Ten years ago no one with even a tentative grasp on reality and the wherewithal for a month's vacation would have thought of spending it traveling across the Sahara. Ten years ago tourists still thought going to London was a big deal. What probably killed London for the diehard tourist was David Frost jetting the Atlantic twice a week without even looking tired. Paris was amusing until it got surly. Spain acquired hippies. Portugal announced condominiums. In Russia guides follow you to the loo. The Himalayas are far out, but you have to walk, and Red China is just beginning to let us peer over the Great Wall. So why not try the Sahara for size, which is considerable, being three million square miles of true grit, or nearly one-third of the continent of Africa.
The representative from Lindblad Travel, Inc., who handled arrangements for its $3,050, 33-day Trans Sahara Expedition, was pleased to point out that this year's group was almost evenly divided, with nine women and seven men. That meant only two of the women would be up for grabs, though she didn't say so outright. "Sometimes men are afraid to sign up, for fear they'll wind up with a lot of ladies with blue hair," was how she put it. Lars-Eric Lindblad runs "luxury" tours to out-of-the-way places like the Antarctic and the Seychelles. He has a reputation for sparing no expense (it's your money), and by the time most tourists have lived long enough to accumulate the fare, the men may not have any hair at all, and the ladies are into Clairol's Silk and Silver.
According to the brochure, the Trans Sahara Expedition is one of Lindblad's more arduous trips, with his super-tourists traveling across 2,600 miles of Saharan kitty litter, from Timbuktu to Djanet, Algeria. "Although it is now possible to fly to a few isolated oases, it is only by driving, riding on camels and walking through the country that you can experience the true nature of the Sahara and its people," reads the brochure. "The nature of the Sahara imposes a degree of hardship, and members must be in good health and physically fit." Lars-Eric always makes the trip himself first, with one or two associates of his own choosing (aye, there's the rub), and if he comes back alive, off you go, with 15 or more traveling companions dealt out by a blind man spinning a roulette wheel, and equipped with a variety of items supplied by Lindblad that includes everything but a spoon with which to clean sand out of your ears. There was a brown canvas bag, or "sausage," that looked capacious enough to hold a camel and felt as if it did by the time you packed your cottons, drip-dries, the safari outfit from Abercrombie, the bush hat with mosquito netting attached, desert boots and sweaters and slacks for cold desert nights. There was also a flight bag, emblazoned with Lindblad Travel, Inc., in case you forget who got you into this, and it was packed with nail clippers, a hand brush, soap in a pink plastic container, a face cloth, a ballpoint pen, suntan oil and face cream, two flashlights and two waterproof bags. Waterproof bags in the desert? No, they were to keep sand out of your cameras, explained a letter that accompanied an airline ticket made out for Dakar, Bamako, Timbuktu and Algiers. That set the blood to racing.
A perusal of my journal tends to slow the pulse, however. The first entry is a case in point. It reads: En route to Dakar. Burmeister's cameline theory. That refers to group member Ray Burmeister, a 48-year-old real-estate operator who was missing when George Holton, our Lindblad tour escort, herded us together in the tourist lounge at JFK. Burmeister was finally located at the bar, where he apparently had spent most of the afternoon. "I am like the camel," he explained. "I fill my hump before I leave." Russ Lannan, a 59-year-old semiretired insurance executive from La Jolla, Calif., had also been emulating the camel, and on boarding the plane both disappeared unsteadily into the first-class section. "They better sober up before we get to the desert. Alcohol is dehydrating," observed George, whose taste runs to sweet wine and Kahlua. George did not look his 51 years, which is not a testament to sweet wine and Kahlua but to the active life he leads for Lindblad.
June 24, 1973
"On the Borderlands of Tibet trip," he said, "we went to photograph the Dalai Lama in India, and this old shrew who never did anything but complain spent two hours taking pictures of the wrong monk through her telephoto lens. When she got home and discovered her mistake, she wrote Lindblad a nasty letter about me. I once smuggled a pet monkey into Greece, which has no monkeys. When it died, I buried it on the Acropolis, and now I'm waiting for some archaeologist to dig it up, to see what he makes of the bones."
There was plenty of time on the plane for talking because the movie projector broke down five times, and the flight engineer, who came out of the cockpit to make repairs, gave up on it. George said he was born in a zoo in New Jersey, his father being the zookeeper. George said further that he was born near the chimpanzee cage. Before George reached puberty, the stewardess fixed the projector by jamming a beer can against the amplifier.
En route to Dakar
According to George's Lindblad list, which he momentarily left on the airplane seat, the total age of our group is 717 years. At the moment, the only thing that seems older is the Sahara itself, but on reflection.... Here the entry breaks off because George was on his way back to his seat and so was the list. He had visited briefly with Gareth Wood, the youngest tour member, a 21-year-old printer from Victoria, British Columbia. Gareth had borrowed the money for the trip, said George, and had with him the clothes on his back and two rolls of film. A professional photographer himself, George could think of no worse fate than traveling across the Sahara with only two rolls of film. Evelyn Stein, 69, a Californian who was sitting with 50-year-old Florence Brush from Clear Lake, Iowa, had launched into a long, involved story about a cat that died. Anna Antopol, a 55-year-old widow, born and bred in Brooklyn, wore her blonde hair Liza Minnelli-style. She wondered if she had anything to fear (or hope) from Arabs who "like blondes and might kidnap me right off the desert." Theo King, 60, and her 36-year-old daughter Pam were up in first class with Burmeister and Lannan. Pam had a bad leg, George confided, and would probably not be of much use in pushing the Land Rovers when they got stuck in the sand. Pat Grandy, 27, a computer programmer from San Francisco, was on her fourth Lindblad tour and had lost some weight since the New Guinea trip, but George thought she still was too heavy to push Land Rovers. This explains the next brief entry in my journal: This is probably not the time to tell George about your bursitis. The remainder of the group was to meet us in Dakar: Bernice Bridge, a 54-year-old postal clerk from Melbourne; Hiroshi Ikeda, 38, a free-lance photographer from Tokyo; Kiyoaki Takata, 40, a think-tank writer, also from Tokyo; Suzanne Van Geert, a 50-year-old former circus-horse trainer from Geneva; and a 59-year-old Dutch travel adviser named Hans Ver Hagen.
Up all night swatting mosquitoes. In the morning my pillow looks as if Lawrence of Arabia had swept across it slaying Turks.
There is an old Senegalese saying: "When the moon rises, Africa dances," which I do not note here to reaffirm the saw about Africans' inherent rhythm. In my opinion, they dance to shake off the mosquitoes.
The Senegalese are a handsome people, very black, tall and slender, with aquiline features and strong, white teeth, which they clean by chewing sticks from the tamarisk tree. Colorful dresses worn to the ankles and exotic headgear brightened the brown, dusty landscape. The baobab tree was everywhere—leafless, twisted and as gray as an old man waiting to die. Children followed wherever we went, selling fertility beads and asking for cadeaux (gifts). First they would say, "√áa va?" and then pounce with their wares. Lannan and Burmeister found an all-night casino at the nearby Hotel N'Gor. "The gambling is legitimate but don't tilt the table," said Burmeister. "If you do, the whole hotel goes over and 80 guests slide into the swimming pool."
Grand Hotel, Bamako, Mali
If the desert doesn't get us, Hans will reads my next not-very-explicit entry, composed after a short flight from Dakar. It was in Mali (formerly the French Sudan) that Hans the Dutchman showed his teeth. Hans' displeasure was caused by the quixotic service at and the ruinous state of the Grand Hotel. At dinner the waiter brought Hans fish instead of steak, and the beer he ordered had Biblically turned to wine by the time it reached his table. Hans, a bachelor, had a penchant for order and precision. The first thing he does on arriving in a strange locale is to check maps, timetables and street plans. The hotel in Bamako could produce none of these. Hans was onto the desk clerk immediately about the sorry condition of his room. My own room was hot and humid and occupied by a few dozen mosquitoes that had followed us from Dakar. I pressed a button labeled FAN. The fan, an enormous affair suspended over the bed, whined once and stopped. Management had overlooked the installation of plumbing in the bathroom. Fortunately, due to a change in the flight plans, our stay in Bamako was brief, with just enough time to wrap and pack 12 sets of fertility beads purchased in Dakar from 12 sets of cadeaux-type children who had made 12 separate assaults. Like fertility itself, the beads were fragile.
In predawn darkness we clambered aboard a creaking vehicle called the Mali Mammy bus and headed for the airport, where Dr. Musgrave John, an English obstetrician, and Dr. James Wellard, a British expert on the Sahara, awaited us. Dr. John was to take care of our bodies, Dr. Wellard to instruct our minds. Lindblad thinks of everything, though an obstetrician seemed a peculiar choice. Burmeister thought it might have something to do with the fertility beads. "Last year we had a midwife," said George and, as we boarded Air Mali's Russian Antonov 24, he added, "Timbuktu is where the desert really begins."
Have lost my handbag. Everything is in it—tickets, passport, money, lipstick. George is beside himself, his favorite position.
A rather hysterical entry, made just before the bag was returned by a blue-robed young Targui (singular for Tuareg) who found it hanging on the saddle horn of his camel, on which he gave me a ride. "√áa va?" he said, pointing to the saddle, which looked like a child's training seat. "Oui, √ßa va," I replied, and the camel knelt, roaring all the way down. A camel sounds like an elephant with a head cold. The camel, wrote the American artist-writer John Sk√∂lle, is the victim of many misconceptions, especially concerning its sex life, "perhaps because camels very rarely make love in the presence of man." It was a gentle, swaying ride. The group was green with envy. In the excitement, I left my handbag behind.
That afternoon Hans telephoned what he called the rent-a-camel office of Timbuktu and arranged for a "private" camel, but being unable to produce a camel driver's license, for which there is little call in Holland, he had to rent a driver as well.
Hotel Campement, Timbuktu
Hans returned just before supper, which was set up at long tables in the courtyard. He will not discuss his camel ride. He had asked me earlier which end goes down first. The front end, I told him. Burmeister thinks the camel may have pulled a switch.
Timbuktu is a village of mud huts and has changed little in the past 150 years, said Dr. Wellard, who took us on a walking tour. No European knew what lay south of the Sahara until 1826, when a Scotsman, Major Alexander Gordon Laing, decided to find the "fabled city" as it had been described in scattered reports. Laing set off on foot from Tripoli, progressed into unfriendly Hoggar country and across the frightful Tanezrouft Desert, where he was attacked by his own Tuareg escort. "His survival," said Dr. Wellard, as we stood before the house where he lived, "was due to the poor quality of Tuareg weapons, and his own willpower." Laing described his wounds in a letter to his father-in-law: "All fractures, from which most of the bone has come away. One cut on my left cheek, which fractured the jawbone and has divided the ear, a very unsightly wound; one over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe." It took Laing over a year to reach Timbuktu, where he stayed for a little more than a month. His last letter, on being ordered to leave, had an ominous message: "I regret to say the road is a vile one." He was never to travel it, for word had gone out to "destroy the infidel," and Laing was murdered a night or so later. Fortunately, travelers are no longer dispatched by the locals. The courtyard, around which our Moorish-style hotel was built, even boasted a flower bed, bordered by empty beer bottles stuck head down in the sand.
Florence has lost her hat. Burmeister said, "The manager will sell it back to her just before we leave." In the meantime, we have met the Minitrekkers.
Lindblad had contracted with London-based Minitrek Travels Ltd. for six Land Rovers and a truck. The British crew, or "campmasters," as they called themselves, included 34-year-old Mike Foster, leader of the expedition, four drivers, two driver-mechanics and two female cooks.
"From here on in, we're in British territory," said Burmeister, "and I don't know which will impress them most, my Harvard blazer or my athletic sweater from Holy Cross." Expedition equipment was being doled out in the courtyard of the hotel: sleeping bags, pillows, boxes of tissue called Babysoft, canteens and flashlights. We now each possessed three flashlights, but Africa is not called the Dark Continent for nothing. Mike made a speech about what we could expect from his crew and the Land Rovers. "Your drivers have all been here before and will be happy to answer questions, but please don't ask dumb questions if you see them cursing and sweating through a bad stretch of sand. Up at daybreak, please. Use a minimum of water and don't set your lunch plates on the wings [fenders] or boots [trunks] of the vehicles." Dr. John made a speech about lime-flavored salt tablets and invited us to show him whatever pills we might have brought along. Florence, who is married to a surgeon, had a sackful of samples. George was invited to demonstrate how to get into a sleeping bag and to say a few words. He said, "Once we leave Timbuktu, we'll really be in the desert."
Evelyn Stein spoke up. "Out on the desert, where do we uh—I mean...."
"Every evening we shall set up a loo tent," replied Mike quickly.
"Last year it blew away," said George.
After the meeting the manager announced that for our final dinner at the Hotel Campement we would be served roast sheep. There was no doubt that it was sheep, for it was still whole, having lost only its wool, and was sizzling on a skewer as it was lugged out by three waiters wrapped in tribal robes. The idea was to tear off hunks and eat them.
"This may be the time to take my red pill, or is it the blue pill? I never remember," said Burmeister, mimicking Florence.
"Soon we'll leave all this luxury behind," said George.
That evening Spike and Dick, the mechanics, made a last check of the vehicles. We were off the following morning, with three passengers to a Land Rover, for our journey across the wadis (dry river beds), reg (stony plains) and erg (sand seas). "We may see an addax in the erg," said Mike, but admitted that in 15 trips across the Tenere he had never seen an addax—a rare antelope—in the erg.
There are many things in the erg besides the addax, mainly camel dung, I noted in my journal, as we started out along an old caravan route.
The Land Rovers always proceeded in the same order, with Mike leading the way and checking to see that Brian was still behind him. Brian checked on Chris, Chris on Robin who looked for Charles, followed by Dick. Bringing up the rear was Spike, driving the heavy lorry that carried jerry cans filled with water, tea chests packed with food and kitchen equipment. Speed ranged from 25 to 35 mph. If the Land Rovers broke down or ran into trouble, the drivers blinked their lights and everyone stopped. Robin had a flat. By the expression on his face, I concluded that this was one of those times not to ask dumb questions such as "How come you stopped in this pile of camel dung?"
We were headed for savanna country. Here live primitive farmers, Wellard told us when we stopped for lunch. They belong to the Songhai tribe, a Negroid people once routed and enslaved by Tuareg warriors. Wrote Leo Africanus, a 16th-century Roman-educated Moor, "They lead a beastly kind of life, being utterly destitute of the use of reason, of dexterity, of intellect and of all arts."
After lunch we were off again, to drive until dusk, which became our daily pattern. The track was often rough, and the four-wheel-drive machines sloughed from side to side, bouncing over obstructions or into holes.
En route to Niamey
Going over a bump this afternoon, Lannan hit the roof so hard his pith helmet got jammed down over his ears. Charles blinked his lights.
As we approached Gao, en route to crossing the Mali border into Niger, Burmeister said that the animal corpses we had frequently seen along the track were members of last year's Lindblad group "who didn't make it." Mike said they were carcasses of goats and camels left to rot in the sun. The desert was also alive with bright birds and animals. Mike identified the kori bustard, red-billed hornbills, spur-winged plovers, chats, a red-billed oxpecker taking ticks from a camel, goshawks, fish eagles, two warthogs, a sand cat, the patas monkey and two red-fronted gazelles.
"There goes an Oriental slide-catcher," said Burmeister, as Hiroshi focused his camera on something indistinguishable to the rest of us. Takata pulled out a notebook and contributed some lines of beautiful Japanese script.
"Nothing is going to escape Hiroshi's lens," said Burmeister, "and Takata must be listing his slides: Grain of sand No. 1, Grain No. 2 and so forth. This trip will keep the Japanese think tank busy for years."
"The trouble is," said Evelyn Stein, "that every time I think I've found a nice, private rock to disappear behind, Hiroshi is taking pictures of it."
Darkness provided enough cover for getting out of our grimy clothes. Mike poured two inches of water into separate plastic basins, which we bore off" to wash first ourselves, then our intimate apparel. The nearest camel thornbush served as a clothesline. From atop the Land Rovers the crew unloaded the duffel bags and distributed folding cots. We chose our own sleeping sites, fanning out along the periphery of the parked vehicles, which always formed a square, bumper to tail, covered-wagon style. Hans, who hurtled out of his Land Rover the minute it stopped, always wound up with the most dung-free spot. Inside the square, Viv and Sheila, the cooks, lit the petrol stoves and got out the can openers, cranking open our evening fare.
What is this? Howard Johnson's has come to the desert? I wrote in my journal, having watched the crew set up tables and folding chairs in the sand, then string battery-run lights over the dining area. This was obviously a Lindblad touch, a bow to luxury, and the most disconcerting note of the trip. The crew ate together, separately, in a chaos of pots and pans and empty cans, jumping up to serve us, which created, intentionally or not, a master-slave relationship.
Suzanne, the ex-horse trainer, always refused soup, meat and salad, serving herself a small portion of tinned vegetables. She often refused food altogether, but everyone knew she had a secret cache of cheese and crackers in her sausage. One by one the group is coming down with the Tenere trots. Dr. John is dispensing Lomotil like confetti. He did not think pork a good idea tonight. Neither did I.
In Gao, a riverport town with a post office, word had come that two Minitrekkers, with another group in Timbuktu, had been placed under house arrest for photographing giraffe without a permit. They were awaiting the disposition of the "gendarmerie de girafe."
We were now traveling through the watered valley of the Niger, land of the tribe Peulh (pronounced Pearl), cattle breeders of the Sahara. Goats, horses, camels and cows with humps abounded, as well as a few giraffe. After the evening meal Wellard launched into his "cultural" lecture and tried to arouse interest in the group with little-known facts about the Sahara and its people "In Peulh fertility rites only the men dance, dressed and painted like women." Silence, except for the clinking of coffee cups. "More people die by drowning in the Sahara than for any other reason, washed away in, annual flash floods or by falling into wells." No response. "According to legend, there is a reason for the arrogance of the camel. The Koran lists 99 different names for Allah. Only the camel has been told the 100th. I've always thought that a rather charming story." Not a flicker. Wellard sighed and sat down, which was the cue for the group to rise and retire. Shortly, the crew followed, exhausted by the day's driving, serving and washing up. The sands of the Sahara might as well have been confined to an hourglass. Were it not for Burmeister, I think Dr. Wellard might pull a Laing and walk back to Timbuktu, preferring the perils of the desert to another evening with the group.
For all his clownishness, Burmeister was avidly interested in history and had an almost obsessive mania for collecting facts. He often had private sessions with the dispirited Dr. Wellard. Gareth was also beginning to be turned on by the trip. He had sold his T shirt and socks to buy another roll of film in Niamey.
At night the sky became a theater, lit up with shooting stars that darted out like chorus girls. Enter left, exit right. Warm in my sleeping bag, I stared up at the Plow overhead, then, waiting for the Southern Cross to appear, drifted off to sleep. Burmeister always boasted that he'd seen the Southern Cross.
On cold mornings Brian and Chris often wore the native burnous and cheche. They were real "desert rats." Chris had once traveled from Agadez to Bilma, a 19-day trip, in a camel caravan. Brian had abandoned England for Morocco, where he hoped to open a campsite for desert travelers. "If we got into trouble, Chris would be the one to survive," said Mike. Charles, however, was a proper Englishman, bearded and esthetic.
Charles deplores, or pretends to, everything American. I find myself defending Cup-A-Soup, Duraflame logs, booties for poodles and central heating against homemade everything, natural wood, foxhounds and the fireplace. I have noticed before that the minute I set foot on foreign soil I turn red, white and blue.
Most frequently I rode with Robin, who had studied engineering but had given it up to join Minitrek. He was restless, drove with less patience than the others and pretended to be cross when I absentmindedly left personal laundry hanging on camel thorns.
"Why are you wearing only one sock?"
"The other one blew away last night."
The Land Rovers suffered only minor mishaps—another flat tire (Robin) and a shattered windshield (Chris). On the banks of the Niger, Spike's heavy lorry sank into a bog and had to be pulled out by the Land Rovers.
We had pilchards today for lunch. A pilchard is the poor man's kipper. Hans refused to eat, said he will never take another trip unless he is running it.
Burmeister said, "Hans will beat us all across the desert, running ahead of the Land Rovers."
Grand Hotel, Niamey
Met an African student named Oo Marou Maraa Madou and gave him some ballpoint pens.
The Grand Hotel at Niamey was grander than the Grand Hotel at Bamako, but it was a letdown to leave the desert, to which we were getting adjusted. Suddenly we were back in the world of white tablecloths, cavernous lobbies, carpeted halls, swimming pools and tours around the city. Pat Grandy, the computer programmer, went to dinner with George wearing a long black dress with a plunging neckline. Evelyn Stein went to a beauty parlor. I went to the supermarket, which is where I met Oo Marou Maraa Madou, who helped me select shampoo to replace the bottle I forgot in Dakar. The crew, which stayed at a less grand hotel a few blocks away, turned up two days later and we were off again. On the road to Agadez there were milestones with nothing written on them. A small village named Koria had only two grass huts and three cows, but there were larger, more prosperous villages with names like Dogondoutchi, Birni-Nkoni and Touha. Sometimes the villagers were friendly, saying "√áa va?" and asking for cadeaux. In more remote areas, children scattered like leaves at our approach. The temperature at Agadez was 104° in the shade, except there was no shade.
We left Agadez for a two-day trip into the nearby A√Ør Mountains, great slag heaps and bare, stony ridges dividing wadis filled with deep, soft sand. Mike thought we might see an addax in the erg. I thought I saw an ostrich in the distance and made such a clamor that Robin went sloughing through a wadi after it and almost got stuck, but it turned out to be a rock.
Robin has banned me from his Land Rover for two days, I recorded in my journal. Fortunately, he relented once we reached our campsite at Timia, and that evening we set off to find an African village, guided only by the sound of muffled tom-toms. Robin led the way through a grove of date palms, scrub and rock, but a camel thorn caught my sweater and by the time I disentangled myself, we were separated. He thought, of course, that I was right behind him; there is something about the silence of the desert that discourages conversation. I continued on alone, encouraged as the drumbeat grew louder. Then I was there, at the edge of a campsite. A group of natives walked toward me and, without a sound, formed a circle around me. The men, their faces painted, white streaks against the black, held spears. We stared at each other. No one made a move.
"√áa va?" I quavered, finally. The tallest of the tribe stepped forward with a great deal of dignity, took me by the hand and led me to where Robin stood near a leaping fire around which the villagers danced. Brian was there, too, in his burnous, dancing like a banshee.
The next afternoon as we approached Aoudras, Wellard warned us that we would be camping that night in "tall Tuareg" country, inhabited by a fierce, unpredictable tribe. He pointed to hills in the distance, pink in the setting sun. "That is where they live," he said. As darkness fell and the crew set up tables for our evening meal, brush fires began to spring up on the perimeter of our campsite. "Don't try to be friendly if they approach us, and don't pick a sleeping site too far from the Land Rovers," he cautioned. Anna Antopol covered her blonde hair with a wide-brimmed hat. Pam was visibly apprehensive.
As we sat down to eat, a drumbeat broke the silence, and a grunt came from behind one of the Land Rovers. "Stay seated," said Dr. Wellard quietly. The drumbeat grew louder, and then a figure at least nine feet tall emerged, still grunting. The top of the apparition, which was covered with a white sheet, rocked and swayed, then Brian lost his balance and toppled from Robin's shoulders. As we watched, still somewhat baffled, Mike appeared, pounding a bongo drum. Chris went off to put out the fires, and Wellard grinned. The crew laughed uproariously, pleased with what turned out to be their annual put-on.
Lots of wadis, but still no addax in the erg, I noted, when we got back to Agadez. Mike went off to fetch Aroutic El Rossi, the Tuareg guide who would see us across the terrible Tenere desert. Rossi was done up to his eyeballs in the dark blue burnous and cheche of his tribe. He was a rich man, said Mike, owning three wives and 700 camels. Once a khabeer, or leader of a camel caravan, Rossi had also been the chief guide for the French army's camel corps when they were still in the area. The Tuareg consider themselves "lords of the desert," still keep slaves to do manual labor, prefer tents to houses and are contemptuous of direct dealing in commerce. "It is a dying race," said Wellard, "but they are going out with style." No one knew where Rossi had acquired his Italian-sounding name. Amiable and bright, he looked like a plump Flip Wilson. Rossi complained to Mike of an affliction of the eyes, and Dr. John diagnosed it as conjunctivitis. Burmeister threw up his hands.
"First we get George, who is never quite sure where the desert begins; now we've got a Targui to guide us across the Tenere, but he happens to be suffering from an acute case of blindness."
"I've got him on antibiotics," said Dr. John.
That evening Mike gave us a rundown on the trip, which was expected to take four days. "Use a minimum of water. There is only one well between Agadez and Bilma, our next oasis, a distance of 450 miles, and there is a dead animal at the bottom of it."
"Now we know what happened to the addax in the erg," said Burmeister.
We started out at daybreak. Rossi rode with Spike in the lorry, which was in the lead, peering through the windshield, occasionally glancing down to study sand ripples. At rest stops the crew played Frisbee, and we came across two nomads sitting in the sand playing a sort of checkers, using small hunks of camel dung and bits of salt. Once off the track, the terrain was easy to drive on. We made 200 miles the first day, arriving early the next morning at Arbre du Tenere, the Last Tree. It was scrawny and twisted, kept alive by a small, sorry-looking well at which camels got their last drink before starting across the wasteland. Camel ticks, spiderlike insects with a nasty bite, crawled toward us. We stopped again, before lunch, to look for arrowheads, still there after 20,000 years, a link to the aborigines who hunted game when the Sahara was a fertile valley.
By late afternoon we were into the sand seas, and plunk, the truck and all the Land Rovers sank and stuck fast. Ladders attached to the sides of the Land Rovers were removed and planted under the wheels. They sank too and had to be dug out after the vehicle gunned its way over them, only to sink again. Perspiration, which usually evaporated as soon as it surfaced, now dripped as we slogged through the soft sand from one vehicle to the other, pushing and panting. George stopped pushing to take pictures.
"Lindblad likes me to take pictures," he said, though we had noticed that Lindblad's photos consisted largely of camels posed against the setting sun.
"I wouldn't call this much of a selling point," said Burmeister, sweating and pushing. Rossi stood nobly by, arms folded.
"Are you sure this is the place? It doesn't look like the brochure," said Burmeister, peering around at our desolate, sand-swept campsite when we stopped for the night.
"Where do we undress?" asked Evelyn. It was a dumb question.
We made it to Bilma the following afternoon, after only 2½ days. Robin had taken the prize for getting stuck in the sand—a total of six times.
George thinks it a mistake to stay at the Bilma Rest House. He says there is a better campsite with a nice stream farther along the track. Mike says it is a "swamp." Theo King says this is what happens when you have two leaders.
Bilma is an oasis situated behind sandstone escarpments, palmeries and gardens. It is famous for its salt mines and is a center for the forming of huge camel caravans, none of which formed as fast as the flies and mosquitoes.
"Once you get used to sand and flies in your food, you can hardly do without them," said Burmeister as we ate lunch on the porch of the Rest House, which came to be called the Pest House.
George is furious to discover that the crew has been harboring a secret refrigerator hitched up to the generator. All this time he thought they were drinking hot beer.
The undercurrent of hostility between George and Mike now surfaced, and George approached the group with the suggestion of a "mutiny." The group responded with characteristic lethargy and the matter was dropped. Even the news that the crew was getting fresh eggs and beans for breakfast while we choked down porridge with powdered milk aroused no great antipathy, for the group by and large liked the crew, and there were obviously not enough locally bought fresh eggs to go around. On such tenuous threads do mutinies hang.
The brochure had said that the Tenere "is subject to unpredictable sandstorms," and for once it was right. The next night a north wind came up, waking us before it was light. Sand lay over my sleeping bag like an extra blanket, filling my ears and stinging my eyes. The Land Rovers, only a few feet away, were barely visible. When I sat up my pillow took off like a plump, pink-striped bird and disappeared in a vortex of sand. Pam leaped off her cot, and her mattress followed my pillow. Lannan caught a hat as it sailed past his bed.
We were to continue on our way, said Mike, once we were dressed and huddling in the lee of the Land Rovers, since Rossi felt confident he could find his way. Visibility was zero as we started off. The vehicles stayed close together, almost bumper to bumper. Dimly, Rossi could be seen sitting high in the truck, gesturing left, then right.
"Sand ripples generally point in a northeasterly direction," said Chris, "but how he finds his way when the sand is blowing about...incredible." By late afternoon the worst of it was over. We settled down for our last night on the desert. Hiroshi honored the occasion by taking strobe shots.
This is not an arduous trip. There is nothing arduous about sitting in Land Rovers day after day. I sometimes feel like a sack of laundry being hauled about from place to place. Tomorrow we move into another blasted hotel.
It was not as bad as all that. In Djanet we stayed in grass huts, boasting doors that locked and electric lights that sometimes went on. We ate in a restaurant high on a hill and were served couscous with goat meat, although Burmeister said it was camel hump.
Trust Suzanne to have more Arabs than the rest of us, I wrote in my journal after the first night. Suzanne complained that three Arabs had tried to get into her room. Pat Grandy said an Arab in a long white robe stood patiently outside her door most of the night. I had my own Arab to report. Having ventured out late that night to find the loo, I soon got lost, having left my only remaining workable flashlight in Bilma. Wandering around the empty courtyard I became aware of footsteps following mine. "√áa va?" said a voice. I saw nothing except the tip of a glowing cigarette behind me. "I am looking for my room," I said in French, and told him the number. Still invisible, he guided me back to my room.
"Merci. Bonsoir," I said, and closed the door, my basic problem still unsolved. As I puzzled over what to do next, there was a soft tap at the door.
"Ouvrez la porte," whispered the voice, and like a broken record it continued the entreaty. "Ouvrez la porte, ouvrez la porte." Receiving no response, my Arab then crept around to the window with the same soft plea. I said loudly, "Allez!" My Arab bowed, raised his hand in a sign of peace and disappeared. All was silence. I considered my problem. Should I venture forth again, or was he still out there lurking with his ouvrez la portes? Then the solution came to me. Robin had given me an extra canteen, and Burmeister had half-filled it with cognac. First I drank the cognac, then used the canteen and went tipsily to bed. Necessity is the mother of all sorts of inventions.
"Show me this Monsieur La Porte and I'll bop him," said Robin.
Our last jaunt was to be a two-day trek into the Tassili Mountains. Hans and Suzanne stayed behind. Suzanne said she did not have proper hiking shoes. Hans said he did not have the stamina.
Out of the Land Rovers at last, we climbed up and over the rocky slopes to camp at 2,000 feet, preceded by donkeys carrying our equipment. Dr. Wellard took us to see cave paintings dating back to 8,000 B.C. and after dinner gave his usual erudite lecture to his usual inattentive audience, after which everyone went to bed in sleeping bags minus cots, perched on slabs of rock under the grotesque outcroppings of overhanging cliffs. The good old North wind came up that night, and by morning the temperature had unexpectedly dropped to 22°. We held cups of hot coffee with frozen fingers, then stumbled down the slopes, shivering in our lightweight clothes.
Our remaining hours in Djanet were taken up with packing and returning our expedition equipment.
Mike said, "Where is your pillow?"
"Blew away in the sand storm."
"Where is your flashlight?"
Robin said, "Where is my canteen?"
"In my room—uh—soaking." I had kept that part of the Arabic adventure to myself. We said goodby to the Minitrekkers at the Djanet airport. We were sorry not to have seen the addax in the erg, but as Burmeister said, "Maybe the addax in the erg saw us."
Arbre du Tenere
[Dotted Line]Land Rover