At the first light of dawn, I rejoin the others on a dune-ridge to watch the sun rise over Algeria. The sky is perfectly clear and the sunrise is beautiful in its cleanness and austerity. The real drama is in the shadows and textures of the dunes behind us — dark grey-green shadows and golden oranges throwing the dunes into sharp relief.
I tip the sand out of my sleeping bag and return to the tent where there is a fresh brew of mint tea. The camels are finally loaded, but mine is somewhat reluctant to get to her feet and leave. After much tugging by the camel driver, she lurches upwards and we are off.
On the return journey, we are met at the hammada by the Landrovers; blessed relief for sore bottoms. There’s breakfast and a wash at the auberge, and then the Landrovers take us back to Erfoud where the bus is waiting. It is something of a wrench to tear ourselves away from the auberge, where time, like the dunes, seems to stretch away to infinity and the rest of the world seems light-years away. It is perhaps just an illusion — the erg itself covers an area of just 120 km by 40 km.
The drive by bus to our first refreshment stop through barren and stony desert is uninspiring and provides an opportunity to catch up on lost sleep. We eat a decent self-service lunch of tagine in a pleasant walled court-yard shaded by trees, and then coffee on an upstairs terrace.
Soon, we reach the Todra Valley, another ribbon of green palm trees and gardens, lying on a geological fault between the High Atlas and the Djebel Sarho ranges. At Tineghir we get out of the bus and scramble up the hill from the road for a photo stop. From here, it is a short drive to the Todra Gorge. We walk the last half mile into the gorge, its craggy orange towering walls closing in on either side of us. Our hotel is at the bottom of the gorge up against the cliff face, a short distance upstream from the narrowest point where the gorge is barely 10 m wide.
Opinion is divided on dinner, which is couscous with chicken. The chicken is tough and there is not much meat, but what there is is full of flavour. After the dessert of tangerines, I flake out entirely, hardly aware of the conversation continuing around me.