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Succumbing to the Vast Mystery of the Sahara

December 02, 1990|STEVE LORING | Loring is a New York City free-lance writer.

ZAGORA, Morocco — Hear the word "Sahara" and a host of hazy, film-fed images drift to mind. Endless waves of wickedly hot sand. Turbaned nomads atop plodding camel caravans. Palm trees beckoning as oases float into view.

To some, riding camels in the desert may seem a peculiar way to vacation.

But for the adventurous and romantic soul, the Sahara offers great rewards. Today, as desert access improves, a two- or three-day excursion with Tuareg guides (a Berber tribe) can be an unforgettable bonus to travel in North Africa.

A continent away from U.S. soldiers and discord, my own desert voyage began at the end of a rambling month in Morocco. Wearied by teeming markets and medinas from Tangier to Marrakech, I fled across the Atlas Mountains, down the Dr'aa Valley and to the frontier town of Zagora.

Infamous for its street sign featuring an arrow and the words "Tombouctou, 52 Jours" (meaning Timbuktu, 52 days--by camel, of course), Zagora is among the last villages of note before the desert prevails. Here, under the morning's fiery sun, I find my way to the cool courtyard of the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa and settle down to mint tea with its proprietor, a former nomad, Aziz.

In barely accented English, Aziz asks why I'm wandering alone through such desolate country. "To see the Sahara," I reply. He rises. "Then you must sleep tonight in the desert with Tuareg nomads."

And so, with some vague reflections on "The Sheltering Sky," Paul Bowles' famous novel about hip American drifters whose values disintegrate in the North African desert, I'm ushered to a gaunt and solicitous guide named Mohamed, and we set off to market for provisions.

The marketplace of Zagora is a hot, dusty assemblage of makeshift stalls and ancient Arabs squatting on blankets and under tents. Along with beads and trinkets, embroidered fabrics and milling livestock, there are piles of fresh and rotting fruits and vegetables that bake under the morning sun.

As in other markets outside the tourist crush, you'll find jewelry of antique amber and intricately designed Berber daggers, often heirlooms sold to raise money for food. We, however, settle for tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, squash and onions for tonight's tajine, the ubiquitous Moroccan stew. Mohamed, having seen enough tourists to know the score, slips two packs of cigarettes into the bag. I pay.

Like anywhere in rural Morocco, a trip to the local butcher is an experience that can be hard to stomach. Hanging from metal hooks in a hot stall are a selection of cow parts quite foreign to those with only American supermarket experience. After asking my approval (and what could I say?), Mohamed orders a kilo of the stuff, and the butcher hacks off the end of the nearest piece. Romance, I tell myself, think of the romance.

I also grab two bottles of water, and we head out through the palm groves of the oasis Amezrou to where our camels await three miles outside of town.

The first thing I notice about the oasis is how much it resembles the storybook image in my mind. Lush foliage sprouts from the sand. Pink flowers blossom along streams. Mud and thatch dwellings called ksour look like crumbling sandcastles in the sun.

Yet all is not paradise. Incessant flies, unhealthy water, a lack of electricity and refrigeration and even the inhabitants' sparse teeth underline the poverty with which they live.

Still, children run and laugh. Women in colorful caftans talk as they bundle hay or spread wet clothes on the rocks to dry. Turbaned men relax in the precious shade, sipping mint tea by the hour and waiting for the blazing sun to pass.

Mohamed explains that people here are content. Without thoughts of career and competition, the focus is on food, shelter and family. Life is slow and methodical--a half-day may be spent riding a donkey to the well or traveling to market to barter for supplies. A glass of tea is the daily reward, and men share in it equally.

Soon we arrive at the campground and I meet Ahmed, another Tuareg, who packs food, firewood, pots, glasses and a kettle into large fabric pouches. These are connected with ropes and draped, along with water jugs, over each camel's back. Woolen blankets on which we'll sleep are used to pad the bony humps. Finally, ancient wooden saddles are lashed on and we're ready to depart.

Riding a single-humped dromedary camel is a bit different than riding a horse. A combination of hisses and taps persuades the animal to kneel for mounting. You then vault up behind the hump, meeting the saddle with legs spread gymnastically apart, and quickly clutch the saddle's knob as the camel lurches back then forward then back again to a startling height several feet off the ground. Throughout the trip, constant jarring requires frequent adjustment of the derriere.

Mohamed speaks Berber, Arabic, some French and, fortunately, a bit of English. Ahmed, a true desert dweller, speaks only Berber and Arabic. I speak English. Off we go.

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