Thirst, camels and fishy pasta – or how it is to walk through the Sahara. And a little bit on how to measure remoteness with Coca-Cola.
18.05.2016 - 23.05.2016 43 °C
The thirst was the worst part. I wanted something to drink constantly. No more than twenty seconds would pass by from a mouthful of water had been swallowed until I wanted to take another sip. But I had to walk it off, rationing my drinking to every half hour or so. Otherwise, we’d run our of water.
I didn’t expect walking through the Sahara would be easy, but my need for water surprised me – I would easily go through 8-10 litres a day – and I usually handle extreme heat well… The afternoons, in particular, were though, when the temperature, in the shade, rose to 40-45 degrees. Do I need to say that there isn’t much shade in the Sahara? And what shade we could find was only any help during our breaks. The hours walking would be endured in the burning sun. It all reminded me of when I was 18, and my parents took my sister and me on a vacation to Egypt. Temperatures there were high too and at some point one of the other tourists placed his electric thermometer on a rock in the sun to see how hot it was out of the shade. The thermometer crashed at 63 degrees, and we never got the final answer.
However, this trek was the main reason I had ventured out into the Sahara. While it is impossible to join a real Tuareg caravan – unless you bring a camera crew and the backing of a large broadcasting network (again, I’m looking at you, Michael Palin). Luckily, it’s possible to arrange one yourself. The word ‘caravan’ might be overdoing it as we only had one camel and that doesn’t really make a caravan, but the idea is the same. Anyway, what was eventually a ‘camel trek’ was my effort to follow in the footsteps of some of history’s most remarkable travellers. The caravans were the ships of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Connecting the Mediterranean, China, the Indian Ocean and Sub-Saharan Africa these traders (and their camels) brought silk, ebony, gold, wild animals and much more to Europe. From Mauritania and Morocco traders would regularly cross the Sahara or travel the length of it by foot. If you have ever visited Morocco or Egypt (or just seen the pictures in the brochures), you might have the idea that camels are for riding. That is only the case for the sick and the fatigue (and the worrier, but that’s another story). The traders of the caravans would walk. Camels are pack-animals here, and the load they carried was goods only. Using precious camel-power to carry the merchants themselves would limit the potential profit. So better pack a few extra kilos of products on the camels and then walk by its side. So that’s what I did.
Every morning Ali – my nomad guide and ‘camel-driver’ – and I would get up with the sun, around six a.m. He would brew tea, and we would eat the bread he had baked in the sand the previous night. Sidenote: Baking in the sand is simple: First, light a fire to heat the sand beneath it and push the fire aside when the sand is hot. Then, put the flat, raw dough in the sand and cover it with more sand. Third, light another fire next to the buried dough downwind so that the flames will heat the sand covering the doe. Once you have followed those three easy steps, let the soon-to-be-bread linger there for half an hour, after which it’s possible to uncover a baked piece of bread. Brush off the few grain of sand that sticks and voila – you have breakfast. Even through Ali put plenty of sugar in the tea, three shots of tea and a loaf bread is not a lot of energy to start our walk on. This tended to be an issue, as I would get hungry again within a few hours. But I’m not one to complain, so I didn’t.
Before we could leave, however, Ali had to find his camel. Yes, find it. In the Sahara. Camels aren’t tied down overnight as you’d might expect. Instead, Ali would tie its two front legs together, reducing any steps the camel could take to ten centimetres or so. This limits the camel’s range, but during the night, it’s still possible for it to get quite far on ten centimetre-steps. Often the camel would be out of sight by the morning, and Ali would then have to track it down.
Once the camel had been found and packed, we would walk for three to four hours continuously. No breaks, just keep walking. The only times we would pause was when Ali stopped for a few seconds to navigate, which he did by the sun. Our route was pretty easy, though. Due west for the first three days, then west, south-west for the final two. I could probably have asked for breaks, but Ali didn’t stop me, and I didn’t stop him. Something that Ali did praise me for – if I should brag but a little – and we could easily have done the trek in four days, not five. Though it’s still wouldn’t be the three days Ali would use to cover those 90 kilometres had he been by himself.
We would break from the afternoon heat around 11 and seek shelter from the sun under one of the few trees around. They don’t provide a lot of shade, but it’s better than nothing. Lunch (and dinner) would be rice or pasta with onion and canned sardines – all five days. Not very exciting, but it can stand the heat; obviously a decent quality of food out here. We would stay in the shade until four in the afternoon. Besides lunch, and drinking tea, there isn’t really much else do to than nap and read. So I have now finished the one book I brought with me…
The afternoon walks were the tough ones. While they only lasted for two hours, and the lunch had somewhat re-energised me, the heat was tormenting. The sun's rays had become ridiculously hot during the afternoon – the best resemblance I can come up with is standing too close to a giant bonfire. The morning walk would also still be in my legs, and I spend most afternoons watching the minutes pass by on my watch, wishing that it would be quicker. Once we’d stopped for the day, more tea was served before we would have another fishy serving of rice or pasta and once the sun had set, around nine, I was usually ready to crash on the thin blanket that, laid out in the sand, pretended to be a proper camp.
So passed the days. When so much of my day was spend walking and staring at the sand, there’s a lot of time for thinking. Just to give an example, in my head I manage to rewrite and perfect my opening line for a stage play I did during my first year of high school... hat was 15(!) years ago. I also came up with a range of lines worthy of Hemmingway for this blog, all of which (except this one) I have since forgotten. In general, I felt good. Sure, it was a challenge, but I wasn’t too exhausted, too thirsty (despite what I wrote above) and my legs weren't too sore – but I guess that is all relative. A notable exception was the second day when the strong winds that have followed me ever since Western Sahara suddenly decided to leave me alone. This made the heat (even more) unbearable, and I profoundly struggled through the second day. On the other hand, on the fourth day we were ahead of time and only walked for an hour-and-a-half before reaching an oasis for our mid-day break, meaning that most of the day was spend lying around during nothing – absolutely bliss. Even after that we still manage to arrive at the final oasis of Terjit before noon on the fifth day, giving me an extra half day to regroup.
And just to end this blog on another little side note: There are a few “travellers’ rules” to figure out when you are somewhere really remote – somewhere truly off the beaten track. I usually go with the ‘Coca-Cola Rule’. It’s a pretty simple, but clear, rule: Just ask the question, “is it possible to buy a Coca-Cola or is there any Coca-Cola merchandise [signs, parasols, small plastic tables, etc.] around?” If neither of those two criteria are fulfilled, you can indeed claim to be somewhere remote. The UN have actually considered using Coca-Cola’s deliverance system to provide humanitarian aid to isolated provinces, simply because the company is so efficient in spewing itself out everywhere. Though, neither in Chinguetti, Ouadane nor on the trek was there any signs of Coca-Cola, but as soon as we walked into Terjit, I saw a Coca-Cola poster. Though they didn’t have any Coca-Colas I could celebrate my arrival with (alcohol is illegal in Mauritania), it still marked the point where I knew that I had returned successfully from the desert.
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