Sitting atop camels with knobby knees and yellow choppers, our group of young travelers trekked single file into Eastern Morocco’s Sahara desert. The scene was very Lawrence of Arabia: camel caravans, white gossamer head scarves and a setting apricot sun casting shadow puppets onto nearby sand dunes.

This was day one of a two-day camel trek through Erg Chebbi, a giant dune near the scruffy little town of Merzouga.  Boasting some of the largest sand dunes in all of Morocco, Erg Chebbi draws adventurous tourists looking for an alternative to the bustling souks of Marrakech.

After a few hours commute by camel-back, we arrived at camp.  It wasn’t much more than a few thin woven mats scattered in the sand but it felt good to be ‘home.’  A few hours on a camel and your inner thighs really start to hurt, so stretching out the legs felt like heaven.  I myself plopped down on a leather ottoman and chugged back a glass of ‘Berber Whiskey’, a fancy name for what turned out to be simple (and delicious) steamed mint tea.

While waiting for dinner, I grabbed the sheep skin drum I’d purchased in Marrakech.  Ali, our English speaking guide who answered “fantastic plastic” to just about everything, showed me some moves.  As he demonstrated a few simple rhythms, I followed clumsily.  My hands flopping around like goldfish out of water.  Clearly, I needed some practice.

As his palms swept over the instrument, he hollered “Africa!” and the rest of us clapped to the tribal rhythm and danced around the candle-lit tables.  “Africa!” we chimed in.  This was a raging nightclub – desert style.

Our drumming circle was put on hold when a teenage boy emerged from the kitchen tent, carrying platters of steaming couscous, chicken tajine and vegetables.  Lacking cutlery, we dug in with sandy fingers.  It’s amazing what a camel trek and a little drumming lesson will do to work up the appetite.

Post dinner, Ali proposed a pleasant stroll up one of the sand dunes.  He slung my drum over his shoulder and led us up the giant hill.

Within minutes, my heart was pumping and I was feeling the burn.  Bare feet sinking into the sand, I lagged behind the rest of the group.  The wind started to howl.  The sand twirled tornado style and shards of dirt stung my eyes.  Our pleasant post-dinner stroll had turned into a mid-sandstorm death march.

The boy who served us dinner offered me his arm and asked, in French, if I was ok.  Wheezing, heart pounding, skin tingling from the snarls of sand that whipped across my face, truly I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.  I abandoned my pride and clung desperately to the tiny teen.  We locked arms and he guided me along the edge of the dune.

The view from the top was worth all temporary suffering.  It was a magical scene: a vast desert plain, tiny twinkling lights from the camp below and a bright full-moon overhead.  Our group plunked down in the sand and took in the vista, stopping occasionally to make full-body sand angels and laugh about the treacherous journey we’d just survived.  It was one of those peaceful perfect nights; calm, complete and connected with nature.

Back at camp, I spread my thin woven mat in the sand, curled up and fell asleep beneath the stars.  In the words of our guide Ali, my camel trek experience truly was ‘fantastic plastic.’

Quick Tips:

– Once in the desert, there’s no electricity, no toilets, no refrigeration, no ATMs and thankfully no high-speed Internet, so prepare accordingly.

– Most tour groups provide breakfast and dinner– but snacks, alcohol (if you so choose) and water are often not included.  Bring 1 to 2 liters of water per day per person.  You are in the desert after all, so it’s important to stay hydrated.

– Don’t forget the sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, long-sleeved shirt, flashlight and sheep skin drum for early evening rock-out performances.

– As I learned the hard way, it can get chilly at night, so bring a sleeping bag or extra warm clothing when you’re sleeping under the stars.