Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
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.