Sand, Stars, and Scarab Beetles: A Night Spent in the Sahara

Monday, September 02, 2013

The man leaned in close. I could smell his breath, a mixture of tobacco and a pungent, unidentifiable spice. His arms were stained slightly indigo from the traditional robes he wore. He was a Tuareg, a true “Blue Man” of the Sahara. Though he was only in his mid-fifties, his face bore the wrinkles of a lifetime spent in the sun.

“This is very difficult,” he said to me in French, and I nodded. We were sitting by the fire under the desert sky of Morocco, and he was helping me to untangle the necklaces I wore around my neck. I had bought the strands of colorful glass beads in the souks of Marrakesh only days earlier, and he worked quickly and carefully to free me from their knots.

Morocco Jeep

From Marrakesh, we had taken a van ride through the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains, travelling through terrains so dry and rocky that mirages appeared in the distance, pools of water that disappeared as we drove closer. Villages, their houses made of the surrounding materials, were camouflaged into the sides of the mountains. We shared the road with men herding goats, women carrying baskets, children playing soccer.

Morocco Camp 2

Pushing Boundaries

We were dropped off in the tiny town of M’hamid, on the edge of the Sahara. There, enormous tagines of couscous and vegetables awaited us, and we spent the evening drinking mint tea. Local boys played drums and danced, their blue robes swirling around low tables. They kept their faces hidden, but each was distinguishable in his movements and his rhythm. We were shown to our hut, a tiny structure with a mattress on the ground, but we didn’t flinch – this was an adventure, and adventures are supposed to push us out of our comfort zones, to push our boundaries.

The next day, we rode even further into the desert, stopping to collect fossils from lakes long dried up. The jeep bounced along, up and over the low dunes, and I wondered how the driver knew where to go: it all looked the same to me.

Morocco Pack of Camels

The jeep finally pulled up to camp in late afternoon, and we immediately started hiking the largest dune on the horizon. The sunset, our guide assured us, was worth the sweat and the challenge, and he was right. We watched as the sun, as perfect as a gold coin, sank out of sight.

Language Barrier

Back at camp, we finally got a tour of where we’d be staying: there were separate tents for us and for the guides, and a small tent for cooking. A firepit was in the centre, and the only bathroom was a tiny outhouse a few hundred metres away. As night fell, we were once again given couscous, this time with lamb and mint. Tea was served in the special Moroccan way, poured back and forth from teapot to cup so that the tea mixes and cools.

Morocco Fire

There were five of us sitting around the fire, eating together: my mum and I, our guide, Ali, our cook, Omar, and our driver, Hameed. Hameed was the man who untangled my necklaces; because he didn’t speak English, our communication was mostly in broken French and the very few Arabic words I had picked up in Morocco. Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Berber, but approximately 30% of the people speak French – all of those lessons as a child in Canada finally paid off, and I was able to carry a conversation with him.

Morocco Dinner

Music of the Night

“Sing for us,” Omar said, as the men had been playing drums and singing traditional Berber songs. My mum and I looked at each other – what traditional songs could we sing from Canada? We settled on songs by a band we knew all the words to, though they weren’t Canadian: The Beatles. It was so surreal, to sit under the Sahara’s night sky, clumsily singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. The men clapped and whistled when we were done, and there was laughter all around.

Morocco First Bed

We retired to our tent for bed, and layered on all of our clothing; as hot as it had been in the day, it was now freezing cold at night. We shivered, even under our heavy wool blankets. At some point, I woke to the sound of snuffling – it sounded like a beast was trying to get into our tent. “Mum!” I whispered. “Do you hear that?”

Morocco Scarab Beetle

Beetle Mania

“It’s nothing,” she mumbled, and I attempted to fall back asleep. I remembered all of the scarab beetles we had found in the dunes earlier, and tried not to imagine how many of them must be in our tent at that very moment.

When I pulled back the flap of the tent the next morning, I burst out laughing: there was a huge pile of dung right outside our door. There HAD been a beast trying to get in. Ali informed us that it must have been a stray camel, perhaps one of the ones we would be riding later. We had a quick breakfast, hot coffee and thick bread, and it was time to move on.

Morocco Camel\

Our days in the Sahara were filled with many experiences: camel rides, hiking sand dunes, having lunch in an oasis. The most memorable experience, however, was that night we spent around the fire, singing songs and learning about each other’s lives. It was that night that I had seen more stars than I ever thought possible, thousands and thousands of them in that big, glittering space. With nothing to break the horizon, the sky formed a perfect dome over us. It was the kind of night we savor as travellers, when the conversation flows freely, when we smile our most genuine smiles, when the world seems ours and ours alone.

How to Make This Trip Happen: 

- Unfortunately the tour company I went with in 2008 is no longer running. Touareg Trails comes highly recommended on TripAdvisor, and Intrepid Travel offers a variety of trips through Morocco and the Sahara.

Morocco Camp

- Most tours leave from Marrakech, and it takes a full day’s drive to get to the desert from there, so plan for at least a few days to experience this adventure.

- Make sure you pack a scarf, which is so versatile. It can be used to protect your face from the wind and sand, as well as be draped over your shoulders to protect you from the sun.

- Leave your luggage or big backpack and just bring a small carry-on-sized backpack. Do not take more than what you need for one night. You do not need your laptop, cell phone or gadgets.

-You will want to dress comfortably. Try to avoid skirts (for girls) or shorts to keep your bare legs from rubbing against the camel’s saddle. Dress in layers to prepare for any temperature. The temperature can change from very hot during the day and freezing cold at night.

Check out more Sahara preparation tips from Travel and Escape.

Brenna of This Battered Suitcase has been on the road since April of 2006, travelling through all of the continents but Antarctica. She is currently based in London to start a Master's degree in writing. She is eternally single, unemployed, and homeless, but happy and loving her life.

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1 sole trails

  1. Very cool - I was there with you reading that. If Morocco wasn't already my dream destination, it would be now - minus pooping camels!

    Yours in Travel,



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