One of the most characteristic features of a steady snowfall – when it isn’t accompanied by howling winds, power outages, or the need to get somewhere when you should be staying home – is the quiet. If you are one of those whose world is currently being blanketed by “a mantle of white”, as we are in spades at this very moment, then hopefully you are able to take the time to listen to the quiet. This sense of peace – OK, just don’t think about the snow removal issues at the moment – is very similar to how it felt to be riding in a camel caravan on the sand dunes of the northern edge of the Sahara. There was talking going on between those of us in our party, but there was also a pervasive sense of stillness. Camels’ footsteps don’t make noise walking on soft sand. It was magical.
We get the same sense of peace and well-being when we cross-country snow on pristine snow on a day that’s not too cold and not too windy, but, as Goldilocks would say, “ju-ust right”. Picking the day to go out in the cold – or not – is key. We were lucky enough to have that requisite perfect day for our camel trek. First of all, it wasn’t really daytime anyway, it was late afternoon and the heat of the day was over. And it was October, so the heat of the day wasn’t that hot anyway. There was no heat, no cold, no sand storms, and no concerns about food or water for our 45 minutes or so on the camels. It was just right!
But during that short period of time on the camel, even plodding along in ideal conditions and with no responsibilities, you couldn’t help but think about what it would be to actually cross the desert in a camel caravan. The established trading routes of North Africa did exactly that for centuries, from the 3rd century A.D. until the last one in 1933. Hundreds if not thousands of kilometers each trip. Lord, those had to have been interminable, brutal trips. Camel caravans were the main means of transportation for goods traded east-west across North Africa. They also travelled southward to Timbuktu, which for centuries was a major commercial and cultural center, and which now, in present-day northern Mali, sadly is definitely not the place to be. (Mind you, romanticizing the past as opposed to the tragic present in that part of the world is a tough task, considering that some of those “goods” were people.) Former strategic towns and forts along the ancient trade route within Morocco remain wonderful places to visit, such as the UNESCO heritage site Ait Ben-Haddou, but are reliant on tourism rather than commercial trade. The camel caravans of old were led by nomadic Berber tribesmen whose descendants now take tourists like me on short treks across the Erg Chebbi sand dunes to watch the sun set. And they haven’t lost their ancestors’ interest in trade. Our camel drivers had their saddle bags filled with treasures wrapped in newspaper to sell to their charges upon dismount out on the dunes: rocks and fossils (a feature of the area), ceramic souvenirs, etc.
There’s a technical side of the story to go along with the historical and geological. This excursion into the northern edge of the Sahara was one of the things I had been really looking forward to before we went, and I brought my Garmin watch with me to record the experience. As I mentioned in a blog post I wrote some time ago, Ode to My Garmin, a Garmin is a fun thing to take on trips, not just in case you get the opportunity to run but also to wear when you’re off the beaten track and want to see where exactly you were when you get back home. My plan had been to wear my Garmin on the jeep ride out to the dunes and then on the camel, which I did, but with unanticipated results. When I got back home and downloaded my watch, this is what appeared. My watch had gone crazy. It couldn’t decipher where it was once it got started, so reverted to Lisbon, which was the previous place where I had used it. You can see that the starting point is in Morocco, within spitting distance of the Algerian border. You can also see that the Garmin blew a fuse trying to establish its elevation. I was dumbfounded, and then realized that the signals must have been scrambled! Or was it just all that beautiful sand that confused my Garmin?!
Map credit: African World Heritage Sites