Sahara Desert: Sand, Sun, and Camel Spiders

The ten hour bus journey from Marrakech to Mhamid was long but the views while driving through the Atlas Mountains were incredible. The bus left Marrakech at 11am and before I knew it I was at the end of the line. Mhamid is the last town on the sealed road to the Sahara, 25km from the boarder with Algeria. After Mhamid there is only desert. You can travel further by 4×4 or camel only. It was 9pm and I was waiting in the dark at the bus stop in this unfamiliar town to be picked up by a guy I’d never met before who was going to take me into the desert to stay in a camp for a week. Probably one of the most bizarre-sounding things I’ve ever done.  

I wanted to visit the Sahara during my stay in Morocco, but I decided not to do it as part of a tour. Instead I decided to try out Workaway. Workaway is a website where people post jobs that need to be done and you can go and work for these people a few hours each day in exchange for accommodation and food. You can work on farms or in hostels, or you can build a camp of mud huts in the desert. Some charge a small fee to cover basic food costs, mine worked out to be about $7.50 a day which was basically all I spent for the entire week and very reasonable considering there was practically no work for me to do during my stay. But the plan was to make bricks to build tourist huts, so there I was at the bus stop, in the dark, waiting for some guy called Brahim to pick me up.

My first view of the Sahara from my mattress in the mud hut.

He arrived, and I climbed on the back of his motorbike with my big backpack on, and off we went into the darkness of the desert. Directly into the unknown. It was such a strange feeling, but exciting.

When I arrived at the camp I was greeted by three over-excited dogs and three Danish people who were also staying through Workaway. Two of them were travelling together and the other by herself, they’d just happened to meet in the desert of all places. Before long we were presented with the most amazing meal, the first of many for my week there. These guys could charge premium prices for their cooking in a restaurant in the city, and we were getting it for next to nothing.

One of our many amazing meals.

During my week in the desert I did many things, but I did a lot of nothing too. We couldn’t make the mud bricks because there was a wedding in town with a week-long celebration and they had borrowed the water tank. No water tank, no bricks. But we did have some amazing couscous for dinner a few nights that had come from the wedding. Without being able to make bricks there was only work to do on three of the six days I was there. Besides doing the dishes I worked for about two and half hours through the whole week and spent the rest of the time exploring the surroundings, lounging in the heat, and learning Danish tongue-twisters.

The entire camp consisted of the main house, three mud huts for tourist accommodation, and a shelter for the motorbike.

I spent the first full day learning ukulele. Carla, the solo Danish girl, was travelling with her ukulele and she taught me to play I’m Yours by Jason Mraz. By the end of the day I could play it fairly well, but she left the next morning so that was the end of that. In the evening we walked into Mhamid (about 20 minutes) to visit a local market and on the way we discovered a camel graveyard that was slightly creepy. Each time we went to the town after that we took the road instead of going cross country.

Camel graveyard.

The second day, Ida, Laurits and I decided to do some painting on the back of the mud huts. I painted a kangaroo to share my ‘culture’, Ida painted a camel to give Idir, the resident camel, a friend, and Laurits painted an ice cream van because it was so hot. Brahim said he really appreciated this because it made it so much easier to distinguish between the huts. We were sleeping in the ice cream hut. That afternoon there were clouds in the sky and the sunset was amazing. Almost every night we watched the sunset from the big dune nearby. This involved 2-3 hours of sunset, watching the sky get dark, stars, and burying each other in the sand which is still hot when you dig down.

Ultimate sun protection.

The third day we didn’t really do anything. It was very windy, like every other day, which basically means that as soon as you step outside you get whipped by sand from every angle and it is almost impossible to open your eyes. There were at least a few hours of every day that were like this. The sand even manages to come inside through little cracks around the doors and windows. Our hut became increasingly filled with sand, and my pillow and blanket had already been sandy when I arrived. After the first day I stopped worrying about the sand. My face, my neck, my back, my ears, all covered in sand. My hair was full of sand. I embraced the sand, between the wind and sitting in the sand to watch the sunset each night there’s nothing else you can do. Even the water in the shower was a bit sandy.

My kangaroo looking mostly like a dinosaur.

That night a new Workawayer came, Laura from Spain. The four of us decided to sleep outside under the stars. We dragged our mattresses out onto the dune where Brahim had shown us the best spot to spend the night and we lay down and watched the stars until we fell asleep. It was so nice. I woke up around 4am after the moon had gone down and the stars were incredible. I did, however, take advice from a Polish guy I’d met in Marrakech and wrapped a scarf around my head to protect my ears from filling up with sand.

The much needed desert ice cream van.

The fourth day we did some actual work! There was this big pile of palm fronds that had been left out in the sand and gradually it was turning into a new sand dune. Brahim needed the palm fronds to make roofs for new huts when they are built so we had to dig them out of the sand. Sounds simple, but it was tough work. The branches had spikes and the leaves were sharp and by the end of an hour our hands were covered in small cuts and blisters, we were so hot and sweaty and sandy and tired that we collapsed in the shade, the job not yet finished.

We dug up the palm fronds from the sand on the left side and piled them up on the right side.

That afternoon we took a camel ride led by Brahim and Habib. Habib was around the camp almost every day and he knows more about camels than I thought it was possible for anyone to know. Sometimes he sleeps with the camels, he feeds the camels in the morning before he has breakfast, and he wanders around the desert barefoot in the middle of the night looking out for his roaming camels. He is so passionate about camels and their habits and their thoughts, you can ask him anything camel-related and then you’d better make yourself comfortable because he will tell you everything. He told us about his birth: “when my mother borned me, she borned me with the camels” and you can see it’s true from the way he interacts with the camels. So he took us out through the dunes on the camels, which was fun but not exactly comfortable, we watched the sunset from a massive dune, and then we came back as the sky became dark.

Brahim, Habib, and Sheila the dog leading our camels.

That night we had our most intense camel spider attack. Every single night we would have some kind of interaction with a camel spider. They are white and fast and big and they drop from the ceiling onto your leg or onto the dinner table and if they bite you it is incredibly painful. I don’t think they make webs, I saw lots of spiders but no webs, and the way they fall from the ceiling is so strange. And they run so fast!!!! If there is a camel spider in the room you aren’t safe anywhere because they can cross the room and be on your shoulder in a second. I’ve never felt more safe from insects being outside but seriously they only ever bothered us inside the main house, thankfully not in our mud hut.

My preferred form of camel.

The fifth day we finished off the palm frond digging. Laura had the genius idea to put socks on our hands to protect from stab wounds and blisters, and it worked really well! It made it so much easier and within half an hour we had dug all the branches out of the sand. In the afternoon Ida, Brahim and I had a sudoku competition. Brahim said the reason he was the slowest is because he has too much sand in his brain.

The last day we did about an hour of work, collecting rubbish in the desert. It’s a mammoth job. There are areas full of half-disintegrated plastic bags, sardine cans and snack wrappers. We filled everything we could with rubbish and it didn’t seem to have made any difference. When we ran out of things to collect rubbish in we collapsed in our mud hut to take shelter from the sun and the wind.

The next day Laura and I got up at 5am to walk to Mhamid and catch the 6am bus to Marrakech. Ida and Laurits, who had only planned to stay at the camp for 5 days but ended up staying for 8, moved on to a different Workaway on the other side of Mhamid to help a guy with his vegetable farm. I think they were just really keen to see how a vegetable farm in the desert would work.

Our finished paintings. Making our mark on the Sahara.

I really enjoyed my time in the Sahara. It was hot and windy and sandy all the time with no escape, not even inside. The camel spiders were awful, that was actually the one part I couldn’t deal with, but besides that it was amazing. Such a different landscape to anything I’ve seen before, the people are all kind and interesting and living simple lives, and the time just seems to roll by without you noticing. All of a sudden you look at the time and it’s 11pm and you think “I’ve done practically nothing today, why did the time go so fast?” I think it’s the heat, it gets to your brain.


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