Each footfall upwards sends you slightly back again. Sand slips beneath your feet. It’s still dark, the western sky pocked with stars. As you gain ground, this sea of sand grows luminous, reflecting the gentle eastward light. The Saharan dunes come to life after a night of cold.
Your world is dim but brightening. In pre-dawn light, the horizon, once a wavering line of indigo, splits into thousands of lines and curves. What had been obscure smudges gently harden into crests and troughs.
There’s a quality to desert air that you can’t find elsewhere–its dryness, how it strikes with chill or repressive heat, how it peppers skin with sand. It makes me wonder how people for millennia found their livelihoods in a place as stark as Sahara, how they can draw life out of such arid vastness.
With all the austere beauty deserts have to offer, I’m moved most by two things: starlight and sunrises. It’s so rare to be in true darkness, to be out at night under a wide sky of silently chattering stars. Usually there’s light cast by a campfire or the haze of some nearby city. Deserts are where my desire for darkness can be satiated.
Eyes are meant to function well in night light. It only takes a few minutes for pupils to dilate and adjust to the dark, but star gazing is not an act to rush. The longer you gaze at a sky, especially in a setting as remote and inky as Merzouga, the more stars you can see. It takes about half an hour for the light detectors in retinas to adjust, allowing us to discriminate shape and define muted color.
How many nights do we get to witness stars in such sublime emptiness? And how many days of our lives will we see both sunrise and sunset? In my life, the most memorable days have been spent in deserts.
Norman Maclean once wrote, “at sunrise everything is luminous but not clear.”
As you watch yellow light grow and blue shadow shrink into pockets behind the dunes, it feels true. The world is not yet clear, but there’ll be plenty of time for clarity when daylight comes.
Clouds will streak the blue sky. Camels will bend their knees to rest, breathing a sigh and fluttering their thick lips. They deserve breaks, these 1,000-kilo animals that summit dune peaks daily. In their swaying upward trek, they’ll sometimes swing their neck round to look at you with an apple-sized eye, strung with four-inch lashes.
In a landscape with so little comfort, every gift is powerfully felt. A well is a haven. Trees surround it, and donkeys lap up the trough’s leftovers after the camels have had their fill. This region of Morocco, near Merzouga, is blessed with the largest underground body of water in all the country. Water is secretive, but it abounds.
These pauses offer nourishment for more than just the camels. In the shade of an olive or a cypress tree, a picnic can be laid. Out comes a spread of couscous and tfaya, a spicy-sweet caramelized onion garnish, fresh greens, and aromic roasted meats. Dates, as a desert dessert, melt like caramel in your mouth.
Mint tea, steeped with tradition, rolls down your throat. Throughout Morocco, it’s customary to have three cups of tea. For the Tuareg people in the Saharan region of Morocco, your first cup should be strong, like life. Your second cup, sweet like love. Your third cup, weak like aging and death.
But best not to think of the day ahead, scrumptious as the meals may be. For now, burrow your toes in the-yet warmed sand. Set your eyes to the horizon. Sunrises always seem more drawn-out than sunsets; you never know when that glowing white shimmer will crest. It’s best to stay watchful.
Rumi, the famed 13th century Sufi mystic, wrote a poem that comes to mind at every dawn I am disciplined enough to wake up for:
Don't Go Back To Sleep
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.
However soft the bed, however luscious the dreaming, a sunrise over the Sahara is a once-in-a-lifetime memory. “Luminous,” as Maclean said, “but not clear.”
The sun crowns from behind eastern dunes. The day has begun.
Evening will come again, though it now feels a long way off. Sunset will bring a final kiss of warmth to the quickly chilling night. Your bed will remain, kind and patient for your return.
But before visiting it again, there is time for a camel ride. Time to count dunes until you abandon the effort. Time to sip tea, to eat nuts, and to laugh over the inescapable sand that’s found its way into everything. There is time to glimpse at the stars. Time to enjoy sumptuous dinner of Moroccan dishes. Time to shake the sand from taguella, a Tuareg flatbread baked in hot ash and desert sand. Time to crack the crust open with your hands and tear a piece for your neighbor.
Maybe after dinner, when the moon has risen and the full length of your sunrise-begun day weighs on your eyelids, you’ll slip away to your tent. Traditional Moroccan music may still thrum out from the fire as hands beat goatskin drums and Arabic lyrics waver out into the starry night. Or perhaps there’ll be silence. Except, of course, for the slightest whisper of the breeze as it carries sand softly across the dunes.