Riding A Camel In The Sahara With Loafers And A Hoodie

I’m getting to a point in my memoir-writing where everyone I know— i.e., my friends— is getting angry about me wanting to use stories with them in it. I have to figure out how to handle this because it is going to come up a LOT. But meanwhile, camels don’t get a vote.

First of all, I’m definitely not a fan of riding camels. I’ve only done it twice and I had the same feeling about it both times. Once was in Morocco and once in Egypt and both times it was kind of hairy when, after you mounted the seated camel, it rose, shakily on its spindly legs and seemed like it would topple over, all the time moaning and complaining loudly.

I’m a big fan of Morocco and have been since 1969 when Martha and I drove down there as part of our farewell tour. Since then I’ve been back at least a dozen times. Roland and I both like Marrakech but we really like crossing the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech and driving to Taroudant, which is kind of like what Marrakech was before it got overrun with tourists and foreign expats. But on this one particular trip, instead of hanging out in Taroudant we decided to drive west and and south towards Algeria and the Sahara. We headed for Ouarzazat and then decided to drive to the end of the road, through Zagora and then on to M’hamid where the road and Morocco end and the Sahara and Algeria begin. It’s a hot, dry, fly-swept town, part of an oasis but with nothing to offer other than this sign that says it’s 52 days to Timbuktu (by camel).

There are about 7,000 people in the town, though I would have guessed 70. There’s a stretch of gigantic sand dunes, Erg Chigaga, about 25 miles west of M’hamid. Some of the dunes are about 150 feet high and I wanted to see them. So we hired a couple of camels and a guide and his son to take us out there. We left the van, wished we could go to Timbuktu instead, and set out for the erg. Years later we flew to Bamako, rented a 4-wheel drive jeep with a driver— it came with a body guard whether you wanted him or not— and drove to Timbuktu.

My boss, Russ, who was chairman of Warner Bros at the time, had offered Roland $500 to take a photo of me riding a camel in the Sahara. That’s a copy of one of the pictures Roland took for Russ up top. Russ gave it to one of the trade magazines and they published it, so everyone saw me in my loafers and Pretenders sweatshirt riding a camel in the Sahara, looking like a dork.

Roland says the beast in Morocco was technically not a camel but a dromedary. The dromedary has a single hump and is taller— so scarier when it stands up with you on it. The camel has two humps and Roland says it’s cooler. I don’t recall it being cooler. I just remember him riding his camel up to mine and whispering “dada” in the camel’s ear which caused the camel to take off at high speed.

That "dada" incident was a few years before the M'hamid trip, 1997, when we were in Egypt. We were on a cruise of the Nile and the Egyptologist— guide— took us into the Libyan Desert, an extension of the Sahara, to see the Temple of Hibis in the Karga Oasis. The only way to get there was by camel. So off we went, me and Roland, the Egyptologist, an elderly British couple who were the only other passengers on the boat, and the camel guide.