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Live experience from the Sahara desert, the mask in uncovered

We had been marching for eight days without seeing a living soul. All around our tiny caravan of three camels lay the terrible emptiness of the sand-sea. The color of the dunes fluctuated steadily from red to apricot, umber, brown ocher and salmon pink. Our Moorish guide Mafoudh cast around continually for any sign of tracks, bones or droppings that might indicate a well nearby. Every few minutes his eyes wandered toward the last of our water, swishing plaintively at the bottom of our goatskins. I could see fear on his face as he grappled with the equation that is the basic algebra of every nomad's existence:

Water equals life. Only the previous day, Mafoudh had missed the well of Tagouraret in Mauritania's Aouker Valley. Today we had missed two more wells, and our water was down to a few liters. I knew that we could stay alive for about a day without water in this summer heat. I wondered why Mafoudh, normally unerring, should have lost the way so easily. The nomads said there were evil spirits (jinn) that lived in the open desert, and could spin your head around until you couldn't tell west from east. I began to wonder whether a jinn had really got to Mafoudh. It was these evil spirits we had been warned about when my wife Mariantonietta and I had set off from Chinguetti, in central Mauritania, in August.

"The desert is full of jinn at this time of year," our Moorish neighbors told us, "Even the nomads won't travel in summer!" But, jinn or not, we had no choice but to start then. We had set out to become the first Westerners ever to cross the Sahara from west to east, by camel and on foot. Our route was to take us through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan and Egypt, a total distance of 4,500 miles. We had reckoned that the journey would take nine months to complete. If we had set off any later than August it would have meant getting stuck in the hyper-arid eastern Sahara in the following hot season, just as we were at our weakest. Now, bent over our saddles with the kidney pains of thirst, we began to regret our decision. The desert seemed on fire. There was no sound but the shuffle of the camels' feet on the sand. Three silver-slashed gazelles leapt across our path, kicking up tiny puffs of dust. "We should be like the gazelles," one of our guides croaked through cracked lips. "They only drink on Fridays!" Just then something made him jerk upright with excitement: In the far distance was a frail curl of blue smoke, like a giant feather across the horizon. It could only be a nomad camp. When we arrived there, just before sunset, an old man with bent and broken teeth came running out to greet us. "Welcome!" he said, "welcome to the guests!" I understood as I never had before the supreme value placed on hospitality in the Sahara: It was more than a custom, it was a means of survival. The huge bowl of goat's milk he handed round was the best thing I've ever tasted. During the hot months we rarely managed to travel more than 10 hours a day. We would load the camels as the crimson of fools' dawn spread across the night sky like a knife wound. In the cool of morning we would walk with the camels, letting them pause to graze on dried grass and stunted shrubs. As the sun tightened into a glowing white fireball, we would swing into the saddle, riding on until the solid wall of noon heat stopped us. Then we would unload our camels, picking angrily at knots that had seized up during the morning, and erect a shelter of blankets to curl up under as the camels hunted for their browse. Some days it was so hot at noon that the camels couldn't even shift themselves to eat the coarse halfa grass beneath them. Our heads were full of dreams of surf, and Seven-Up, and swimming pools. Each of our nine guides was a distinct window into the realities of life in the Sahara. Most had been brought up as nomads, and some had known no other life than that of the tent and the constant movement from pasture to water and back again.

The nomadic tribes of the Sahara -- Moors, Arabs, Tuaregs and Toubou -- raise camels, goats and sheep, which feed on the rough grasses and trees of the desert. But over the past two decades, the Sahara has been hit by unprecedented drought and famine. Several of our guides represented the huge number of nomads who had fled to towns when their animals died in the drought. Sidi Mohammid, an Arab from Mali, accompanied us from Timbuktu, Mali, to Agadez, Niger. He was fluent in three languages, but his many skills learned in childhood had not prepared him for life in the city. He had entered Libya by camel, looking for work. But the Libyans had arrested and imprisoned him. He had eventually escaped and made his way back to Timbuktu, where he lived in a strange limbo, an outcast of two cultures. He took occasional jobs, guiding tourists in motor vehicles. In the eastern Sahara we traveled with an old desert Arab, Adem, who hadn't been to a town for 20 years and had no wish to return to one. His attitude represented that of most desert dwellers we encountered: They called the towns "the place where tracks get confused." "There's nothing in the town but people trying to get your money off you!" Adem told me. For us, though, the town of Agadez was a psychological halfway house. It was a bustling desert market, where veiled Tuaregs from the Air mountains mingled with lean Fulani cattle nomads from the grasslands further south. The two races might have belonged to different planets: the Tuareg with their high-rise headcloths and narrow eye-slits, their swirling robes and their long swords in leather baldrics; the Fulani with their skin-tight leopard-skin pantaloons and their sombreros, sheaves of spears thrust across their shoulders. The street stalls and the camel market were, as usual, dominated by the Moors, a great trading people whose tentacles reach out across the Sahara in all directions. When we set off from Agadez with a caravan of five fresh camels, temperatures had plummeted to zero. In summer, the camels had needed watering every four days. Now they could march for a month without drinking. Gone was the necessity for midday halts. Instead we took advantage of the cooler days, traveling from dawn to sunset. Our Tuareg guide Udungu reminded us often of the jinn to be found in the open desert. "Don't laugh at the jinn!" he told us. "They make you think you know the way when you don't!" With Udungu we crossed Niger's great Erg of Te'ne're', where salt caravans still ply back and forth, carrying pillars of salt from the oases of Fachi and Bilma. We saw no jinn in the great erg: Indeed, for 17 days we saw not even a rock, a tree or a single blade of grass, only the smooth, rippled sand going on forever. It was in the Te'ne're' that we ran into a powerful sandstorm. It blew constantly for two days, slamming at our heads, whispering in strange tongues, drowning our senses under its tuneless bagpipe haw. It showed us how incredibly dangerous this featureless sand-sea could be. Only two years previously, the wife of the Prefect of Agadez had set out across the erg in a Land Rover, with a driver, her two children and the best guide in the area. The vehicle had become lost in the sands, and it was nine days before they found the bodies, mummified by the sun. "It was jinn that did that!" Udungu told us. "How could the best guide in the area lose his way? A jinn got into his head!" The oasis of Fachi was the jewel of the sands. We arrived there on Christmas Eve, and it was the best present we could have imagined. Built as a fortress against raids by Tuareg nomads, it was an island of green in an ocean of sand. For generations its diffident Beriberi inhabitants had guarded its gardens and palm groves, but now its streets were crumbling and derelict. Through narrow doorways, purposely designed so that a man could not pass through without turning sideways, we glimpsed the fleeting shadows of Beriberi women. They seemed the true spirits of the Te'ne're'. Beyond Bilma we entered the more dangerous bandit country of the eastern Sahara. The arid sands of the Great Erg of Bilma were empty except for the occasional tent of palm fiber belonging to the Toubou, black nomads once feared as raiders as far east as the Nile. The story goes that a Toubou can live for three days on a single date: On the first day he eats the skin, on the second the flesh and on the third the stone. Certainly, the Toubou we saw in the Great Erg lived on the very edge of survival. Their few camels and goats fed on the evergreen arak trees, which manage to live here thanks to their extra-long roots. The nomads thrived on the milk of goats and camels, but the scarcity of grazing land in the erg made it essential for them to move pastures often. Everything they owned had to be light enough to be carried on their camels. Their entire lives were spent in the quest for grazing grounds and water. In Chad, the jinn took on a more human form. The Chadian police arrested us twice. The first time they confiscated our camels and sent us under guard to the National Security Headquarters in N'Djamena. They didn't seem to believe we were tourists. There were no tourists anyway, since the war with Libya, and if there were they wouldn't come riding camels and wearing filthy Arab clothes. They kept us sitting in the sun in a back yard for an entire day. Finally a man called us over and presented us with a signed paper. It was an authorization to cross Chad by the land route. We collected our camels and set off to cross the 600 miles that lay between us and the Sudanese border. We were traveling alone now, without a guide. Nine days later the police arrested us again. We presented our authorization, but they were not impressed. It didn't mention the word "camel," they told us. It took us three days, rattling about among goats on the back of a truck, to get back to the capital. At the National Security Headquarters, the director met us with a broad smile. "There seems to have been a mistake!" he said. We collected our camels for the second time, only to face a new kind of danger. For five nights hyenas ran chuckling around our camp near Abe'che' in Chad. We learned afterward that the beasts often kill livestock and people traveling alone; they leave their holes after sunset, announcing their presence with bloodcurdling cries. When banging pots and building up the fire failed to frighten them off, we resorted to our only weapon: a set of distress flares. But the worst enemy we faced on the latter part of the journey was not hyenas or even the police: It was the fear of ourselves. Alone in the eastern Sahara, 200 miles from the nearest village, in an unchanging landscape of sand and rock, we began to lose touch with reality. We had driven ourselves beyond the normal limits of our endurance, and now we entered a surreal dimension where grim figures seemed to follow us, only to disappear when we turned our heads. At night we heard spectral footsteps, and the flickering shadows amongst the rocks seemed to be alive with a malevolent power. Worse than that, both of us sensed inside ourselves the presence of strange, primitive, violent beings we hardly knew. "I keep thinking that I might change into a werewolf or a vampire," Mariantonietta said, "and cut your throat while you're asleep!" They were chilling words to hear from my wife, 200 miles from the nearest settlement. I understood then that the nomads were right. There were jinn in the Sahara, but they weren't in the sands: They were inside our own heads. Traveling as the desert nomads do exposed us to many dangers: the threat of death by thirst, of madness and disorientation, of attack by bandits, wild animals and suspicious authorities. But marching "on the hoof" permitted us to feel the size of the planet, its vastness and its smallness, in a way we never could haveby distance-shrinking motor vehicle. Once, in Mali, we witnessed a total eclipse of the moon. Seeing the shadow of our planet suddenly cast on the screen of her satellite in these desert surroundings was a magical experience. We almost expected to see our own shadows there upon it. It seemed scarcely credible that a vast river could exist in this emptiness, but it was there: 271 days after leaving Chinguetti, our journey ended on the banks of the Nile, at Abu Simbel in Egypt. The Egyptian border police told us that we could no longer proceed by camel. Instead, they put us on a bus full of tourists, under the shadow of the great statues of Ramses II. It seemed an ironic end for the longest trek ever made by Westerners in the Sahara -- 4,500 miles by camel and on foot, from the Atlantic to the Nile. Michael Asher is the author of "In Search of the Forty Days Road" and "Slow Boats to China." His new book, "The Impossible Journey," will be published by William Morrow & Co. in the fall. thanks

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Aouker Valley Mafoudh Moorish Sahara Tagouraret


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