The Digital Adventures

Chapter 6G

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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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.

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