Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Becalmed in the desert

The Sahara

In the wind
We've been tourists for a couple of days, going with our own driver and guide into the Sahara and staying overnight.

I sent a couple of WhatsApp messages to my 'children and their partners' group;
Seriously perception changing - and challenging. I have to admit being very unsettled for a short while as we drove in the 4wd into the dunes. People really actually die here. In the summer (not now), five hours without water and that's it. But these chaps come from here - our guide (27 yrs) lived the first few years of his life in tents in the desert. Fascinating. xx
We looked at the stars. Like milk they were. I don't think I've ever seen them like that. The whole experience is overwhelming - I'll need time to process. This is unlike anywhere I've been. In a tiny way, but more than I could never have hoped, I know what the desert is and what it means to be in it. I'm grateful to have seen it. xx
It made me think of being at sea and in the mountains; impressive and humbling - and dangerous.

Angelika, camel and handler

You may know that El Camello (or the camel) is our nickname for the motorbike. Well, the Pillion got to ride a camel alone.

What Larbi told us
Larbi was our guide into the desert. He's 27 and comes from a Touareg family. He spent the first few years of his life living nomadically, herding goats and camels. His family now live in the last village at the end of the road where the sands begin, M'Hamid. We were honoured to have tea with them in their home. Angelika was given a gown as a gift.

Larbi is a masters educated student. When he was at university, they had to study linguistics by reading the American Noam Chomsky. He couldn't afford the book, but his friend managed to print an illegal copy - but was unable to understand it. Larbi did a deal with him, borrowed the book, read it over a few days and then taught it to him. They both passed their essays.

This means he is more clever than I am. When I read Chomsky as a student, I couldn't understand it either. But I had no Larbi to help.

He was phased by none of our questions on any topic and we learned much from him. He often prefaced his answers with 'I want to tell you this, Mr. Simon'. I became quite fond of this phrase over our two intense days together. It always prefaced interesting insights.

Larbi, watering wild donkeys

Peoples: The Berbers are the original inhabitants of this area, they are an ethnic group. Their language has four main dialects. They are feisty. The terms 'Bedouin' and 'Touareg' denote ways of life rather than ethnicities. The Bedouin are desert dwellers but not nomadic. They are farmers. The Touareg are nomadic. Historically they were the desert traders, carrying ivory, gold, salt and clothing from the north to - amongst other places - Timbuctou. Latterly, they have been herdsmen of camels and goats (but not sheep which can't survive the in the desert).

The Desert is made up of three components. The first Larbi called 'black rock' (see photo above). It's a hard clay covered in small, dark rocks. Little grows in it. The second is the sand dunes. Nothing grows in it. The third, which we didn't see, is softer ground that will accommodate growth when the rare rains occur.

Alfalfa is harvested for two purposes. It feeds the animals and is also used to make green dye to colour carpets and clothing. It's very common to see (mainly) women carrying huge loads of it along the roadsides.

The Draa Valley

The Draa Valley
 The Draa river is the second longest in Morocco. Its valley is the traditional route of the Touareg caravans from the north. We drove along it on our expedition.

Its population is now a mere 25% of thirty or so years ago. This is because the dam that was built close to where we are currently staying in Ouarzazate has robbed it of its water.

Camels are extraordinary. In the highest summer heat, their humps disappear because the fat in them 'melts' to cover their bodies to protect them from the temperature.

There are no wild camels. A mature adult male costs around €1500. Female camels are not used for carrying loads, they are too valuable as producers of young.

Survival: Those who don't know the desert are at risk in it. Those who do know it, know where there is water. And water is the beginning and end of survival there. When Larbi would go with his brother on a four or five-day trek to, for example, recover camels, they would only carry a litre or so of water because they knew where to find it. Their food would mainly be dates. They took weapons 'because there are no police there'.

The authorities: Larbi has a view on those.

All-in-all he was splendid company. He tells me he may go to live in Turkey next year, like many of his friends since there is no work here for those from outside the elite. I believe he'll do well at whatever he attempts, I certainly hope so.

The reason we had time for the excursion is because we're waiting (longer than we'd hoped) for deliveries from home to replace items lost in 'the incident'.

One has arrived. The other, we learn from the tracking information, won't be here for a further four days. Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal beckon. What to do? Decisions must be made.

It won't surprise you to find that our delicate western gastro-intestinal systems have responded to different food, water and attitudes to dietary hygiene (the Pillion's more than the Pilot's). That this seems have become consistent is a small concern. Let's hope it changes as we move along.

Whether it's the food, dehydration (we're at 1200 mtrs and it's occaaionally hot and always dry) or whatever it is (both the aforementioned can be contributors) my historic issue with stomach acid has reoccured. It's not a terrible thing, but it stops me sleeping and being tired is not good.

Just to make a trio, the pills I take to control a facial skin condition (rosacea for the medically-minded) seem to have stopped working. They do that, I know. I need to find a solution or I'll end up spotty-faced and possibly scarred.

However, we did discover that here one can buy, over the counter, drugs only available on prescription at home.

No Man's Land
I've finally fully understood the nature of the 'Red Zone' that exists - as declared by the UK government's travel advice - on the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania.

UK government travel advice
The FB West Africa Travellers group and its associated WhatsApp and the Morocco and Mauritania WhatsApp groups that I belong to are wonderful congregations of people adventuring in these places. They constitute a fabulous community of interested, helpful, knowledgeable folk.

I'm currently in conversation with three Africa Twin (our bike) riders in these parts and might team up with one for the desert ride through Western Sahara. One was able to recommend a mechanic to service the bike in Senegal.

Anyway, what I now know, because it's been explained to me by those who've been there recently, the 'no go' zone between Western Sahara and Mauritania is a 'fifteen minute sprint' on, I think, unsurfaced road, across an unpoliced (although the UN are sometimes there), neutral zone between the two countries. Doesn't sound so bad.

It's a regularly traversed terrain and we'll be there in the next couple of weeks or so.


  1. The photos in this post are stunning. So interesting to hear about the experiences of your guide. Missing you and cheering you on. Let us know as you approach the neutral zone x

  2. The desert scenery reminds me of Jordan, such a wonderful trip that was. Good luck with the 15 minute sprint...


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