Cell Phones in the Sahara
By Lara Caine
Just outside the dusty border town of Erfoud, the paved road turned to piste, a dirt track leading south to Erg Chebbi, the Moroccan Saharan dunes. In our rented Fiat Uno, Chris and I wrapped our blue Tuareg turbans around our heads, and with the radio wailing in Arabic, we were T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell heading out on a desert adventure in our mechanical camel.
We had come to Morocco to indulge a longtime fantasy: to celebrate our wedding anniversary in the Saharan dunes. Erg Chebbi, a 30 kilometer-wide ocean of pure Saharan sand near the Algerian border, promised an authentic Arabian Night of camel treks to secluded oases, spicy tagine prepared over an open fire and Bedouin tents beneath starry desert skies. Forget "The English Patient;" this was real romance.
Thirty kilometers into the desert, the piste dissolved into the stony hammada--an empty, scorched plain crisscrossed by an unintelligible maze of tracks leading nowhere.
The telephone poles we had been told to follow had disappeared several kilometers back. We were lost. Stopping the car, we reached for the single half-empty bottle of water and realized that we had ventured into the Sahara seriously unprepared.
An hour passed in the blazing, late afternoon heat. We were imagining drinking radiator fluid to keep from dying of thirst when a caravan of boisterous hotel Land Rovers packed with khaki-clad, camera-toting tourists whizzed past in the distance, headed, we hoped, toward the dunes.
We jumped back into the Fiat and rumbled off in pursuit, relieved to have been rescued, but mocking the Rovers' appearance of rugged adventure.
"Rovers aren't really necessary," Chris dissed as we bumped along behind the four-wheel drivers gliding over the rocks.
"Yeah." I snubbed. "Crossing the Sahara in a Land Rover is no great accomplishment, but crossing it in a Fiat Uno is!"
Twenty kilometers later, we had been left in the dust by our Rover guides, but the erg's mirage-like sand mountains appeared tantalizingly on the horizon.
At the edge of the dunes, we pulled in beside a dusty, cement-block motel advertising "Camel Voyages." That was when we first smelled the gasoline. But it wasn't until after we had paid for our camel trek and gone to retrieve our backpacks that we noticed the puddle of petrol forming beneath the car.
Within seconds, a swarm of young men gathered around the Fiat, sticking their heads underneath it and muttering ominously. Chris screamed at everyone to stand back because the car was certainly going to explode any minute. No one moved.
I stood mute, not sure if I should run for cover or cry. As the sun began to lower over the dunes, I saw our romantic evening under the desert stars disappearing in a sandstorm of our own foolishness.
Chris paced frantically. "Call the car rental company," he commanded. "Tell them we need a new car! Now!"
Call the rental company? Exactly how was I going to do that from the middle of the Sahara? I was about to give up all hope when the motel manager, a wily-looking young man with a veiled grin, produced a cell phone from his jeans' pocket and led me to the rooftop for better reception. So much for romantic seclusion, I thought. They even have cell phones in the Sahara.
The rental company agent was not sympathetic. If we were stupid enough to drive a Fiat Uno into the desert, it was our problem. No new car. No roadside assistance. No nothing. Fully depressed, I sat down on the sandy floor and began to cry.
"Madame, it is not a big problem," the manager tried to comfort me. "There is only a small hole. Easy to repair. Please. The camels are impatient. Go to the desert. Enjoy yourselves. My brother and I will take the car to a friend to fix. When you come back, insh'allah, you will be on your way again."
"Yeah, right!" Chris scoffed at the suggestion. "We go to the dunes, are set upon by bandits and left to die, while they steal the car. Are you nuts?"
I glanced back at the grinning manager and the swelling group of young men and had to admit it seemed a risky proposition. On the other hand, what options did we have? We couldn't drive the car in this condition, and we had already come this far...
Lofty Camel Perches
The dunes were more awesome than we had imagined. From our lofty camel perches, we watched the fiery Saharan sun set over the red sands. We counted the stars, clearer and more plentiful than we had ever seen them. Our teenage guide, Hassan, prepared a delicious lamb tagine by moonlight. After racing each other up the dunes and sliding back down, we celebrated our long-awaited anniversary in a candle-lit oasis tent, lulled to sleep by the sound of swaying palm trees, not a bandit to be found. By the next morning, as the spectacular Saharan sand changed from brown to pink to gold in the dawn light, I had all but forgotten about the car.
We arrived back at the motel to find the Fiat gone and the manager greeting us with a wide smile. Less than an hour later, we were inspecting the Fiat in a back-alley mechanic's shop in town. The hole in the gas tank had been expertly soldered. The bill? $44.
After sharing a customary glass of mint tea--and a sizable tip--with the manager and the mechanic, our new best friends, we drove off. Reluctantly shaking the last grains of Saharan sand from our hair, we offered thanks for having been rescued from certain doom, but swore the next time we went to the Sahara, we'd take a Land Rover.
Erg Chebbi is located approximately 50 km south of Erfoud in the southeast corner of the country. Merzouga is a very small town at the base of the dunes, with a number of small hotels and camel outfitters.
Unless you are driving, the only way to get to Erfoud is by bus or shared taxi from the major cities of Fes or Meknes. There are also local buses and taxis from Erfoud to Merzouga, and on to Rissani further in the desert, but the schedules vary. Check upon arrival.
Hotels in Erfoud offer Land Rover sunrise tours to the dunes, and can also arrange treks and overnights in the desert. You can also rent a 4WD vehicle in Erfoud, if you want to do the ride yourself. (They say that smaller cars can make it, but why take the chance?)
If you are coming from elsewhere in Morocco, you can rent four-wheel drive vehicles in most major cities.
Important note on rental cars: Read your contract! Most compact cars are not allowed on pistes. Should anything happen to your car while you are driving the desert or off-road anywhere else, the rental agency may not come to your aid or reimburse you for repairs.
Most of the hotels in Erfoud and Merzouga arrange camel treks into the dunes. Auberge La Caravanne near Merzouga was our choice. Run by Zaid Boumia and his very helpful brothers, La Caravanne offers treks, camping, a hotel and a restaurant. Treks can range from overnight to a week or longer. Full moon treks are popular, for good reason.
Even if you can't take a trek into the dunes on camel, make sure to go for a walk. Hiking sand dunes is an experience and it only takes a few minutes to get to where you can hear the silence of the Sahara. Some days, the sandboarders are out, lugging their customized snowboards up the dunes and skiing down. It's fun to watch and even more fun to try, if you can find a board.