Reading about the Sahara desert growing up, I always felt like there was a disconnect. It seemed unfathomable, that such a place could exist on Earth. I felt as though I were reading about Mars or some other far off place, perhaps it was all just a fairytale, certainly not fact. The desert just didn’t fit into my (limited) perception of the world.
I read about it in many of my books, enthralled with the details of this foreign landscape. However, it never made my bucket list. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because it just seemed so unrealistic. New Zealand was a pipe dream; this was just flat out impossible.
That is until I found myself at age twenty, knee deep in a sand dune grinning at the sheer impracticality of the situation.
It was incredible.
I suppose, however, that I should start at the beginning. We left Rabat at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning and began our 12-hour trek to the desert, stopping off several times to take in the scenery.
I never really put a lot of thought into how the desert starts—I guess I just pictured a clean divide, a clear border in which the sand began and the green stopped. This would, like many of my preconceptions, prove false.
As we drove, the rolling countryside of green hills and fertile farmland slowly began to bleed into stretches of dirt and sand. Trees still dotted the landscape, but rather than grass, dirt sat at their roots. As we progressed, the trees became more and more scarce until they abruptly gave way to massive mountaintops.
The most notable feature of the desert, in my albeit brief experience, is its paradoxical nature. It is simultaneously flat and mountainous—large stretches of impossibly level earth give way to massive mountaintops that dominate the landscape for miles. The dunes also put a wrench in the flatness of the desert, with the flat earth leading up right to the edge of a massive expanse of sand stacked improbably high, with seemingly no end in sight. It’s astonishing.
The first thing about the desert that you notice, however, isn’t the landscape: it’s the heat. Now, I know that seems obvious, but the heat is different then anything I had experienced before. This was an all-encompassing heat, the kind that presses down on you, enveloping, suffocating. Even the shade seemed ill equipped to fend off the intensity of the African sun.
On Saturday morning, we kicked off our actual “desert experience” after a night of fun and games, by taking jeeps off-road to the edge of the dunes. I really enjoyed this, the hot air buffeting my face as we whipped through the dirt and rock.
When we reached the edge, a feeling of uneasiness crept down my spine—the silence of the desert is unnerving. It’s not the stuff of movies in which a buzzard squawks overhead and a tumbleweed is blown across the landscape. It is completely and utterly silent. There are no birds. No rustling leaves. No wind. Complete silence.
It’s not a peaceful silence, like the type on a mountaintop where the wind quietly shakes the trees. It’s an uncomfortable one, one you can’t escape. The kind that gives merit to the ever-popular idiom “deafening silence”.
Following the trip to the dunes, we drove to another town where we listened to traditional Gmaoua music, dancing and laughing in a partially underground dirt building to escape the sun. It was fun to laugh and dance and listen to the strumming of a gambri (a long stringed instrument) and the beat of the drums.
We had a break after that, in which we swam and enjoyed the hotel we arrived at earlier in the day. The heat reached a peak of 107, the pool offering the only escape from the sweltering sun. That is, until the storm kicked up.
It started with a slight rain, one that we laughed at and discussed the rarity of. Those droplets, however, turned into a downpour, but still we enjoyed the improbability of it. Then the sand came. Tiny grains bit into skin and blinded us, seemingly inescapable. We ran to take shelter, but still watched eagerly from our windows, enthralled and terrifies by this new phenomenon.
The thrill quickly wore off as the dust settled and the dunes remained blanketed in swirling grey chaos, delaying our plans for a sunset ride into the desert via camel. We waited for half an hour before finally getting the go ahead and beginning our trek out.
I had been looking forward to this moment since applying to this program back in November and I don’t think the grin that appeared on my face has ever been larger. The camel ride was fantastic and actually going out and into the dunes was just astonishing. The sheer vastness of the desert stole the air right from my lungs. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We climbed a large dune after about a 45-minute ride, leaving our camels at the base. The sand swallowed my legs as I raced up the side, pulling me down with each step. Again, the concept that such a large quantity of such small, insignificant particles could not only exist, but create such wonders was incomprehensible. Watching the sun slowly sink beneath these enormous structures seemed only to seal this idea.
That’s not necessarily saying that it was easy-going. Bear in mind that a sandstorm had just ripped through the desert, leaving the wind with quite a bit of gusto and what felt a bit like spite as it continued its attempts to topple me from the dune. Sand was everywhere, it coated my eyebrows, my eyelashes—every inch of my body had a firm layer overtop of it.
Still, the experience was phenomenal and two days later I’m still struggling to believe that it actually happened. The aforementioned grin still creeps onto my face as I think of how it felt to stand on top of that dune, and I think it just might stay that way for a while.