Of all the inhospitable and unwelcoming places to live on Earth, few are more hostile to human existence than the Sahara Desert. Cleveland, obviously, yes, of course, but that’s because perpetually disappointed and drunk Browns’ fans are allowed to freely roam the city’s streets. In all other regards, the Sahara Desert is more dangerous. To see if we had what it takes to survive there, we ventured deep into its sandy desolation.
The Sahara Desert is Africa’s least gentrified neighborhood.
The Sahara Desert in Africa covers an impressive 3.6 million square miles making it the largest desert in the world, though that claim seems a bit like boasting that your country is closest to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—it’s not generally something countries want to highlight in their travel brochure. “We have more unlivable land that anywhere else on the planet! Suck it, Death Valley!”
Unfortunately, there’s not much Africa can do about its desert. I mean, naturally, they considered flooding the entire Sahara Desert as recently as 2018, but until someone trucks in enough nuclear explosives to do the job properly, Africa is stuck with a lot of fairly useless land.
It’s a shame, really, because the Sahara has ample parking, but for what…DesertFest 2021? Ha, ha! That would be…what’s that? Oh, really? There actually IS one? Huh. Well, okay. Good to know.
Driving the long road to almost certain hyperthermia.
Yet again, our extremely personable and highly entertaining driver, Hamid—who’d already driven us from Tangier to Chefchaouen to Fès (or Fez)—filled up on caffeine and continued motoring us further south through the Lesser Atlas Mountains.
Once over the mountains, Hamid turned his Toyota SUV southeast down Morocco’s National Route 13 (N13), a long, straight, and flat single-lane highway that heads directly away from all civilization. We drove this lone road for what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality a mere five hours and 35 minutes.
During those long hours and hundreds of miles, we numbly watched a mostly beige and barren landscape pass by our windows, with only the occasional scrub grasses, tumbleweeds, and telephone poles (or were they power lines?) to mark our glacial progress.
During this tedious trek, we kept ourselves busy by Googling how long the human body can survive without water (it’s 2-5 days, apparently).
The Sahara Desert’s not completely desolate—I mean, it’s not Orlando.
As we got closer to our destination, I marveled at the total absence of signage along the way warning us of what lay ahead—namely 3 million miles of undeveloped land entirely bereft of Starbucks®.
We never once saw a single road sign imploring us to reconsider our plans or turn back. Nothing asked us if we had enough water to survive the desert ahead, nor did one inform us that the next gas station was 1,100+ miles away.
We were headed into arid, sun-blasted oblivion, and we hadn’t even packed Chapstick.® But for Hamid, the long drive was a lot like “going home,” because the Sahara Desert is actually where he lives. Incredibly, he and his extended family have lived happily for years in this evidently not-so-inhospitable desert. Hell, we didn’t even know that it was possible for humans to live in the Sahara, especially without Internet access.
The Sahara Desert isn’t all sand dunes and mummy curses.
It wasn’t until we finally approached the area known as “The Dunes” that our impression of the Sahara Desert began to improve dramatically.
We’d arrived in a place far beyond scrub grasses and cell coverage, where the desert sands appear exactly the way you expect them to in your mind—you know, like a scene from that arthouse film, “The Mummy,” starring Brendon Fraser.
At the dunes’ edge, my wife and I abandoned Hamid’s Toyota Highlander and mounted a more traditional mode of desert transport: camels, and rather surly ones, at that. Though, to be fair, if I was a camel in the Sahara Desert, I’d be pretty pissed, too.
Camels aren’t the “ships of the desert,” they’re more like its SUVs.
Our camel wrangler—a real job in the Sahara Desert—walked us over to some nearby camels who were sitting comfortably in the sand, chewing cud, their spindly legs bent underneath hulking bodies.
The local “Camel Whisperer” then took hold of one camel’s leash and placed a foot on its knee, casually telling my wife to “hop on,” as if we did this sort of thing every day after getting off work at the sand mines.
While she gamely clambered atop her respective camel, our wrangler—the master of understatement—offhandedly instructed her to “hold on,” while releasing his foot from the camel’s knee. It was a simple action that both the wrangler and camel understood, but that my wife had to learn the hard way.
Camels aren’t the most graceful of creatures in the Sahara Desert.
With two wildly jerky movements, the noble beast engaged its rear legs in the act of standing, first lurching upward and nearly throwing my wife forward over its head in the process.
With its hind legs now mostly extended, the front legs lofted to complete the standing procedure, throwing her backwards like a drunk co-ed riding a Country/Western bar’s mechanical bull.
When it came time for me to mount my own camel, I already knew what to expect but that knowledge didn’t help at all. In a textbook case of history repeating itself, the beast threw my torso around like a rag-doll, too. On the plus side, I was able to cancel an upcoming chiropractic appointment afterwards.
Once lofted majestically into the air, I felt elated, like Lawrence of Arabia astride his mighty desert steed. I rode tall as the Duke of the Dunes, Knight of the Knolls, and Master of the Mounds. That is, until my mighty desert steed took a giant shit.
The Sahara Desert is just one big litter box.
Though they’re a more climate-friendly form of transportation than the petrol-powered motorbikes and quad-cycles we saw attacking the dunes like jet-ski douchebags, Saharan dromedaries are hardly emission-free.
In fact, the native camels litter virtually the entire Sahara Desert with their ecological excrement, and fairly continuously at that—our camels pumped out a prodigious amount of poop over the course of our journey.
Yet, rather than squeezing out great loaves of manure—like you’d expect from a behemoth this size—camels instead pinch out lots of tiny black, poop pellets instead.
The poop pellets, thankfully, come out already dry and hard, so you can walk on them immediately without shit sticking to the soles of your shoes—now that’s a considerate colon. Well done, dromedaries.
Sadly, camels in the Sahara Desert don’t just fart out their butts.
These giant herbivores eat lots of dubious vegetation and grasses, so their front-end emissions aren’t much more pleasant than their back-end ones.
Extended burps are the most common parlance in the camel’s extremely limited vocabulary. That’s because camels regurgitate their food and chew it again before re-swallowing—it’s called “Rumination” by scientists, and “Gross!” by everyone else.
Some people might argue that the guttural noises a camel utters are meaningful, and could possibly be translated much like the Wookiee or Klingon languages. But those people only believe that until they get within sniffing distance of a camel’s slobbery and rank-smelling spew-hole.
“OMG, is he still writing about camels?” Yes, shut up.
For the camel rider—or really anyone within twelve feet—there’s no mistaking the pungent, putrid, and absolutely stultifying stench that emanates from a camel’s septic system of a digestive tract.
Were there any desert flowers in the area, they would’ve immediately wilted, died, and probably burst into flames—I’m saying camel breath isn’t good.
Our guide finally led the two camels, with us atop them, into the Sahara Desert. We held our camels’ saddles with one hand and our noses with the other as we loped leisurely into the vast sea of sand before us. After traversing maybe 300 yards in total, our accommodations for the night rose out of the dunes like an oasis mirage.
The Sahara Desert is far too accessible to people like us.
Places like Jaimas Madu Camp near Erg Chebbi Merzouga, are the scourge of the tourism industry. They just encourage people like us—people who have no business going out into the great outdoors—to go out into the great outdoors.
That’s because Jaimas Madu Camp is not some run-down, combat-training ground for doomsday preppers and desert survivalists who want to test their mettle in hot, man-on-lion fighting action.
Instead, it’s a luxury “glamping” resort. A civilized and serene compound with upscale amenities for well-adjusted people who aren’t trying to make their absent fathers proud by going a few rounds with a very confused lion.
Jaimas Madu Camp is a 5-star hotel without the hotel part.
Our “tent” was really more of a cabin with canvas walls and roof. It had a concrete (but carpeted!) floor, a full-size flushable toilet, electric heating and lighting, along with a rock-solid wifi and a faster Internet connection than I have at home.
For a place in the Sahara Desert dunes, Jaimas Madu was exceeding comfortable and civilized. If I’m to be honest, there was a little sand on the floor near the tent’s front door, so this little oasis wasn’t perfect.
Its beautiful grounds consisted of several other canvas cabins aligned in a crescent shape alongside a larger communal tent where our private chef—shut up!—prepared traditional Moroccan cuisine for us and the other guests.
Wine was not offered at dinner, but we’d planned ahead and brought our own—an excellent call as it turns out because the other guests were boooooring.
There’s nothing better than sunset in the Sahara.
In the middle of the compound there was a fire-pit, around which the camp’s staff sat while performing Moroccan music for us. We didn’t know any of the songs they played, but the alcohol started kicking in, so we chanted, “Do Free bird!” until we were politely asked to leave.
The arrival of dusk gave our camp a soft, otherworldly glow which we first attributed to the flickering campfire and tiny lanterns scattered around but, in retrospect, realized it was double-vision from guzzling all our wine.
When the sun set, the cloudless evening sky turned deep blue. Of the 100 billion stars supposedly in our galaxy, we could only make out about 37 billion. We felt a little ripped off, but were too drunk at the time to complain.
Insomniacs, have you tried the Sahara Desert?
The world’s largest desert, much like the Galápagos Islands, is fairly devoid of humans, and human activity, so it’s noticeably quieter than cities and towns on an electrical grid.
Not surprisingly, we slept like babies that night, undisturbed by the knowledge that desert foxes, ostriches, cheetahs, and antelopes were outside silently casing the camp, looking for jewelry that they could easily steal and fence.
We also weren’t disturbed by the existence of desert crocodiles, monitor lizards, sand vipers, or Deathstalker scorpions—mostly because no one told us about them! Had we known, we wouldn’t have slept a wink.
Life in the desert is harder than we’d like.
The next morning, we again mounted our smelly steeds and rode back across the quickly warming dunes to a predetermined rendezvous spot.
Our driver, now back from visiting his family who live a mere 45-minutes away, was waiting for us with his Toyota’s air-conditioning already cranked on full. (Thanks, Hamid!)
While my wife and I tried to wrap our heads around living in the Sahara Desert without the cosmopolitan comforts we’d grown accustomed to, Hamid cued up his very odd playlist, put the Highlander into gear, and headed towards our next destination, the High Atlas Mountains.