To The Edge of the Desert
photos and words by felicia williams // Zagora Desert, Morocco // shop the story
"Would you like to stop to take a photo, princess?"
Princess. This is how Abdul, a seasoned Zagoran desert guide, would refer to my friend Francesca and I during our trip. It wasn't flippant; it was sincere and endearing.
Abdul meant it much like the way a father might speak to a pair of daughters. We knew we were in good hands.
The drive into Zagora was about ten hours with plenty of stops along the way. We'd had a late start, so Abdul was driving fast.
We crossed through the High Atlas mountains via the Tizi n'Tichka pass, towards Ait Benhaddou village and it's fortified ksar and beautiful Kasbahs.
All along the way, the landscape was breath-taking.
Big beautiful mountains, dotted with lush green trees. Purple and blue hazes, cut by pure sunshine. Rocky red earth, rising and falling in great valleys and peaks, all along a windy, narrow road into the heart of Morocco. We would stop, take pics, lean out the window, sing our hearts out to the radio and enjoy the view.
Once we made it into Zagora, Francesca and I bought a pair of brightly colored turbans.
We tied them Berber style atop our heads, and then made our way to the desert camp outpost, to meet our hosts for the evening.
What at first seemed like a tourist trap, turned out to be a God send. We were immediately thankful for the head wraps. The flies in the desert are...persistent. They go straight for the ears, like little mini seeking missiles. After waving away the sixth and seventh wave of fly assaults, we shouldered our small bags of personal belongings in good humor and were guided onto two, single-humped camels.
At this juncture, we said "good-bye" to Abdul and "hello" to our new guide, Ahmed.
Ahmed, who spoke Berber and Arabic, was a sweet and wonderful host. He was both our camel wrangler and our companion on the journey into camp and though he only stood about five feet tall, he deftly handed the animals and began quickly organizing our belongings onto our steeds.
Our camels were small in length, sturdy, and immensely tall (I've ridden many horses and I was surprised by how high off the ground these creatures were). Swinging my legs over the back, it reared up and we were off.
The two hours ride into camp was beautiful, besieged by beige sand glimmering against a setting sun, and a cool breeze blowing over the low dunes, brushing away the hot day.
Large, simple tents rose in the distance and we heard the laughter and chatter of other guests. Dismounting, Ahmed and our other desert hosts brought us into the camp circle, introduced us to a few of the other adventures, and directed us to our tents. For dinner, we enjoyed a filling tagine, mint tea and warm-crusted bread.
Once the sun had completely set, and the darkness had wrapped the landscape in a velvety black palate, the night sky shone epically all around us.
The moon sparkled like a jewel and the stars practically revolved in the sky before our eyes. Then, rising from the silence of the night, our hosts began to sing.
The songs were rhythmic and soulful, accompanied by expert drum beats. We were plunged into an Arabian night, swaying like snakes before the charmer, eyes closed, breathing in the magic of the moment.
Francesca stood and asked me to dance. At first I was hesitant, lost staring into the stars, but quickly I returned to Earth and turned to her with a, “sure, let’s do it”. We got up and danced to the drums, much to the performers happiness.
They cried and cheered and sang louder and more enthusiastically. We danced under those stars, in the middle of the desert, in a sky so inky black we couldn't see the tips of our fingers. And just like that, we were nomads too.
At 6am, the camels...started talking.
Or at least one was. A lot. It was taking and talking and talking. I heard Francesca stir in her cot and we both giggled. At 7, our guides were calling outside the tents for everyone to start breakfast. We got out, and stepped into beautiful dawn light.
I had put on some basic clothing, but not the turban. That lasted five seconds. The minute I or any other person emerged from their tent, the flies honed in and covered all. I ran back inside for the turban, desperate to get ear relief.
Breakfast was mint tea, bread and jam. We noshed on that a bit, then walked out of the camp circle to explore our surroundings.
A brief scan of the horizon gave way to sloping dunes, dotted with the occasional palm tree here and the talkative camel there. Francesca and I sipped our tea and watched in awe as the sun began to emerge in the clear pink and blue sky.
Seeing an opportunity, I rushed back into the tent to put on a special dress I had bought especially for this moment. A BCBG number, that can catch the wind like a sail in high wind.
I ran, giddy with excitement, hauling myself out onto one of the tallest dunes, kicked off my shoes and danced in the rising, dusty sun. I twirled and laughed. I clapped and sang silly, non-sensical songs. Francesca laughed along with me and captured my euphoria in the periodic 'snap!', 'snap' of my Nikon.
It has become one of the finest memories of my life.
The camel ride back made me think of camp songs.
I started singing some, including 'There was a Bear', 'Lollipop' and 'Fried Ham'. Francesca joined in by singing a few of her own, and the even Ahmed did! He sang long and loud in spirited Berber. We cheered and applauded him for his performance and I believe he even blushed, if you can believe it.
The ride was shorter to get back than it was to get to the camp site. As we approached the road, we reunited with Abdul. He greeted his two princesses warmly, hugging us and asking us about our night.
We gushed to him, shared our stories and laughed aloud. Ditching our camels for car wheels, we three sped back along the windy road into the Zagora mountains, weaving our way through the landscape like flocking birds; back, back toward the city.