Max’s Sahara misadventure

The crest of the elevated sand dunes in the far distance is a shimmering haze. The camels obey their handler and follow each other in single file towards that distant destination. We have taken this opportunity to ride these creatures into one of the great deserts of the world – the Sahara, in North Africa’s Morocco. But when we are about halfway to the top, the handler unexpectedly turns the camels around. I don’t know what this is about, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon.

This is an optional tour on our Insight Vacations nine-night tour of Morocco. We have paid the equivalent of about $A60 each for the privilege. Five no-so-new Land Rovers set out in convoy from the hotel along a bumpy road. About halfway out we go off-road. The ride is uncomfortable. We are moving at about 80kph, swerving and braking regularly over this flat land with occasional soft sandy patches and muddy areas. The recent rain has at least settled the dust. There is no vegetation and nothing around apart from a few mud-brick homes widely scattered in this desolate area.

desolation in the sahara desert

After about 90 minutes, the sand dunes appear on the horizon and get larger as we motor towards them. There is a sense of anticipation and excitement as we approach. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long because after our arrival things start to go pear-shaped.

At the camp, there are about 30 camels kneeling on the ground. Some are growling and don’t appear to be overly excited about lugging some bloody tourist off into the dunes. Our group of about 20 is approached by a Moroccan, obviously in charge of one group of camels.

“I charge you only 150 dirham (about $A20),” he says as he turns and points towards a man in charge of other camels, “this man charge you 200 dirham”.

Okay, so we go for the cheaper deal. Wasn’t this supposed to be part of the optional tour? Apparently not. Why am I thinking rip-off – a la – double dipping?

We mount up and are led into the dunes by our handler, single file, in groups of two or three, with each camel tied to the one in front. The sand is fine grained and a beautiful yellow-orange colour. The sun is sinking and is bright yellow. The shadows cast by the low sun onto the dunes beside us become elongated as the sun drops and the sand profiles change.

shadows of camels on the sand of the sahara desert

After about 15 minutes, the handler turns the camels around to start the ride back. There is another group ahead going all the way to the top. It dawns on me that these are the “200 dirham” camels. Yet another devious sales encounter.

We return before the sun sets, while the “200” club is way up there on top of the dunes. As we near the base, each camel miraculously has its own handler. We stop and the camels kneel. Each handler gets a rug out and lays it down next to the beast and beckons us to sit. I think I know what this is about. We’re going to have a picnic in the sand.

man riding a camel in the sahara desert

He takes his shoulder bag off. Oh, okay, he’ll probably pull out the thermos and give me a hot, sugary, mint tea, and maybe follow up with some oven-baked Moroccan delicacy. Are you dreaming Max? I am, because out comes his display of small artefacts – ceramic dishes, stone camels, beads and other assortments. We are part of a mini-market – the whole area made up of kneeling camels with a very captive audience of tourists sitting on rugs scanning the wares laid out before us. He wants 150 dirham for one of the stone camels (which I bought on another day in a roadside store for 40 dirham).

So, Max walks away feeling rather ripped off by this hard-sell tactic and short camel ride. Jenny didn’t ride a camel but walked the route with a ‘guide’, only to be treated at the end to the same sales pitch as everyone else. The price she paid for a small dish indicates that she was happy to feed his family for a week. Methinks Jenny might need some training in the art of bartering! We walk back to the dunes to watch the sunset and are disappointed that this is not the day for a ‘specky’, but at least we get some good silhouette shots.

silhouette of a woman in the sahara desert

We head back to the hotel with lights on and hardly say a word. It has been a long day. I reflect on this optional tour – a camel ride in the Sahara. It does sound very exotic and exciting albeit rather expensive for what we got. But my approach regarding optional tours is to do as many as possible. Most are great experiences – but you can’t get it right all the time. For this one, I would rather have stayed back at the hotel sipping a cocktail on our balcony, or beside the pool.

Have you ever been to the Sahara? Or experienced a similar ‘rip-off’?

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