Emerald Street editor Anna Fielding discovers a festival like no other at Restival, a digital detox in the Moroccan dunes
The five of us are only 15 minutes from camp, but it feels like we’re alone. We’re folded into a dip in the Sahara desert looking up at the Milky Way. Next to me, someone clicks a lighter. The sound is sharp and distinct in the night. It’s only that noise, and a few pairs of fancy trainers, that set us apart from anyone who has sat in this desert and looked up at the stars over the last millennia. “It’s incredible.” “I’ve never seen them like this.” We giggle and pass wine in a water bottle. There are so many stars. The sand, cold on the surface, grows warmer as you dig down. The grains are fine and dry through your fingers.
I’m attending the first Restival, a new wellness festival billed as a digital detox. There’s no fasting, but there’s also no WiFi. Instead there are pens, notebooks, stories, campfires, and group and solitary activities. We are supposed to be switching off for five days and divorcing ourselves from the digital world. It’s a festival that focuses on the inside of your head, aiming for healing not hedonism. It’s for people craving peace.
I was attracted to the idea. The last 12 months were draining, full of last-minute train tickets, hospital visits, funerals, and words that hadn’t been part of my life before, like “oncologist” and “probate”. So the idea of lying down with a book and pen and some mental space appealed to me. Then there was the Sahara. I’d never seen a desert, but I knew desert stories. Deserts were for facing temptation or losing yourself after a broken heart. Deserts were for hallucinations mirages, alien sightings and thirst. I was slightly scared, but that's why I chose to come.
It’s held at Camp Adounia, a semi-permanent encampment in the Sahara, which usually caters for around 20 people, in large ecofriendly tents; for Restival it billows to over 60. We leave Marrakech at 5am in a four-wheel drive and climb into the Atlas Mountains. We pass villages with stalls of pottery, then goats, red rock and thorn bushes. The sun is setting as we arrive in the dunes, turning the canvas of the tents orange. It’s an awe-inspiring landscape: alien and magnificent. My tent opens onto nothing but dunes and every morning I climb the nearest, marvelling that I’m here.
The tent is glamorous, with a proper bedstead of figured tin and a rug-strewn floor. And a full china bathroom set: sink, loo, shower. We are well equipped for the middle of nowhere. There’s a full spa, offering hamam treatments, manicure, pedicures and massages (my candlelit massage is probably the best I’ve ever had). Then there’s the dining tent, where communal meals are served buffet-style and eaten at low tables, sitting on cushions. I develop a taste for Moroccan honey and thick coffee with cinnamon. And this is not spartan cuisine; I shoved roast meat, refined carbs and wine in my face like it was going out of fashion. Oh. Wait. It is out of fashion.
I ride a snuffling, swaying camel, experience my first gong bath (you lie still and ‘bathe’ in the sound), and take a creative-writing workshop based on beat writer William Burrows’ cut-up technique. There are yoga classes and chances to talk through your life path. One night an elderly German astronomer visits. He shows me the moonrise through a telescope.
Every night there are two campfires. Around one Richard Hamilton, former BBC North Africa correspondent, tells traditional Moroccan tales. By the other, staff play instruments and there’s a bar serving beer and wine. Food comes with the ticket, but the booze is extra. I love the cold desert nights. You can look into the flames and, almost, believe in magic. Things are not perfect though. There are two kinds of hippy: the collaborative, save-the-world kind, and the self-centred ones, so focused on their spiritual journey that other people don’t register. The other guests were mostly funny, thoughtful Type Ones, but a few Type Twos did crop up.
But by the end, I really did feel clearer, more alert. My thoughts flowed like they did when I was a teenager, when I could wallow in music and books. A total digital shutdown might be impractical, but the next time my battery dies at the weekend, I might just let the screen stay black and do something real instead.
Restival Sahara runs from 11-16 and 18-23 November; from £1,200 per person for five days, including food and accommodation, excluding flights; resitval.global
The days when a festival meant a five-day hangover are over. We round up the very best wellness-oriented festivals of 2016
Burning Man, Nevada
Some may whine that it’s been hijacked by investment bankers and Instagrammers, but the festival’s spirit remains alive, with a temporary city of yoga and mindfulness-oriented tents, performance and visual art in the heart of the desert.
Burning Man festival 2016 runs from 28 August-5 September; eight-day tickets start at £270; burningman.org
Innocent unplugged, Kent
A digitally detoxed wellness festival in Kent, offering WiFi-worn urbanites the chance to recharge and soak away tension in wood-fired saunas and yoga workshops. Luxurious bell tents and foraged feasts seal the deal.
Innocent Unplugged 2016 runs from 28-30 May, with weekend tickets starting at £15; innocentunplugged.com
Obonjan Island Project, Croatia
Revolutionising the festival experience, the island of Obonjan, which has been deserted for a decade, has re-opened with a two-month wellness and culture festival offering astronomy workshops, free-diving, yoga, kayaking and paddle boarding.
The Obonjan Island Project runs from 18 July-10 September; from £49 per person per night; otokobonjan.com