Crossing the Sahara with Camels: A Day in the Life
Alice Morrison shares what it's really like to trek across Morocco and the Sahara, with three Berber teammates and six charismatic camels.
In the past couple of years, I have spent seven and a half months walking the length of Morocco and the Sahara with my six camels and three Amazigh (Berber) guides – Brahim, Addi and BB. It was an intense exploration, filled with discovery of lost cities, dinosaur footprints and spaceships in the desert. It is the subject of my latest book, Walking with Nomads. Of course, the discoveries were high points but there were many days when we were just walking in difficult conditions. For me, the joy of the journey was in the everyday routine which kept us sane and moving forward as we crossed the desert and scaled the Atlas Mountains.
So, if you’ve ever wondered what it is like to do this kind of long expedition – look no further! This was our daily rhythm.
Desert Morning Routine
I wake up at 6 am to the sound of Brahim boiling the kettle to give the men hot water in their little sandcastle buckets to perform the wdou – Muslim ritual washing before prayers. If I am quick enough, I can nip out for the loo before everyone else wakes up and if not, I have to cross my legs until the men go into the big tent for breakfast. Then I lie and listen to Brahim singing the prayers in his melodic voice and try to understand the Quranic verses. After prayer, he brings me my little bucket of hot water, “Peace be upon you, Zahra.” Zahra is the Arabic name I have been given. I wash and dress in my tent, nicknamed Le Petit Fromage (LPF) because it looks like a triangle of cheese. Then I pack up all my bags and put them outside, so LPF is empty except for my sleeping mat. My breakfast is porridge with dried milk and sugar, alongside a mug of Nescafé.
By the time I’ve finished and washed up, Brahim has taken LPF down and the camels have been gathered into camp. When we have them, it is a breakfast of oats for them too. “You eat camel food, Zahra,” Addi tells me. He spreads out a couple of tarpaulins and pours the oats in. When they see him taking out the tarpaulins, the camels gallop in, then couch themselves to eat - for all the world like they are round a dinner table.
We finish packing and saddle the boys up. Addi and BB do three (Callum, Alasdair and Sausage) and Brahim and I do three: Hunter, Hector Saghro and Hamish. Hamish is my favourite and my responsibility. First we smooth the hair on their backs, taking out any thorns or sticks from their humps and flanks. Then we put the saddle on. It is made of wood and cloth padding with an iron pommel. On top of that, we pile three rugs to protect the hump.
We sling the green, woven saddle bags over the top and start loading in our baggage. Each camel has a specific set of belongings. Everything has to be carefully balanced, so it isn’t heavier on one side than the other. The last job is to tie the girth round the base of the camels’ necks and up on the pommel, then poke the belly one under their tummies with a stick and grab it on the other side. This secures the saddle and everything in place. Quite often, Brahim has to brace himself with his feet off the ground on Hamish’s side so he can get the ropes tight enough.
We get all the camels up – they usually grumble a bit - and then tie on any last bits, like empty water bottles or the little camp stool. BB and I do a litter scout and either put it in the litter bag to take with us, or burn it if we can. Our aim was to leave no trace.
Camel Trekking Days
It is 7.30. “In the Name of God,” says Brahim and we set off. Camels walk fast – at around 5km per hour and we don’t stop much. Once the camels are loaded, you don’t want to tire them needlessly by keeping them waiting with heavy backs. Usually we do 25km and walk for around 5 hours.
11 am is always a highlight of the day as we stop for a snack, in the shade. We try to find flat stones to sit on. “Zahra needs the biggest one because she is fat,” is always accompanied by sniggers. We have an orange and a snack pack of chocolate biscuits, maybe with peanuts and figs. The camels love it too because they adore orange peel. I hoard mine carefully and divide it exactly. Addi tries to steal it and always gives far too much to Callum, who he loves.
We will almost always be over half of our allotted distance when we stop, so starting again we know we are on the home straight. In spite of that, the last half hour (sometimes hour) was always half an hour too long. Brahim called half past twelve my ‘red line’ because that was usually my tipping point. When we had been going for around four and a half to five hours, we start to look out for a bivouac spot. This is one of the banes of my life. Inevitably, we will have passed the ideal bivouac 20 minutes ago and are now looking out on a barren wilderness and the prospect of having to walk further. Addi is a demon for this if he gets too far ahead looking vainly for a paradisiacal camping spot.
You might think that in the midst of thousands of kilometres of wilderness, one bivouac would be much like another. But in fact there is lots to be taken into consideration. Ideally, we wanted:
a water source both for humans and animals
grazing for the camels
flat ground, not in a river bed
the right kind of ground for the tent pegs – not too hard and not too soft
somewhere suitable to couch the camels
… and, at some parts of our trip, somewhere suitable to tie the camels. In addition, I always liked a nice view – décor ishwa, as Addi put it.
Spot reached and agreed, the men circle and couch the camels. It is always a mad dash scramble to get the loads off the camels’ backs. I race to get all of Hamish’s stuff off and beat Brahim, who is doing Hunter. The hardest part is undoing the knots in the ropes, which have to be toughly tight for security, and I am always nicking my fingers. Baggage and saddles off, we hobble the boys and let them off to roam and graze.
Time to put up the tents – again it is a race, with me and Brahim doing LPF versus Addi and BB doing the mess tent. On the one day that Brahim and I won, Addi sulked all the way until tea time.
Life at Camp
It is my responsibility to make sure that our solar lamps are all powered and I also help top up the teams’ mobiles. I always had at least two solar panels and integral ones for the lights. I charged into three power banks so we never ran out, even when the sun wasn’t strong. My iPhone was my camera and my communications tool so that was always charged fully. Then I used an iPad Pro for blogs and articles, so I liked that to always be at 50% or above. Power became my psychological loo roll. At home I always like to have lots of loo roll in the cupboard, now it was plenty of charge in my batteries.
Addi and Brahim go and fetch water (if there was any for camp) while BB and I prepare lunch. The very first thing BB does is get the tea on. We have a battered old metal tea pot and the tea making things are kept in a separate bag for quick access. If we are in a place with shade and not too much wind, we spread the camel rugs outside. But often in the Sahara the wind is far too strong, so we eat inside the mess tent. It is always baking hot. Lunch is fresh salad if we’ve been reprovisioned, with sardines and bread; or pasta with sardines if we have nothing fresh. We mop up our sardine oil with bread. A day after the bread is baked, it is still ok. But by day three, you have to bite carefully or risk a broken tooth. Hot, sweet tea comes at regular intervals in our little glasses.
After lunch, I do the dishes and the men get their little buckets of water and go off to wash and then pray. I swap out of my day clothes - sports bra and M&S briefs, scarf and cap, Craghoppers trousers and Craghoppers long-sleeved shirt - for my camp clothes. My camp clothes are a different scarf, leggings and a long-sleeved robe with an ordinary bra (ooh the relief) and clean knickers, which I then wear for the next morning’s walk. I stash all my walking clothes in my lace pockets at the foot of LPF and, after I wash all the vital bits with soap and a travel flannel, I wash out my socks and knickers and hang them out to dry on the guy rope. It is amazing what you can do with just 2 mugs of water. When it is cold, I also wear a Craghoppers puffer jacket, socks and a wool djellaba (robe with hood) over the top.
Then I unpack and arrange all the things I need for camp: notebooks and pen, in a lace pocket at the side of the tent; mug, Kindle and headtorch in another. Afternoons are for note-making, which I try to take in as much detail as possible, recording conversations as well as what we have seen on the way. That way when I come to writing articles and the book, I have a true record. It is almost always a battle not to stretch out and have a siesta. The men always sleep. After prayers is their relaxing time. Brahim and Addi retire to their little castles of saddlebags and BB stretches out in the mess tent or under a tree. Brahim spends some of his time with his tiny travelling Quran. He has learnt the whole Quran off by heart and he has to constantly revise. “The words run away otherwise, Zahra.”
Relaxing into the Evening
Afternoon and early evening is taken up with looking after the camels and cooking. “Camels have the devil in them,” Brahim always says and it does seem like that. They always graze as far away from camp as possible, which means Addi and Brahim have far to walk to bring them back in. Meanwhile, BB starts cooking. Many is the tale of some poor camel guide, who woke up in the morning to find his camel had headed for home and was 50 kilometres away.
Addi makes bread every three days or so, kneading out the dough in a big pink plastic basin and then cooking it in our gas-fired oven – sweltering if he had to do it in the mess tent.
If I have energy left, I go off exploring or nobble BB to teach me more Tashlaheet (Berber) grammar, or try to find phone signal. Often, though, I just sit under a tree or in the shade of the tent and be. It is the ultimate luxury. At 5 o’clock it is time for tea and a chat.
The sunset prayer is said and then we have dinner in the mess tent or outside under the stars with a fire. Dinner is soup with plenty of salt, bread and dates; followed by vegetable casserole with onions, carrots, potatoes and turnips - and lots of spices. When the vegetables run out, we have pasta.
After supper, we lie back on the rugs and tell stories and riddles and drink verbena – a herbal drink which promotes good digestion and sleep. This is one of the very best bits of every day. Good company and full bellies, with the stars above and our feet stretched out to the fire, is pretty unbeatable.
Alice Morrison is an Adventurer who specialises in the Middle East and Africa. She has crossed the whole of Morocco on foot with her six camels, cycled from Cairo to Cape Town and just hiked from north to south Jordan. She lives in the Atlas Mountains. Her latest book, Walking with Nomads came out on 17th March.
You can hear more from Alice (literally, she has a podcast) on alicemorrison.co.uk. Walking with Nomads is available on Amazon, Hive or in all good bookshops, online and off.
Have you read Michael Asher's book "The Impossible Journey ?" He walked with camels from Mauritania to Egypt with his wife - Mariantonietta Peru. The only two people to do so. Awe inspiring book.