Riding the camel toe

Stuck up in awkward places

 

...even a pissed idiot wouldn’t contemplate descending the dune on the board...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 January 2008

 

The time-honoured and romantic notion of disappearing on camelback into the expansive dunes of the  Sahara for some peace and solitude is desperately in need of an update.

 

Slipping into the red dunes out back of Merzouga –a one donkey tourist town which is  Morocco’s gateway to the  Sahara– is more like merging left into heavy rush-hour traffic on the tourist camel superhighway. Traffic lights might soon be necessary, though in keeping with the landscape these would almost always be red or orange and very seldom green.

 

One exception is to an oasis o’yonder. About one and a half hours by dromedary from Merzouga, it’s a popular route for one-nighters. Or spare your crotch and do it in the same time on foot – at least that’s what the Berber camel guides do.

 

Either way it’s virtually impossible to get lost – just follow the hundreds footsteps of all those men and beasts who’ve trodden it before you that day. And if that doesn’t work then follow the tyre tracks, or empty drink bottles and plastic bags dispatched with such frequency that Hansel and Gretel could even find their way back.

 

In the worst case scenario, climb to the top of the nearest dune – some are 450 metres tall -  and get your bearings. The Erg Chebbi expanse is only 28km by 7km, and is bordered by a few towns, a lake which attracts pink flamingos and the Algerian border.


We arrive shortly before nightfall to our traditional Berber accommodation: It’s a permanent tent settlement, just like the lawn at Old Parliament House in  Canberra.

Tonight is the Muslim New Year’s Eve and there is just enough time to scale the imposing dune behind us before night falls. I take a snowboard with me, but by the time we polish off the Tim Tams and a bottle of Moet up top, it is well and truly dark, and even a pissed idiot wouldn’t contemplate descending the dune on the board.

 

Berbers may refer to this time of year as the ‘saison mort’, but there’s plenty of life at the oasis. And while there are no Rasta dudes, there is still a Bob Marley – although he’s a camel, and has short white hair.

 

There’s a large group of Spanish Toyota club members who have driven down from Spain and are freely sharing their Annis liqueur, wine and warmth from their fire – it can get to low degrees in the winter nights. There’s also a young Australian family from outside Brisbane and their friends, on vacation through Belgium and Morocco during school holidays.

 

But in the morning, another type of dune tourists has arrived – the dirtbike squad. Anyone who didn’t wake to the sound of the donkey braying, now wakes to the raucous screech of these tosspots on two wheels and four, who are attempting to scale the near sheer dune, attacking its sweeping lines and the general silence with a bogan fervour that Daryl Kerrigan would be proud of.

“How’s the serenity!”

 

I continue my trudge to the top on foot, tongue hanging out, snowboard under arm. By the time I summit, the bikers have almost made it numerous times, much to the mirth of the two Australian boys who are yelling encouragement such as: “Stack! Stack! Stack!” and who laugh when he conks near the top.

 

Motorcyclists are truly the jet-skiers of the sand dune world.

 

By the time I reach summit there is a small crowd watching. The last time I strapped a snowboard to my feet was at Mt Buller 2004, and the sluggish Sahara sand has roughly the same consistency.

 

The descent commences. I take the steepest line, paring to the right to avoid a large sand bowl. But I don’t have enough speed yet, and the board slows to a stop. I hop a few metres to the next ledge and drop in again. I remember what it feels like to ride, leaning on my back foot to get a feel of what the board is capable of: It’s 120 centimetres long and my feet jut over the edge by at least 15 centimetres. So in short, it won’t be capable of much.

 

But that doesn’t stop me. I crouch down low and point straight ahead, picking up speed now. I push into a gentle toeside turn and feel that familiar backwards jerk which always pre-empts eating big shit.

 

It’s a massive wipeout. My beanie is ten metres higher than I am, and once I pull my head out of the sand I am facing down towards camp. Ouch, my neck. I’d forgotten that.

 

There’s one more wipeout, this one involving a cartwheel, before I reach the bottom to the rapturous applause of the Australian boys. “You got smashed mate.” Thanks, I noticed.

 

Breakfast is ready and Megan and I sit down to a simple feast of bread, homemade butter, marmalade and the obligatory mint tea, sans sucre.

 

An old Berber bagman comes by, poking around in our tent looking for rubbish and empty bottles. He harrumphs when he sees his snowboard, mutters something in a gutteral tongue and marches off with it back to his abode.

 

We last see him disappearing into the dunes comically astride a donkey walking in fast-forward, returning it back to Merzouga.