Like most of us, I look for “authentic” experiences when I travel, ones that don’t feel manufactured for tourists. Using that definition, a camel ride to a Moroccan desert camp filled with tents, carpeted ground covers, restrooms, food, and entertainment probably doesn’t cut it. But my camelback journey revealed that there’s more than one way to think about authenticity.
I arrived with my two sons — Sumner (21) and Connor (18) — at the edge of the desert at Erg Chebbi (Big Dunes) as part of a four-day trek across Morocco with our driver, Abdul. I’m normally not a fan of tours, but in Morocco, it turned out to be the most efficient way to cover the vast distances between Marrakech and Fez. After dropping off our bags at the Auberge du Sud hotel in Erg Chebbi, we headed to the camels lined up outside. Soon we were going through the unfamiliar movement of mounting them.
Sumner got up first with relative ease. Connor was next, also without problems. Then it was my turn. I scissored my right leg over the saddle and settled into it as the camel began to rise, rear legs first in a rapid springing motion. This maneuver thrust me so far forward that, without a firm grip on the metal bar attached to my saddle, I’d have gone flying over the camel’s head and face-planted in the sand (apparently not an uncommon occurrence). I lurched backward as the camel unfurled its front legs. Finally, both camel and I were up. Who knew that merely regaining an upright posture could be cause for celebration?
Then, off we went, into the desert.
Initially, the three of us and our guide traveled with another group of about seven people, but eventually the two groups split so that each could have a more private encounter with the desert. We traveled in the early evening due, in part, to the heat, but also because of the beauty of the place during the magic hours as twilight approached. We traversed through dunes like sea swells, peak to trough as the day’s heat dissipated with the setting sun. As we rode, the world deepened into shades of burnt orange before us and rich blue above us.
At first, we spoke little, awed by the experience. But soon, as the once-exotic act of riding on a humped beast started to feel normal, my boys and I began to talk. What started with grins of delight and surprise eventually settled into a dialogue about the camels. We decided to name each one: Dasher for mine, Jennifer for my oldest son’s, and No Name for the camel my youngest son refused to name. Our guide walked ahead of us leading our three newly christened camels. I wasn’t sure whether he could hear or understand us, but I later found out we were not unique.
To our Berber guides, the camels were work animals. However, most of the tourists (let’s face it, that’s what we were) treated their respective camels like newfound pets. Rather large ones, with humps, novel smells, and sometimes nasty temperaments. But pets. Some — like ours — received names that would last all of a day or two until the next group of visitors decided to personalize their grumpy mounts.
Eventually, we met back up with the other group and stopped so that everyone could watch the sunset. It all seemed like a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia” until, over the rise of a dune, came an ATV on its way to the camp. This modern intrusion into our romanticized ideal might have been troubling except that the driver brought with him what looked like snowboards. I looked around for snow but saw only dune after dune of slippery sand.
These weren’t snowboards. They were sand-boards.
Since my boys snowboard and surf at home, they knew just what to do. Race up the dune. Ride down. Repeat. They were soon showing the other group (mostly visitors from Japan) how to use the boards. While they were busy cavorting in the sand, I hung out with Jennifer, No Name, and Dasher, marveling at the camels’ complete indifference to all that went on around them.
Soon, we were back on our mounts and heading in increasing darkness toward our camp. Once there, our guides led us to a large area with carpets laid over the sand and strung up on ropes as windbreaks to create, essentially, an outdoor room with no ceiling. We sat on the carpets at low tables, drank the mint tea for which Morocco is famous, and awaited our dinner as lanterns illuminated the scene.
During this time, my sons and I began to talk again. Not about camels, carpets, or tea, but about deep issues, family dynamics, and challenges we’d never voiced to each other before. Even after our chicken tagine had arrived, we paused between bites to share about issues that, even as a close family, we don’t broach at home. Maybe nothing about our arriving here counted as “authentic” in the purist’s sense, but our time as a family was.
That sense of specialness continued as we talked some more and our guides began a performance of traditional Berber drum music. Their rhythmic thumping lasted long after we headed to our tent for a few hours’ sleep before we were to rise at 3 a.m. for our return trip.
Rather than sleep in our tent, we pulled the mattresses onto the outlying carpets and slept under the stars. The Milky Way earned its name that evening, appearing as a white smear across a packed sky. The three of us lay there, continuing our talk until eventually, we all faded to sleep.
A few hours later, we were back up, groggily making our way onto No Name, Jennifer, and Dasher who seemed about as thrilled to see us as we were to be up at that hour. We mounted, lurched, rose, and headed out, the nighttime still embracing us.
There are moments in life so exquisite that you call them forth over time, like revisiting small, hidden treasures, just to remind yourself that they were real. Such was that ride back through the Sahara in the dark for me. The stars provided enough light for our guides to see by, but not much more. And in that darkness came the only sound, a refrain of the previous evening’s drumbeats, the muffled shhhsh, shhhsh, shhhsh of the camels’ hooves through the sand. It was mesmerizing in its rhythmic insistence that this was no ordinary experience.
Maybe the larger arrangement was all produced solely for tourists. But like the time spent with my sons the night before, this moment was something genuine and special. As the dark sky morphed to deep purple, then indigo, then to a lighter blue on the horizon, the same consistent sound of hooves on sand persisted, soothed, and enchanted.
We continued on in silence as the sky brightened until we stopped on a ridge to watch the sun poke its head above the dunes. With the light came the reality of returning to the world we knew. We would soon ride back to the hotel and say farewell to our camels and guides, getting in Abdul’s SUV to travel all day north to Fez for yet another adventure. But none of that diminished the afterglow we still felt from our journey into the desert.
I enjoy solo travel because you have a better chance of meeting new people. But sometimes drawing closer to the people you already know and love has an even greater value. It doesn’t matter if the initial experience was a touristy one or not. Since our time in the Sahara, my sons and I rarely bring up what we discussed that evening under the stars. But all we have to do is mention Jennifer, Dasher, or No Name, and we remember.
We remember. We smile. And we are grateful.