Florence of Arabia

Desert guide 2

The only thing worse than going uphill on a camel is going downhill, or at least it is if you don’t count the getting on and off, or the camel standing up to begin your trek, which pales into nothing the first time the animal drops on its front knees for you to dismount. And there’s the bit in the middle, the lumpen swaying as the beast plods along, following the curve of the dunes in its meandering route, where your legs begin to ache because there are no stirrups to put your feet in to give you a modicum of support and at least a faint shade of elegance. Come to think of it, there’s little to recommend a camel ride, so it’s no surprise that most of the guides you talk to prefer to walk. I bet Peter O’Toole had a stunt double when it came to humping along on a dromedary during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia.

Because of their knowledge of this hostile terrain, Berbers could ensure safe passage from their fellow desert nomads, and acted as guides for the caravans of up to 12,000 camels who crossed from Timbuktu to Marrakesh and beyond. The camels might be able to survive for long periods without food and water, but their handlers couldn’t, (nor the slaves that were a main commercial ‘product’), and to carry enough water for human consumption would drastically reduce space for the precious cargoes of gold and spice. Runners were employed to travel ahead and arrange for water to be shipped back to the caravan from oases on the route. Fortunately for our little group, our ‘oasis’ is only an hour’s ride away, but we are still required to carry our own drinking water.

I’d always imagined my night under the desert stars as a sandy version of the cowboy on the range, rolled up in a blanket with his head resting on his saddle, (although that was before I encountered a camel saddle, a lumpy thing if ever I saw one). In a nod in the direction of romanticism, I’d thrown in a thick Moroccan rug to lie on in my imaginings. The reality was a bit different.

I’m too old and decrepit for all that roughing-it malarkey and I’m quite prepared to forgo my frontier spirit and ask the camp chaps if I can drag the mattress out of my genuine Berber-style tent of woven wool and throw it on the ground. But they go one step further – they bring out the whole bed, mattress, sheets, pillows, blankets and all. And they do the same for the other five happy campers who want to drift off with the stars as a coverlet. Maybe not the romantic image of ‘a night under the Saharan stars’, but I have to admit that it’s a little dash of unexpected comfort.

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I’m the first to ‘bed down’. The soft, warm breeze makes a single sheet enough, and I roll up in it. The camp is lit only by three candles, their pockets of light flickering on the dark wool of the tents, and the glow from a three-quarter moon. There is a susurration of wind and whispering as the camp settles down, checking if small flashlights are in easy reach for the late night visit to the toilet tent fifty metres away. A low conversation drifts down from a couple sat on a dune above the tents, but not intrusive.

The stars are everything I’d hoped for. More than just twinkles in a black-blue sky, they seem to spit and shimmer with life, and I’m tempted to ask if someone could please switch off the moon so I can get the full celestial show-time effect. The wind has picked up slightly so I drag a blanket over myself. I try to keep my eyes open so that I can concentrate on my star-spangled desert night sky, but they have a will of their own and I’m soon curled up under my blanket drifting off in the silence.

The desert dawn isn’t a vast bright burst of colour that happens in some places in the world, but a gradual ice blue outlining of daylight against the shadowed deep ochre of the dunes. Slowly, individual features become clear; hummocks of coarse grass that pocket the sands become visible. No sound except the whispering wind that creates small wavelets of sand. I sit on a dune watching the sunrise, and sounds drift up from the desert encampment as it comes to life. My fellow campers climb dunes of various heights, depending on age and athletic ability. The ice-sky warms to blue. I hear the complaining sounds of camels as Zaid the camel driver loads them up for the return journey. He talks to them as he puts on their saddles over the top of folded blankets to provide padding (and also a useful way to carry the used sheets back to the hotel).

We begin our return journey to the hotel and a hot shower, and I discover that I’m at the head of the caravan not because I have the physique of a sultan but because the camel I’ve been allocated doesn’t like to be behind another and nips at the bum of any in front of him.

As our long shadows walk alongside us I reflect that as humpy, lumpy and grumpy a camel might be, it has a romanticism that isn’t inherent in a 4×4. If I’m going to spend a night under the stars I’d rather do it properly and put up with the temporary discomfort of an authentic ride on an animal that has all the appearance and angularity of something that has been designed by a committee – a committee that originally set out to design a horse but got slightly lost along the way.

Desert dawn