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Yawning, unsteady, we squeeze aboard and head for Merzouga on the edge of the desert. As we rattle and swerve over the stones, tumble grass hurtles out of the way like an army of frightened hedgehogs. The headlights cut a bright path through the night but the only track I see is the cloud of dust behind us.
At last the brakes screech and the driver staggers out to set us free.
‘This is where you walk. I wait.’
* * *
Venturing into the darkness, I join a trickle of puffy-eyed ramblers who have come here to watch the sunrise over the desert. Ahead of us dunes ride into the distance, great mountains of sand etched into the sky, barring the way.
With ridges and hollows to be conquered first, Erg Chebbi is a challenge. Before long my shoes are full of sand and I sink deeper with every step.
‘Please, madame, take them off, let me carry.’ My self-appointed guide has appeared from nowhere, flowing blue robes and enormous black turban. I expect he hides in the dunes every morning, waiting for a lady in distress to earn a few dirhams.
‘It is safe, madame. Snakes still sleeping, scorpions too.’
I keep my shoes on nevertheless until they fall off and Hassan has to slide down the slope to dig them out. The climb is arduous, even barefoot. The ground gives way with every move. Hassan grips my hand and pulls me up the crumbling edge of the dune.
‘Look, scarab prints. And that’s a mouse, and a fox.’ Tiny trails zigzag across the sand as if drawn with a feather. I look back at my own footsteps, so big and clumsy I feel like an alien.
Hassan has strength for two. We are first to reach the top. I want to plant a flag but make do with waving to the ramblers below. We mark our territory by sitting on the ridge and listen to the sand trickling all around. This is no time to talk. The wilderness heaving into the dawn fills us with awe.
Minutes later a streak of light scars the sky over the border, growing wider, brighter as we watch. The sun rises, a blinding disc, merciless already. The dunes turn coppery gold and cast shadows in the hollows as if the night will not let go.
the nomads will come out on the plains to milk their goats. Hassan
is one of them. He lives in a goatskin tent four miles away and digs
fossils out of the desert.
‘You want to dress like Blue Man?’
No time to reply. Gown, turban, it’s done. What more could I want? A camel? That can be arranged too. There is a friendly herd sitting not far away, grunting and spitting to welcome the day.
Hassan shows me how to slide sideways down the slope, one foot clearing the way for the other. The sand runs over my feet, hissing as it moves. I close my eyes to feel its sensuous touch and I smell the desert dawn, camels and all.
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