Chapter 6M

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

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More Trade-off, and a Final One


After a minute of silence the lieutenant confessed: ‘Tm afraid I had to promise him more than the shoes.”


The officer explained that the nomads wanted us to help them hunt a gazelle. They didn’t want to kill their sheep or goats at that time of the year, he elaborated, but they wanted meat. They couldn’t hunt the gazelles on foot, because they’d grown wary and wouldn’t let men get that close, nor could they hunt from their camels, because the gazelles were too fast. So the nomad chief told the officer they wanted to hunt from our car.

I told the officer I thought it was ridiculous. He said the nomads didn’t think so.

I told the officer I wouldn’t do it.

He said I would. “You can’t refuse, or the nomads will be angry. I have already told them you were a great hunter in America. The chief expects you back as soon as you give the food to your men. But don’t worry, I’ll go with you. I would let them use my Land Rover, but the top doesn’t come of and the chief wants to be able to shoot from the car. Besides, the Army already warned me-here, have some milk.”

Not without misgivings, but without much alternative, Al and I took the canvas top off the Land Cruiser and emptied our the supplies, leaving the others behind to guard them and the crippled trailer. When we drove into the encampment the nomads were hopping happily up and down as if l were some sort of brown-bearded Santa Claus about to give them a ride in his sleigh.

In a twinkling, eleven of them had jammed into the back of the car, all chuckling and talking and joking and spitting on the upholstery. They smelled as if they’d had scampi and garlic bread for dinner, and their last bath a year ago. They were all jammed together in the back, all trying to stand up at the same time, all ready for action, their guns bristling in every direction, so that the Land Cruiser resembled nothing so much as a red porcupine. They had a specimen of almost every piece of armament in the books-270’s and 30.0’s and 30-30’s and even a twelve-gauge shotgun. I expected one of them to go running back for their trench mortar. The chief had the best rife in the bunch, a shiny new Magnum Express that could easily dispatch an elephant. One little old nomad who reminded me of Sneezy the Dwarf came running up with a blunderbuss that looked as if it must have been left over from the war-the War of 1812. There didn’t seem to be any room for him, so he scooted over me and wedged himself right behind the driver’s seat, his powderhorn swinging against the back of my neck as we headed off into the desert.

I drove, Al scouted from the window seat, and the officer sat between us up front, pointing out the way through a haze of cigar smoke.

When I complained that I didn’t really think it was ethical to shoot an animal from a moving car, all I got for my trouble was a lecture from the lieutenant about the survival of the fittest and the laws of the desert and that the animals belonged to the nomads and that Americans couldn’t understand because they were always fat and well-fed.

Al cut in to point out that our nomad friends had far from empty bellies and probably enough treasure stashed away to buy a controlling interest in IBM, when the officer turned out the headlights. The light could be seen for fifteen or twenty miles in the clear desert air, he explained, and would spook any game around.

He might as well have blindfolded me, the thin slice of fading moon gave so little light. I was soon driving more by touch than by sight, and I seemed to be touching every ditch, rock, mound, bump, and hole west of El Alamein. I was down to fifteen miles an hour, but the results were still devastating.

I was cinched in tight with my safety belt, but still seemed to be steering with my stomach and shifting with my knees most of the time, with the little nomad swaying back and forth over my head like a yoyo, spilling gunpowder down my neck. The car sounded as if it would break apart, and I began to wonder if this was a technique our khakied friend taught at his demolition school.

After a shaken-up eternity, someone spotted a gazelle, far to the southwest, silhouetted against the night sky. I reluctantly increased speed, heading toward it, my lights still out, wishing I’d installed radar in the car instead of a Ramsey winch. When the nomads opened fire, first I thought a small volcano had erupted under us. Then the little nomad behind me discharged his blunderbuss, sending smoke and fumes and grapeshot all over the place. I knew it was Vesuvius. The nomads urged me forward, but with the bouncing of the car in the dark, I don’t know how they hoped to hit anything edible. Half the shots were winging off in the direction of Uranus, and two or three peppered the dirt in front of us. I couldn’t see a thing through smoke and smell, and the only thing I was certain of was that the gazelle was a lot safer than I.

Later, as we drove back toward our camp, Al said to the lieutenant, “I hope the nomad chief wasn’t too disappointed about not getting a gazelle.”

“I don’t think so,” the officer smiled. “He’s always wanted a ride in an automobile. And-oh yes-he wonders if you might have another pair of shoes. A little smaller.”

All the next day, we toiled in the scorching desert sun, nailing and boarding the camper floor back together, pounding the buckled sides into place, straightening the struts underneath. The following morning, I took the axle and one of our spare spindles to the welding shop in Tobruk. It was late afternoon before the work was finished and we were ready to roll. We’d lost two full days, and the undercarriage still had three bad cracks that we’d have to weld in Cairo, but at least we were back on the road. Our Sahara adventure was finished. We’d overturned the small trailer twice, smashed the camper, broken an axle, snapped a spindle; we’d been attacked by leeches and flying crabs, looted by robbers; we’d fallen out of moving cars, been caught in sand traps, baked by the ghibli, and stranded in the desert. But we were pushing on.

Just as we were leaving, the little nomad came trotting over to our camp on his camel. The chief had sent him. Did we happen to have any shoe polish? Brown?

Arrival in Cairo in the next Chapter…

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Chapter 6L

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

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Unexpected Help, With a Trade-off


We were preparing to settle down for a parched and hungry night when a green Land Rover pulled up beside us, and out jumped a young Libyan Army lieutenant who offered us his canteen. No genie jumping out of a lamp could have materialized at a better time.

The lieutenant was an instructor at a desert camp near the Egyptian border, about 50 miles distant, where he taught guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency techniques, demolition, traps, and sabotage to a band of commando trainees. He’d been home on leave to Benghazi to visit his wife, he explained, and was returning to his camp when he saw us.

I asked if he had any food, and he thought for a moment, then pointed south, into the desert. “We will get food from the nomads. They are passing through here on their way to summer pasture in the hills. I visited their camp a few days ago.”

“But aren’t the nomads dangerous? Don’t they beat up strangers, and rob them?” Woodrow asked.

“Only the nomads with the five-sided tents; even I stay away from them. But these are different, and they will not bother you if I am with you.”

“You mean they’re afraid of the army?” Al asked.

“Not at all. We have no control over them. When we got our independence, we promised the nomads they could come and go as they pleased. We let them keep all their guns. They have no passports; they cross the borders as they wish. Our country is trying to persuade them to settle down and become farmers, but it will take years. It is difficult to build a nation when half its people are never in the same place from one month to the next. But they are too proud to be told what to do. It was their great-great-ancestors who destroyed the towns along the coast when the Romans left, and it was their sheep and camels a thousand years ago who pastured on the farms and ate all the grasses and pulled down all the forests. Our legends tell us that once a man could walk all the way from Tripoli to Tangier in the shade of trees and gardens, but these nomads destroyed them all. They want to stay with their old ways. Every year more of them die. When there is no rain and no grass, you see everywhere the bones of their baby sheep and goats. The herds get smaller every year. Many of the families have only enough left to keep alive.”

“Then how will they be able to help us?”

“The Bedouins here do well. They are near Cyrene and the hills, where there is always rain and grass. Their goats and sheep survive.”

“Then why don’t all the Bedouins come here?”

“It is forbidden. It would be war. The Bedouin tribes graze where they have grazed for a thousand years. In this desert, each tribe has a boundary. If they find another tribe on their grazing land, they kill them.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very charitable attitude,” Al remarked.

“The Bedouins are not known for their charity.”

“Then what makes you think they’ll give us food?” I asked.

“You will give them a present, of course. Some clothing is always good, or jewelry. Also bring your rifles; we must show the nomads you are armed so they won’t come back and rob you when you sleep.”

“The only extra clothing we have is shoes, and we don’t have rifles, just bows and arrows,” I answered.

“That will do. The nomads wear shoes. And they will respect you as warriors if you bring bows and arrows, for their fathers used them before the British gave them guns in the war.”

We drove about four miles straight south into the desert before the lieutenant stopped us: “We will walk the rest of the way,” he said, “so that we don’t disturb their animals.”

It looked like the middle of nowhere, but soon I could see black tents against the blackness of the desert night. What seemed like open space between the tents was crisscrossed with guy ropes, and by the time we’d stumbled our way through them, the whole camp was aware of our presence. Sheep and goats pulled away, chickens and children scurried in front of us, tethered camels snorted beside the huge hide tents. The scent of tea and baking bread was fragrant on the night air.

The lieutenant led the way to the sharif’s tent, at whose threshold we laid our bows to show we came in peace, and bowed to the smiling old Arab who bade us enter. We removed our shoes and left them outside, save for the pair we brought to barter. The lieutenant, after a round of Arabic courtesies and formalities, explained the purpose of our visit, pointing to our gift. The Arab in turn pointed to our bows on the threshold, whereupon they went into a long discussion before seeming to reach an agreement.

In the meantime, I’d been inspecting the surprisingly comfortable tent. It was about 40 feet in diameter and fifteen feet high, with a floor of bare earth covered with straw mats and thick rugs. The top, which showed wide holes at the seams where air and light came through, certainly wasn’t rainproof, but in a country where it sometimes doesn’t rain for a year, I guess that wasn’t a consideration. As we entered, someone drew a curtain across one part of the tent: this was the women’s quarters and the kitchen. When strangers are about they are hidden so as not to see or be seen.

The most amazing thing about the tent was its contents. Stacked against half the length of the wall to a height of three feet were dozens of folded rugs, each exquisitely embroidered, each worth a fortune. The chief proudly displayed them to us. I saw something protruding from one of the rugs that looked like a rifle butt. The chief caught my gaze and pulled out an ancient Italian rifle wrapped in rags. I looked up to the center post, which was crisscrossed with cords and burlap, and there hung other rifles. There was even a rifle tucked under the chief’s cushion. Four or five chests stood beside the stacked rugs, each a sturdy trunk studded with decorative nail heads;

I could only guess what was in them. The old man opened a smaller chest to pull out a box; inside I caught a glimpse of sparkle and shine and heard the clinking of coins. From the box he withdrew four small glasses with gold rims. One of his wives came from behind the curtain, bringing an old British Army canteen filled with steaming water; she was shy and hid her head from us a bit, but she was too curious to hide completely. She was about sixteen, dressed in a scarlet skirt and white blouse with gold bracelets on her wrists and ankles. She was full-breasted and seemed full of life, and I found her quite appealing, save for some bluish tattoo marks on her chin and between her eyes. It was hard to hide our admiration from her husband-and our envy of him. I found something overwhelmingly compelling about this old man and his nomad life. It was a life with no bonds and no borders, no bosses and no timeclocks, no PTA meetings and no Chamber of Commerce. It was moving with the sun, blowing with the wind, making love in a great airy tent on an empty desert beneath a canopy of stars.

The old man began an elaborate tea ritual. It reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony, and what he lacked in the grace of a geisha, he made up for by the obvious love he put into his labors. Another of his wives came in with a flat piece of tin that held burning coals. The old man poured the canteen of water into an iron pot placed on the coals. He added a handful of tea. Then a pinch more. Then came the sugar. One heaping spoon, two, three, four-endless spoons of sugar into a pot that held little more than a pint of tea. He mixed the brew, then poured tea into each glass, then back into the pot, then back into the glasses and back again into the pot, caressing the glasses, stirring the pot, for fifteen minutes. Each time he poured, he held the pot higher; soon it was two feet above the tiny glass, but he poured without spilling a drop. When at last he considered it suitable for serving, it was as sweet as honey, thick as blood, and hot as fire. The nomad drank his without cooling it, and the lieutenant told us to do the same. It blistered the lips, melted the teeth, and warmed the soul. The chief pressed another cup on us, then another. There was no refusing.

When the tea was finished, the chief clapped his hands. The two wives came from behind the curtain laden with food which they placed at our feet: a big porcelain pitcher of thick goat’s milk, a pile of flat brown bread, and a metal bowl holding several dozen small eggs. “That’s a good haul for a pair of shoes,” Al said when we were clear of the camp. “You’re some bargainer, lieutenant; I wish we had you with us for the whole trip.”

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Chapter 6K

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

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More Breakdowns in Libya


We decided to take a flight into the desert while we waited. A men’s magazine had commissioned us to watch for good adventure stories, and we’d just come across one of the best of them, the story of the desert pilots. When oil was first found in Libya and the boom began, there wasn’t an airline in the country; but the oil companies needed them. The drilling rigs were two, four, or six hundred roadless miles from the coast, and the cross-country trip by car was exhausting and dangerous. Planes were needed to take workers to the drilling rigs and to bring them fresh fruit and meat, and mail, and urgently needed parts; so little companies were formed to meet the demand-and the desert pilots took up the challenge.

We hung around Benghazi Airport for a day inter-viewing the men who flew the desert runs. They were all rovers and adventurers; no other kind would take the job. There were jet fighter pilots from the Korean War, jungle pilots from South America, a guy who’d been King Saud’s pilot in Arabia for five years, and another who’d flown for the UN in the Congo and then flown against the UN when he got a better offer from the rebels. They told us matter-of-factly of the dangers of their run: lack of landing fields, dust storms and ghiblis, the way the desert obliterated all landmarks, the fact that in an area as big as the United States east of the Mississippi there were only two strong navigational beams. Most of the planes that day had delivered explosives and equipment to fire fighter Red Adair who was trying to cap six blazing wells; but there was a flight into the desert the next morning, and we were invited along. We didn’t need a ticket-just our signature on a form releasing the desert air service from any responsibility in case we didn’t make it back.

From the air Libya is astounding. Benghazi is no longer a city: It is an oases of brick and cement on the edge of an endless desert. It looked as if a good sandstorm could cover it over-or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Marsa Brega from 8,000 feet is a pathetic speck surviving only at the mercy of the desert.

At Marsa Brega we turned south, leaving the Mediterranean behind, heading straight into nothingness. Our cargo: meat, fresh vegetables, and ten Arab laborers who sat on the floor and got airsick the minute we took off. Our destination: Sugar Seven, a fly spot on the map, a prospecting rig 300 miles from anything. Our pilot, Captain Steve Toich: “Look below and you’ll see our problem. Every mile looks the same as every other mile. There’s a cliff or a bunch of hills, but mostly it’s like this-miles of flat sand. It’s a bitch to tell where you’re at. The radio beacons are so weak you’re sometimes out of touch in half an hour. You try to memorize a few landmarks, then a ghibli comes along and wipes them out, and if you’re up here when a ghibli hits! Then you’ve had it. You’ll never know where you’re at-can’t even tell if you’re upside down. We try to fly a tight pattern until it blows over, but sometimes those mothers last for two days. See-down there-that plane, almost covered by sand-went down in a ghibli last winter and they still haven’t figured how to get it out.

“Sometimes we fly by the smoke, but that only works when we’re near the wells. Libya doesn’t use its natural gas-no pipelines and no local customers-so the oil companies burn it off. Makes a big blaze, 50 feet high, and lots of smoke. There-there’s one now-that’s Zeltan One, the grand old daddy of them all, the baby that put us in business.

“Another problem? The air fields. The only way I can tell them from the rest of the desert is ’cause they got camel droppings all around. These guys on the rigs don’t have time to put in a pro strip; so they just find the nearest piece of flat ground, run a bulldozer over it, line it with oil drums, stick a windsock at one end-and call it an airfield. Most of the times they’ve laid it across the wind or in the middle of a kangaroo rat colony.”

Sugar Seven was a drilling rig, a water pump, a storage shed, and half a dozen Quonset huts in the middle of an immensity of desert. But everything was air-conditioned, and there were recreation rooms, and radios, and movie shows, and a dining room handing out freshly baked Danish and pitchers of iced lemonade and bowls of ice cream. All the men had to do was work like hell and-if they didn’t get lost in the desert-collect a big bundle at the Benghazi bank when the job was done. The wages ran high: the rig at Sugar Seven was on a subcontract to drill a hole for $2,000,000.

Back in Benghazi the welders were just finishing the new undercarriage. It was as solid and substantial as we could ask, and the head welder assured us it would get us around the world. But in the process of building, he’d accidentally done something which was to wreck us a few days later and hang over our heads for the rest of the trip.

Minutes out of Benghazi we were back in the desert, a wasteland still littered with the wreckage of war. In the rainless climate, where nothing rusts or rots completely, we could still see the crushed C-ration cans and garbage piles where armies had camped in preparation for battle 23 years before, and where now there were solitary Bedouin tents. Where battles had been fought there were now only turbaned scavengers picking through the shell casings-and occasionally blowing themselves co bits on an unexploded mine, an estimated five million of which make nomad life in Libya an especially risky business.

More than half the people of Libya are still nomads, and we began to see more of them as we left the desert floor and slowly climbed toward the hills of the Jabal Al Akhdar. Here and there were bits of stubble and tufts of grass, and the scrawny goats and sheep and camels moved about them and chewed them into something edible. The sun beat down without mercy, and there was absolutely no shade, not a bush or a tree anywhere. I felt sorry for the animals who had never known the shade of a tree, or seen a green meadow, or stood in a cool brook.

When we stopped for lunch, I checked over the Land Cruiser and found the headlight fuse had blown. I put in a new one and it blew as soon as we moved. Al and I searched around with the wiring diagrams, but we couldn’t find the trouble. We’d either have to go back to Benghazi or drive without lights all the way to Cairo. We went back to Benghazi, and it was another day wasted, on top of the three spent for welding, on top of the two spent for my illness, on top of the three spent for Mann’s illness, on top of this on top of that. Were we never going to have a day without trouble or delays?

We almost made it the next day. By nightfall we were in Derna, a small town 200 miles from Benghazi and halfway to the Egyptian border, and we hadn’t had a bit of trouble. When we turned on our lights, the fuse on the Land Cruiser blew in a flash, and the red generator warning signal in the Jeep went on. Now it was double trouble, but I’d be damned if we were going back to Benghazi; we’d find a mechanic in Deena.

Deena is known for two things: It grows delicious little bananas, highly prized for their alleged aphrodisiac properties, and it was the site, in 1805, of a famous raid by American forces. When the young United States had refused to submit to the demands of the Barbary pirates, the Pasha of Tripoli had declared war on American shipping. Outraged by this, the American Consul at Tunis, one William Eaton, went to Egypt, where he organized, out of his own purse and without official sanction, an army of 400 men, including 38 Greek mercenaries, assorted Italians, Englishmen and Arabs, 190 camels, and eight American Marines. For six weeks they made an incredible overland march through the Egyptian desert to Deena. There they captured and held the fortress. Made bold by their victory, they were planning to march on Tripoli itself when the Pasha and the American government made peace. They never got farther than Deena, but their daring sortie is forever enshrined in American annals-with a thousand miles of geographical inaccuracy-as part of the Marine Corps hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli …. “

Anyway, that’s what Deena is known for: bananas and the raid. It is not known for having any auto mechanics, nor did we find any. But if the Trans World Record Expedition was ever to move itself from the shores of Tripoli to the halls of Montezuma, we had to do something. Al and I spent half the night with the wiring diagrams until we found the trouble, a smashed connection on the Land Cruiser’s trailer socket and a loose wire on the Jeep’s voltage regulator. We went to sleep late, wondering what disaster the next day would bring.

It brought a beauty, the prize of them all, which hit us 170 miles from Deena on what is probably as deserted a stretch of road as exists anywhere in the world. I was driving the Land Cruiser when I heard a loud thump behind me. I turned around and saw the left wheel of our camper bounding high in the air and bouncing off into the desert, followed immediately by a spray of sparks and the shrill cry of tortured steel as the naked axle dug into the road. The camper scraped on its belly for the length of a football field before I could stop. It was a mess: the floor was splintered, the sides buckled, the struts bent, and the new undercarriage cracked through in three places. Woodrow was almost in tears, and even Al wasn’t smiling as he and Willy snapped another set of” disaster photos.”

The accident was a mystery until I took a look under the trailer: The welder in Benghazi, in the process of fitting the new frame, had had to remove a small bend in the axle that had been put there by the manufacturer to give the wheels the proper camber. After he had straightened the axle in a gigantic heat press, the wheels were thrown out of camber, and the entire weight of the camper and its contents shifted to the spindles, one of which had snapped.

It could only be repaired in a welding shop, and the nearest one was in Tobruk, many hours back the way we’d come. Since it was impossible to pull the camper on one wheel, we’d have to take off the entire axle, put it in one of the cars, and take it back to Tobruk to have a new spindle welded onto it. It was an immense job. Even getting the camper off the road and onto the level desert floor was an immense job, and we sweated over it for an hour. Next we had to jack up the trailer on all four sides to get it high enough off the ground and steady enough so we could remove the axle. It took two hours in the broiling desert to find and carry back enough big rocks to do the job, and we were sun-baked and dirt-covered by the time the camper was propped up. I then spent a tense 30 minutes under the trailer, unbolting the axle, knowing the slightest shift of one rock would bring two tons of trailer crashing down on me; but there was no other way. The sun was down by the time we had the axle off It was too late to take it back to Tobruk, and since the next day was Friday, the Moslem Sabbath, when all shops are closed, we were stuck in the desert for two days.

By nightfall all our food and water were gone, except the box of matzos which Al insisted we had to save for the Pyramids. We’d been traveling light on rations because of the exorbitant prices in Benghazi, planning to stock up in Egypt, where food was reportedly cheaper, and we’d drunk our water cans dry in a couple of hours from our exertions. Only one car passed all day, and they had no water to spare.

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Chapter 6J

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

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Food Poisoning and Ghiblis


By dusk we were tired and would have liked to set up camp, but we had to close the miles between us and the others. To save time we ate our evening meal-two cans of sardines and some salted crackers we’d bought in Tripoli-standing in front of the headlights, our backs against the wind and dust. We washed the meal down with water from the thermos, but even it was thick with sand. We drove on in the darkness.

It was ten o’clock when I felt pains. They were deep in the stomach and came with a severe blow that gave no warning. I then began to vomit. I stopped the Jeep and tried to take water, but it only made the vomiting worse. I tried driving again, but after half an hour I had to stop. The pains had become so severe that I was bent over in agony. I couldn’t go farther.

I tried to help Woodrow set up the Poptent against the howling desert wind, but I couldn’t. I was hit with acute diarrhea. Next I started vomiting great amounts of blood. Then came fever and chills. I knew then that I had food poisoning.

Woodrow was so frightened he was stuttering, and I knew I’d get no help from him. When he went into the tent, I took a blanket and crawled off into the desert.

I grew delirious. I remember tearing off my clothes. I fell to the ground, wracked with convulsions. Covered with vomit and blood, I rolled naked and shivering in the sand. Grotesque figures and images appeared before me. The world was fluid and I was swimming. No, I was being carried away through a deep chasm of blackness. Then there were moments of peace and joy. It would be so easy to give in, to struggle no longer. But I held on. I called to Woodrow for help, but he didn’t come. I started crawling back toward the road. Al would find me. He would know what to do and give me something from his bunch of pills. I kept calling out to Al, “Here, I’m over here,” and I didn’t remember that he was hundreds of miles away.

When I opened my eyes and saw the first light of dawn it was all life and hope. Woodrow found me several hundred yards from the tent. He was pale and shaken. He swore he hadn’t heard me calling in the night.

I was so dehydrated that I was aching with pains of thirst, but when I took water, even a sip, the vomiting began and more blood came. Woodrow would have to drive, even though his hands weren’t completely healed from his fall. He would have to drive until we reached a doctor at Marsa Brega, 300 miles away. I tied myself into the Jeep and we set off.

The sun was as hot as ever, but now it felt pleasant to me, and whenever we stopped I untied myself and lay in the sand. And it felt good. Struggling back into the Jeep was the most difficult. Each mile we drove was like a day of torture. Hours later, my stomach would still not hold food or water. And so we crawled on-for 300 miles-without seeing a living soul.

By six that evening we reached Marsa Brega, the big Standard Oil complex on the Gulf of Sirte. I was never so glad to see an Esso sign in my life. We found the hospital, and nothing mattered anymore. When I awoke the next day, the doctor told me that I had had type-E botulism, which I had suspected, and that I had come within a breath of dying, which I had known.

Marsa Brega is an artificial port city, built almost entirely by Esso, on the terminus of its 200-mile pipeline from the desert oil fields, and it was a heavenly place to recuperate. Everything had been done to make the employee inhabitants comfortable. Its dining tables held fresh fruits and vegetables and thick slabs of steak. It must be the only air-conditioned city in North Africa. And it had ice water! Since we’d hit Africa, the water had been warm, muddy, dirty, minerally, animally, and full of bacteria. We’d filter it through a doth, throw in a few halazone pills, and force ourselves to drink it-abominable! But Marsa Brega had delicious ice water from electric water coolers, and I practically lived next to one of them for a day. Thanks to a letter of introduction we’d gotten from a friend of the Soussis in Tripoli, the Esso people gave us the run of the place, and I gained back some strength from American food-ham and eggs, buttered toast, and coffee-a few of the luxuries we’d foregone in our month of camel meat and couscous.

One of the purposes of our trip was to eat and sleep and live as close to the natives in each country as possible, and to avoid, at all costs, the air-conditioned hotels and tourist restaurants where everything was certified safe and sterile and innocuous. Our tent on wheels was as close as we could reasonably come to duplicating native living conditions in three dozen countries. It would not isolate us from the elements of nature which exert such a controlling influence over the people outside the western world; it would give us no more protection from the desert sun than any nomad tent in Libya, nor more relief from the dust storms than any native hut in Afghanistan; it would be as susceptible to monsoon dampness as any Indian village shack, as penetrable to the creatures of the forest as any jungle hut in Thailand or Panama; and we felt that our exposure to the forces and fears that shaped the lives of the people would better enable us to understand them. We would eat what the natives ate and drink what they drank; we would shop at the native markets, sup at the native stalls, drink from the native wells, and take most of the chances they took. We’d toss some halazone in the water, peel all raw fruits and vegetables, and supplement our meals with vitamins and protein powder, but these were our only concessions to civilization.

When I was well enough to travel, I found the desert inferno waiting for us right outside the gates of Marsa Brega. The air was so dry we could actually feel our bodies dehydrating. Then the ghibli began, the dread desert wind that is the scourge of Libya. The oldtimers had warned us about the ghibli, but it goes beyond description and further than imagination. It was a blast of pure heat unlike anything I have ever met before. I could not conceive of a wind being anything but cooling, but this was the discharge of a blast furnace. The temperature inside the car soon rose to over 120 degrees. Whether we drove fast or slow, there was no getting away from the desert blowtorch. It stopped our breath, dried our perspiration before it formed, blistered our eyes, cracked the insides of our noses, and parched our throats. We were being baked alive; but there was absolutely no escape from the searing wind until it died of its own accord two hours later. I would gladly take my chances in a tornado, swim in a hurricane, or spend a month in a monsoon before I’d want to meet another ghibli face to face.

The ghibli is so much the scourge of Libya that it can take almost sole credit for the desert that covers 98 per cent of the country. Irrigation and fertilizers can help make the desert bloom, but they can’t beat the ghibli. Flourishing fields have been decimated in a day, farmers wiped out in hours. Only the hardiest of olive trees and date palms manage to survive. Because of the ghibli, Libya cannot be considered an underdeveloped nation. “She’s as developed as she’s ever going to be,” one old-timer told us, “as long as she has the ghibli. Once that wind hits, there’s nothing left to develop.”

Bad news met us in Benghazi. I found Al at the Soussi Brothers garage, supervising a crew of mechanics. The potholed desert road had shattered the camper’s undercarriage, and to repair it, the mechanics had to reinforce it with heavy angle irons. And a tricky short somewhere in the camper lights was blowing the fuses in the Land Cruiser and defying every effort to pin it down. We’d be stuck at least three days until repairs were finished. Benghazi is not the best place in the world to be stuck for three days-or even three hours. The second largest city (pop. 60,000) in Libya, Benghazi owes that distinction less to its attractiveness as a place to live than to the simple fact that there is only one other city. Among Benghazi’s other claims to fame: It is one of the world’s most bombed-out cities, having been the object of one thousand air raids by Allied and Axis pilots during the war, and one of the world’s most expensive, being presently the site of most of the business activity connected with Libya’s great oil boom. A reconnaissance of Benghazi’s tourist attractions (which consumed eleven minutes) and a light lunch in one of its cheaper restaurants (which consumed as much as we’d spent for a week’s food in Morocco) convinced us that we’d seen all we wanted to of Benghazi.

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Chapter 6I

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

Previous – Chapter 6I – Next

Horrors in Libya


The pride of Tripoli is the spacious, palm-fringed boulevard that runs along her beach-studded harbor. It is one of the most impressive streets in the world, built by the Italians as a grandiose showplace and lined with magnificent hotels, apartment buildings, arcades, public squares, and hospitals. When Libya was their colony, the Italians called it the Boulevard Lungomare; when she became independent, the Libyans renamed it Sharia Adrian Pelt in honor of the United Nations statesman who prepared them for self-government.

Sharia Adrian Pelt also housed the headquarters of Soussi Brothers, the only Toyota distributor in North Africa. We’d alerted them from New York about our trip, telling them to expect us in mid-April. It was now June. When we walked into the Soussi office they looked as if they were seeing ghosts; they had thought we’d turned back or perished on the desert.

We were introduced to Mohammed Soussi, the young English-educated heir to the Soussi enterprises, which are introducing to Libya the products of the modern world. Everything from autos to office equipment, from washers to water pumps, is imported, distributed, manufactured, serviced, rented, sold, leased, contracted for, or represented by Soussi Brothers. With somewhat of a shock, we found that Madison Avenue had also moved to Libya, a country that 50 years ago hadn’t even heard of New York. In seconds, Mohammed was on the phone, calling his press agent, Publilibya, ringing up newspapers, inviting ministers, reserving rooms; in minutes he had arranged a press conference, a banquet in our honor, and a demonstration of our Land Cruiser for the most important people in the city.

The Soussis insisted we be their guests until Manu was well enough to travel. They wouldn’t hear of our living in the camper; so they moved us to a hotel where we slept between sheets for the first time since the Queen Elizabeth, had our first haircuts since Jerez, and our first hot showers since Algiers. Our prospects seemed suddenly brighter.

The next day, headlines proclaimed our arrival in Arabic, Italian, and English, and the newspapers devoted so much space to our trip that one would have thought that Columbus, Magellan, and Kim Novak all rode in our Land Cruiser. The papers announced we would demonstrate our car under rough conditions at the Underwater Sports Club for a select assemblage of dignitaries, including Libya’s Minister of Transportation, his three top assistants, the general in charge of the Quartermaster Corps of the Libyan Army, and his aides, and the purchasing agents of every major oil company operating in the Kingdom.

Later that morning, before these distinguished guests gathered for the banquet, the Soussis and Al, who was to do the driving, went through a clandestine rehearsal, running the Land Cruiser through soft sand, over jagged rocks, across barbed wire, into the ocean up over its hubcaps, up a slippery hill, and through ditches and depressions, until they knew just exactly how to take the car to the brink and how to make it appear to attempt the impossible yet barrel through with flying colors.

There were so many titles and decorations at the banquet that it seemed more like a meeting of the Libyan cabinet than an automobile promotion, save for the Soussi crew spotted among the guests, exchanging polite conversation and now and then slipping in a plug for the Land Cruiser, which was the perfect vehicle, they explained, (depending on whom they were talking to) for surveyors, soldiers, postmen, engineers, or geologists.

When the big demonstration came, Al was so stuffed he could barely squeeze behind the wheel. He safety-belted himself in with mock severity, raced the engine, and roared off along the course he and the Soussis had secretly laid out that morning. The crowd had its heart in its mouth (indeed, there was little room for it anywhere else after that meal) as Al plunged into the Mediterranean and seemed about to float away. The water was over the tops of the tires and the tailpipe sounded like an outboard engine about to give up the ghost; but he pulled it through, and roared to the crest of a rocky escarpment bounding the sea, charging up a stone hill so steep and slippery you’d have sworn he was going to fall over backwards and crash into the ocean. This was followed by a flat-out run across the open ground, churning through sand, bouncing over rocks, leaping across ditches. It was a hell of a way to treat a car that was supposed to take us the rest of the way around the world. For an impromptu grande finale, Al charged a gaping trench that had not been on his practice run. It was six feet deep and sheer as a cliff, but Al charged it anyway. The crowd gasped, I gulped, and the Soussis held their breath as the front of the Land Cruiser went crashing straight down to the bottom of the trench-and stayed there.

It was the worst hangup I’ve ever seen. The front wheels barely rested on the bottom of the trench and the back wheels were suspended from the upper edge, leaving the car almost straight up and down. There was no room to maneuver and no direction to maneuver in. Al sweated and swore and shifted gears and ground into reverse, but nothing worked; a tank couldn’t have gotten out. By now all the dignitaries had gathered on the rim of the trench; it reminded me of a funeral.

After half an hour, Al had to submit to the final indignity:

I rumbled over in my old Jeep, threw a winch around the Land

Cruiser’s rear end, and hauled it out of the hole.

The Soussis must have worked late that night: Next morning the newspapers only reported that “The car’s ability to negotiate sand, rock, and shallow water was clearly shown.” Mohammed Soussi gave us a farewell dinner, and after the other guests had gone we sat on a terrace overlooking the city and talked. Somehow the conversation turned to religion, and Mohammed gave me an insight into his. I had previously believed Islam was a religion of the masses, a dogmatic bunch of superstitious mumbo-jumbo in which only the uneducated could believe; but here was a very intelligent young man, who’d been schooled in England and who skillfully ran a modern business enterprise, telling me that:

“Islam gives meaning to my whole life. I could not live without it. It tells me everything I need to know and every way how to act. It is the greatest religion, the only true religion. I have studied your Catholicism, but it is a fairy tale with miracles and sons of God and Trinities. And your Protestantism has no meaning; you have Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans and fifty different denominations, each claiming to know best how to praise and obey God, and each doing things different. But with Islam there is only one God and he is all powerful. We grant that Moses and Jesus may have been prophets-but Mohammed was the final one. Mohammed is the true prophet of God, and his writings are the only way that the divine will can be learned. The Koran is the final revelation. We need look no farther and we need accept no other. The Koran tells us all we need to know about how to conduct our lives and how to submit to the will of God.”

“But surely, Mohammed, you cannot believe-“

“It is difficult to explain to you, for it is complicated, and you are of another world with different standards. I saw that world in London, but I am not a part of it. I am Muslim. All I can explain to you is what my belief does for me. I never worry. I never drink alcohol. I do not covet young girls, and I will make my marriage with the help of my father. I never think of suicide and I never think of taking drugs. I work hard-but I enjoy it. I don’t worry; I am not, like so many in the West, troubled by doubts and fears and neuroses. I know that Allah watches over everything we do, and that if we do everything as he has caused to be written in the Koran, we shall have our reward. I am serene and at peace with myself and the world. I am delighted with the sunrise, because it is the work of God, and with the sunset, because that is also his doing. And when I say my prayers and praise him, I am sure that he hears them, and that I need fear nothing. I do not mean to boast, and I know it is difficult for you to understand me, but our God gives me peace. Does yours?”

The next morning we were ready to leave Tripoli. Manu had recovered somewhat from his illness and Al from the news that he didn’t have a future as an automobile test pilot. The Soussis had shined and serviced our cars, and they’d found an Italian machinist named Guglielmo Scianno who, with loving care, had made a completely new axle and spindle for our little trailer, made them so well that we wouldn’t have a bit of trouble with them again. If you’re ever in Tripoli and need a new axle, look up Guglielmo Scianno.

As we were leaving town, Woodrow realized he still didn’t have his visa for Egypt; and no one knew if he could get one elsewhere in Libya, for its capital city keeps shifting with the seasons and the disposition of the King. The rest of us had gotten our Egyptian visas in New York or Algiers, but Woodrow had never been up to it.

Rather than hold up both cars while Woodrow went for his visa, I told Al to take off with Manu and Willy and I’d catch up with them. I could move faster with the little trailer than they could with the camper, and assumed I’d catch them by night. It took five hours for Woodrow to get his visa; so it was early afternoon before we left Tripoli for Benghazi, 660 desolate desert miles away.

In spite of the delay, I had to stop for a quick view of Leptis Magna, though I would have preferred to spend a week. Far bigger and more beautiful than Sabratha, Leptis had been one of the showplaces of the Roman Empire, a handsome city of colonnaded avenues, amphitheaters, meeting halls, fountains, baths, basilicas, forums, libraries, arches, and some 40 major buildings. Unlike Sabratha, which had been built from local limestone, Leptis was fashioned from beautiful multi-colored marble brought from Greece and Italy and Asia Minor and the far corners of the Empire, and its noble stone still stood as it had before the birth of Christ. After Leptis there was nothing save the tiniest of villages and the dullest of deserts. The road we followed was the Strada Imperial, built in the 1930’s by the Italian militarists. It still bore the scars of war where it had been chewed up by tanks and blasted by dive bombers. Land mines and artillery shells had also taken their toll on it. The craters were strategically spaced and impossible to avoid; if we swerved to miss a hole with our right wheel, our left got clobbered, and vice versa, really clobbered. The roadside was strewn with the carcasses of huge tires that had literally been torn to shreds by the potholes and the desert heat. Many of the devastated tires were three feet in diameter, and laced with metal mesh, so heavy the two of us couldn’t lift them; but the road had shattered them. The only thing in the road’s favor was that it was straight, arrowing across the desert, often going 30 or 40 miles without a turn or bend, as monotonous as the desert itself.

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Chapter 6H

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

Previous – Chapter 6H – Next

More Horrors in Tunisia


When we reached the Tunisian border, we had trouble: The guards wouldn’t believe we had crossed the entire width of their country without Tunisian money. We had no documents crediting us with official exchange, and our sale of the cigarettes was illegal under Tunisian customs regulations and couldn’t be mentioned. Only after an hour of interrogation did we convince them we carried enough food and gas to get us anywhere, a bald-faced lie since our stomachs and gas tank were both back on empty after their insufficient refill in Gabes. By then the border was closed for the night.

The guards raised the barrier the next morning and we headed toward Libya. We had come to Tunisia to see the ancient Carthage and the modern Tunis, the forest-covered hills and the beautiful coast, the unveiled women and the march of Moslem democracy. We had instead seen a desert, a dried lake, a first-aid station, the inside of three shops, the customs office, and a mirage.

We hoped for better luck in Libya, another land with an amazing story to tell. Seldom has there been a country which joined the family of nations with heavier burdens on her back. Fourteen years before, her assets were nil, her liabilities immense. Her per capita income was 30 dollars. Her proven natural resources were negligible. Her major industries were the selling of salt from the ocean and the collection of scrap metal from the war wreckage that littered her devastated countryside. Most of her towns were in ruins. Five million land mines lay buried beneath her sand along with thousands of unexploded shells and grenades. Disease was widespread: Three out of every ten babies died at birth, and those who survived were subject to cholera, smallpox, plague, and the dreaded trachoma. Most of the natives subsisted on 1,600 calories a day. In a territory of 680,000 square miles, nearly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, there were less than 1,250,000 people, sixteen of them with university degrees. Cut off from European influence during a thousand years of Arab rule, and taught little by her 20th century Italian conquerors, she was one of the most backward countries on earth. She wasn’t even a country in the true sense of the word. Her people had no common identity, no feeling of nationalism, regarding themselves as Tripolitanians, or Cyrenaicians, or Fezzanians, or just plain nomads. There were nothing but camel routes linking the settlements, and only one paved road in the whole vast region. Libya as a nation was more a notion than a reality.

Yet it was this poor, backward, diseased, disunited, and war-torn land that was to emerge as one of the most successful experiments of the United Nations. It was on this inhospitable soil that the pioneering UN created the first newly independent country in all of Africa after the war, and it is to the credit of whatever god’s rule the destinies of men and the flow of oil beneath the desert sands that the experiment worked as well as it did.

It worked so well that I found myself looking into the gold inlays of a Libyan customs officer who’d come back from his inspection of our cars smirking as if he’d trapped an arch criminal. In the flickering glow of the kerosene lantern he looked absolutely sinister as he reread our entry declaration, his finger pointing to the part where we’d sworn we had no guns with us.

“Have you guns?” he asked, with what must have been his favorite English phrase.

“No,” I replied, for there was nothing else I could say. It was too late to confess that I had a pistol hidden under the seat. It had proven so useful in driving off the Algerian robbers that I was determined to take it with us, however many countries it meant smuggling it into and whatever the risks involved.

 “No guns? No guns! Vien!” He led us into the courtyard where we’d parked and where the other three officers, two holding rifles, were standing guard over our Land Cruiser. If he had found the pistol, we’d be in serious trouble.

“No guns?” he asked, pointing to the Land Cruiser, giving us more than enough rope to hang ourselves.

“No, no guns.”

The officer flung open the door of the Land Cruiser and pointed inside. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and went closer. He was pointing up, up to the three long leather cases we carried strapped to the underside of the roof and which he thought held rifles.

I unzipped the cases and pulled out our hunting bows. The officer was shattered; his gun runner was a mirage. Then he started smiling, and soon he and his men were laughing and roaring: “Pow! Pow! You cowboy and Indian, like American movie. Haaah, haaah. Bang! Bang! Sssshhhttt. Sssshhhttt.”

To make up for the delays, we drove until very late that night. When we’d been planning the trip, we’d figured on making camp every evening before sunset, but the farther behind schedule we got, the harder we pushed and the later we drove. In Europe, we rarely made camp after nine at night; in French North Africa, seldom before midnight; now we were sometimes pushing on until two in the morning, trying to make up for lost miles, trying to catch up to an impossible schedule that called for us to be clearing India.

But camping in the dead of night had its hazards, as we learned time and again. That first night in Libya we pulled beneath some trees to sleep, too exhausted to reconnoiter the area. In the morning we woke to find we’d camped in an olive grove; and the farmer, his children, and half the dogs in Tripolitania were there to see what we were up to. We apologized for trespassing and packed up quickly, but we couldn’t get out; we were stuck fast. The sand between the trees was as dry as talc, and our rough treads cut in like a trench-digging machine; in a minute we were in up to our axle. For three hot, sweaty hours we worked to free the equipment, deflating the tires, piling sticks and stones and blankets underneath, winching car against camper. In the direct heat of the sun and the humidity of the coastal region it was exhausting work, and we were dead tired and depressed when we finished.

Our spirit raiser was scheduled to be Sabratha, the unearthed Roman city on the shores of the sparkling Mediterranean, and it was there we headed after our extrication from the olive grove. Hardly had we gone five miles when our jinx struck again: The hitch snapped and the small trailer broke loose, bouncing and banging down the road until it lost a wheel and ground to a stop, its spindle broken, its axle bent far out of line. We had to empty the trailer and carry it by hand three miserable miles to a mechanic. Repairs would take all day.

  • Photo caption on page 129 of the printed publication:
    We reached Sabratha, a once-magnificant Roman metropolis on the Mediterranean coast of Lybia, now a graveyard of crumbling stone pillars.

We spent the day at the ruins of Sabratha. There all was still as the desert night, lifeless as the desert day, and sea wind and weather were threatening to reduce to limestone dust what had once been part of the glory of Rome.

We’re travelers, not philosophers, and we made this trip to see the world’s past and present, not to speculate about its future; but one must give rise to the other, and the thoughts forced themselves upon us. No one can visit the Roman ruins in Volubus or Sabratha or Leptis and not speculate about the destiny of nations; you can’t isolate them architecturally or artistically; you can’t come away thinking only of the spatial relation of the Forum to the baths or the proportions of the columns; you are compelled to think: This was once a living city in a mighty empire, a thriving city in a civilization that ruled most of the then known world for 800 years, a civilization that brought engineers and aqueducts and teachers and libraries to the most distant corners of the darkness-an empire measurably more powerful in its time than our own country in its, an empire whose enemies were just heathens on horseback and nomads on camels-yet an empire of which only these tombstones remain. And you can’t help but wonder what fate lies in store for your United States, a mere infant in only its second century of existence and its third decade of world leadership, but already besieged on all sides by powerful enemies, spending its youth and vigor on far-flung battle fields, and you wonder what lessons can be learned from these old Roman ruins on this forsaken desert-and you remember you’re a traveler, not a philosopher, so you push on.

It was too late to push farther that night; so we laid our sleeping bags among the ruins on the shores of the sea and slept to the gentle lapping of the waves. Toward midnight a new sound drowned out the waves and wakened us: Manu was groaning. He began tossing and turning, clutching his stomach in pain. He was running a high fever. We gave him aspirin and Enterovioform, but they did little good; the fever and pain grew worse. He had a bad case of dysentery. There was little more we could do than give him water to prevent dehydration as we rushed him to a doctor in Tripoli. The doctor insisted Manu needed at least three days in bed. Since he was thus confined, the rest of us set out to explore the city. We found it a delight, the Riviera blended with the casbahs of Africa. It had broad boulevards, spotless shops and sidewalks, a shady canopy of palm trees, a bazaar where the best gold and silverwork in Africa could be bought, and an ancient Moorish castle which looked out upon the harbor and which 160 years before had seen a young U.S. Navy lieutenant named Stephen Decatur slip under the noses of the Barbary pirates to burn and blow up one of their ships and put an end to their depredations on American merchantmen in what England’s Admiral Lord Nelson called “the most daring act of the age.”

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Chapter 6G

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

Previous – Chapter 6G – Next

Illness Along the Thousands of Miles in the Desert


We arrived after midnight at El Qued, where the drowsing duty officer was anything but glad to see us, suggesting we come back in the morning when the telegraph to headquarters was open and he could get authorization for our exit permits. A small bribe convinced him that midnight was a much better time to do business. Before the sun was up we were back at the border.

The border didn’t open until eight, but since it was too late to sleep, we explored the post and, to our delight, found a wide pipe gushing pure, cold water into a shallow pool where the cavalry’s camels drank. We hadn’t had a shower since the casbah in Algiers. The Sahara is so dry and you sweat so little you can get by for long periods without bathing; but there are limits, especially for those accustomed to daily baths. With a roar and a rush we ran toward the pool, yelling at the top of our lungs. The frightened camels dashed out, all except for an ugly albino veteran whom I had to slap hard in the rump. For half an hour we bathed in the pool and stood under the gushing pipe, letting the water soak into every dehydrated pore of our bodies. Even Woodrow dropped in and got wet, though he kept his clothes on. It was heaven, until the camels regrouped and, led by the albino avenger, came back boldly to reassert their rights. It was our turn to retreat. Besides, the border was about to open.

When we began our trip, Al and I had been particularly looking forward to our drive through Tunisia. We had planned to take the beautiful Mediterranean coastal route into Tunis, on past the ruins of once-mighty Carthage, then for hundreds of more miles south along the Gulfs of Hammamet and Gabes. After our Algerian difficulties, we had also looked forward to Tunisia because of its friendly attitude toward Americans. Aside from Morocco, Tunisia is the only country in Africa for which an American requires no special visa or permission to enter, the only country in our 8,000 miles east to Thailand where Americans are welcomed as friends rather than suspected as enemies or fleeced as wealthy tourists.

Even more important, we were eager to visit Tunisia to see what Bourguiba had wrought. This complex, compelling political maverick is one of the world’s most enlightened statesmen, the most progressive leader in any Arab nation. He stands apart in that part of the world from dictators bent on revolution and hereditary rulers bent on reaction and personal profit. If he succeeds, many in the West see a bright future for all the Moslem world; if he fails, they see only darkness.

He had passed the Code of Personal Status which challenged the most cherished Moslem traditions, made marriage a voluntary contract between a man and woman each acting as a free agent, set a minimum age for marriage, required the bride’s consent, outlawed the custom of selling young girls, and abolished polygamy. The husband no longer had the right to divorce his wife arbitrarily. More than that, the wife was given the right to institute divorce proceedings against her husband. Bourguiba gave Moslem women the right to vote, and he told them to take off their veils. “It is unthinkable that half the population be cut off from life and hidden like a disgraceful thing behind an odious rag.” He opposed the Moslem custom of fasting during the month of Ramadan, pointing out that a country struggling into the present after a thousand years of backwardness was in no position to sacrifice a month of labor each year. He challenged the blind faith demanded of the people by the Moslem priests.

A less secure leader in the Moslem country could have been overthrown for any one of these drastic innovations, but Bourguiba was in a unique position: he was the original leader of his people’s fight for independence, the George Washington of Tunisia, the father of his country, and this gave him the rare opportunity to shape the destiny of his people, and to point the way for 600,000,000 other Moslems.

His revered position in this country explained why he had been able to launch these ambitious reforms, and why he had not needed to resort to anti-Western outbursts. As he once said, and as we found to be true from Algeria to Egypt to Pakistan to Indonesia: “In many underdeveloped countries, the leaders veil their internal political problems. They are constantly searching for distractions to channel popular passions … Those who excite the crowd, as an instrument of power, must always be denouncing enemies. The most fashionable enemy is colonialism or neo-colonialism . . . If there is no progress, it is because colonialism is still there … so that one can justify all failures. With this psychosis, the people remain in a permanent state of mobilization. They think they’re fighting enemies. The leaders repeat that they don’t have time to worry about the price of bread … Colonialism is holding them by the throat. Sad alibi! Convenient scapegoat!”

We were eager to see what this political marvel had been able to reap in fields where his counterparts had not even dared sow, but we were destined to be disappointed. Because of the Saharan detour necessitated by our trouble in Algiers, we entered Tunisia in a region barely inhabited. Even the road ended at the Algerian border, leaving us nothing but a rutted dirt track that twisted its way through a no man’s land toward the customs post at Nefta, 25 miles away. By ten o’clock, the air was scorching and we were parched, for there were no water wells on this dirt track, nor cars, nor camels, nor anything but the toughest of withered salt grasses clinging to life.

The morning sun, into which we were forced to drive, began performing tricks, amusing us every minute with new mirages-trees, ponds, pools, oases-until it decided to play a deadly one. I was driving the Jeep, and Woodrow sat beside me, staring out at the shimmering sand. He thought he saw something fall out of the Land Cruiser up ahead, and in a trance he rose from the seat, saying, “I’ll get it,” as he stepped out the door of the moving Jeep. He hit hard, smashing into the road at 25 miles an hour, scraping and tumbling along head over heels as I jammed on the brakes. When I reached him, he was lying in the middle of the road, his arms and face covered with blood, his knees and legs cut and bleeding. He sat up and began beating himself in anger, pounding his shoulders and thighs with his pulpy hands. “You idiot!” he was screaming at himself “You stupid idiot. You ass. Look what you’ve done! How could you do that? How did you do such a thing? What an ass.” He started crying and began slapping himself hard in the face.

We put him in the Jeep and rushed to the customs post. The medic there cleansed and bound his wounds. When he stepped out of the building, his hands and legs swathed in bandages, he looked like a war-torn Legionnaire. His driving was finished for the next two weeks; though if we’d been going any faster, I realized soberly, a lot more than that might have been finished. As it was, it meant Al and I would have to do 2,000 miles of rough desert driving ourselves.

Willy had proven so reckless behind the wheel, I’d had to forbid his driving. On my previous trip, through Russia, I’d let him drive once-and only once. He had rocketed us along the wretched Soviet highways at breakneck speeds, time and again taking his eyes off the road and his hands off the wheel to photograph peasants and livestock and buildings and whatever else caught his fancy-at seventy miles an hour. When I invited him to join our expedition, I hoped that he had settled down, but he was still a wild driver, weaving all over the pavement, dipping a wheel on the shoulder, taking dangerous blind turns on the wrong side of the road “the way a race car driver showed me.” The last time I’d let him drive was on the winding cliff road along the Algerian coast. I was dead tired and had asked him to relieve me so I could take a quick nap. In ten minutes I was shaken awake by the violent swaying of the car; Willy had taken his shoes off and was steering with his bare feet.

Manu was another problem. When we’d invited him in Spain to join the expedition he’d assured us he could drive. “We Spanish can do anything,” I remembered him saying. “Especially Spanish from the Basque country. Anything.”

I didn’t learn the truth until Tangier, when I asked him to take the Land Cruiser into town for some supplies. He was delighted, gave me a big salute, and leaped into the car. After five minutes of fiddling around, all he’d managed to do was turn on the windshield wipers and unwind the winch. “We have no Jeep in Basque country,” he explained. “Show me, and I drive in one day.” Well, Al did show him, for five days, and on the road from Rabat, Manu had told me he’d mastered the art. I’d let him take the wheel. He’d turned the key with the consummate skill that only a noble Basque could display, and we’d roared off in a merry grinding of gears, Manu the happiest man in the world. I was not unhappy, for it would be good to have someone to relieve Al and Woodrow and me of some driving. Manu drove without an accident for five minutes, but when three camels blocked the road ahead of him he started turning the wheel to go off into the desert. “No, Manu,” I’d shouted, “you can’t do that. The brake, Manu! Put on the brake!”

“Brake? Brake? Al hasn’t shown me the brake.”

Al did show him, five more times, but his driving never got better. He was just too carefree, and no lecture could convince him of the dangers of driving or the respect due machinery. He took it as light and gay as everything else, and we found it a lot less of a strain to drive ourselves than to supervise our man from the Basque country.

  • Photo caption on page 120 of the printed publication:
    Steve stands atop the front bumper of the Land Cruiser and uses field glasses to double check what appears to be a tree-like mirage on the vast wasteland of the Chott Djerid salt flats.

We followed the dirt track toward the east, and as the sun came hotter into the sky we began to feel the effects of dehydration. Our eyes burned and our lips cracked. There were no water wells in this part of the desert. There was not a tree anywhere, not even a boulder to give shade. Then, suddenly, as we peaked a slight rise, we saw a glorious sight: a lake stretched in front of us as far as the eye could see, a huge lake in the desert. We all saw it and cheered. Al and I gunned the engines, turned off the road, raced the cars toward the water’s edge. We soon left the soft sand of the desert and reached the hard-crusted surface that marked the periphery of the lake. But the water itself, that great, wonderful, beckoning water, was still distant, still farther than we thought. The faster we drove, the faster the water receded in the distance, until we gradually came to realize we’d been tricked. It was a mirage after all, a classic deception of those shimmering sands, but a deception of such magnitude that we were all stunned.

We got out of the car and examined the ground. It was packed sand and salt deposits interlaced with a network of the tiniest fissures. It must have been a dried lake bed. The map confirmed it: it was Chott Djerid, the biggest dried lake in the Sahara, half as wide as Tunisia itself, half as long as Lake Erie, but absolutely waterless and barren. It held not a stone or bush or mound of any sort; the horizon was as hard as the edge of the sea, the sand around us a flat as Bonneville. We forgot our thirst just thinking of this marvel, and laughing over how we, supposedly old desert hands by then, had been deceived by an empty mirage; but the real desert hands know you can never outwit a mirage, that it’ll get you every time.

Relying on our map and compass, we decided to continue across the lake for a while, for it was a relief not having to dodge rocks and potholes, and a thrill to be driving where no car had ever gone before, leaving tracks on the virgin sand.

But we still had problems, as we found when we arrived at Tozeur, the only town in that part of Tunisia. We had exhausted our food supply; we had consumed most of the 110 gallons of gas we had carried from Algiers; and we had no Tunisian money to buy anything, and the banks were closed. In fact, everything was closed. Listless banners on the empty streets proclaimed the annual Fete des Sports, a four-day Tunisian holiday during which everybody evidently went somewhere else. The same was true when we reached Gafsa, halfway across the country: there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. We’d been looking forward to meeting the Tunisians, checking out the unveiled women, and finding out what the men thought about democracy and progress and Bourguiba; but we couldn’t even find anyone to sell us gas or food or tell us what they thought of the road to Libya. With four stomachs and two gas tanks about on empty, we decided to push on for Gabes, the big city where the desert road reached the coast.

A few miles out of Gafsa, the hitch on our small storage trailer slipped, and the unharnessed trailer broke loose from the Jeep, careening and tumbling down the highway, spilling our supplies everywhere and coming to rest upside down. A dozen bottles of bugspray were broken, a spare Thermos cracked, a clock smashed, clothing torn, and a big split put in the wooden side of the trailer; even worse, though we didn’t realize it until the next day, the trailer’s axle had been knocked out of line. It was dark by the time we finished repairing and repacking, so we camped where we were, hungry and unhappy.

Woodrow was particularly upset, about both his accident and ours. “We won’t make it,” he walked around muttering. “We’ll never make it. We can’t do it. Something happens every day. We’ll never finish the trip.”

  • Photo caption on page 123 of the printed publication:
    On the potholed Libyan Desert track, our trailer spindle snapped (top), so we had to pull off onto the desert floor (middle) and spend three days making repairs. Our smaller trailer (bottom) twice broke loose and overturned.

Manu, in contrast, was shaping up, even if he hadn’t learned how to drive. Whereas at the start of the trip he’d been the Spanish gentleman who had never worked a day with his hands in his life, nor ever even had a dirty day, by Tunisia he was shaving only once a week, working up a good desert tan, and helping on his own to maintain the equipment, beginning to realize that our survival depended on each doing his share.

Al was at the other extreme from Woodrow. Whenever the trailer would break, or a hitch snap, Al would dash out, calling for Willy to take pictures, assuring us, “It could have been a lot worse. Don’t worry about it. It’ll make a good picture. Now let’s see how we can fix this.” His attitude was almost too lighthearted; but it cheered us up, and it was refreshing to know that the worse things got, the better material Al felt it made for our magazine articles. Even when he became very ill later in the trip, he tried to make light of it, saying, “It will make a good story.” Fortunately for him, he didn’t air these feelings when I got sick, although I could hardly get a hangnail without his mailing a report of it to half the newspapers in the United States.

The next morning, however, even Al wasn’t particularly jovial as we headed toward Gabes, without food, or gas, or Tunisian money to buy either. The Jeep ran dry five miles out of Gabes, and the Land Cruiser only made it there on fumes and momentum. The banks were closed, so no money. Only three shops in the whole town were open, and their keepers looked at our traveler’s checks as if they were expired laundry tickets. They also pointed out that Tunisia requires, as do many countries with currency problems, that foreign money be exchanged only in the banks and certified on an official paper, a paper we didn’t even have since we’d come into the country so far off the usual tourist route. The banks would open after the holiday, in three days, but force of habit made us reluctant to go that long before eating.

Contrary to the precepts of the International Monetary Fund, it was our experience that the most universally acceptable medium of exchange was the American cigarette. Having drawn a blank with the traveler’s checks, we decided to barter with the butts, four cartons of which Al and I had laid in for just such emergencies.

I took a carton of Pall Malls to the three open shops and Al followed with his Salems. Despite my pitch, the first two shops didn’t want them, had never heard of them, and wouldn’t believe they were American cigarettes, even after they conned me into opening a pack and giving them free samples. Their customers wanted Camels, Chesterfields, and Luckies, the brands the GI’s had introduced twenty years before, so when the third store offered me the Tunisian equivalent of three dollars, I took it. Al fared much better with the Salems, whose mentholated novelty had made them famous in Oriental countries, where they served as instant status symbols. He got $6.20 for the carton after spirited bidding.

  • Photo caption on page 125 of the printed publication:
    Al points to one of the hundreds of torn-up truck tires that line the blistering desert road from Tripoli to Alexandria. Our special Firestones survived, and we became the first vehicle ever to drive around the world on one set of tires.

Previous – Chapter 6G – Next

Chapter 6F

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

Previous – Chapter 6F – Next

More Dangers in the Sahara Desert


Since we drank insatiably, every other hour draining our five individual quart-size Thermos bottles and the two two-gallon jugs we shared among us, we found ourselves forced to stop every 30 miles or so to fill up again; yet we never lacked for water wells in that part of the Sahara. There are few such wells farther south, in the heart of the Sahara, but even there the water is abundant, though much deeper below the surface. Recent surveys show that all the wells, springs, and irrigation ditches in the entire Sahara are using its water at only one fourth the rate it flows in; millions of acre feet remain to be tapped, and the Sahara may someday bloom and thrive. It was all rather shattering to our vision of the world’s greatest desert.

Even more shattering were the oases, which we had envisioned as cool pools surrounded by beautiful gardens. From the distance they seemed to live up to their reputation; from miles away in the clear desert air we could see the brilliant green tops of the palm trees. But as we drew closer, the vision faded. There was little green to be seen at eye-level, just brown tree trunks, and brownish-red mud, and rocks, and ugly houses, and barbed wire, and struggling gardens. Their water is highly prized and closely guarded, and usually runs from heavily fenced-in springs, along dirty canals that border the streets, into portions of private land dammed with rocks and unsightly boards and protected by rusting barbed wire. Everything has a brown coat of dust or sand from the encroaching desert and the ceaseless wind. The houses are made of weathered mud or yellow clay; only a few of the fancier ones are touched up with whitewash.

The bleakness is little relieved by the gardens, for they are often a tangle of weeds or rodent-gnawed vegetables. And they are unprofitably small, having been passed on for generations, divided among brothers, split and split again, until they are often no more than three feet by five, with the biggest seldom more than 60 square feet.

Many of the younger people refuse to accept this way of life as the will of Allah. In contact with European civilization, hearing about the wonders of science and industry and the 20th century, able to catch a truck ride and quit the desert in a few days, hundreds of young men are heading for the cities of the coast, deserting the oases, seeking a better life, leaving the old people to tend the dying gardens.

Nor are these the only changes taking place on a desert we once thought of as changeless. The other upholders of the old way of life, the nomads, are also undergoing a major transformation and may soon be men of the past.

The nomads came to the Sahara when the camel was introduced there from Egypt shortly before the decline of Roman influence in Africa. Until then, the desert dwellers had been tied to the oases, unable to move about, for they had only oxen and small elephants, neither of which were of much use in the desert; but the camel gave the nomads mobility, enabling them to travel for days without water or food because the camel could live on the tough desert grasses and the nomads could live on the camel’s milk. They prospered. They organized caravans to carry goods across the desert; they raided competing caravans and sold protection to others. When the grazing ran short, they were powerful enough to attack the oases dwellers and graze their camels on their gardens.

The 20th century brought the truck, killing the caravan trade. And there were other economic factors at work-the depletion of the desert gold mines, the introduction of cheap salt from Europe, and the decline of the ostrich feather business-all of which diminished the size and importance of the caravan. The French threw in two serious blows when they abolished the lucrative slave trade and the feudal dues paid the nomads by the oases dwellers. The nomads then tried rock breeding as a source of income, but the decline of the caravan trade decreased the market for camels, and droughts devastated the shepherds.

  • Photo caption on page 110 of the printed publication:
    Near a well on the edge of the Sahara, Manu (in white coveralls) accepts a pigskin filled with water from an Arab camel herder. We returned the kindness by distributing candy to all the children.

Today the powerful nomad tribes are breaking up, their members setting out on their own; the authority of the chiefs had been weakened, and families are moving about at will. In our drive across all of North Africa we saw only one large tribe of nomads. Everywhere else there were just families (four or five people, 30 camels, a few sheep), looking for pasturage, heading into the setting sun. Many nomads have given up their old way of life completely, settling on oases, buying a few date palms and some cereal seeds, and making a try at agriculture, forced by the 20th century to become rooted peasants rather than free wanderers-forced to join in the great revolution now sweeping the Sahara, which is just beginning, after untold millennia, to be bored by oil rigs, crossed by roads, crisscrossed by geologists, bisected by pipelines, straddled by air strips, carved by mines, and tapped by water wells. The revolution is just under way, but the future is clear. The demands of modern life will bring drastic changes to the Sahara in the years ahead, and we’re glad we saw it while it was still awesome and proud and not yet quite conquered.

After three days, we were far enough south of the Tebessa Mountains to try to make a run for Tunisia, hoping we could get through. The lack of reliable road maps was worrisome, for once we left France there were no more gasoline station handouts, and when we tried to depend on what the national tourist ministries furnished, we were frequently misled. Their maps were generally glossy and colorful, but I’m convinced the tourist ministries filled in the thick reds and blues more for the sake of artistic effect than cartographic accuracy. There were often thick red bands indicating superhighways where camel trails could barely be discerned. It was usually impossible to determine anything about road conditions from the rural Arabs, few of whom had ever been more than 50 miles from their mud doorsteps. They were, however, of a different breed from the Spanish peasants who always boasted of their superhighways. In fact, they were two breeds: one, fatalistic and untraveled, invariably telling us that the road ended just beyond his oases and that we couldn’t move farther without a camel; the other, eager to please and reluctant to give offense, invariably telling us to continue in the direction we were heading lest it be thought he was calling attention to our error. There was also a third breed, and at times they seemed to predominate: those who didn’t understand a word of what we were asking.

We turned north and east at El Qued, last of Algeria’s big oases cities, set in the midst of some of the loveliest dunes in all the Sahara, many of them as high as small mountains, their lines different from every angle, always graceful, never tiring. They were as picturesque as the Hollywood version, and we found ourselves waiting in anticipation for a rider in a white robe and flowing turban to come charging over a dune waving a sword, his horse leaving a flowing trail in the golden sand. But no rider came, only flies.

As a final homage to the great Sahara, now in its last days of untamed glory, we had stopped the cars, and Manu and Al and I had raced to the tops of these golden hills, tumbling and sliding, laughing and playing, making tracks where perhaps no human had ever trod before, thrilled by the vast unspoiled emptiness of the great dunes, at one with Nature. The minute we rested the flies set upon us, vicious biting flies, twice as big as our biggest horsefly, with teeth as sharp as a dragon’s. Their presence in the middle of the barren dunes, miles from any food or breeding spots, was a puzzle to us, as surprising as the flying crabs in Algiers. Where did they come from? What did they eat? How did they live in the middle of nowhere? From the relentlessness of their attacks, I gathered that our expedition must have been the first food they’d seen in months. We rushed back to our car where Woodrow greeted us: “You’ve been gone more than half an hour! What were you running up and down the sand dunes for? What fun is that?” Fortunately, the flies departed when the sun set, even if Woodrow didn’t. God only knows where they go. They’re back with the sun at five in the morning, an infallible, unbreakable, unstoppable alarm clock.

But they aren’t there after dusk, thus permitting the Sahara traveler to relax and enjoy its sunset, one of nature’s most dramatic spectacles. Since there are neither clouds above the desert nor moisture in the air to diffuse or refract, the sun descends in a brilliant hard-edged crimson circle. In but a few minutes the dunes lose their dazzling glare and turn to soft colors, their lines now muted, even more graceful, as long shadows of purple, like pools of deep water, replace the bright harshness of the day. The night comes quickly, and its stars are startling in their number and stunning in their brilliance. There is no sound for a hundred miles save the murmur of the cooling sands, no human, save yourself; and you find yourself wishing that the Sahara, however it changes, may never lose chis magic.

The road from El Qued toward Tunisia was not as bad as we’d feared, nor as good as we’d hoped. It was asphalted in parts, but badly potholed, and clogged with camels who refused to get out of our way. Worst of all, it was covered with sand for long stretches at a time, making the going slow, slippery, and confusing. Loose-blown sand on the roads is the worst enemy of the Sahara traveler, and the farther in, the worse it gets. On his 1956 trip, Peter Townsend reported meeting a driver who had taken two full days to cover 100 yards through heavy sand. Townsend himself had to stop repeatedly to make life and death decisions as to which was the real road and which a false track. Rocks can puncture tires, potholes crack springs, and mud mire you down, but nothing is as vicious as the Sahara sand which at one and the same time obliterates your route, batters your equipment, and assaults you personally.

It was nearing nightfall when we reached the border station, hoping that news of neither our shooting incident nor the impending revolution had reached this isolated outpost. In that respect, we were in luck, for the border post was completely cut off, with no phone or telegraph for a hundred miles. Yet the guards refused to let us pass. By Algerian law ( as well as by the laws of almost all dictatorships) any foreigner trying to leave the country must have an exit permit, a stamp of good conduct put in his passport to show he’s done nothing wrong and that the government has no objections to his departure. The border guards insisted we get them, even though it meant we had to return to El Qued, five hours back in the Sahara. We pleaded and cajoled, but it was no use; we’d have to go back in the morning for the permits.

The guards offered us the hospitality of the post for the night. We accepted, but we learned something at the barracks that changed our minds: a detachment of troops was expected from Algiers the next day to bolster the border post. Algeria’s Ben Bella, furious over a speech Tunisia’s president had made criticizing him, was again pushing his war-weary people into an argument for which they had little desire. Our concern was only partly with the warfare that might erupt; we were more worried that the troops might bring news of the revolution or of our shooting in Algiers. In either case, we knew we had to be gone before they got there. In a panic, and late at night, we raced back toward El Qued for our exit permits, dodging sand drifts here and huge potholes there. By night there was even less of a road to be seen beneath the sand, but we pressed on. The wind-whipped sand was blowing thick off the desert, making it impossible to see; our lights merely reflected back and blinded us. Herds of camels clogged the road, refusing to move, and when we honked or yelled they turned their heads and bared their teeth at us. Once past the camels we picked up the pace, speeding sixty miles an hour on the dangerous road. We blasted through a couple of small sand drifts, almost skidding off the road, before we plowed full speed into a deep one which hipped us over on our side. We were shaken up, but unhurt; however, we couldn’t right the car. We had to wait an hour until a nomad herder came by with some camels who reluctantly helped us pull the car back.

Previous – Chapter 6F – Next

Chapter 6E

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

Previous – Chapter 6E – Next

More Equipment Breakdown


Had we killed somebody? Had we just wounded him? How badly? Would he be back with a gang to get us? If he died, would his family or friends go to the police? We couldn’t go to the police ourselves, for they were already suspicious and unfriendly and not likely to treat too kindly an American who’d shot an Arab-whatever the provocation. Furthermore, we had sworn at the Algerian border that we carried no firearms, knowing that if we declared our gun they’d confiscate it. The possession of that undeclared pistol alone could put us in jail, and that was the last place we wanted to be with the revolution a few days off. We decided to clear out then and there.

If the man died or made trouble, we figured the police would look for us along the coastal highway to Tunis, the best and most heavily traveled road out of the country. We also knew that hundreds of Algerian troops had been stationed along that road because of Ben Bella’s argument with Tunisia; so we decided to take a chance and head south into the Sahara where we were reasonably sure nobody would be looking for us. Not that this course did not have its own dangers. When we’d inquired about the Sahara at the gas stations the day before, nobody knew if it was negotiable or what shape the roads were in, or even if there were roads; and the only map we could find showed no more than thin tracks, ominous gray veins designated on the legend as route de viabilitie mauvaise or piste practicable seulement aux vehicules tous terrains; furthermore the map indicated only one thin piste leading into Tunisia from the Sahara, and noted that it was subject to frequent closure by sand storms, which meant we might be forced to circle back through 800 miles of desert and mountains to link up with the World War II road through Tebessa-by which time the revolution might well have begun.

We broke camp and were on the move before dawn, and sunrise found us twisting and climbing through the Atlas Mountains, the durable barrier that protects the flourishing Mediterranean strip of North Africa from the encroachments of the great sea of sand, heading south toward the Sahara, toward what the Arabs call “the land of a thousand horrors.” Al was up front in the Land Cruiser hauling the camper and I followed in the Jeep.

On a hairpin turn, just as we were cresting the mountains, I noticed the left wheel of the camper wobbling violently, and turned on my lights (our daylight distress signal) to bring Al to a stop on the narrow road. Three of the four bolts on the camper wheel had worked themselves free and were rolling around inside the hubcap; only the last bolt was holding. Another few minutes and we’d certainly have lost the wheel, probably the camper, possibly the expedition.

With all bolts back in place we continued through the mountain pass, relieved that our daily mishap had been no worse than it was. But we sighed too soon. We’d hardly gone a mile, and were just hitting a downgrade, when I saw the camper wheel wobbling again, and again stopped Al-just in time. Two bolts were out and two were on their way. A closer inspection showed why they hadn’t held: the threads of the wheel were stripped and those of the bolts fused. It took an hour of delicate work to jack up the camper, which was inches from dropping off the side of the mountain, and to put on the spare tire and wheel, then another hour with a cold chisel to gouge the metal out of the thread grooves. With such problems every day on the road, it was small wonder we were so far behind schedule.

I didn’t realize exactly how far behind until Al came up with a bunch of his figures.

“Steve, I’ve been doing a little computation-” “So what else is new?” I sighed.

“Just listen to this. In Africa, we’ve been averaging only 112 miles a day for every day on the road. And that’s not the worst of it. If you figure time spent for customs problems and welding repairs and servicing and getting visas and border delays and everything, our daily average breaks down to 68 miles a day! Do you realize what that means? It will take us-based on an estimate of 40,000 land miles-580 days to get around the world! We’d get back to New York on October 16th, 1966! That’s seventeen months from now! And we’re supposed to get back by this Christmas!”

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” I said, “because I’m sure things will get better. It’s always a little rough shaking down at the start. Just don’t mention that date to Woodrow; he’ll have a fit.”

“Of course not. Anyway, I’m sure you’re right. We’re bound to pick up the pace. I can’t imagine not getting back to New York until October of next year.”

Neither could I.

There were no more accidents that day, and the night was almost pleasant. We camped off the road, on the perimeter of the desert. Woodrow went to sleep early, reminding us that the robbers in Algiers had played hell with his customary nine hours. While Willy stuffed himself on my soup of creamed green beans and potatoes, Manu and Al and I sat outside under an incomparable canopy of stars. We had good food in our stomachs, music from Radio Espana on the shortwave, and the five-gallon bottle of potent wine the Commissioner had given us. The girls were gone, but the wilderness kept us company. It was nights like these that made all our troubles worth it.

At the start of our trip we had held the stereotyped Hollywood vision of the Sahara: a huge waste of worthless, endless sand dunes, unbearably hot by day and freezing cold at night, without rainfall or water except on a few oases, which we visualized as inviting blue ponds surrounded by beautiful gardens in the midst of an eternal desert whose life was unchanged and unchanging. These misconceptions were dispelled two days after we met her. The only aspect of our Sahara vision that proved to be valid was “huge.”

The Sahara is the largest desert in the world, three million square miles, larger than the continental United States, fourteen times the size of France. But it is not a wasteland of worthless sand dunes. The flowing dunes of the movies compose only fifteen percent of the desert, concentrated in two or three areas. Most of the Sahara that we saw was an arid steppe, a low, hard-packed plateau of gravel, sand, rocks, and scrub grass. The rest of the Sahara is almost as varied as nature itself; it has massive mountains, high plateaus, volcanic formations, dried river beds, shadowy valleys, depressed salt basins, wind-eroded hills, and sparse plains-hammadas, tarsos, tanezraufts, tassilis, chebkas, sebkhas, gours, regs, shotts, wadis, dayas, barkbans, and ergs.

Nor is the Sahara worthless: oil, gas, coal, iron, copper, gold, tin, tungsten and manganese have all been found there recently.

Nor did we find the desert unbearably hot by day.

  • Photo caption on page 106 of the printed publication:
    Driving by compass across the smooth, unmarred vastness of Tunisia’s Chott Djerid, a dried lake larger than Connecticut, we carved tracks in the crusted sand where no automobile had ever gone before.

Though the temperature went over 90 before noon and kept climbing, the heat was by no means intolerable because the air was so dry and in such constant motion that perspiration evaporated instantly, keeping the body cool and dry. We did require salt pills and a constant intake of water to keep our bodies’ air-conditioning apparatus working, and we had to k p heavy foods to a minimum, but as long as we stuck to this regimen the Sahara was in no way unpleasant. I found its climate in many ways more enjoyable than that of Coney Island in July or Palm Springs in September.

Nor did we find it freezing cold by night. To be sure, the great desert cools quickly once the sun goes down; with a cloudless sky overhead, the sand rapidly loses its heat by radiation, and there are no large bodies of water near enough to mitigate the temperature shift. But we never found it unpleasant. I doubt if it ever dropped below 60 degrees.

We also learned that the Sahara does receive rain, though it didn’t when we were there, and has plenty of water, if you know where to look. During the winter some parts of the Sahara get four inches of rain which, while hardly enough to sustain agriculture, is just enough to encourage dormant seeds to germinate, dotting the desert with patches of green and bursts of bloom. As for water, the Sahara has neither conventional lakes nor rivers; they couldn’t possibly survive, for the hot, dry air can evaporate a thirteen-foot depth of surface water in a year. But below the surface, there is another world: fed by centuries of runoff from the Atlas Mountains and underground streams trapped in layers of cretaceous mantle rock, the world beneath the sand is aflood with waters waiting to be tapped. Some of them rose to the surface centuries ago in the form of springs or pools to make the oases, but most of the water lay unknown and unused until the past twenty years when geologists discovered its secret and found that it could be called forth. In some places the water table is close to the surface, and all along the road south we found wells less than 40 or 50 feet deep. Though we were never sure, they seemed to be open to any traveler, a pulley and bucket ready and waiting, never any warning signs, never any fences around them.

  • Photo caption on page 107 of the printed publication:
    After we chased some camels out of their watering hole at a farmer French Foreign Legion desert post, we had our first bath in 12 days. Air temperature towered above 110 degrees, the water from the pump, a refreshing 60 degrees.

Previous – Chapter 6E – Next

Chapter 6D

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors

Previous – Chapter 6D – Next

Losing Company and More Thieveries


We also lost the girls that day, though not to the Arabs.

They had planned to go farther with us, as far as Tunis, but the delays had put us so far behind schedule that they were already due back at their hospitals in London.

I felt very sad as I watched their steamer sail for Marseilles. Though ours was hardly a trip for women, those Kiwis had borne up beautifully. Where other girls would have constantly complained about the sun, the sand, the beds, the food, the bugs, and the flying crabs, Barbara, Mira, and Liz seldom lost their high spirits or good humor, proving a credit to their country and their calling.

In the morning we’d been eight, by evening we were only five, and I found myself wondering about those. As for Al and me, I knew that, one way or other, we would finish the trip. But Willy was disturbed about the slow progress of the expedition and some of the unexpected hardships of the journey. With Manu, it was a case of money. He had received neither funds nor word from his publisher. And with Woodrow, it was a question of health. Unable to adapt to the demands of life on the road, he was often ill and frequently homesick, and had begun to talk about leaving us in Cairo. All this with the worst of the trip to come.

Sometime during the night, as we slept, our camp had a visitor, an uninvited visitor who cut the cover on our small storage trailer and stole a suitcase loaded with wine r clothing, mountain-climbing equipment, and spare photographic equipment worth more than $500. We reported the theft to the police and they turned it over to the army, but the army was less interested in catching the thieves than in learning what a bunch of Americans were doing camped on a beach with ropes and crampons and telephoto lenses. We were released only after hours of interrogation.

What with the belligerent wildlife, the thieving visitors, and the antagonistic political atmosphere, none of us were eager to remain in Algiers; but we had to stay two more days because the cracks in the trailer needed welding, and the generator on the Jeep had burned out and needed rewiring.

It was incredibly difficult to find anyone to handle the jobs because almost every skilled auto mechanic and machinist in the country had either been killed or had fled back to France during the war which had taken 130,000 lives and exiled a million. We went to a dozen gas stations, but that’s all they were-gas, oil change, and a grease job-with not one mechanic at any of them. After hours of searching, we found a welding shop and a man in it who could rewire our generator.

“What do people do here if something really goes wrong with their cars?” I asked him. “What if they have trouble with the brakes, or the steering, or if the valves need to be reground? Who takes care of it?”

  • Photo caption on page 99 of the printed publication.
    After we were burglarized one night while camped on a beach near Algiers, Steve tried to explain the situation to two Algerian army investigators, but they were more interested in who we were than tracking down the thieves.

“If you look on the street,” he said, “you will find your answer. Hundreds of cars sit idle and their owners have to go on bicycle or by foot. When something breaks it is finished. There is no one here who can do the work, and there are no parts to do the work with.” I asked him what the government was doing to prevent this.

“They are putting up signs telling us to be patient,” he sighed. “They are broadcasting on the radio we should tighten our belts. They are writing in the newspaper that land reform is coming, that the first years of the socialist revolution are always difficult.”

“And do your people believe the signs and the radio?” Al asked.

“In the beginning, we believed. In the beginning we were so happy to have independence we believed anything. But now we see things are not as we would like. Ben Bella is doing things we do not want. We want to be peaceful, to grow prosperous, to enjoy our neighbors. But Ben Bella has other ideas: he wants to be big man in Africa and he wants Algeria to be big power. He makes friends with Nasser, with Russia, with China. He thinks he uses them, but we think they use him. Once we were at peace with our neighbors. Morocco and Tunisia were our friends, and helped us win our independence, but Ben Bella has made them our enemies. We had no quarrel with the Jews until Nasser persuaded Ben Bella to join his Arab League. We are only partly Arabs, and we are not Communists-we don’t want Nasser and we don’t want the Russians and we don’t want the Chinese. We are what you might call a Mediterranean people. Our strongest ties are to the Mediterranean and to the French. However we may try to deny it, we are still French in attitude and behavior. We have driven the French out, but we keep their customs. We like their way of life, their culture, their attitudes. We do not want to be driven farther from them. We should make friends again with our neighbors and with France and live in peace and prosper.” “That makes wonderful sense, but why aren’t things working out that way?” Al asked. “Ben Bella!”

“If the others are as unsatisfied as you, I imagine he’ll lose the next election.”

“With Ben Bella there will be no more elections. He will make himself dictator and try to stay president. No, there is only one way, a coup d’etat. I only tell you this because you are Americans, and I am sure you have no great love for Monsieur Ben Bella. He will not be president for long. Within a short time he will be dead. We have planned well and we will overthrow him soon. But I do not think it will be safe for foreigners in Algeria when the revolution comes.”

“How can you overthrow him? His palace is surrounded by hundreds of soldiers with machine guns. You wouldn’t have a chance,” Al said.

“I have spoken too much already, but you will see … We will overthrow him very soon, before the Conference meets here. The Conference is a Chinese trick to take power in Africa. We will not have it. As for his guards, have no fear, for the army leaders are with us. There, your generator is finished.

I hope you have a good journey. And remember, leave Algiers as quickly as you can. I hope ours will be a happier country the next time you are here.”

It was probably wishful thinking, but we decided not to take any chances: we’d make tracks for Tunis in the morning.

Though we doubted the robbers would return to our camp, we realized it was possible. So as not to be caught unawares again, we stuck forked twigs in the sand in a circle around the cars and storage trailer, and ran a piece of string through them to a can full of rocks balanced on a twig in a hole under the camper beside which Al and I unrolled our sleeping bags. If anybody approached the equipment, they’d trip the string and rattle the can enough to wake us.

It was black and cramped under the camper, and I was sure the flying crabs would find us, but we managed to fall asleep. Hours later I heard something, but it wasn’t the can rattling: it was someone unzipping the windows of the Land Cruiser. Al was also awake, Blackie’s .38 at the ready. We slipped out from under the camper and got into position.

I flicked on the lantern. It caught three mean-looking Arabs, their arms full of our supplies. Al shouted at them to drop the stuff.

One of them did, but all three ran into the dark. We gave chase. Al warned them to stop or he’d shoot. But they kept running. He fired twice into the air, but they kept going.

Then he fired at them, trying to hit their legs, though it was difficult to see in the moonless dark. On the third shot I heard a groan and thought I saw someone fall. Together we rushed to the spot. There, on the beach, next to a flying crab, was my safari hat and our binoculars and some of our clothing. The sand was torn up, but we could see three sets of tracks moving up the beach, the one in the middle dragging, and here and there a spot of what looked like blood.

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