Soon after leaving Marrakesh the landscape changes
dramatically. Replacing the sandy expanses of valley land are
rolling hills, dotted with scrub brush and shepherds herding flocks
of sheep. This soon gives way to the dramatic peaks of the High
Atlas Mountains. Dotted with snow, these jagged mountains that
we have seen on the horizon from Marrakesh are stunning from
within. Our trip includes stopovers at two kasbahs and both the
Dades Gorge and the Todra Gorge. In the Dades Gorge a local
Berber business man hosts us in a room of his house, which is
made out of mud and straw and reinforced with patches of
cement to prevent it from crumbling during rainstorms. After
serving us tea sweetened with saffron, he presents the work of
his mother and sister--beautifully woven Berber rugs. The design
of each rug tells a story, whether it is a history of the Berber
people or a depiction of the constellations over the desert sky.
Jarrod in front of the Ait Benhadou Kasbah
The rugs are made from the wool of sheep, camel hair, or silk. Of course, he was hoping that we would all buy one
of these rugs before departing. Thankfully, we are off the hook with the explanation of our travel situation and the
limited space in our backpacks!
From a tourism standpoint, Morocco is largely defined by Marrakesh. The city's souks, mosques, and market attract
thousands of visitors into the medina walls each month. After three days, we too were mesmerized by the energy
of both the city and people. When we signed up for a three day tour through the High Atlas Mountains to the
Sahara desert, we had no idea how beguiling the rest of Morocco would be as well.

We tear ourself away from the luxurious confines of Riad Chouia Chouia at 6:30 am to make our 7:00am departure .
Knowing that our next bed will consist of a blanket inside a Berber tent in the middle of the desert make it that
much harder to leave! Half awake, we board the small motorcoach. Joining us are 15 other people, ranging from a
group of four undergrad girls from NYU to a gentleman from England currently in his 18th consecutive month of
traveling around the world. Right away we know our fellow travelers are going to be as entertaining as our
destination. The guy across the aisle from us once took part in an interesting program at a prison in La Paz, Bolivia.
According to him, the prisoners were tasked with earning their own keep for the duration of their sentence. One
ingenius prisoner created a "spend the night in my jail cell" program for tourists. Our bus mate, one of the
participants of this now ceased program, paid good money to eat prison food, sleep on a cement floor, and chitchat
with a convicted felon for 24 hours in the middle of Bolivia. I don't know about you, but I don't generally bump into
people with these kind of experiences in my day to day life! Sitting behind us were two 22 year old Australian girls
who bartend in a London pub for a few months to earn money, and then set off on extended travel to see the
world. The bar in London provides room and board (as much bangers and mash as they can consume!), which
means that they can save virtually all of their income for their next adventure. Not a bad life.
After leaving the Atlas Mountains and valley of the gorges, our scenery takes a turn for the worse, as do our road
conditions. Replacing the breathtaking sights and paved road we are now greeted with miles upon miles of
tattered villages, dry and barren flatlands, and the bumpiest road known to mankind.  Just when we think it can't
get any worse, our driver veers off the feeble excuse for a road and cuts straight across the dry, cracked
wasteland. Is he lost? Late and looking for a shortcut? Mad at us? We aren't sure. Bracing ourself with the
armrests and on the lookout for rogue backpacks jostled loose from the overhead compartments, we crane our
neck to catch a glimpse of where our driver might possibly be headed. Then, out of the hazy space where land
meets sky, we see it. Lurking quietly on the distant horizon, expanding in heighth and width with every turn of the
tires, are the mighty sand dunes of the Sahara desert. In all of the movies I've seen with a desert scene, the
feeling of exultation comes when one finally find their way out of the desert. Here we are, a bunch of weary
travelers, giddy at the thought of being dropped off in the desert.
Close your eyes and imagine what could be
bumpier than a 1970's model motorcoach with
worn-out shocks. Give up? Let me give you a hint.
It has four legs, can come with one hump or two,
and is our transportation for the final leg of our
journey. You got it---camels! We excitedly throw
everything we will need for a night in the desert
into our small backpack, make sure our camera is
loaded with film and fresh batteries, and shuffle
through the sand to saddle up our camels. Actually,
they come pre-saddled, if you consider a saddle
layer upon layer of blankets and padding intended
to make a level seating area around and above the
hump on the camel's back. The camels are lined up
one behind the other, and are lying down. This
makes it quite easy to get on them. The challenge
is staying on as the camel stands up. First, the
camel straightens its back legs, sending you and all
your weight careening down its neck. Then, the
camel deftly unfolds its long, gangly front legs one
Our Berber guide leads our procession of camels into the great
expanse of the Sahara, meandering between the sharp ridges
and deep valleys of the dunes. To the left we can see the
Morocco-Algerian border delineated by a wall winding through
the desert. The sun is almost setting, turning the sand a warm
shade of siena. Contrasting brilliantly with the blue desert sky,
this is truly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
The strong night winds create distinct edges to the sand
dunes, resembling pyramid-like structures one after another for
as far as you can see. Local Berber men lead people up the
edge of the dunes to enjoy the spectacular sunset taking
place. From our vantage point on the camels, this looks like
such a peaceful way to spend an evening. We later learn just
how strenuous it is to trudge up the deep, slippery sand.

After an hour or so we round a bend and our campsite for the
night comes into view. A series of tents constructed out of
Berber rugs form a circle in the middle of the desert. No other
campsites can be seen, giving us the illusion we are the only
ones out here. (Before arriving we had heard that some of the
tour operators conglomerate together out in the desert,
leading to a crowded, noisy campsite). Our guide makes his
way camel to camel, giving each one the command to kneel,
first with its front legs, then with its back legs, to let us off. As
my camel makes its awkward descent, my face comes
dangerously close to the head of Jarrod's camel, which is in line
behind me. Right at that moment, the damn animal sneezes.
Right in my face! Only, and I mean only, the high from seeing
the spectacular sand dunes of the Sahara can cause one not
to lose it when covered in a fine layer of camel snot. I clearly
am on this high as I find this more comical than disgusting.
For those of you wondering if Jarrod and I had a romantic night in the Sahara, I'm sorry to say that we share a
tent with the 18-month traveler and the guy who spent the night in prison. No hanky panky to be had. We
throw our bags into our tent and join our group to climb the highest dune in sight. As novice sand dune climbers,
we plunge full speed ahead up the steep slope. Sure that we are at least three quarters of the way up, we turn
around to take in the view. To our dismay, we are clearly still within the lower quarter of the dune. Determined,
we continue on. The tranquil scene of the Berber guide leading two people up the sand dune in my mind is now
replaced with reality. It's HARD work to climb a sand dune! With each step my foot either sinks a half foot into
the thick sand, or fails to break the surface of the sand resulting in a slippery backwards descent. Soon my heart
begins to feel like it is going to beat right out of my chest. I start to worry about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I
can't make it up one measly sand dune, how on earth am I going to conquer all 19,500 feet of Kili??? Slowing to
a much more moderate pace, I trudge up the sand dune. By this point, Jarrod has literally left me in the dust and
is admiring the view from the top. Finally, I make the summit and join him. The feeling is awesome. By this point,
the sun has set and the stars are out. Even though we are only an hour from civilization (via camel), I feel like
we are the only ones for miles and miles. There is not a sound to be heard. We  lay on our backs in the deep
sand to admire the stars and the vast expanse of darkness we see. After awhile, our desert guide begins to
play the drums--our signal to make our way back down for dinner. Jarrod and I decide to steal a moment by
ourself and risk being late for dinner. Once alone, we declare this very moment, on top of the sand dune, being
worth the whole trip. The immenseness of the desert, the anticipation of sleeping in the Sahara, the fun people
we have met, riding a has all culminated in an adrenaline high. We start to make our way back by
walking along the top ridge of the sand dune for a bit. Doing this in the dark really plays with your sense of
balance. As you stand precariously on top of the dune, you are looking down a steep slope on each side.  
Knowing that if I topple to one side it will be a strenuous climb back up, I gingerly place one foot in front of the
other and follow Jarrod back to camp.
Dinner is served in a large communal tent with a small bonfire in the
middle. We are divided up according to what we want for dinner.
Chicken tagines at one table, Beef tagines at another, and Veggie
tajines at a third. Our guides entertain us by playing the drums and
singing, and then teaching us some of their songs. One by one, our
group drifts off to their tents to prepare to go to sleep.

Sleep...I use that word loosely in this context. I think I did fall into a
pretty deep sleep right away. However, that wind that I was talking
about that forms the distinct ridges on the sand's not such a
good thing when you are sleeping in a tent constructed out of rugs
loosely tied together. About 2:00 am, the wind really picked up,
sending not only a cold blast of air into our tent but also a heavy
spray of sand. Cold and gritty, we dive under the blankets and try to
go to sleep. We spend the rest of the night drifting off, only to be
woken by either the cold wind or a shot of sand to the face. At
sunrise, we stumble out of the tent to greet the morning. Our guides
tell us to make our way back up the sand dune, as it is a great
vantage point to watch the sunrise. Up I go again, this time minus the
adrenaline rush. We swap stories with our group of how each of us
fared throughout the night. No one got any respectable amount of
sleep. Luckily, the clear morning and the rising sun rekindle the
wonder of the desert, and we settle in to watch the Sahara come to
life for another day.
On the camel ride out, Jarrod gets a camel that has a
serious foaming at the mouth problem. One of the girls
in our group explains that his camel is chewing its cud,
and that is what is causing the excessive amounts of
foam. Whatever it is, it is gross! I am so thankful that I
am behind his camel, as every once in awhile his camel
advances on the camel in front of him, coming side by
side with it, and then proceeds to nudge the rider's leg
with its nose and mouth, leaving a streak of saliva and
froth on his jeans. I just don't think I could handle camel
snot and camel saliva on one trip!

After making our way out of the desert on camel, it is
time to say goodbye to our group. Instead of returning
to Marrakesh via the motorcoach we are going to make
our way to Fes by bus. A group of travelers from Hong
Kong overhears our conversation about which bus we
should take, and explains they are going to hire a taxi
to drive them to Fes. With the number of people we
would have all together, the cost comes out to be about
the same, and we will save about 5 hours. After
bartering with the drivers, we pile into the taxis and
begin the longest taxi ride I have ever been on.
Jarrod hanging on as his camel unfolds its front legs to come to a
standing position.
by one, giving you a quick one-two shot side to side. With a squeal and a prayer (or curse), you suddenly find
yourself sitting atop a camel. The gait of a camel is more haphazard than that of a horse, as a camel steps
forward with both its legs on the right side at the same time, followed by a step with both left legs. This results
in a pretty mean jostle side to side with each step. A horse, on the other hand, steps forward with its right front
leg and left hind leg, followed by its left front leg and right hind leg, providing a more even, steady gait. Camels
make some interesting noises as well. I'll call it belching, but you have to imagine a burp that originates in the
deepest pit of a camel's stomach, and slowly and noisily makes its way up and out of the camel's mouth. The net
result of a camel ride-a severely sore lower half of the body and lots of laughs but absolutely worth the
Making the ascent to the top of the sand dune to watch
the sunset. It's not as easy as it looks!
Our tent in the Sahara
Our Berber campsite in the Sahara
Between the belching, sneezing, and foaming at the mouth,
the camel definitely doesn't get our vote for world's most
cuddly animal.
Chefchaouen, Morocco
From the Top of the Dunes