Ainsley Duyvestyn-Smith was named the NZ Herald Travel Rising Star at the Travcom 2019 Travel Media Awards. Here's her winning story.
I was greeted by two weathered-looking, young men with leathered skin and yellowing teeth, dressed in traditional Berber clothing. They greeted me with broken smiles and I relaxed, jumping into the back of their 4x4 before jetting off over the desert dunes.
I didn't know where we were going or how the driver knew either, as it was all an endless sea of sand. But then, over the dunes, like a mirage, a camp appeared nestled in a small valley — my home for the next three nights.
I had arrived in the village of Merzouga just after sunrise, following a long and exhausting journey on a cold and dirty bus. "Coming to the Sahara Desert in the height of summer and the middle of Ramadan probably wasn't the wisest idea," I thought as I descended the steps on to the hot, sandy, deserted street.
I couldn't have felt further away from the world I had left in bustling Marrakesh.
At the Caravanserai Luxury Camp I was shown to my tent, equipped with a large double bed and an ensuite with a shower and flushing toilet. It was only 7am and already I could feel the heat of the sun piercing the thin walls of the canvas tent.
By midday, I was regretting my decision to stay at the campsite for three days. It felt like I was being cooked alive. The air burned, sweat evaporated immediately and any cool water quickly turned steaming hot. I had never experienced heat like this before and there was no relief from the inferno.
I suffered through the day with futile attempts at sleeping and plates of fresh watermelon until the sun finally started to dip towards the horizon. When the heat became bearable, I climbed up the nearest dune to watch the setting sun. A caravan of camels appeared in the distance, carrying the rest of the evening's guests.
After a mouth-watering three-course dinner and an exhausted sleep, I awoke at sunrise with the rest of the camp and climbed to the top of the highest dune. From its peak there was an endless ocean of giant waves of desert and, as I lay nestled in the softness of the rubbery sand, I wondered how the first explorers would have felt discovering this otherworldly place.
After the long and slippery descent back to the camp, I was greeted by my guide for the day, Hassan. We talked in two of his four fluent languages as he took me over the dunes in his 4x4.
Our first stop was to a fascinating dried lake, where we could find fossilised seashells in the rocks. The Sahara was once home to a large body of water some many million years ago and some of its life has remained preserved in the middle of the desert. It was mind-boggling to think this barren land was once a lush green oasis.
On our way to the next destination, Hassan took to the dunes with vengeance and began speeding up the steepest ones he could find. Though I was slightly fearful, we made it to the highest point. After a few minutes basking in this breath-taking alien land Hassan looked at me, with his warm, round face in total seriousness and said, "Do you want a cold beer?" I stared back in confusion, wondering why he would tease me, in the middle of the desert, during Ramadan. He walked to his car, opened the boot and pulled out two ice-cold beers.
He quickly began laughing at the joy and bewilderment on my face. We sat on the warm dunes overlooking the endless sandy waves of the Sahara and enjoyed our cold drink. This was one of those "the universe is wonderful" moments.
We were soon driving down the dunes to visit a local nomadic Berber family. We steered away from the rolling hills of sand and arrived on a barren plain of land with a rocky floor. There, in the middle of nowhere, was a ramshackle mud hut, where six excited children ran out to meet us. They surrounded Hassan, who handed out sweets, as their mother came to greet us. The intense heat bouncing off the ground reminded me of being on a tarsealed car park on a hot summer's day. I marvelled at how humans can live just about anywhere.
After a delicious Berber-style pizza and a swim in a local hotel's pool, it was time to head back to camp. However, instead of speeding over the dunes in Hassan's car, we would be taking the traditional slow-paced course on camels.
I perched myself on the stiff back of a camel and a young man began leading us home under the setting sun. After about 30 mins of rather uncomfortable riding, the call to prayer rang out from a nearby village, signalling the end of another day of fasting for Muslims practising Ramadan.
My heart (and tummy) ached for our camel puller, who hadn't eaten or drank all day and was now walking three lazy tourists through the desert when I remembered I had food in my bag. I signalled to him and gave him my water bottle and a packet of nuts. He thanked me with a shy acceptance and we continued to weave between in the dunes in silence, guided by the moon.
On my last night, after another day poolside, I was the only guest in camp — and consequentially the only woman around for miles.
The staff treated me like their very own Berber princess, setting up a little table under the shining stars and the full moon. A circle of candles and lanterns lit my three-course meal, while they played traditional music in the background. Afterwards, I joined them by the fire, where they attempted to teach me how to drum and we danced around the flickering flames.