“When’s your birthday?” I asked Hassan. He poured hot tea back and forth between a silver teapot and a short glass to dissolve the large chunk of sugar he’d just added.
“I don’t have.”
“What do you mean? How do you not have a birthday?”
“I think it’s September. Maybe the one before. Or after.”
As a Berber, Hassan lived a truly nomadic existence for the first half of his life. His parents – with their goats and camels – roamed around the desert so their animals could graze. Hassan had been born, at some point, somewhere, and when his parents were next close enough to a town to register his birth, it was months later and no one quite remembered the date.
Now settled in the tiny Moroccan village of Hassi Labied, north of Merzouga, by the Algerian border, Hassan lives with his mother, brother and sister in a home he built. He owns four camels, and spends his days hiking across the desert to feed his animals and to take tourists on camel safaris.
I met Hassan via Couchsurfing. Hassan wanted promotional photos of his desert camp, so I booked a flight to Marrakech, took a 13-hour bus journey to Hassi Labied and arrived one February evening. The black sky was filled with stars, and I had never seen anything like it. A young guy with dreadlocks AND a mullet met me at the bus stop, and explained he was Hassan’s brother. “Hassan had to go to the desert,” he told me. “I am Mustapha.” I followed Mustapha across the sand. At his home, Mustapha introduced me to his mum, Bida, and his sister, Aicha. We shared “Berber pizza” – bread with vegetables and oil – and drank atay, a sweet Berber tea, whilst communicating in broken French, wild gesticulations, and slightly awkward laughter.
The following day, Hassan returned from the desert and we met for the first time. We loaded up a camel with water, fruit, tea, my camera bag and blankets. And we started walking.
We walked for hours each day, sometimes up to 10 miles, barefoot in the sand. The first night, we met up with some of Hassan’s friends who were taking out a group of American tourists. We stayed at a luxury camp which had beds and a toilet. The following day, we hiked on towards the Algerian border where we stayed with a nomad couple. They had two tents and a lot of goats. We shared a tajine in the evening, and slept on the floor wrapped in blankets.
Sometimes – as we hiked across the dunes – we’d stop to make tea: collect sticks for fire, share some fruit and nap in the shade of a tree. We’d sing Bob Marley songs – well, the same verse and chorus of Buffalo Soldier over and over again – as our feet sunk into the slope of the dunes. In the evenings, we’d cook dinner, wash up using as little water as possible, and play drums. With no light pollution, the stars at night are persistently astounding. Falling asleep underneath them, covered in a pile of blankets, is unforgettable.
At night, the camel was left to roam and graze. His front legs would be tied together – or a single leg would be tied up to itself – to prevent him from wandering too far. Still, each morning, we’d climb to the highest dune nearby and search across the horizon to find the camel. Sometimes we’d walk miles to fetch him back!
Eventually, we made it to Hassan’s camp. He had built four tents from bamboo and tarpaulins, with cloth stapled over the insides. We set about tidying everything up from the recent sandstorms. We fitted cloth to the inside of his new tent, moved the beds and sofas, laid out the rugs, and – perhaps most importantly – collected all the camel poo from around the camp. Apparently it’s highly flammable and useful to cook bread over!
The tourist industry is tough. With travellers visiting from all over the world to spend a night in the desert, Hassan constantly needs to maintain his camels and his camp. Yet, sandstorms and last-minute cancellations blight daily life. And building an online presence to market his business is not easy without a credit card to manage transactions and fees. But life in the desert is magnificent. The silence is incomparable, and the seemingly never-ending dunes are almost too vast to contemplate.
On the return bus journey to Marrakech I met a woman who created a petition against quad bikes in the desert. Whilst they can attract tourists, they also cause problems with wildlife and create noise pollution which is really noticeable in the otherwise silent expanse. Check out more info on the petition HERE.
Find out more about Hassan’s camel safaris or get in touch with him HERE!
Endless thanks to my good friend Hassan for showing me around and sharing his life with me. Big thanks / saha / shokran to Mustapha, Bida and Aicha; Mohammed, Zahor and the Fatima crew. Also to Caroline (quickest 13 hours ever!), Hamza (great CS host in Jemaa el-Fnaa!), Joe (amazing BBQ’d camel!), Harrou, Yassine (for infinity pools, whiskey and motorbikes!), Mohamad, Jawad and Rabi. See you all again soon:)