In Morocco, camels are everything they're cracked up to be
Toronto Sun's Mike Strobel (front on Bob Marley) with Carolyn McGill (behind on Jimmy) and the rest of the group pause while Berber guide Hamid (in blue) checks to make sure everything is ready for the desert trek.
ERG CHEBBI, Morocco -- It's true what you've heard about camels. They are crotchety, gaseous malcontents, with the worst breath in Creation.
My camel, an ingrate named Bob Marley, takes a chomp at my wrist when I try a peace offering of delicious desert grass.
Bob's ancestors once carried Tuaregs and other nomads on the fabled trade route between Marrakech, in Morocco, and Timbuktu in Mali.
Now, Bob and his brethren haul pasty-faced tourists like me up and down dunes, stopping for stunning sunsets and endless photos, to and from campsites in the vast sea of sand.
No wonder they're cranky.
But camels grow on you.
This is, afterall, their turf, the western flanks of the Sahara in Morocco.
To find these short-tempered ships of the desert, you must traverse Tizi n'Tichka, a harrowing pass through the High Atlas Mountains, past a string of Berber villages clinging to the slopes.
Our driver/guide, Amine Bouziane, from Rabat, drops us at Auberge du Sud, at the very edge of the mighty Erg Chebbi dunes, where Bob, Jimmy and the other dromedaries lie in wait.
We mount the beasts outside the sprawling adobe inn. Jimmy, the camel behind Bob, deliberately and maliciously snorts all over me.
"You coming?" I ask Amine, wiping the camel phlegm off my shirt.
"I'll be by the pool," he replies, with a wink, a yawn and a stretch after two days of hard driving. "See you tomorrow."
And off we go, Bob and me in front, led by a weathered young Berber named Hamid.
Bob does not try to bite Hamid. Centuries of conditioning, I assume.
We lumber two hours over the sand to a camp in the shadow of a mammoth dune. Berber cooks offer up some of the best tajine we've had in Morocco, and we bunk down in an aging tent under piles of carpets. The Sahara gets mighty frosty at night.
But if, like me, you are a fan of deserts, this is heaven. Deserts are clean. Deserts are pure. Deserts are soulful. Deserts are dramatic. Swaying across the Sahara on ol' Bob, it is easy to drift into dreams of Lawrence of Arabia.
That iconic movie was made mostly in Jordan and Spain, but parts were filmed here.
Indeed, the closest town, Ouarzazate, has become a sort of Saharywood. Our man Amine, of Authentic Tours Marrakech, has chauffeured the likes of Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal.
This spectacular kingdom can be whatever a director wants it to be.
The 17th-century fortified town of Ait-Ben-Haddou, a camel-sprint from Ouarzazate, was the setting for Russell Crowe's early fights in Gladiator. In fact, the arena -- minus computer effects -- is still there. You can swing a stick in mock mortal combat and yell to the blue Saharan sky, "Are you not entertained!?"
Many sword-and-sandal flicks, and big productions like Jewel of the Nile and The Mummy were filmed around here, too.
There's even a charmingly shabby movie museum in Ouarzazate, not far from where some of TV's Game of Thrones was shot.
Farther afield, the capital, Rabat, played Baghdad in American Sniper. Films from Orson Welles' Othello to Patton to The Sheltering Sky to Black Hawk Down to Babel to Sex and the City 2 were shot in Morocco.
The classic Casablanca was not.
That's Hollywood for you.