The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Camels in the Sahara

It would be 3 days before I would stop being aware of the bruises every time I sat down, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

In some ways it was just a slightly more sophisticated version of the childhood experience of riding a donkey on the beach. And it couldn't help but cross my mind that it was such a touristy thing to do. But there I was, riding a camel over sand dunes in the Sahara Desert - and it was awesome.

I don't usually do selfies, but I needed to record this

Increasing discomfort aside, there were times when I was at complete peace. Moments when I had fallen into the rhythm of the camel's stride, the talking from the others had paused, and the only sound was the movement of the camels on the sand and a slight breeze. Moments when the monkey chatter in my own head subsided and I was completely in the now. If it wasn't for the chaffing, I could have continued for weeks.

Back at the beginning of the year Laura Hudson Mackay joined the Galloway Photographic Collective, a group of professional photographers I'm a part of. It transpired that she and her husband, Scott, had a 3 bedroom Riad in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Riad Romm'an in the heart of Marrakech - a wonderful place to stay

We jokingly said we should have a GPC meeting out there, but Laura's response was one of enthusiasm. It wasn't long before we had organised a week's trip for the group out to stay there in early November, when the temperatures were more manageable. All but 3 of the members were able to go.

Although there is quite a bit of desert in Morocco, a lot of it is the barren, rocky kind. The dunes that come to mind when you say the word, "desert" were 2 days drive away, on a route that would take us through the spectacular Atlas Mountains, over high passes and through deep gorges.

Driving through the Atlas Mountains

We travelled in two 4x4s, with Scott driving one and Ismael, who looks after Riad Romm'an for Laura and Scott, driving the other. On route, Ismael showed me how to create a Berber turban for the desert.

We would be staying in a camp about 2 hours camel ride from a hotel on the edge of the dunes. The plan had been to arrive an hour or so before sunset to catch the last of the sun's rays skimming across the desert. As it turned out, we arrived just as it was starting to get dark and it was completely overcast.

All aboard!

Heading off into the dunes as it starts to get dark

We set off and it took quite a while to get used to the movement of sitting on top of a camel. Going up the dunes wasn't too bad, but coming down them was tricky, with much more fear of the chance of toppling off. It got steadily darker until all I could make out were the silhouettes of the riders in front of me set against a dark, bluish grey gloom.

Every now and then, a flash of light appeared off to one side. Holly was concerned it was lightning, but I attempted to reassure her it was just car headlights back from the road. She wasn't convinced, but I couldn't hear any thunder and besides, we were in the desert - it doesn't rain in the desert, does it!

Eventually, however, I noticed a streak of lightning off to one side. But there was still no thunder, so it was obviously very far away and probably wouldn't come anywhere near us.

A while later, there was a brighter flash and 23 camel steps later, there was a roll of thunder.

The next flash brought a louder rumble only 18 camel steps after.

Then there was a really bright flash and the whole of the desert lit up for a microsecond. 14 camel steps later the crash was loud. Then the wind picked up, sandblasting us. And then the rain began too.

A couple of thousand miles away from Scotland, in the desert, and we still couldn't escape the rain!

It was hysterically funny.

Being blasted by wind, rain and sand in a storm in the desert, and all we could do was laugh loudly. It was an amazing experience.

We must have been taking longer to arrive than planned - and confidence wasn't helped when the guide started going down one dune, then stopped, and turned back again in a different direction - but we saw some 4x4s driving through the dunes, presumably looking out for us.

I managed to fire off these shots when I saw the camels in front silhouetted against the car lights. Allan Wright has a better shot - he was further back and has a camera that is insanely good in low light (I'm not jealous, honest, no I'm not, not a bit, honestly, I'm not...).

On a camel, in the desert, in the dark and in the rain

We arrived at the camp about half an hour later, and sat down to a wonderful chicken tagine.

The electricity at the camp was solar powered, but as it had been an overcast day, the lights all went out about 8.30pm and it was torches and phone lights after that, except in the main tent where a couple of candles were used.

A fun and relaxing evening by candlelight

At 5am, lying on my bed, I could still hear the rain on the roof of the tent. It seemed that not only would we not experience the sunrise over the Sahara, but we would most likely be returning via 4x4s rather than camels. It was a bit disappointing, but nothing was going to detract from the experience of being in the storm in the desert the night before.

At 6am I got dressed, picked up my camera and wandered out of the tent. It had stopped raining and the clouds were beginning to break up. I noticed Roger Lever starting to climb the huge, 150m high dune the camp was nestled beneath, so I went over to join him. About a 1/4 of the way up we looked back and the sun was rising through broken cloud.

Sunrise over the Sahara, with no sense of what the dunes are actually like

This was where I realised I had the wrong lens.

Before we left Scotland, I decided I would only take one lens. I didn't want the hassle of constantly changing them, particularly in the desert, so had settled on the wide-angle, with the idea it would be ideal for large, sweeping landscapes. Unfortunately the higher up the dune I went, the smaller everything appeared in the camera. These beautiful dunes spread out below me were as small as ripples on a pond.

I realised I needed to be down among them, so left Roger to continue the climb alone.

The sun was now skimming the tops of the dunes, and I noticed a camel, hobbling up one. It was on 3 legs and the other was bent back up on itself. It must have broken it's leg, I thought, wondering if the guides knew. Then I noticed another camel limping up behind it in exactly the same way. This was too coincidental and suddenly I realised the legs had been tied up - and ideal way to prevent the camels wandering off in the night, and probably a technique that's been used for as far back in time as people have domesticated the animals.

The camels then stood completely still, staring into the sun as though it was some primeval worship.

Getting down low I realised it might look good if I could get a camel silhouetted against the sky, and use the curve of a dune to create a leading line up to it. It took a bit of scrambling about and quite a few photos, but eventually I got what I was looking for.

The shot I was after

With the skies mostly clear by now, after breakfast it meant we were able to do the camel ride back to the hotel after all. After several attempts I managed to do the Berber turban Ismael had shown me and it proved to be ideal head wear - stopping the sun burning my ever growing bald patch and the back of my neck. I started to think I could wear it more often, although it didn't take long to realise it wouldn't really be appropriate for Castle Douglas in SW Scotland.

And this is where we came in - on the back of a camel in the Sahara Desert, finding moments of exhilaration, wonder and peace.

Heading back, not in the dark nor in the rain

The obligatory camel shadow shot


Allen Capoferri said...

What an adventure!! Great photographs, Kim. I particularly liked the night photographs. Do you mind saying what camera you used for the night shots?

Kim Ayres said...

Allen - glad you enjoyed it! I was using my Canon 7D Mk 2, with a wide-angle 10-22mm lens - aperture as wide as possible and 1/125th shutter speed and ISO 12,800

Joan Lennon said...

Wow! Just wow!

Allen Capoferri said...

Thanks, Kim. It's on my Christmas wish list.

hope said...

Wow, I miss a few days in Blog World and you're out on an adventure!

Thanks for bringing us along for the ride, minus the soreness. :) As always, you manage to capture your surroundings in a way that makes me feel as if I'm standing there, looking over your shoulder. Well...maybe if I was on a chair. ;)

Kim Ayres said...

Joan - :)

Allen - if you have any questions about the camera, be sure to zap me an email :)

Hope - more to come - next up, Haggling in Marrakesh... :)

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