Rosie Millard, February 2, The Daily Telegraph
Sometimes doing things differently is just what you need on a family holiday. Forsaking modern luxuries can be a positive, bonding experience – at least that’s what I told my husband when he realised he was about to spend three nights in the desert without running water or a flushing loo.
I’d booked a week-long trip for the family to Morocco, which included two nights in Bedouin tents near the desert oasis of Ouarzazate, and a night in the middle of the Sahara desert itself. “Basic but comfortable” the blurb had it.
As we arrived, at twilight, for our first night my husband had another way of expressing this: “I am rather out of my comfort zone.”
The Bedouins certainly know about camping. Our vast tent, furnished with six mats, was held up by wooden poles, and constructed from knitted goat hair. A naked light bulb revealed several rather alarming holes in the goat-hair cloth at ground level.
“Oh, wow, this is where the scorpions will come in,” said Gabriel, our 12-year-old son, as I toyed with, and then abandoned, the idea of unpacking.
“Are there scorpions?” I asked our guide, Aziz. A tall, softly spoken Berber, Aziz shrugged. “Probably not. Check your shoes in the morning, anyway.”
As our four children, aged between six and 14, rushed off to look for scorpions in the palm trees around the campsite (they didn’t find any), I took a quick tour around the shower block (primitive but clean) and then settled down on a low sofa in the dining area to share a pot of fresh mint tea with the two other families on the trip. Family holidays are getting more intrepid, and the idea here is to be intrepid alongside two or three like-minded groups.
Beside keeping the costs down, and not having to worry that taking your luxury-loving sister along was a terrible idea, travelling with strangers means – in our case, at least – a lot less swearing and shouting. Plus, our children love messing about with an instant posse of new friends, all of whom seem equally happy talking about Doctor Who and impersonating Borat.
One of the families is from Wiltshire, the other from Suffolk. Had either of them spent a night in a Bedouin tent before? Of course not. But like us, they had outgrown buckets and spades. Unlike us, they had come well prepared for the challenge, remembering to bring things like head torches and travel sickness pills (the Atlas roads are nauseatingly winding). We had all, however, brought decent sleeping bags. You don’t mess around with the chill of the desert night.
“I am TOTALLY FREEZING,” announced Phoebe, our teenage daughter, from the depths of the Bedouin tent on our first night. We all ended up in socks and sweatshirts over our pyjamas.
In the morning, after the general disappointment of zero scorpions in footwear, we drove into the desert, which is Martian, rocky and relentless. After 40 minutes, a Biblical-looking village appeared, with a collection of camels ensconced beside it.
“Do I really have to ride on a camel?” quavered Lucien, six.
“Well, I want to know what name my camel has,” announced Honey, nine. “He must have a name!”
“You can give him a name,” said Aziz, clearly familiar with bossy British children. He gently settled Lucien on top of an alarmingly large beast while we all clambered aboard our various animals, each of which stood up with a see-saw motion. Essentially, we were pitched forward before being thrown back, while being propelled 10ft skywards. We were all sitting on blankets on top of blue mattresses. It was not uncomfortable.
“This is what we are going to sleep on tonight!” shouted Gabriel excitedly. “Oh Daddy, there are about a zillion flies on your camel!” yelled Honey.
Mr Millard rolled his eyes at me. I rather feared he was mourning the fact we were not in Richard Branson’s deluxe Moroccan hideaway.
“This is the real deal!” I bellowed over to him, while anxiously hoping the camel behind me was not about to take a chunk out of my left thigh.
An assemblage of local men hissed and shouted at our transportation, which doggedly started walking off. Two hours later, we were still walking. On the horizon, we saw a tiny figure of a man standing on a sand dune. “The cook,” said Aziz.
Eventually, we arrived in the lee of the giant dune. This unremarkable site, which shares the undulating profile, sharp shadows and golden sand of the surrounding 20 miles, was to be our campsite. Six small bell tents were already pitched – our bedchambers. A small square tent beside them was our kitchen, a larger square tent our dining room. Some way off, a small rectangular tent housed the latrine. That was it.
After a magnificent repast of vegetable soup and spaghetti bolognese, Aziz took all the children up onto the top of the dune for a game of football in the natural bowl of sand. Afterwards, the children jumped and slid back down.
The day unfolded before us. The Sahara is very big, but it’s not silent. Amazingly, we could hear birdsong. Occasionally, a butterfly fluttered past. Someone produced a volume of Cosmo, which was quite reassuring, in this giant, arid world. Someone else got out a Kindle (me actually).
“I’m hoping to be the first person to read a book on a Kindle in the Sahara,” I said to Mr Millard, who was playing I-spy with our son. “I spy something beginning with S” said Lucien, somewhat unnecessarily.
Night came quickly, the shadows racing up the dunes. Hundreds of stars appeared, then thousands, then tens of thousands, plus the entire Milky Way, accessorised with shooting stars. As I blundered into the washing up bowl, I fervently wished I had brought something other than a British Museum illuminated pen with which to light my way. Around the campfire, Aziz and the camel drivers danced, beat a drum and sang.
“Your turn!” they said. We looked at each other, aghast. The English are useless at spontaneously bursting into song. Then someone started singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. It was cheesy, but why not?
At dawn, my husband and I crept out of our tiny tent and stumbled stiffly past the black shapes of sleeping camels. The world was grey. A rocky outcrop on the horizon was black; the sun, an iridescent line. Birds were singing everywhere. Then the sun burst up over the desert; the world became gold and the sky azure once more. Out of my comfort zone? I’ve experienced nothing like it.
The Adventure Company (0845 287 1198; adventurecompany.co.uk ) has places on its next eight-day Saharan Sands family trip to Morocco which departs on February 12. It costs from £799 per adult or child (minimum age six years). This includes return flights from London, seven nights’ accommodation (four in a hotel, three camping), transport (minibus and camel), some meals and the services of a local group leader. The group will also visit the Atlas Mountains and spend two nights in Marrakesh.
There will be further trips in the Easter holidays and June and October half terms.