It shouldn’t have been funny, but it was. Like a strip out of a comic book, I watched in awe as Daniel flew up and over the largest sand dune in Morocco on an ATV that was about to crash land on top of him.
Let me set the stage: if you drive 10 hours east from Marrakech through the Atlas Mountains and a whole lot of gorgeous desert you’ll hit the start of the Sahara, otherwise known as the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. These giant mounds of caramel-colored sand seem to form like a mirage in the distance, their incomprehensible beauty practically knocking you sideways as they come into sight. You’re overwhelmed by the setting sun drooping down the dunes and the twinkle of emerging stars in the fading pastel-colored sky.
The Western perimeter is lined with hotels and tour guides waiting to plunk you down on a camel and take you for a ride. But the best way to experience the sea of dunes is to camp in the sea of dunes. Luxury tents set up intermittently welcome visitors with just enough comfort to forget the city and see the stars, see the sunset, see the sunrise and the stray dogs who roam carelessly in their sandy wonderland.
This was how we first consumed the Sahara, and that February night was as cold as it was magical (heat wasn’t part of the “luxury” experience).
The next morning, it was time to indulge in the desert. Camels were for the weak! We wanted to ride ATVs around these glorious mounds of sand. This meant hopping in our camp-owner’s rusty old 4Runner and taking Mr. Toad’s Wild ride back into town to rent ATVs from his buddy. Hammou, our guide, exclusively spoke French and Arabic and could hardly give us the warnings we needed about riding these death machines through the dunes. But whatever – this was going to be fun! We are in Africa! We are adventurous! We just spent the past 2 weeks deep diving into the Indian Ocean!
We were also deeply stupid. Have you ever talked to anyone about riding an ATV? There is hardly a person who has hopped on then hopped off without incident. I had my own incident riding one in Baja at 12 years old with my dad and a few friends – we jumped that thing over some hill higher than we should have and nearly landed on top of the man running the place. They’re extremely fun but hard to control, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, one wrong pump of the acceleration will send you tumbling off as fast as you got on.
But we were too blinded by the thrill to consider the consequences. So we hopped right on.
The first few minutes of our ride were glorious – riding up and down dunes with Hammou, laughing, stopping to take photos under the desert sun. About 10 minutes in, Hammou was joined by one of his friends on another ATV for a cigarette break. They lit up, puffed a few drags, and then motioned for us to follow them as they sped off into the depths of the dunes.
Prior to this break, we were traveling at a decent speed – fast enough to satisfy us but slow enough to make us feel safe. Post-break, we began to accelerate at the actual speed of light. It was one of the single most enthralling things I’ve done – I felt like Princess Peach zooming through the Koopahari Desert, leaving the lowly Mario Kart boys to eat my dust.
Suddenly, Hammou & friend zoomed up the top of what we came to learn was Erg Chebbi’s largest sand dune. Every other dune we’d zoomed up had had a flat platform of sand on the top that we could safely land on without rolling down. This hill did not – the tip of this triangle was as sharp as a pin prick. The first three of us managed to land the middle of our ATVs right on the vertex (thank you, thank you, I truly don’t know how I did it).
Daniel did not.
Like a beautiful bearded bird, Daniel accelerated so much so that his ATV launched over the ledge and flew through the sky. For a split second, it was glorious. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was FLYING!
It was one of those moments where my life flashed before my eyes – this man I finally married and dropped everything to travel the world with was about to crash-land on a sand dune, hours from the nearest international hospital. One moment, we were as free as the birds, and the next, he was literally flying through the sky on a goddamn death machine.
And then it happened, he crash-landed. The ATV tumbled over the top of him and rolled down the dune, leaving him immobile, covered in sand.
I guess you could say I’ve been preparing for a moment like this my whole life. Instead of the crazed, spastic person I could have been, I remained as calm as a cool breeze. Our Moroccan friends did not. They rushed over to Daniel and freaked out beyond all reason. It was everything I could do to stop Hammou from frantically ripping the helmet off of Daniel’s head. Not only was I trying to ensure Daniel was okay, I was acting as den mother for this duo of duds. I can’t say exactly, but I’m pretty sure they were terrified that their speedy cigarette tryst would result in some sort of lawsuit from two damaged tourists.
In the end, Daniel only suffered a broken rib – no small injury when a freezing cold night in a tent and a 10-hour ride back to Marrakech were in front of us – but a miracle when considering what could have happened.
A warning to the wise: Ride the camels instead.