We had walked fifteen minutes from the basecamp, crossing a couple of big dunes when the sun dipped below the dunes.
The sky was turning dark blue. Ramadan had ended five days ago and a waning almost full moon was high up in the sky. The temperature had dropped a couple of degrees as soon as the sunrays withdrew. Though the sand under my feet was still warm. “In a desert, no shoes are the best shoes”, I had read somewhere and had obediently left my chinos dangling at my camel’s pommel.
Using their long gait to their advantage, the camels had put a considerable distance between them and me. They disappeared over a dune and I decided to sit down for a bit. I waited till the jangling of the bells tied around the camel’s neck faded into the night and the night grew very quiet.
Finally, I had the desert of Sahara – or a few dunes actually – all to myself.
I laid down on my back, camera on my stomach lens pointing up like a periscope. The warm sand shifting under my weight felt therapeutic through my thin cotton shirt. A few stars had sprung in the saturated blue sky. Besides a rat scurrying behind a dry shrub, everything was still. They say these dune shift every night. A mini blizzard can overnight move dunes around several hundred meters. No wonder, other than a tuft of grass here and there, there was barely any vegetation.
It was so easy to fall asleep right here, I thought. Before I really did, I got up and scampered up to the top of the dune to see our little caravan disappearing down the next dune. I could see Rhea craning her neck looking for me. She called out when she spotted me.
“Papi, hurry up or you will get lost!”
I jogged down the dune, the loose sand aiding my descent. The ascent was not so easy. It had not rained for months and the sand easily rolled down. For the first time I realized how heavy my camera is.
It took me another 10 minutes to catch up with the caravan. The camels were tirelessly lumbering on, expertly swatting flies with their long tails. Astride them, the group was in a great mood. When Gayu complained that her camel was malodorously flatulent, the kids (and some adults) burst into peals of laughter. The two-year old Kabir was completely besides himself with unadulterated joy.
Ahead, Youssef was walking with long purposeful strides. Head down, the Toureg seemed predisposed at reaching the desert camp.
Riding the camel was no different than riding a horse, Rhea reported on her own initiative. A two humped camel was all she had seen so far and she had imagined being safely ensconced in the niche in between. So she was worried when I told her the camels in this part of the world only had one hump and was afraid she would slide down. Right now, she was happy as a lark. Nobody seemed in any apparent discomfort, especially my camel, who most certainly was happy to be not carrying any weight this day.
Swaying rhythmically to the camels footsteps, Rhea called for Youssef’s attention. He slowed down till he was alongside her.
“What is his name?” she asked pointing to the camel she was riding.
“Number 10”, he deadpanned. Just like a bus route.
“Can I name him?”, Rhea asked “Please?”
He grunted his nonchalance. A big tip was obviously not part of his business plan. Unflustered by his apathy, she ran through several names before settling on Lawrence of Arabia, my favorite desert movie.
We smelled smoke. We had been trekking for over an hour and the camp had to be nearby. We topped a dune and spotted the big fire and several tents nestling between two large dunes. The sound of the gaiety easily carried across the expanse and the camels automatically picked pace.
Rhea in front of our Berber tent (Photo courtesy Vijay Aski)
There were half a dozen Berber tents in two rows. At the head was what I imagined to be the kitchen tent. We were allotted a spacious tent all to ourselves. Made of thick canvas, they looked like they could easily withstand a sandstorm. We had to switch on our torches as it was completely dark inside. Neatly arranged on the floor were several mattresses with thick blankets and pillows. A lone table formed the rest of the furnishing. Sparse but clean.
We cleaned up behind the tent using our bottled water and were led to our table. Two large German groups were halfway through the dinner. After several glasses of sweet mint tea came the – you guessed it - tagines with bread and sliced delicious cantaloupes. There is not much to say about the food. I knew very well to not expect a cordon bleu to be hiding in that kitchen tent.
The roaring campfire had sprung little wooden stools around it. The Germans had already taken their seats. The camel handlers had brought out the banjos and the orchestra was led by none other than a very happy looking Youssef. The blue turban was gone. In its place was visible a mop of dreads that would be stylish even in New York. They started with a melodious local songs that got the audience clapping and foot-stomping. They raised the tempo until the group was dancing around the fire and singing songs to the wild bet of their drums. It was quite a jamboree.
Before retiring to bed, there was just a small little hurdle to cross. The desert camp had no toilets.
“But don’t worry”, a sweating Youssef, smiling ear to ear, waved in the direction of the massive dunes, “We have enough space”
We picked a bush a hundred meters away. For one night, its okay.
The sky that night. They say experts can tell you the lat/long and date/time from that.
We were given a choice of sleeping in the tent or out in the open. It was a no brainer. Rhea and I carried a mattress outside and laid it down on a gentle slope behind our tent . The Aski’s had picked a spot a few feet away. Wearing two layers of fleece and snuggled under a thick clean blanket, it could not have been cozier. The sky was beautiful and spotless. Thousands of bright stars twinkled at us. We quickly spotted the majestic hunter of Orion but could not locate any other constellations. Rhea had a bright idea.
“Lets make our own!”
We conjured up a tortoise tracing the stars with our finger. Then we started on horse and did not realize when we gave in to Lord Morpheus.
The last waking words we heard were Kabir pleading to Preeti.
“Mummy, I don’t waaant to sleep, Mummy.”
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[Next: A desert sunrise]