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The Camel Incident

We stopped briefly in the town of Rissani in South - East Morocco to find a supermarket (every now and again you need a supermarket shop) which, the nearer we got to the desert the scarcer they became but unfortunately there was no such option. Usually we buy fruit, vegetables, bread and meat in the souks (the not to be missed) essence of Morocco and an eye opener for us wimpy Europeans, where the whole community gathers on certain days for a frenzy of buying and selling. We always knew when a souk was ahead by the procession of laden donkeys, tilting trucks stacked with mattresses or hard ware, lorries of livestock, and packed carts, with whole families balancing on top.


The air in the crowded souks is pungent with the smell of colourful spices. Whole cow carcasses, camel’s feet, sheep’s heads and whole, skinned goats with dead eyes that follow you everywhere, dangle from butcher’s hooks. We tentatively waited at the counter while the blood splattered butcher enjoying the look of revulsion on my face, swatted away the flies, carved two steaks from a whole, bloody, carcass and threw them in to the mincer. The poulterer sells not only fresh eggs but sorry looking, chickens which on demand will have their necks wrung and heads chopped off. Stalls display melons as big as your head, juicy strawberries, oranges, apricots, figs, dates and colourful vegetables. Donkeys and carts trundle by, lorries honk with impatience, and cars, decrepit bikes and crowds jostle in the choking dust for a piece of unmade road. While in the absolute chaos mooing cows as well as bleating sheep and goats and are herded from rusty, open back trucks in droves. Quite simply, a people watchers dream as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind a bit of dust. We attracted the usual attention from the local kids on the road to Merzouga, cheering, waving and thumbing lifts. A young boy appeared at the road side and hands together as if in prayer he nodded towards his friend lying in a ditch, with his bike, wheels spinning, lying beside him. After an incident on the way to Agdz, which turned out to be a scam designed to get you to stop and buy, we erred on the side of caution. And the writhing boy made a very rude sign as the Burkemobil drove past.


In Merzouga we were greeted by the sight of Erg Chebbi, a rose gold, sand dune that shifts over 28km from north to south and reaches heights of 160m, where legend says, God buried a wealthy family under its mounds when they refused to offer hospitality to a poor woman and her son. Auberge Sahara, our next campsite was on the cusp of the scenic dune with palm trees and a small but very welcome pool. Later we cycled through the peaceful palmeraie and through a warren of unmade roads where around the villages our bikes caused quite a stir with the people of the mud brick dwellings, the clucking chickens, wandering donkeys and dusty children.


Our campsite arranged camel treks into the Sahara desert and in the early evening we joined a party of fourteen for a sunset/sunrise trek including an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent with breakfast in the campsite. An hour and a half later Obama, our guide showed us around the Bedouin tent, which swaying in the Desert breeze looked like several NHS blankets badly sewn together, and consisted of a kitchen, a dining area with low tables and cushions and sleeping quarters. And sipping mint tea (would have preferred a glass of white) we watched in silence as the blood orange sun dipped behind Erg Chebbi, streaking the sky with a rainbow of colours and turning the sand dunes, gold, violet, green and pink.

After that, it all went a little pear shaped with a meal of dishwater soup, tasteless beef stew that consisted mainly of tough beans, and an orange, which wasn’t bad. Eventually, eyelids drooping, we fell asleep to horrendous snoring from behind the thin canvas separating our sleeping quarters, and probably added a snore or two ourselves. In the morning we stepped into the blinding desert light to find that everyone had missed the sunrise and the guides, quite cheery the night before looking totally depressed. ‘Any chance of a taxi’ I joked trying to lighten the mood and someone piped up ‘is that camel dead’?  as Obama shot me a very dark look. And following the party’s gaze we saw a poor camel lying in the sand.

Not looking forward to telling the boss he was a camel short the guides led the funeral cortege through the desert, no more jokes about crossing the Algerian border, or pointing out scurrying dung beetles and sand snakes, just silence. At breakfast we found out that the camel was attacked by a stray and had probably had its neck broken. And I apologised explaining I didn’t know the camel was dead. And then the silence was broken by Hassan, the boss who unlike his worried guides saw the funny side of my badly timed joke and burst out laughing. And despite the dodgy meal, the rustic tent and the death of the unfortunate camel, we all agreed that the sun setting over the Sahara Desert was a sight worth seeing.


Morocco Bound          The Camel Incident



An article by Helen Burke,

who with her husband Richard

took their 'Burkemobil' on an

Arabian Adventure

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