Driving across the baking, endlessly flat volcanic plains, a tinge of orange simmers on the horizon. This sea of orange sand slowly grows in height while passing the odd stunted and lonely acacia tree; they are all that remains from what was once desert woodland. On the fringes where the plains meet the dunes, auberge after auberge begin to appear in a surprising show of civilization surviving in these harsh conditions. And beyond this is the shoreline for a mighty ocean of sand that continues as far as the eye can see; welcome to the Sahara.
Covering a vast area of 9.4 million square kilometres the world’s largest desert bonds the countries of northern Africa including Morocco and its nearest neighbor Algeria. Such as distance in this hostile environment would seem not traversable to most however the Berber folk have mastered the path. Adorned in bright blue djalibas and turbans they protect themselves from the sun and dust and lead obedient camel trains safely through, ever patiently rocking their burden over each crest. Their sweet disposition, combined with pretty cheekbones, long eyelashes and big smiles, would make even the most handsome of women jealous.
The late afternoon sun burns colour and harsh shadows into the ever-shifting crests and valleys and darkness can descend quickly during sandstorms, creating an ethereal beauty where the sun is reduced to a moon glow. Here the wind sculpts the Erg Chebbi dunes into soaring heights of over 150m and climbing the backbone of the dunes to the summit feels like a mammoth effort. The sand is deep and slippery and the ascent slow. From the top, pockets of palm trees and grasses can be seen dotted throughout the valleys in a surprising splash of green. The water table is hidden just below the surface and at nighttime desert sand cats emerge to hunt and dig into the shallow soaks for a much needed drink.
Watching the full moonrise over the Saharan desert is an experience never to be forgotten; far away from the light pollution and cacophony of cities, the only sounds on the breeze are those of the nomadic drummers and the only lights are those in the starry sky above. The sandstorm winds of the late afternoon temper to stillness and the baking heat of the day cools. Camels settle in for the night, grunting as they fold down on themselves, while one watch camel stays awake keeping an eye on the herd. As the moon trails an arc overhead a blissful serenity and reprieve from the day’s severe climate echoes across the windswept landscape.
Then, while the moon is hanging low on the western horizon, the sky begins to wake in the east. Standing in the middle of two celestial bodies, one on each horizon, it feels as if you are in alignment with an equinox. The first rays of dawn slowly melt over the land revealing small footprints, the remnant signs of the night’s secret activity. The day heats up quickly and the journey onward continues. Camel trains make new tracks as yesterday’s are long forgotten. That is the beauty of the Sahara; its ability to constantly reclaim its natural beauty and erase all evidence of human activity.