Climbing dunes is one way to explore the Sahara, but by far the best is to book your passage on one of the ships of the desert – the camel. As you drive into Merzouga over the rattling hammada, herds of camels loiter round the edges of the desert, looking dour and almost surprised to be there, and there's no shortage of offers of camel treks from hopeful locals once you roll into town. We booked a two-day trip on our arrival, and settled in to wait for our ships to disembark.
It was at this point that the strange stirrings in my stomach reminded me that whenever I head off for a short break in sunny climes, the local bacteria always club together to welcome me to their lovely country. It happened when I visited Sumatra for a two-week holiday, and Morocco wasn't going to be an exception, but I figured that being ill in the desert wouldn't be that much of a problem; after all, the biggest problem with an upset intestine is finding the toilet, and when a whole dune system is available for your ablutions, it can't be that bad. I certainly wasn't going to miss out on a voyage through the beauty of the Sahara for want of a few unscheduled stops.
I'd forgotten about the most bizarre aspect of camel trekking, though: the awesome power of the camel's digestion system. Camels regurgitate their cud and chew it again and again, and the size of a camel's stomach belies the fact that it's a huge sack of rotting grass and methane, but in the Sahara I drew the short straw, for as soon as we'd met our guide, Hamid, and mounted our camels, he tied my camel behind Peta's and led us into the dunes. This meant that for the whole two hours into the dunes I was party to a perfect backside view of Peta's camel crapping, pissing and farting right into my path. Add in the back-and-forth rocking of the ride that feels just like a slow-motion bucking bronco, and you've got all the ingredients for an intestinal cocktail thrown into the mixer. I was shaken and things stirred.
But I'm not going to let this account of the Sahara slide into obsessive musings on being ill abroad, for the desert is stunning even when your experience of the dunes is a little more intimate that you'd hope for. We rode out through the ergs (the Arabic name for sand dunes) in the direction of Algeria, and after a couple of hours of bumping and grinding our way past peach dunes while the sun sank to the horizon, we arrived at our camp for the night, tucked around the back of one of the large mountains of sand that characterise the Moroccan Sahara.
Here Hamid and the nomad who looked after the tents entertained us with tricks and half-mimed stories about the Algerians while the sun dipped below the horizons and the stars came out. The moon was no more than an Islamic crescent and had soon disappeared behind the dunes, and the sky was simply incredible; there were so many stars that the familiar constellations were impossible to pick out for someone who's used to seeing no more that a handful of the brightest stars in the sky, and the milky way produced enough light to see by.
Hamid showed us how the nomads used the stars to navigate to Algeria, Marrakech and Timbuktu – an impressive feat considering his command of French was about as paltry as ours – and he also explained how the border with Algeria was closed and policed by soldiers, but this didn't stop the Algerians nipping into Morocco to steal the camels for food. We could see into Algeria from our camp – it was only a few kilometres away, closer even than in M'Hamid – and it all seemed rather tranquil for such a screwed up area of the world. Then again, as Hamid said, 'Morocco is good. Algeria is bad.'
We slept under the stars after a meal of meat and veg cooked in a tagine (which I did little more than poke at), despite the scarab beetles scurrying around the camp, who were presumably more interested in collecting camel dung than biting the tourists' toes. It was surprisingly relaxing, and we were up with the sun for breakfast, some hard-selling from Hamid who had brought along some polished fossils just for us to barter over, and the return journey to Merzouga.
This time things had taken a turn for the worse, and all I can remember of the lolloping journey back to the hotel was a lot of clenching of teeth and other parts of my anatomy, followed by huge relief at our arrival back home. En route we crossed vehicle tracks that Hamid said were left by the Paris-Dakar rally, and despite it being the wrong time of year for the rally, one of the water pumps that supply Merzouga with water from beneath the dunes had 'Fuck ze Paris-Dakar' graffitied on the side in surprisingly phonetic vernacular. By this stage all I could think of was how much wind the ships of the desert had in their sails as they crossed the dunes, and it was all I could do to get back to the hotel without collapsing.
The Sahara really is something else, though...