Part I: The Agony
Q: What did the king of the dromedaries call his castle ?
Having ridden horses for the first time in Argentina, the boys were excited by the prospect of riding a camel. So, we signed up for a camel ride.
The Sahara, with its gently rolling seas of sand, is far away from Marrakesh. Camel tours of the desert generally last 4 days, 5 days, or more. We would not get that experience on this trip. Instead we chose a half-day experience on the outskirts of town that was a better fit for our interests, schedule, and budget.
Early one afternoon a van drove us and several other unsuspecting victims from the medina to a sparsely-populated area where the camels lived (the camelry?). Somewhat incongruously another group was also at the camelry to ride ATVs. Luckily they stayed more or less out of our way during the afternoon.
The first order of business was to let the guides swaddle our heads in a traditional blue Moroccan shesh (turban) before we posed for photos with our bemused mounts.
Formalities our of the way, we climbed onto the camels (dromedaries, really. A camel has 2 humps, a dromedary only one). Each person had their own, with the exception of Nate; he and I shared an unusually large beast. Each animal had a platform of sorts on its back to smooth out the hump and provide a place to sit. Ours was pitched forward, perhaps so that we wouldn’t fall off backward. Nate sat up front, and I sat behind him.
Once everyone was ready, we started off. Tellingly our guides were on foot rather than on a camel of their own. This is because they were smarter than us. Turns out that riding a camel is ridiculously uncomfortable. Camels have a slow, ambling gait that sways side to side while lurching forward. It creates a lot of motion for the rider. I understand the correct way to ride is to relax and go with the flow. This was a bit tough for me as doing so would cause me to hit Nate’s head with my face at each step. The ambling motion was tough on my still-dodgy lower back, and the forward pitch of the saddle didn’t help. I spent the entire ride bracing myself against the pitching and rolling. Within about 5 minutes I realized I had made a significant mistake by signing up for this.
45 agonizing minutes later we paused (without dismounting) in a grove of date palms for a photo opportunity, then continued on another 30mins to reach a house where a local provided us with traditional mint tea and crepes. We didn’t catch a whole lot of our host’s story; he appeared to be a farmer who had picked up what is presumably a lucrative side gig of spending 15 minutes twice a day providing tea to tourists. Dressed in his traditional djellaba, his craggy face and voice evinced a life of labor far more physical than ours (or that of our guides). He was proud to tell us that he has 2 wives and is trying to find a third. Nobody from our tour group volunteered.
The tea and crepes were tasty, and it was a relief to get some time off the camel’s back. Moroccan mint tea is generally served with lots of sugar, and the crepes are usually accompanied by delicious honey. Moroccans have a sweet tooth! (If they have teeth left. Dental care is visibly deficient among many people here).
Reinforced by the infusion of sugar, we remounted our faithful steeds and headed back toward the camelry. I attempted to distract myself by looking at the beautiful light and shadows cast by the setting sun, but my thoughts kept getting interrupted by urgent messages from various body parts intent on making me aware of just how upset they were with my decision-making that day.
According to the internet, a camel can sustain 25mph for an hour. Our camels were not aware of this, and our trek home was very slow going. Finally, after a short eternity we reached the camelry and dismounted. My aching back, joints, and muscles audibly thanked me and as I write this I am happy to report that all body parts are back to normal. All told I’m glad we did it, and now I know for certain I don’t need to ride a camel again!
(Full disclosure: the rest of the family were less-affected by the ride than I was, and apart from some sore legs afterward had a much better time!)
Part II: The Ecstasy
One of our goals for the trip was a ride in a hot-air balloon. We found a reputable company in Marrakesh, and a van picked us up around 6:30am to drive to the launch site outside of the city. We arrived before the sun made it over the mountains, and were treated to some beautiful vistas as our enormous balloons were being set up. I’d been looking forward to this, and my kids report I was unreasonably chipper for such an early hour.
To inflate a balloon, first you blow air into it with a huge fan. Once the balloon envelope has started to take shape, it’s safe to add heat. To heat the air our balloon had 4 massive propane burners, each 1000 times more powerful than the burners on a gas stove or grill. They breathed a sheet of yellow fire nearly 20 feet long. Since hot air rises, the balloon envelope lifts off the ground and slowly but firmly strives for the sky.
Once the balloon was inflated, we got into the basket with 16 of our closest friends. Can a bunch of hot air really lift 20 people? I’ve seen balloons that hold 5 or 6 people, but 20 seemed like a stretch. We were about to find out. A slow liftoff took us disconcertingly close to the top of a tree, but eventually we were climbing steadily into the sky, the pre-dawn silence interrupted by the occasional roar of the propane dragons keeping us afloat. Soon we were drifting tranquilly at 3000′. Other balloons were around us, above and below. I’m used to seeing birds and planes in the air. These massive wingless craft seemed alien and and out of place. With no wings to keep them aloft, they rise and fall as if by magic.
As we climbed so did the sun. The dark yellows and oranges in the predawn sky gave way to lighter hues, and soon we were treated to a magnificent sunrise over the Atlas Mountains.
It’s eerie floating so far above the ground, fresh air on all sides and no windows, roof, or walls insulating us from the world. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. On the one hand it’s incredibly peaceful, and on the other hand it’s a bit terrifying to realize that there’s not a whole lot between you and a very long fall with a very sudden stop at the end!
As we serenely drifted over the dry landscape toward Marrakesh, we saw signs of life in the awakening city: lights flickering on and off; a farmer burning slash in his field; cars and buses starting to kick up dust on the distant roads.
After almost an hour in the air, it was time to land. Balloons go where the wind does, our elevation the only thing our pilot could control. After drifting over a small hamlet and an olive grove, we slowly descended. The balloon gently touched down in a fallow field, startling a fox in the process. A chase vehicle pulled up, and within 10 minutes the balloon had been deflated, packed up, and loaded onto a trailer for our return to civilization.
What a way to begin the day!