Rosie Millard discovers her young family adapts quickly to Bedouin camp conditions on a guided journey in the Sahara.
Forsaking modern luxuries can be a positive, bonding experience - at least that's what I told my husband when he realised he was about to spend three nights in the desert without running water or a flushing loo. I'd booked a trip for the family to Morocco, which included two nights in Bedouin tents near the desert oasis of Ouarzazate and a night in the Sahara Desert. "Basic but comfortable", the blurb said.
As we arrived, at twilight, for our first night my husband had another way of expressing this: "I am rather out of my comfort zone."
The Bedouins certainly know about camping. Our vast tent was held up by wooden poles, furnished with six mats and made with knitted goat hair. A naked light bulb revealed several alarming holes in the goat-hair cloth at ground level.
"Oh, wow, this is where the scorpions will come in," Gabriel, our 12-year-old son, said as I toyed with, then abandoned, the idea of unpacking. "Are there scorpions?" I asked our guide, Aziz. A tall, softly spoken Berber, Aziz shrugged. "Probably not. Check your shoes in the morning, anyway."
As our four children, aged six to 14, rushed off to look for scorpions in the palm trees around the campsite (they didn't find any), I took a quick tour around the shower block (primitive but clean), then settled on a low sofa in the dining area to share a pot of fresh mint tea with the two other families on the trip. Family holidays are getting more intrepid and the idea here is to be intrepid alongside two or three like-minded groups. Besides keeping the costs down and not having to worry that taking your luxury-loving sister along was a terrible idea, travelling with strangers means - in our case, at least - a lot less swearing and shouting. And our children love messing about with a posse of new friends.
One of the families is from Wiltshire; the other is from Suffolk. Had either spent a night in a Bedouin tent before? Of course not. But like us, they had outgrown buckets and spades. Unlike us, they had come well prepared for the challenge, remembering to bring things such as head torches and travel-sickness pills (the Atlas roads are nauseatingly winding). We had all, however, brought decent sleeping bags. You don't mess around with the chill of the desert night.
"I am totally freezing," Phoebe, our teenage daughter, announced from the depths of the tent on our first night. We all ended up in socks and sweatshirts over our pyjamas.
In the morning, after the disappointment of zero scorpions in footwear, we drove into the desert, which looks Martian, rocky and relentless. After 40 minutes, a biblical-looking village appeared, with a collection of camels beside it.
"Do I really have to ride on a camel?" Lucien, 6, quavered. "Well, I want to know what name my camel has," Honey, 9, announced. "He must have a name!""You can give him a name," Aziz said, clearly familiar with bossy British children. He gently settled Lucien onto an alarmingly large beast while we clambered aboard our various animals, each of which stood up with a see-saw motion. Essentially, we were pitched forward before being thrown back while being propelled skywards. We were all sitting on blankets on top of blue mattresses. It was not uncomfortable.
"This is what we are going to sleep on tonight!" Gabriel shouted excitedly. "Oh, daddy, there are about a zillion flies on your camel!" Honey yelled.
Mr Millard rolled his eyes at me. I rather feared he was mourning the fact we were not in Richard Branson's deluxe Moroccan hideaway.
"This is the real deal!" I bellowed to him, while anxiously hoping the camel behind me was not about to take a chunk out of my left thigh.
An assemblage of local men hissed and shouted at our rides, which doggedly started walking. Two hours later, we were still walking. On the horizon, we saw a tiny figure of a man standing on a sand dune. "The cook," Aziz said.
Eventually, we arrived in the lee of the giant dune. This unremarkable site, which shares the undulating profile, sharp shadows and golden sand of the surrounding area, was to be our campsite. Six small bell tents were already pitched - our bed chambers. A small square tent beside them was our kitchen, a larger square tent our dining room. Some way off, a small rectangular tent housed the latrine. That was it.
After a magnificent repast of vegetable soup and spaghetti bolognese, Aziz took the children to the top of the dune for a game of football in the natural bowl of sand. Afterwards, the children jumped and slid back down.
The day unfolded before us. The Sahara is big but not silent. Amazingly, we could hear birdsong. Occasionally, a butterfly fluttered past. Someone produced a volume of Cosmo, which was quite reassuring, in this giant, arid world. Someone else got out a Kindle (me, actually).
"I'm hoping to be the first person to read a book on a Kindle in the Sahara," I said to Mr Millard, who was playing I spy with our son. "I spy something beginning with S," Lucien said, somewhat unnecessarily.
Night came quickly, the shadows racing up the dunes. Hundreds of stars appeared, then thousands, then tens of thousands, and the entire Milky Way, accessorised with shooting stars. Around the campfire, Aziz and the camel drivers danced, beat a drum and sang.
"Your turn!" they said. We looked at each other, aghast. The English are useless at spontaneously bursting into song. Then someone started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It was cheesy but why not?
At dawn, my husband and I crept out of our tiny tent. The world was grey. A rocky outcrop on the horizon was black; the sun, an iridescent line. Birds were singing everywhere. Then the sun burst over the desert; the world became gold and the sky azure once more. Out of my comfort zone? I've experienced nothing like it.
Emirates has a fare to Casablanca from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1900 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (14hr), then to Casablanca (9hr). There are regular trains and buses between Casablanca and Marrakech (about 3hr).
The Britain-based Adventure Company has small-group, eight-day Saharan Sands family trips that begin and end in Marrakech, priced from $898 a person. Participants must be aged six and over. Price includes minibus and camel transport, four nights' accommodation in hotels, two nights in a nomad tent and a night camping, some meals and a local group leader. Trips are available on selected dates until June and again from October. See adventurecompany.co.uk.
- Telegraph, London