Riding a camel in the Sahara Desert has been on my bucket list since I watched the 1999 film The Mummy for the first time. It seemed so exotic and struck me as something I needed to try at least once. And let’s be honest, I really wanted to be a newer, wheelchair-using version of Brendan Fraser — hunting treasure and defeating evil on camelback.
When dreaming of being an adventurer, I imagined myself on a camel in front of the pyramids of Egypt (á la Brendan). However, after hearing of an adaptive camel saddle in Morocco, I knew that if I was going to check camel-riding off the bucket list, I needed to swap out Egypt for Morocco and travel to northwestern Africa. After many emails back and forth with the kind folks at Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants, the trip was planned.
Fast-forward a few months and I was in Morocco. I didn’t know very much about the country before arriving, but in just eight days, it unexpectedly became one of my favorite places on the planet. Whether I was devouring tagine, an authentic Moroccan stew that is cooked in a conical shaped dish, or rolling through a UNESCO World Heritage Site in an off-road wheelchair, I found Morocco to be full of accessible adventures. It blew me away.
Mad About Marrakech
The starting point for my journey was Marrakech, a former imperial city that is located about 350 miles from the Sahara. I only had a few days there before I planned to venture into the desert, so I tried to see as much as I could. Marrakech might be known for its snake charmers, but I learned there are plenty of sights to see without having to get close to any serpents.
It took Jacques Majorelle, a French painter, nearly 40 years to complete the botanical garden that bears his name, but I was quick to make the famed garden my first destination. In 1980, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent bought the garden and eventually turned it into one of Marrakech’s most popular and accessible attractions. The paved paths made it easy for me to roll around Jardin Majorelle’s two and a half acres in my powered wheelchair and enjoy the surrounding palm trees, bamboo and birds.
Majorelle’s former studio now doubles as The Berber Museum. The Berber people are indigenous to Morocco and this small museum’s displays of clothing and jewelry gave me a better understanding of their history and daily life.
Next on my itinerary was touring the Saadian Tombs in central Marrakech. Visiting tombs might not sound like an idea of a good time, but I think their beauty surpassed that of the botanical garden.
Toward the end of the 16th century, Ahmad al-Mansur, sultan of the Saadian dynasty, ordered the Tombs’ construction on the site of the royal necropolis. The Tombs were sealed off after the fall of the dynasty in the 17th century and rediscovered in 1917. Today, the Tombs are the final resting place to over 200 members of the Saadian dynasty, including al-Mansur and his family, who are buried in a mausoleum known as the Chamber of the Twelve Pillars.
The mausoleum is famous for its intricate design, but in order to see it, I had to go down one step. Luckily, MATC was prepared with a portable ramp that worked perfectly. I was able to view the mausoleum in all its glory, complete with Italian marble and an immense attention to detail. Visiting this one mausoleum was worth the trip to the Saadian Tombs in itself.
I know I said there’s plenty to do in Marrakech aside from seeing snake charmers — and there is — but to truly understand what makes the city unique, you have to visit Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s wild public square.
Rolling through Jemaa el Fna is an overwhelming experience. From henna tattoo artists to monkey handlers and the ubiquitous snake charmers, there is something going on in every direction.
Don’t be surprised if someone suddenly puts a snake around your neck or a monkey on your shoulder while you roll through the square. I avoided the area with the snakes like the plague, but someone did come up behind me to sit a monkey on my shoulder. I hadn’t asked him for anything, but he demanded a small amount of money for letting me get a picture with his pet. I figure those encounters are all part of the experience.
Journey to the Sahara
After a spectacular few days in Marrakech, it was time to make my way to the Sahara. MATC had a wheelchair accessible van with a driver for me, which worked perfectly.
It is only about 350 miles from Marrakech to Merzouga, which is known as the gateway to the Sahara, but because much of the eastward journey traverses the rugged Atlas Mountains, it takes around nine hours to drive. The drive was stunningly beautiful, with snow at the higher elevations and dry desert-like conditions at the bottom. I was astounded at how quickly the climate in Morocco changed.
I highly recommend stopping at Ait-Ben-Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Moroccan province of Ouarzazate. It is about four hours from Marrakech on the drive to Merzouga.
Ait-Ben-Haddou is an ancient fortified city with unique castle-like buildings that are made of mud and straw, and yet are still standing, centuries after being built. If you’re a TV or movie buff, you might recognize Ait-Ben-Haddou, as it is featured in the movie Gladiator and in the popular show Game of Thrones.
On its own, Ait-Ben-Haddou isn’t wheelchair friendly … at all. In the 8th century, they weren’t too concerned about accessibility, unfortunately. However, a wheelchair user can tour the heritage site with a bit of help.
MATC has a Joelette, a one-wheeled chair maneuvered by volunteers, which can be used in rougher terrain where a regular wheelchair can’t. I transferred from my powered wheelchair to the Joelette, got strapped in and was ready to wander around Ait-Ben-Haddou. There were multiple people assisting with the Joelette and it worked like a charm. It was more comfortable than I expected, as well.
During the tour, I enjoyed getting souvenirs from vendors throughout the fortified ancient city and admiring the architecture. I marveled at the spectacular mud structures.
Sitting Above the Sahara
While I had an absolute blast in Marrakech and at Ait-Ben-Haddou, the best part of my Moroccan trip came last. After the long drive from Marrakech, we arrived in Merzouga, where we were booked to stay at a desert luxury camp. To actually get to my tent took a bit of work, but MATC was there to help every step of the way.
To get to our campsite, I had to transfer into a Toyota Land Cruiser because the wheelchair accessible van couldn’t drive over sand dunes. A few people physically lifted me from my wheelchair into the LandCruiser and then put my heavy power wheelchair in the back of the vehicle. It took some time to load it, and I’m still not entirely sure how they did it, but eventually it fit perfectly, and I was off to the desert!
After 10 minutes of driving, I started noticing a few signs of the desert. Within 10 more minutes, the desert surrounded us. There were camels, donkeys and majestic sand dunes unlike anything I’d seen before. The dunes stretched toward the clear blue sky for what seemed like an eternity.
“Want to go over some dunes?” our driver asked. For a brief second I hesitated to answer. Because of spinal muscular atrophy, I struggle with upper body and neck control. I worried how I’d handle a rough ride, but eventually gave him the go-ahead. We had come this far, so why not give it a chance?
Within seconds we were gliding over the sand dunes and I felt like I was in a real-life video game. There were dunes in every direction. Up and down we went, over and over again. I shrieked with excitement each time we went over one. Hands down, it was the most fun ride of my life.
After many thrills, we finally made it to Jaimas Madu, our camp amidst the sand dunes for the night. I had a luxurious (well, luxurious for the desert) accessible tent with a roll-in shower, electricity and a spacious bedroom. The staff even shoveled me a path to the dining area because my wheelchair couldn’t roll in the softer sand. Missing from the camp were air conditioning and Wi-Fi, but I didn’t mind because I needed this getaway. At home, I’m way too caught up in social media, so it was nice to not worry about Facebook or Instagram for a while. I settled in, drank some mint tea, and prepared for the biggest moment of my entire Moroccan trip: the camel ride.
Man Versus Camel
I had been looking forward to this camel ride for what seemed like forever, but in the final days leading up to it, my mentality changed. Instead of being ecstatic about it, I became nervous. Questions ran through my mind at all hours of the day:
How will I remain stable on the camel? What if the camel lies on its side and my leg is trapped underneath? What if the camel starts running? What if I fall off the camel and break a leg? The nearest hospital is an hour away. …
As a wheelchair user, and as a traveler in general, I consider myself pretty adventurous. I’ve gone hot air ballooning over the Negev Desert in Israel, hiking in the Amazon rainforest and even rock climbing in Utah, but for some reason this camel ride felt like my biggest undertaking yet. Perhaps it was because I had no control over what could happen. I was letting go and handing over the reins to the camel. After all, riding a camel in the Sahara Desert had been on my bucket list since before the term “bucket list” was even a thing.
As the camel approached me, I tried to push the fear away. It seemed much bigger in reality than I imagined it would be. As it got closer, I looked in its eyes. I tried to telepathically let it know that it was the best camel in the whole desert, in hopes it would spare me from face-planting in the sand. Not seeming too enthused by my efforts, the camel gave me a look like, “Can we please get this over with so I can go back to my nap?” And then it promptly sat down.
As the camel sat down beside me, I noticed the adaptive saddle on top of it. MATC realized how difficult riding a camel would be for someone with poor upper body control, so they went on a mission to create a saddle that anyone could use, regardless of their abilities. It’s basically a seat with a full back and headrest — like half a wheelchair sitting on top of the camel. It also has a seatbelt, so I couldn’t fall. After I inspected the adaptive saddle, I felt more confident that this ride might actually be possible.
Within seconds, I was lifted out of my wheelchair into the seat on the camel’s back. The saddle was quite comfortable, but it did take a few minutes for me to get perfectly situated. One of the men from MATC helped secure me by wrapping some straps around my chest and my forehead, to keep my head from falling forward or sideways during the ride. It took some work, but I was finally stable and ready for liftoff.
When camels stand up, they raise their back legs first, so for a moment it felt like I was falling forward. However, once the camel was completely upright, I took a sigh of relief. I could not believe I was officially riding a camel in the Sahara.
As the camel took its first steps with me on its back, my fear subsided and I became overwhelmed with gratitude. I was thankful to be riding a camel in the Sahara, for MATC’s ingenuity that made it possible, and for everything that led me to that moment.
The ride lasted for a surreal 15 minutes. I kept looking out at the sand dunes and then down at the camel, trying to take it all in. “Why did I almost let fear keep me from having this experience?” I thought.
Sometimes fear is a good thing and keeps us from picking up a rattlesnake and making it our pet, and sometimes fear keeps us from truly living life to the fullest extent. As I sat on that camel in the Sahara Desert, I decided that I will be the orchestrator in deciding which version of fear I let play out in my life. I had realized my dream of riding a camel, and now you can officially call me Mr. Fraser.
** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/03/morocco-accessible-travel/