- Food & Drink
If indigestion has a sex life, it’s manifested itself in the Arabian camel. The male’s mating call gurgles and rumbles across the desert like French food through a dyspeptic. They do it unexpectedly, suddenly blowing a saliva-slicked flesh balloon from their throat and trumpeting their availability with a bubbling fanfare that lured no she-camels from out of the sand dunes at all.
I was walking behind 10 of these unpredictably lusty beasts, keeping pace with their sedate tread while they bellowed bawdily at one end and farted with the regularity of a ticking clock at the other. This was my answer to the throat-slittingly depressing question that ruins every December: “What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”
This/last year I decided to swap London’s drunks for a 100km trek across the Sahara. Strapped into my boots and with a bag of bare essentials slung across a camel, I was going to spend my new year sober, sandy and – fingers crossed – a little suntanned.
Like most holidays of this type, the group was mainly made up of Modern Independent Women, resplendent in their khakis and confidence. We were led by Mohamed, who ambled across the talcum powder sand in carpet slippers, a zipper cardi and howli headdress.
We walked into the desert in the twilight. An 11/2 hour wait for the ferry at Djerba had put us behind schedule (insofar as there are schedules in the desert), so the camel drivers had gone on ahead to set up camp. We walked on the cool, silent sands, watching the orange leech out of the dunes until they were white.
The sky was all glitter. For a city girl who’s used to the tungsten muffle of London’s street lamp lit nights, the starlight that rippled above us was wondrous. My eyes spun from the powdery smear of the Milky Way’s to Orion braced against his bow and back again. Every night I’d tip my head backwards and watch the stars press their way through the night.
Our four days in the desert followed the same pattern. Breakfast was at 7.30, which meant inching out of my sleeping bag at 7 and baby wiping away the worst of the sand before changing from my night gear (thermals, base layers, down jacket, hat, socks and gloves) to my day wear (trousers, t-shirt, dashing hat). The mornings were cold – on New Year’s Day I woke up covered in a fine layer of frost - so the trick was to wash and change while keeping on as many clothes as possible.
We ate bread with fig jam or cheese triangles and drank cups of smoky coffee or tea. Bread was baked twice a day, either by Chef Mohamed (as opposed to Guide Mohamed), Idi, Sayid or Mehmet. It was baked in hot ashes on the sand. If you’d been especially good, or wore a particularly pleading expression, Chef Mohamed would give you the flakes of crisp dough that crumbled off when he scraped away the cinders (this was more of a treat than it sounds).
Our walk was measured in meals. Mid-morning was Biscuit Break, 15 minutes of careful positioning as we tried to work out which guide had the chocolate biscuits. Lunch, like dinner, happened once our guides had found a sheltered spot to set up camp. Lunchtime chopped salads were lightly dressed with olive oil and spiked with slithers of lemon. At night two cauldrons set on trivets made from tin cans and cog wheels rattled over the fire.
In one was chorba – a soupy mix of tinned tomatoes, water and pasta that I crumbled my bread into for seasoning. Sayid had a can of harissa with him and one night I took him up on his offer of a spoonful in my soup. A large spoonful. It ripped across my mouth, stripping the sensation from the lower half of my face. The vegetable stew and couscous that followed could’ve been rocks and play dough for all that I could taste.
We shared dried dates for dessert, except on New Year’s Eve, when we had cake. It’d been delivered to our camp by Jeep that afternoon, somewhat knocking the idea that we were roaming alone in the wilderness on the head. Fluffy as a cloud and moist with butter and sugar, the cake was ordinary and it was also glorious. A moment of luxury, eaten with grubby hands by the firelight.
I booked my holiday with Exodus, trip reference number TMU. The price ranges from £899 to £1,029 (I paid £950), including flights, meals and accommodation. For more out of focus pictures of my holiday click here.