Like most disasters, it began with what I thought was a good idea at the time. Unlike most disasters, it involved a Finnish DJ and the Sahara. I should probably start at the beginning.
The Sahara has fascinated me ever since I was a kid. Specifically, since my grade school project on fennec foxes. It wasn’t what the Sahara had that intrigued me, but what it didn’t have. All that emptiness. The kind only possible in the largest desert in the world.
It was a landscape eerily beautiful to me. So when I started dabbling in photography, the Sahara became a bucket list must. I wanted to photograph it at sunset.
Fast forward two decades later, and there I was on top of a displeased camel in Merzouga, Morocco.
I, however, was not displeased, for a vast sea of orange stretched before me. We were on the cusp of the Sahara and the cusp of making my photographic dream a reality.
My camel snorted. I’ve heard camels called ‘ships of the desert’, but they sure show a lot more attitude than ships.
Ours huffed and yawned. When I went to board my not-so-noble steed, he lurched onto his knobbly legs so abruptly that it almost catapulted my camera.
I was pondering how these cumbersome creatures were supposed to guide us through the depths of the desert, when the convoy started to move, and, to my surprise, with an unexpected amount of grace. Our camel-ships unmoored from camp and headed towards the swelling waves.
Sand engulfed us.
As an Australian, I thought I’d had my fair share of sandy expanses, but this sand bulged against the horizon, plunged into troughs and puckered with ripples from the wind. A delicate trail of hoof prints was all that tethered us to camp.
Soon the dunes were too steep for the camels, so we walked. Then they were too steep for us, so we climbed. Though scrambled might be a better word. For every step up, I slid three back.
Our Berber guides moved with embarrassing ease, eventually getting so far ahead that they unwound their tagelmust turbans – some stretching ten metres long – and tossed the ends down to haul us up one last mighty sand dune. This was to be our viewpoint for sunset.
People talk of ‘island fever’, but perhaps there’s ‘desert fever’ too. That’s what I felt on that dune, surveying what I had to work with for my bucket list photo shoot. The vastness was overwhelming.
I outstretched my arms as if the only response to such sprawling land was to make myself bigger too. And it was there, watching sand particles billow below, that the idea hit me. Or song, rather.
It was like a flash of inspiration – potentially heat delusion – but that iconic club anthem of the noughties, that cheesy earworm of a tune, wiggled into my mind: Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’.
Before I could help myself, I had found the song on my phone and hit play. Synths launched into the air, and, shamelessly so did I. I danced.
It was contagious.
Laughing and leaping erupted on the dune, as others recognised the song. All the excitement for sunset, the surrealness of the scenery, bubbled up out of us. I grabbed my friend’s arm, and as the song swelled to a crescendo, we shared a cheeky look – and hurled ourselves down the slope.
Wind slammed against our faces. Arms flailed. Legs galloped. Our head scarfs billowed behind us, like those dust trails left by cartoon characters in the movies.
Downwards we flew, laughing wildly. We forgot about the climb, about perfect photographs, about the sand caking our limbs… We forgot about the precious cargo dangling around my shoulder.
It landed without a thud.
I clawed myself up the sand. I unearthed the body. I tried the lens, but an unhappy metallic grinding filled the air – and it was much worse than the camels grunting. My poor camera was broken. And with it, my dream of capturing the Sahara sunset.
The only thing worse than a disaster when travelling, is knowing you are to blame.
By the time my friend and I surfaced on top of the dune again, the disappointment burned more than my thighs. How could all my penny-pinching, hoarded annual leave, and time spent daydreaming about this moment, go to waste so quickly?
My friend patted the patch of sand next to her.
“Come on,” she said. “You still have functioning eyeballs. At least be grumpy watching the sunset”.
So with no other option, I did. My epic sunset moment may have changed, but there was no reason not to enjoy it. And perhaps for the first time since I had stepped foot (or hoof) in the desert, I relished a view undistracted.
I wasn’t trying to perfect exposure settings, juggle lenses or wrangle a tripod. I wasn’t anxious about missing some crucial photographic moment. I didn’t even realise I had worried about these things until suddenly they were useless to worry about.
I guess that’s the thing about travelling in this Instagram-loving world; sometimes we forget that the best way to ‘capture’ a moment is not to capture it at all. Instead, I soaked up the scene with my ‘functioning eyeballs’.
I watched as the sun slipped towards the horizon and colour ricochet across the sky. As the shadows pooled like mauve ink between the dunes. As the sunlight rimmed the swooping, sandy crests below. I watched as the emptiness was transformed, like a blank canvas, painted in sunset hues.
And my Sahara sunset, my bucket list view, was so much better outside of a viewfinder.
And certainly much better than running down a sand dune to Darude.
Spend a night in the Sahara on an Intrepid small group adventure. Check out our range of trips here.
All photographs by Jennifer Hoddinett.