How I was (almost) sold for camels in the Moroccan Sahara

We are in the mid-nineties

I participated in a trek through the Moroccan High Atlas. It was to become a risky adventure, but I did not know that when I signed up… I usually do not…

The group I was traveling with consisted of people much younger than myself and there were not many who I felt a ‘click’ with. Much like my trek to the Everest Basecamp in Nepal, I was the slowest in the group and I did not mind that at all, barring a few scary moments. Such as when we had to get through a river ravine within the hour, because flooding was predicted, and I found myself left behind because I was unable to keep up with the group’s pace. This time, contrary to my Nepal trek, there was no sherpa to keep an eye on me. I was alone. And when the river split, I had no idea with direction to take. I took a gamble and fortunately I won! I found the group sitting down for lunch, chatting merrily, without any worry about me. I had just sat down when all of them got up and left for the next section of that day’s trek. I could not believe it! I exploded. I did that a lot when I was younger…

One of the participants decided to stick with me and my explosion of anger actually have her the giggles. Which made me even more angry. But we ended up being pals and the trek got a lot nicer after that! Thank you Jomara – you know who you are!

The ‘leadership’, if I may even call it that, of that particular journey was in the hands of a guy that was much younger than myself (I was in my mid thirties at the time). He had no training or experience in first-aid. He did not speak French. Which is a bit of a problem in Morocco, where the second language is French. He took the lead after a much more experienced and skilled guide fell ill, which I can be grateful for because the alternative for the organisers would have been to cancel the trip…

Still, I developed an intense dislike to him. Today I wonder if I was just cast as the trek’s grumbler… and maybe I was… oh! But at the time I felt very upset. I had paid a lot of money for this vacation trip and had been looking forward to it a lot. And this guide was just spoiling it for me. Half-way through the trip we were to stay at a remote lodge at the edge of the Sahara desert.

When we arrived there, my dislike of our guide came to a head. It happened to be my birthday and he gave me a pair of boudoir slippers ‘Moroccon style’ and expected me to be grateful and forgive him for his ‘sins’. There were many and I was not going to forgive him. Not a cell in my body was prepared to do that. I had seen him refuse a member of the group who had fallen ill with dysentery to ride on a mule during part of the trip. He forced him to continue on foot. And in a remote area of our trip he collapsed. We all thought he was going to die. It was only then that the gravity of the situation hit our guide… not long before one of the girls in our company had suffered from a serious asthma attack at 2000 meters altitude. He told her that she should have stopped smoking before starting the trip… I had a lot of judgments about this guy, wrongly or rightly.

Bye, bye, have fun at the coast!

And there, at the edge of the Sahara desert, I decided I would no longer accompany the group. They were headed to the coast and were looking forward to a lot of partying and drinking. And it just did not appeal to me. So I told him I was going to hire a local guide and a camel to do what I had been dreaming about for a lot of years: a solo trek through the desert. He told me I could not do that, but of course I gave him a piece of my mind, ignored his comments and said goodbye to the troupe when they drove off in their ‘Jeeps’. I felt on top of the world. I had found this local young guy who had a camel and was willing to take me on a trip for 3-5 days. I had to go back to Marrakech after that, if I wanted to catch my plane back home.

My only friend in the group, the aforementioned Jomara, thought I had gone mad. But I did not see any risks in the situation. I had it all under control. And off I went. With my camel and my local guide. I have to say: it was an absolute stunning adventure. The only trouble was…. my young guide.

My ‘friendly’ guide

You have to understand that I have always been a desert fan. No idea why. I am from The Netherlands, and nothing in my family tree explains this love for the deserted and boiling hot sand plains of Africa, or wherever they are. I had been to Egypt a couple of years preceding this trip and also traveled in the desert. I just absolutely adore the nothingness of it. The way the silence of the scenery allows you to hear grains of sand move. It is just awesome.

People who live at the edge of the desert consider those who spend a lot of money on trekking as the filthy rich. When you happen to be a woman, they also consider you a slut, especially when you travel alone. On top of that, I was very blonde… From day one, he started to flirt with me. I ignored him. I tried to explain that the price of this vacation equalled a month’s salary and that I had to save money for months. I also told him that I had 2 foster daughters at home. I did not realize that all of this added to my ‘value’…

Starting out in the desert, with a personal guide who, at this moment, is still just a shadowy extra.
But that would change soon…

After the first night on a blanket together, me in my sleeping bag, he under a piece of cloth, I realized that my situation might be more dangerous than I had envisioned. I am fluent in French and we conversed about the differences between our worlds at night, when the campfire warmed us during the cold desert night. But there was a plan forming in his mind. I could see take shape in his head like captions. I was happy that we this trip was going to end after 3 days and 3 nights.

Sleeping together but apart (phew)

And then a sand storm hit… I have never seen anything like it. I obviously don’t have photographs of it, because, well, it would have ruined my camera. But in recent years I did end up very close to a sandstorm elsewhere on the globe. You can see in the picture below how threatening that looks – just imagine it in an environment that consist of only sand for 99%…

The storm comes out of nothing. You do not know what hits you until it is upon you. It suddenly darkens the sun, and then you are basically blind, while bombarded by millions of grains of sand. We were able to find shelter in a small oasis. This oasis was run by a ‘friend’ of my guide. He told me to go sleep on one of the benches and I did, with a desert scarf hiding my face.

I heard the two of them talking animatedly and at some point I realized they were not just having a conversation. They were talking about me. They were negotiating about selling me! WHAT! I started to listen more closely and sure enough, even if I did not speak Arab, I understood they were trying to estimate my value. In camels. No kidding. This was a problem!

Approaching sand storm in the desert (at a safe distance of where I am!)

The next day, our trip was to bring us back to the lodge where I had hired this guy. And the atmosphere changed. It became dangerous and I had to find ways to appease this young man in ways that I do not care to discuss nor think back to. All of a sudden this was no longer me on a defiant solo trip, the triumphant independent woman. This was me fighting to get back home safely.

We did get back to the lodge. But contrary to what it looked like when I departed on my adventure, there was only one car. I overheard a conversation my guide had with the owner of the lodge that made me really worried. I did not sit around to hear them out. I sneaked out of my small room, looking for the drivers of that one Jeep. I found out it was a bunch of young bucks from France. I asked one of them cautiously if they would be able to give me a ride to Marrakech the next day and explained my predicament. They were willing to help me, but I would have to sit in the lap of one of them, because the vehicle they had arranged was filled to capacity. I had no problems with that. They seemed like nice guys and it could not get worse than what the local guide and the owner of the lodge had planned for me, right?

None of these cars were left at the lodge when I had to plan my escape. There was only one…

I spent an uncomfortable night in my room, after locking it so that the local guide would not be able to come in. Much to his displeasure. He slept in front of the door and kept pleading to be let in. I did not sleep a wink and the next morning, right after sunrise, I managed to sneak out, step over him and get into the car with the French guys and off we went at great speed. The French guys were actually enjoying this great escape of mine and I will be forever grateful to them!

In my mind I still see that guide in the rearview mirror, as we took off. He came running after the car and he was NOT in a good mood, that was evident. But… I made it! The guys took me to the train station in Marrakech and continued on to their own destination.

It was still early when I walked into the hotel, and the first person I saw was Jomara. She had been extremely worried about me and was furious with the trekking guide. I felt kind of triumphant, like a survivor. But in my heart of hearts I was so, so relieved on having escaped what could have ended badly… I think I made it by the skin of my teeth and I am grateful for that to this very day! I loved crossing the High Atlas Mountains and I equally loved trekking through the Sahara on a camel, even if it was only for four days, the the sand storm bonus day. But if there ever is a next time, I will plan it with more wisdom and awareness and will make sure to not make this another solo expedition…