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Desert Odyssey

Robert Brodey Merzouga, MoroccoFrom a distance, it appears as a mirage across the boiling desert planes. Fire-red dunes rise in sensual curves toward a perfect blue sky. This is no illusion, though. Its Erg Chebbi, a swath of dramatic sand dunes in the eastern corner of Morocco that is part of the largest desert in the world, the famed Sahara of northern Africa. I arrive in the dusty streets of Merzouga, a village that in recent years has become a major point of entry for those seeking a desert experience in Morocco. There are dozens of options for excursions and accommodation. I telephone Mohamed, the owner of `La Libert, an auberge on the edge of the dunes. He offers to pick me up and, 20 minutes later, he arrives on a beat up 50cc motorbike with the traditional blue scarf of the Berbers Moroccos original inhabitants wrapped around his head. He grins from behind his bushy moustache and beckons me to clamber aboard. With his hand on the throttle, we send trails of dust across the desert, my backpack straddling his handlebars. I clutch my camera bag and the bike rack fixed to the back for dear life. He handles the shifting sand beneath his wheels with grace. At the auberge, which he has been running with his family for eight years, the epic dunes await me quite literally in the backyard. I think you should go out to the desert by camel today, he says in French. Despite the long bus trip from the bustling walled city of Fes in the north, I agree. As the sun descends toward the horizon, I hop onto a kneeling camel and head off into the massive dunes with my 20something guide, Ahamed, leading the way. Travelling in the off-season has its benefits. Not only are the temperatures in May more bearable, but I have these spectacular dunes largely to myself. With my knapsack and my person weighing down the camel, the patchy-haired beast seems thor-

Robert Brodey travelled to Morocco, where he spent several days exploring the framed sand dunes of the Sahara. oughly unimpressed with me and east that marks the border with Al- able surface myself included my ability to pack light. It lets out geria, I spend the day with a semi- with a thick layer of fine sand. Its early morning, and a cold nomadic Berber family, who eke unhappy belching groans. In the shadows that grow long out their livelihood herding goats wind continues to howl across the across the dunes, I see the surrealist and camels. There are definitely desert. We decide not to wait for painter Salvador Dalis odd imag- more tourist-friendly options to a change in the weather and begin inings with vivid clarity. Hyper- experience the desert than a mud- the march across the dunes back to saturated landscapes, long-legged brick abode, but watching the the auberge. I discover that in the camels, and distorted figures family haul water from the well, desert a long scarf is almost as inbattle the elements, and round up valuable as a camel, protecting us though no melting clocks. The two-hour trek delivers me belligerent camels leaves a lasting against the fierce sun and blowing to a natural oasis of palm trees impression on me. I see firsthand sand that lashing us the whole way. After three hours on foot, the huddled beneath 100-metre-high just how difficult it is to sustain life eerie ruins of an abandoned village in the desert. dunes. The father, Abdellah, takes a come into view. I hike the mountains of sand We continue up and down the and watch the last light drain from moment to play a handmade flute the sky. More than the beauty sur- for me. I take his photograph and dunes like landlocked mariners, arriving back at La Libert just as a rounding me, what strikes me is offer to send him a copy. Nomads dont have addresses, few drops of rain fall. the depth of the silence. After days Mohamed looks satisfied, as he of wandering the chaotic souks of he says. greets me. Good point. Casablanca, Miknes, and Fes, the Sun, windstorms, and rain. You Later, we eat couscous under newfound quiet literally rings in the stars. After some deliberation, got to experience it all. my ears. The next day, after a blissful On my first night in Erg Chebbi, I decide to sleep outside with the I sleep in a traditional Berber tent rest of the family. Thats when Im night sleeping in dead silence, Mowith one side open to the dunes and told Ill be sleeping indoors. Was it hamed takes me by motorcycle into Merzouga in search of transport sky. I wake up often to marvel at something I said? A sandstorm is coming, Aha- out of the desert. the dome of stars. We find a local micro-bus that After an early morning break- med tells me, as he surveys the desfits 11 comfortably but has 18 hufast, I cut the camel some slack and ert beyond the darkness. As predicted, the wind picks up mans plus a donkey crammed indecide to make the four-hour trek side. minutes later. on foot to our next encampment. As the bus pulls out of the vilThen a whirl of sand obliterates We leave behind the 28-by-7 kilometre patch of dunes and move everything from view. After a mo- lage, I leave behind the dunes but across less picturesque but equally ment of panic, I gather my wits and take with me both the adventure dramatic desert-scapes that offer help the family bundle the last of and the stillness of the desert, little shelter from the blazing heat. their untethered possessions in- which I have discovered is no mirage. A profound silence remains with doors. The night provides little sleep, me, though the ringing in my ears Robert Brodey is a Torontoas wind batters the mud walls, and has begun to subside. In view of a high ridge to the clouds of dust cover every conceiv- based freelance writer.

Casandra London