Sitting on the dunes in the last glows of sunset, all I could hear was my own blood.
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Sitting around the fire, wrapped in blankets under a bright half moon, I came out with the most god-awful happy hippy sentiments. I couldn't help it. I couldn't help saying how Morocco had got under my skin and into my heart. I couldn't prevent myself babbling about the beauty of the desert. I couldn't help but be swept away by the magic of the cold air and the dancing sparks, and the soft grumblings of sleeping camels. Mohammed, to his credit, smiled indulgently and refrained from rolling his eyes at me.
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Sitting with my arms wrapped around my knees, my eyes watering with the sweet acrid smoke of the burning sticks, I drank whisky and wished I could sing. Wished I could sing some plaintive prayer to the sheltering sky, a prayer to stay there under its icy protection on the sands. I listened to the drumming, to the layers of song around me, and wondered if all the words were about the stupid tourists who sit like sacks of potatoes but think they are the new Lawrence of Arabia.
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Sitting on a camel, rocking back and forth with the slow swaying stride, I was hypnotised by the long shadows of the caravan as they stretched and warped down the slopes of the dunes. Sitting with my hands on my thighs, and my head held high, I felt the pull of the thousand yard stare, the stare that carries you forwards across miles of emptiness with a longing not for the end, but for more, so many miles more of the same easy motion and wind-carved landscapes.
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Sitting up there, on my perch of folded blankets and knotted ropes, I drifted in and out of time. And longed for no end.
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It had been a short drive from Nkob in the morning, to the petrol station where we'd been parcelled out into smaller groups and bundled into landrovers. Rattle bump jump through the town, with the taller people cursing fruitily each time their heads bashed the not very padded roof. Past the irrigation ditches, past the donkeys being herded through the square, past the last straggling buildings and out onto the moon.
Three landrovers, driving side by side, spreading further and further apart across the grey lava-stoned desert piste, sending cartoon clouds of dust up behind them. And my face was fixed with a widening smile, as I ducked my head up and down to look through the polarised window, and out above the rolled down gap to the natural colours. Up and down, bobbing like a hunting cat, swaying to music I couldn't quite hear from the tassle-laden radio in the front, the land stretched wide and flat and empty all around.
Damn, it was beautiful in its emptiness. There was nothing there. Nothing but the remnants of old volcanic rocks, scattered to almost dust, cut through by vehicles leaving redder, worn away half tracks in their wake. I had the overwhelming urge to learn to drive, just so that I could bomb across this landscape, and cruise around in crazed circles, getting myself dizzy and lost in a flat open plain.
This was not the Sahara of a thousand movies. This was bleak rock. And in the distance there was a pile of red mountains. No, not mountains. Those were the dunes.
We stopped a while, to look out at the rising masses of sand. To smoke a cigarette, to take bad photographs, and to feel the rise of a blood-deep thrill. The drivers fussed around, turbanning scarves around the heads of those who looked bewildered by the lengths of cloth, watching the mix of dazzled smiles and blase ho-humming that spread across the group.
And further on, stuck into a heap of rocks, a handpainted sign pointing to the auberge.
We were there a while, lolling around in the sunshine, cooling off in the thick walled communal room, drinking pints of water, waiting, impatiently.
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It was hot, so hot in that midday sun on the edge of the dunes. There was no wind, no stirring in the air, no movement on the sand. I paced around, and stared at the heaps, the hills that had been built by a wind that had died away, and wondered how often the shapes changed and shifted.
The camels were being lead down to wait for us, all tidily arranged in folded knee line. We all lined up, legs sprawled out over the stone benches, watching them. I felt a clutching in my stomach, and started to wonder if this was really such a bright idea. I figured I'd be fine once I was up there, but, hell, getting up there? Those beasts are tall.
I wandered over, and stood in front of one, feeling like I should treat it as a Hippogriff. I was determined to be polite. The camel lifted head up its head with elegant arrogance, turned a little to the side, and regarded me with utter disdain. I made a half bow, and wished it a good afternoon. The camel shut its eyes, and sniffed.
"Well, matey, you don't smell so good either," I huffed back.
A couple of them were waving their heads around, shouting and grumbling until they were shushed by the guides, with the help of a little rope wrapped between the teeth.
One of the guides took my bag, and tied it on to the front of the saddle. Saddle is perhaps a little generous for the strange metal frame loaded with woollen blankets and held together with rounds of knotted rope.
He gestured, "Up, up!"
I grinned my very best "hell, why not" grin, and swaggered over. And I am not a very tall heyoka, and I am not endowed with any length of leg, so the whole casual swinging over the leg was just not an option. I had to clamber onto the poor beast like a two year old conquering the sofa. Wriggle wriggle, into place, hold the curve of metal at the front of the saddle with an edge of panic. Fine, firmly perched.
I lurched forward as the camel's haunches perched towards the sky. I lurched backwards as the front end followed. I sat up straight and grinned my head off, simply because I hadn't fallen off. Nice view of the world from up here.
Meanwhile, Snarl was being helped up onto one of the pack camels, and I turned to see his legs balanced on top of tanks of water.
And so the small group found its way up onto camels, with squeals and relieved laughter. We were lead around, and roped together in groups of five, one camel looped behind the other, and each of us turned to see who was ahead and behind. A couple of people were hanging on for dear life, shoulders hunched, elbows locked, and a pale gleam of terror across their faces. The two who were staying behind waltzed around with cameras, teasing, gloating about showers and beds and walking on their own two feet, telling us what a terrible time we were going to have.
Oh, but they were wrong.
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We plodded slowly up onto the first rise of the dunes, onto the soft sands that swallowed feet, finding the rhythms of the camel's walking. It's nothing like riding a horse, but that slow rocking in the lower back, that strange relaxation that requires so much hard work where you let the animal's movement dictate your own? That's the same.
And we came to the first rise, and everything ahead was knife-edged peaks of bright pink-orange sand under a deep blue sky. And the sun eased under your skin.
Sitting up, sitting up tall and staring out across the distances, into the mazes of ups and downs, across the packed sand and the slithering away soft areas, at the scuttering long-toed tracks of desert mice, and fennec foxes, I stretched my arms out wide, wanting to reach the unseen edges.
Swaying up there, so high in the air, on this warm, stinky beast, I was dizzy watching the long-legged shadows that smeared and spread down the bowls of lower dunes, and curled into nothing with funhouse mirror trickery. Ahead of us, the end of the rope in the hands held behind him, walked the first guide leading us along a well trodden route.
We couldn't kid ourselves that this was an undiscovered wasteland, unwalked for fifty years, untouched for a hundred. There were tracks everywhere. This was a well-travelled route. But it wasn't long before I found myself wishing that we were going further, deeper into this desert. This edge tracking wasn't enough, clinging to the outskirts, going no more than six, seven kilometres into the dunes in a slow paced caravan.
Someone behind me started humming, a tune that was picked up by five or six others, with glee. I tried not to say anything about taking Aqaba.
And with that easy pace, and awkward grace, we were there too fast, looking across a scrubby area with a large Bedouin style tent pegged out in the middle. I thought about Ahmed, and the fifty two days to Timbuktu. Because this was too soon to stop. This was only the corner, and mile upon mile of Sahara lay ahead of us.
But again, we were being lined up, unlooped, grabbed by the elbow as the camels were ordered to "Skoosh! Skoosh!" and they folded down their front knees, folded down their back, then settled like deflating hovercraft.
And the camel saddle blankets became the rugs on the tent floor. One big tent, low slung, with a wall open to the evening, soon crowded up with people tuggling bed pads around and unrolling sleeping bags, huddling with disturbed questions about the inevitable cold.
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But we were already gone, feet slipping sliding as the sand shifted and collapsed under them, heading up, up, onto the nearest ridge to watch the start of the sunset that was painting the dunes with unearthly pinks. In this low scoop of desert floor, patched with green-grey dry bushes, the dunes towered over us in all directions. Hands grabbed, tugging each other up the slope until we found a flat-packed line to walk along, where the sand was patterned with snaking curves, silver and dark as the coarser grains rose to the top in weeks of wind.
We walked along, turning, turning around endlessly to sweep eyes around the whole circle of the space, as we wound along the sharp edge of a low ridge. As the sun grew lower, dark shapes undulated across the sand, dropping expanses into early darkness. Snarl was gazing up, into the distance to a peak that was still in the sunshine. I knew I couldn't make it. Not in time, anyway. Snarl kissed me, apologised, and headed off, to mountaingoat to the top.
So I stayed on the nursery slopes, wandering around, drifting north to gaze at one vast rippled hill and the amazing pink blue gold streaks that were reaching across the sky.
It was all quite revoltingly picturesque, with camels grazing in the shadowed scrub, against the rose-coloured sands, under a paintbox sky.
And I sat crosslegged on the sand, camera in my lap, smoking a cigarette, looking at a single strand of dry grass that poked up through the surface, surrounded by the perfectly traced circle that it had described around it, trailed by the wind in a complete arc.
And as the darkness seeped into the pinked sky, the sand grew cold under me, losing heat along with colour as it faded to gleaming pewter.
Unless I looked into the distance, where two silhouetted stick figures stood on the highest edge, I could see no one at all. And even they vanished in the dark.
And all I could hear was my own blood, growing crazy with a new love, a wild love which would take me to many more deserts, and many more quiet nights under bright skies.