Climbing over dunes and through cultures Sahara: Visitors to Morocco trek on foot through sand, ride camels and drink tea with desert nomads.


Darkness hid the top of the sand dunes when we arrived at our Sahara camp, and it's probably just as well.

Because the longer we climbed the next morning, the taller those dunes seemed to get.

The highest dunes within our reach at Erg Chebbi, Morocco, were about 820 feet, according to the Knopf guidebook to Morocco.

How high that seems depends on what comparisons you make.

Diamond Head in Hawaii is about 40 feet shorter. Ayers Rock in Australia is about 200 feet taller.

A more familiar measure may be the Jockey's Ridge dune on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Think what it's like to climb 90 to 100 feet up the tallest sand dune on the U.S. East Coast, and then multiply it nine times.

So, maybe we weren't such wimps after all.

Traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel, we had gone over the Atlas Mountains, switched from buses to Land Rovers and then headed onto dirt tracks across desert plains.

Sundown found us stopped at a nomad's tent that was divided into separate sections for men and women. Children played at the edge of the women's section. Goats milled around us as they returned from a day of foraging.

About an hour later, we reached our campsite near Merzouga and the walk-in tents that would shelter us for the night. Flashlights and candle lanterns helped us get settled. Dinner was followed by nomadic Berber music and dancing around the campfire.

The next morning, only half of our 16 travelers responded to the 5: 30 wake-up call for climbers. A brisk walk through soft sand became progressively steeper.

The mountain climbers in our group led the way, naturally. I was far behind with the smoker from New York, and then even he left me. The sunrise would look lovely from where I was.

Our trip leader, Hassan el Gaabouri, didn't think so. He ran down the dune to help pull me up the softest, steepest sections, and then he did the same thing for two others. Come sunrise, six of us were at the top.

Then came the fun part: getting down. You sit on your backside and paddle with your hands to slide down the steepest part. Or, if your trip leader is as wildly energetic as ours was, he may run up the dune again and pull you down by your feet.

Breakfast in camp awaited us beneath the open sky, and then came a camel ride on what was surely the busiest 24 hours of a busy two-week stay in Morocco.

My white camel probably would have liked a fast pace, considering that white camels are racing camels from Mali. But these camels were safely tethered together, and they walked us across the desert with a motion that felt like a rocking chair.

An hour's ride gave us some appreciation of what it must have been like to spend 52 days in a caravan across the desert to Timbuktu. As it was, there was plenty of opportunity for the camel behind me to make friends. I kept elbowing him away as he kept trying to nuzzle my sleeve.

It's a good sign, the guide joked. If a camel likes you, you're a hot babe. Don't bet on it, bud.

In the desert, there must be as many ways to determine who's "hot" as there are Arabian nights. If not the camel test, there's the lipstick test or the henna test or the palm reading test.

The Berber lipstick, as seen at an herbal shop in Marrakesh, appears to have no color but turns pink when applied to the skin. The deeper the pink, the hotter the babe.

Henna is used to make decorative patterns on women's hands for special occasions. Mixed with water to form a paste, it's allowed to dry on the skin and then brushed off. If the lines stay dark and distinct after the first application, that's another hot babe.

At our small hotel in the Dades Gorge, a teen-age girl showed us her henna technique. On the palm of each woman in our group, she painted symbols such as those found on Berber kilim rugs -- stars, trees, flowers, women and camels marched across our hands.

When she got to me, she pointed to her eye with a quizzical look. I nodded, and soon my hand resembled the traditional symbol that wards off evil. Apparently it had great power. For the rest of the trip, whenever I showed it to a Moroccan there was an immediate look of respect and caution.

Life south of the High Atlas Mountains follows old traditions far more closely than life in Moroccan cities. Women and men live almost completely separate lives.

After a woman is married, she's not supposed even to speak with a man other than her husband. Before we were invited into a Berber nomad's tent for mint tea, the women were sent away. Women's dress varied from village to village. In the Dades Gorge, a woman returning from the fields wore a bright patterned skirt, long-sleeved jacket and bright patterned kerchief. In another village, the women always wore solid-color kerchiefs -- each woman adopting a single color to make it easier to recognize her at a distance.

The dunes we climbed were created by a sandstorm that wiped out the old village of Merzouga. According to local lore, God was punishing the villagers for refusing shelter to a woman and her children during a festival.

After our flurry of activity, we moved on to a second camp at Daya-el-Maider and a quieter pace for the next two days. There was time for a discussion of Islam, time for a lesson in Arabic, time to nap during the heat of day, time for a walk at sunset when the sky and the dust plume from a Land Rover glowed the same shade of pink.

Camp was surprisingly comfortable. Each tent had two cots, a small table, a mat on the floor, a hanging candle lantern and two coat hangers. Cooks produced a variety of tajines and salads (safe to eat, the tour company says, because the camp staff has been trained to soak the vegetables in water treated with iodine).

The hotels where we stayed the next two nights weren't much better equipped, but their settings were spectacular. Ocher-toned cliffs in the Todra Gorge and oasis villages along the Dades Gorge preserved life as it's rarely seen. Women washed laundry in the river. Donkeys carried supplies beside a stream.

This part of Morocco was on the caravan trail that linked Marrakesh with southern Africa. In the 13th and 14th centuries, fortresses like Ait Benhaddou would have been a resting place for hundreds of caravans that carried salt and sugar to the south and brought back gold.

More recently, the massive earthen walls at Ait Benhaddou have been a setting for films such as "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

Only five families remain now at Ait Benhaddou, but because the fortress is a UNESCO heritage site there is interest and effort to preserve it.

That's not true of many other fortresses (casbahs) and fortified residences that were traditionally made of packed earth or mud bricks. Without yearly maintenance on the walls, they begin to crumble back into dust.

Even the richest casbah may be left to ruin if its owner falls out of favor. The Dar Glaoui casbah of Telouet was lavishly decorated when Thami el Glaoui ruled southern Morocco under the French protectorate. More than 300 workmen labored more than four years to transform it into a palace with mosaics on columns and walls, painted-wood ceilings and plaster festoons in archways.

When independence came in 1956, the property was confiscated, and it hasn't been maintained since. Only two rooms retain their Andalusian-style decoration. Without some attention soon, even those may become inaccessible or ruined. When we climbed to the roof to see the countryside, we skirted a hole in its flat surface.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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