When I was nineteen, I travelled around Morocco with my old sixth form college, even though I had left it. Our journey took us into the High Atlas and across the border with Western Sahara, which was technically at war with Morocco at the time. It took a day to drive across the baked clay plains, in blistering heat. On top of our truck, there were a couple of seats. A friend and I sat up there all day, in strict contravention of the rules. After hours of roasting, eventually we could see the sand dunes appear in the distance. At first they were just a blueish outline on the horizon, like an enormous version of the South Downs way off in the distance.
When we arrived, the truck parked before the first ripple. This sandy ridge rose about four feet and then fell away expose the clay again. Between it and the next ridge there lay a channel about ten feet wide. The next ridge rose up to about five feet or so and then fell away but not far enough to expose the clay. After that the ridge structure became more broken up. The peaks and troughs got higher and higher. Our immediate horizon was dominated by a dune which looked to be about the height of Devil’s Dyke, just outside Brighton – that’s 712 feet above sea level.
Some Berbers turned up, produced a football and challenged us to a match between the first two long ripples of sand. I elected to sit the first game out. There never was a second game. Our boys were humiliated. It was, of course, only a game but unfortunately the English lads were so cocksure that they would win that their defeat was just too crushing. Immediately after kick off the locals hitched up their multi-layered skirts and, literally rang rings in their bare feet around our lot. Result: 25-0. It would have been a bigger margin but our team walked off the pitch at that point at the quarter century mark.
I decided that before sundown I would walk off to the highest dune and climb it. Getting there was simple enough. Getting up it was really hard. On reaching the top I was gutted to find the name “Toby” carved out in the sand up there. Toby was in our party. Somehow he had beaten me to the top; I had seen him walking back into our camp when I set off. The view from the top was something else. The summit I stood on now appeared as a low foothill, nestling amongst others of similar height. Beyond them, to the South, stood really massive dunes. I stood there for awhile and gazed at the panorama sloping up and away from me.
I wasn’t troubled by the sun being so low in the sky because I could see our fire. We were going to cook our evening meal on it! Running down Toby’s Peak was great fun. Soon I was at the bottom and making my way up the dune to the North of it. When I got to the top of that, I could still see the fire. However, after I got to the bottom of that one and back up the next one, I could not see the fire. Not to worry, I thought, I’m walking in a straight line. What can go wrong? I carried on, guided only by that belief, for quite a while.
I’d worn myself out and took to tumbling down all the dunes. When I got to the top of each, I could still see the sun but in the dips between them, I was in shadow. A combination of the dune’s irregular heights, positions and corresponding depths threw me off my straight line and I lost sight of the fire. By the light of the emerging stars I chose the highest dune I could see and climbed it, to find the fire again. At its top, I could see no fire. I wasn’t exactly panicking but the fear was definitely growing. I knew I had started my return journey from only about a mile away from my base. I also knew that it was practically impossible to hold any kind of straight line amongst the undulations. From the top of this dune, I picked another high one and decided to climb that. No matter what, I had to find the fire again.
It took an age to ascend this new dune. I was getting very tired indeed. I hadn’t eaten all day and all this sandy work was taking its toll. Eventually, I managed the task and looked around. I fancied that I could see a flickering light. It wasn’t exactly in the direction that I had expected it to be. Setting off, I picked a path towards it between the higher dunes on the way, so as not to lose sight of it. This meant following a zig-zagging course. It took longer but that seemed very preferable to being completely lost. The mystifyingly different nature of the dunes I put down to the night and me being unfamiliar with my surroundings.
At last, I found the height of the dunes was gently decreasing and I could see the fire better. It kept disappearing from view though. I wasn’t in shadow. Evidently, there were people walking in front of it. I kept going.
Eventually, I stumbled out of the wilderness and toward the fire. At the last moment, I realised this was not my camp. It was the Berber’s camp. Three black tents, each about sixty foot across, stood next to each other. Frankly, I didn’t hesitate. I walked straight into the camp. The nearest tent was open on the side facing me. As I approached, men inside stood up and approached me. Without a common language, I understood that I was being welcomed in. They ushered me to some embroidered cushions and prepared to serve tea.
Luckily, I was already well versed in the elaborate rituals of drinking Moroccan Mint Tea as a stranger in someone’s home. I was less sure of myself when some very pretty young women were presented to me and invited to sit on the cushions beside me. As these ladies smiled and nodded at me, the thought crossed my mind that I might be there for some time. Keen though I was to return to my countrymen, the prospect of accidentally joining this particular tribe did have a certain appeal. However, when I was shown a place to go in private with the three young ladies, I balked. I was worried that I might be perceived as being their debt somehow. Looking back, I know I missed the adventure of a lifetime by declining that aspect of their hospitality. The women were sent away and I was offered a similar treat with some good looking young men. For me, that was an easier gift to refuse. Food was brought out. I ate very heartily but refused the meat, having become vegetarian only ten days before. By gesticulation I think I managed to explain that I did not eat the flesh of any beast which had been sentient.
After a couple of hours of this hospitality, two men stood up and ushered me outside. Smiling, they indicated that I should follow them. They walked off into the darkness. Although the sky was lit well by tens of thousands of stars, the terrain was harder to see. It didn’t matter though because it was completely flat. We walked slowly enough that I did not trip on any of the large cracks running through the surface. We skirted the edge of the desert in the direction which I hoped would take me back to my camp. Where else would they take me?
A couple of hours later, I spotted another fire and the silhouette of our truck in front of it. I couldn’t believe that I lost sight of this inferno – it was massive. It was roaring twenty feet high! I guessed that I had missed dinner. No-one could be cooking on that monster. Approaching from the North-West, I could see everyone standing on the other side of the fire. However, for some reason, they could not see me. My rescuers stopped, shook me hand and bid me goodbye. I shook their hands and touched my heart, in the traditional sign of real gratitude. They smiled very broadly and repeated the gesture.
What a relief! As I walked towards our camp, I realised that everyone was standing in a line on the first ripple. They were all looking at something into the desert proper. Casually walking up the sand, I stood next to the person at the end of the line and asked, “What are we looking at?” The reply was, “We’re looking for you!” Oh boy, were they pleased to see me. They’d thrown everything on the fire, to help me find my way home. All the wood at once, a spare tyre and petrol had gone into the mix.
That night my immediate friends and I made our beds on a modest dune. I was questioned about where I had been. My interrogators were not envious. They were perturbed at my calmness. Looking back, so am I. Nature served up a spectacular meteor shower which blazed across the sky for three hours but for all its glory I wondered whether I might have been more amazed had I spent the night in the company of those most pleasing hosts, sheltering in the shadows of the Sahara.