Omar in the village, Omar in the dunes.

Lotta Omars in this part of the world. The youngest brother in the Seggaoui family is an Omar, and he gave us a walking tour of the village of Hassi Labied Saturday morning. Later in the day, our guide on the camel-riding camp-out in the dunes also was an Omar. What both of them showed us in the village and the desert was enlightening.

I should explain that Hassi Labied (pop: 2000) is one of the two places you go in Morocco if you want to experience quintessential Saharan sand dunes. It's about 30 miles from the Algerian border; and its dunes (Erg Cheggi) are something like 20,000 years old, (according to Village Omar). Because they were worn down from mountains, their bases are high, enabling some to reach almost 500 feet in height. Fifty years ago, only the “black desert” (a flat black basalt wasteland reminiscent of the world's biggest empty parking lot) butted up against the dunes. But sometime around the mid-1960s, the region experienced a drought so terrible that Omar's parents and about 60 other Berber families decided they could no longer pursue their lives as nomads. They had identified an underground spring in the dunes not far from where the village now stands, so they built one of the underground aqueducts that provides the lifeblood to many Moroccan oases. They divided up the land into 60 small plots where each family could grow date palms (the only cash crop in this area) and raise carrots, beans, mint, onions, barley,and other small crops for their personal consumption. Around these plots, they dug a network of earthen ditches, and they devised schedules to enable each family to get equal access to the water. It's simple but effective. The water flows downhill from the spring, and for three hours per week each family can dig out a dirt barrier and let the water flow into their plot (filled in turn with its own small channels). The four elders who manage the complex scheduling of this operation each get an extra three hours of water per week for their labors.

The 60 families survived. But Omar said life in the village just 15 years ago was primitive. There was no electricity. No phone service. No paved road, so even reaching the village was difficult. He said what turned things around was that Hillary Clinton decided to visit the dunes with Chelsea. This was around 2000, when Hillary was still First Lady. In anticipation of her arrival, the Moroccan government spiffed up the place, grading the roadbed and installing some kind of telecommunications link. Hillary and Chelsea buzzed in and out in just a day, but the impact on the village was long-lasting, as the government subsequently built on those inital improvements. Most importantly, they paved the road to Rissani (the ancient capital of the Maghreb region, which lies about 40 km down the road and IS served by good road.) Around a dozen years ago, the first of the village families decided to begin accepting guests into their family homes. The Seggaouis were among them.

It took Steve and me about 30 minutes to drive from Rissani to the Seggaoui's place (Maison Guesthouse Merzouga). The village itself is still pretty sketchy (dirt roads, no signs). But the guesthouse exceeded my expectations, already high given the glowing reviews I'd read online. Though made from mud mixed with straw, the workmanship looked expert. Each of several huge public salons were wifi-equipped and had ceilings probably 20 feet tall. Dozens of rugs and other decorations covered the walls. Our big room was tastefully decorated with a comfy king-sized bed. We were greeted by L'Hassan, the second-oldest brother and the most ebullient of a charismatic family. He led us to terrace with a great view of the dunes, served us mint tea, and as we watched the setting sun paint the desert deeper and richer shades, we chatted about everything from his betrothal and marriage 19 years ago to the 13-year-old wife his family had picked out for him (now the mother of his five children ranging from 2 to 15) to the parallels between Islam and American Mormonism.

L'Hassan extolled the virtues of the 4WD desert tour that his family also offers, but the pedestrian tour with Omar appealed to us more. We did that, and afterward I wrote my post about our rug-buying adventure Friday. Then we organized our backpacks for our camel ride and camp-out.

We'd ridden camels once before, for a short excursion in Aswan (Egypt), but this was a much more elaborate adventure, and shortly after 4 p.m. as we drove to the staging area (a few minutes from the guesthouse), my adrenaline was flowing. We had four travelling companions — a genial pair of lawyers from Brooklyn, their gregarious 9-year-old daughter, and her nanny — born in Morocco but even less experienced at camel-riding than S and me.

Omar the Camel-Driver was a thin, affable guy with limited English. He and his assistant helped each of us on one of the pile of blankets that comprises the bulk of a camel-riding saddle in this part of the world. From our Egyptian experience, both Steve and I had developed a high opinion of camels. We like the deep sense of calm they exude, and we admire how superbly they're adapted to the harsh desert environment. I like the way they shift their weight to balance on the treacherous footing provided by the dunes; the way they bring their heads and necks down to lower their center of gravity, or stretch them high to see distant landmarks. I love their huge eyes and lashes and the way their mouths often curve into something resembling a smile.

I had remembered camel-riding as being a pleasant rocking experience, and it was that at first as we left the village. But when the camels picked up speed, the ride felt more like being an a rocking horse on crack. Moving through sand dunes involves a lot of climbing and descending, and to keep from falling off, I tightly gripped the metal bar at the front of the “saddle.” It was fun. But after a few minutes, it was NOT comfortable. After less than an hour, my hands were cramping from the effort, and my lower back was informing me it would make its displeasure at this treatment known later.

Still, the glories of the scenery made the discomforts fade into insignificance. The sands of Erg Cheggi are a beautiful peachy tan. In the warm light of the sinking sun, the landscape reminded me more than anything of flawless naked flesh, smooth and sensual. Some patches were pristine; others sprouted small patches of dried grass or sprinklings of camel poop (which looks a lot like dried out meatballs.) It's strange and rare to be anywhere in the world today with no sharp angles. But this place is all long curving arcs and soft bends. It felt swollen with sinuous allure.

The bivouac site

We reached the guesthouse's bivouac site a little before 6 and had a half hour or so to climb to some of the nearby heights. Our 9-year-old traveling companion scrambled up and raced down the slopes, trying (with some limited success) to slide down them. Then we all adjourned to the tent compound, where we drank mint tea and talked and ate chicken and vegetable tagine and orange slices dusted with cinnamon. When I slipped out to pee in the sands, the inky night provided easy privacy. Switching off my flashlight made me invisible and it allowed the star-crammed sky jump to center stage.

Steve and I had our own capacious tent holding a large, comfortable foam mattress. We slept well, waking before dawn to hike to a high point where we could catch the dawn. The wind was blowing hard enough to erase our footprints after just a few minutes but not so hard as to mar the beauty of the morning. Once the sun was up, we packed up, climbed onto the camels again, and headed back to the village.

We showered at the guesthouse, ate breakfast, loaded the car, and drove north through landscape that often vied with some of the most dramatic in the American West. We were far more comfortable than we had been on the camels. But I'm pretty sure it will be the austere landscape and joint-wracking ride I won't forget.

 

One thought on “Omar in the village, Omar in the dunes.

  1. Klaverty March 24, 2014 / 5:14 pm

    Wonderfully written and what an adventure. It reminded me of the camel ride we took up to the top of Mt. Sinai . Several hours on a camel in the dark going up winding trails….they have a movement all their own! Enjoy. Kris

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