints manned by hawkers selling fossils, minerals, and crystals. I ask one of them, jokingly, if he has found any meteorites lately. “If I had, you wouldn’t find me here!” he’s laughing.
It’s Sunday and the souks of Rissani are in full swing. Cone-shaped heaps of spices scent the air, and vendors hold stalls filled with potatoes, peppers, and bunches of dewy cilantro. In a bakery, you order medfounas, Rissani’s signature delicacy: pancakes stuffed with herbs, spices and meat or vegetables. Traditionally they are cooked in a hearth in the sand for a distinctively smoky flavor, but in town they are cooked in huge wood-fired ovens, a kind of Amazigh calzone. In the meantime, I buy dates: huge and sticky, warmed by the sun.
On the way back to camp, our driver takes a detour through the dunes, and voila: a table set for lunch under what must be the only tamarisk tree for miles. As we savor our cool medfounas, my thoughts turn to what awaits me tonight: drinks by the fire, rhythms beating on Sahrawi drums and a huge desert sky, dotted with a billion stars.