Rafting is off, but Abraham's cousin, it turns out, owns several hundred camels. The family business is a caravan; the legion of dromedaries brings carpets and other hand-woven textiles to Marrakech from remote villages throughout the Sahara. In return for my driving Abe to his hometown of Ourzazate, he asks his cousin to allow me to take a camel into the desert for a few days. The matter is easily settled. Abe and I are soon barreling toward the desert and the family camels, four hours away. "You'll like camels better than rapids," he assures me.
No matter what a Moroccan tells you, camels are not better than rafts. After several hours on the back of a creature named Kassim, my ass is killing me, and I long for anything inflatable to come between my rump and his hump. But the brilliant moon and unearthly landscape help take my mind off the pain. I can't quite make out the dunes, but can feel their immense presence in the distance, watching me.
With my turbaned guide leading the way, we arrive at an encampment and I dismount with glee. A tall, gregarious man emerges from a bivouac to greet me. His name is Abdul and motions like a Price is Right model with both arms in the direction of our tent, fashioned out of wood poles and dozens of tapestries. Inside the floor is a collage of carpets and a few pillows with a small candelabra on the floor. I throw my pack in the corner and collapse on one of the cushions.
As quiet and desolate as it is, the next afternoon in the Sahara makes me nervous. The place is still, yet also in a constant state of flux.
I scramble to the top of a dune and look back; the footprints are gone, like I was never there. After the awe subsides and I begin to take the rippling dunes around camp for granted, I take Kassim on a reconnaissance of the area. I start off imagining myself in the role of Lawrence of Arabia, galloping wildly from one dune to the next. But the reality of silent plodding through the soft sand eventually lulls me into a semi-hypnotic state. The omnipresent wind blows sand in my mouth and eyes and my turban does little to stave off the midday sun.
I'm uncertain whether I'm the victim of a mirage when I see six camels meandering unattended over a dune. Then seven and eight, soon a dozen, coming my way. I reign Kassim as they pass us like the living dead, their soft padded feet falling faintly and deliberately like they have somewhere to go and all the time in the world to get there. Just as I'm reconciling the concept of wild camels, three bedouins come trotting through a pass in the mounds, sticks in hand, and catch up with their herd. I turn and watch them in their rippling robes; their footprints vanish before my eyes.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication