Seeing the Sahara Desert is like stepping into a desktop screensaver – all at once familiar yet surreal, almost too pristine and too perfect to be surrounding me. The moment I set foot on the sand, the desert seems to engulf me as I am instantly surrounded by rolling orange-red sand dunes on all sides that is interrupted only by an occasional bush spotting the rippled sand. The scenery isn’t monotonous as one would think, instead it is stunning – extending as far as the eye can see like staring off into a horizon. Like the ocean, I am left in awe of both the danger and beauty of nature, of how this gorgeous landscape, so awe-inspiring now, could claim lives in a moment with its unforgiving heat. Imagine getting lost in this place, I think to myself.


Thankfully, getting lost is not a concern as I am part of a caravan of travelers on a Topdeck tour of Morocco, taking us from the medina of Marrakech to the sands of the Sahara over the course of 10 days. The past few days, which now feel like a month, have shown me the austere grand mosque in Casablanca, the Santorini-esq kasbah of Rabat, the monkey forest of the High Atlas Mountains; yet it is the Sahara Desert that has me jumping with excitement.


We are in Merzouga, a town on the edge of the desert where buildings are made of clay and straw and the heat is absolutely oppressive. You know how people will often complain that something is “as hot as the Sahara,” well after only an hour in the actual Sahara Desert I make a mental note never to use that complaint again. Our group is packing and getting ready to ride camels out into the desert – an hour trek there and back – to a nearby Berber desert camp to spend the night. We are all wrapped up in colorful scarves to protect from the heat and sand, are carrying liters of water to strap to our camels and are holding day backs of necessities when our camels, all 16 of them, arrive. The camels are happy camels, coming from a nearby co-op where they are well cared for; something that unfortunately cannot be said for other animals around Morocco (particularly those poor horses in Marrakech). When we see the camels they are munching languidly, all sitting on the sand and regarding us with even temperaments.


One by one, each of us gets on a camel and soon our caravan is making its way into the desert, walking winding paths around sand dunes. It is a moment forever seared into my mind: the sheer thrill of being on a camel in the Sahara desert, the serenity of walking in this iconic place towards a traditional Berber camp, the joy of seeing my Topdeck trip mates around me with their colorful scarfs and smiles as they bounce along in rhythm with their camel. I am my own paparazzi as I seem to alternate between iPhone selfies, my selfie stick, my DSLR camera and video taping. I quite literally cannot seem to capture the moment enough and so finally put down everything and simply focus on living it.


We arrive at the Berber camp, which is an assortment of connected tents with cots and sheets in makeshift “rooms.” The Berbers are an indigenous group native to North Africa, they are a Moroccan pre-Arab culture that has ruled unperturbed and unconquered for hundreds of years in this region. With their own language and culture, the Berbers are said to primarily live in the more rural regions of Morocco while the Arabs and Moors reside in the main cities, such as Marrakech. Admittedly, I had not known much about the Berber culture so am thrilled to experience a desert camp and submerge myself in their traditions. As soon as we jump off our camels we sit on Moroccan rugs that have been placed on the sand just feet from the Berber camp and are served the traditional mint tea before gathering for a dinner of tagines.


The sun has set and the orange glow of the Sahara is replaced with a blanket of stars that are unlike anything I have seen before. Coming from New York City where the night is eclipsed by city lights or smog, I cannot stop looking up at the sky. I spot four shooting starts and make a wish for loved ones back home; my only regret of the day being that they aren’t with me to share in this incredible experience. After tagines, our Berber hosts pull out drums and begin singing Berber folk songs while we all sway in tune to the music. Soon, we’re up dancing in a circle to the drum beats, laughing, jumping and spinning around before we are handed the drums and told to play some music from “our culture.” What follows is a hilarious parade of Australian pop songs from the Aussies, some USA hits from yours truly and then a hilarious dance to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”


We pull our beds out from the Berber tents and huddle them outside on the sand because on a night like this it would be a crime to not fall asleep under the stars. It is windy and within moments of laying in bed I am a veritable sand man but no matter, I am in complete awe of the stars and am wishing I knew more constellations than the Big and Little Dipper. I wake up to the vanilla light of pre-dawn; the sky is a light blue and the sand dunes are back to orange again. I clamber up the side of the nearby dune, too excited to even change out of PJs as I can’t wait to watch the sunrise over the Sahara. One by one, all 16 of us wordlessly roll out of bed and crawl up the sand dune as we all sit in a row and silently watch the sun rise over the desert in a brilliant display of color. The camels are sleeping and munching nearby; ready to be ridden back to Merzouga as soon as the sun rises so we can beat the desert heat.


As our camel caravan winds its way back to town, a favorite quote of mine from The Little Prince comes to mind: “what makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” It is the thrill of what’s around the next corner that makes the Sahara Desert (and travel in general) beautiful; the sheer excitement that when you set out into the world you put yourself in the way of unfathomable beauty. I knew that in a week I would be back in New York writing at my local coffee shop, recounting the memory of the Sahara; but in that moment I was happy surrounded simply by sand, sun and camels.


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