Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
Horror Upon Entry
”What is New Zealand?” “What do you mean, what is New Zealand?” Mira shot back.
“I mean what is New Zealand?” the Algerian passport officer repeated.
“It’s a country. What do you think it is? It’s a country just like yours -only better,” she added under her breath.
“There is no such country on our list. It is perhaps part of America?”
“No, it’s not part of America, never was and never will be,” Barbara cut in. “It’s part of the British Common-wealth. It’s in the South Pacific, near Australia.”
“I have never heard of it. You must go back to Rabat and apply for a visa.”
”Apply for a visa?” Mira shouted.
“Go back to Rabat?” Barbara gasped.
I cut in and explained that the girls had been told by the Algerian Consulate in Rabat that they wouldn’t need visas because New Zealand was part of the British Commonwealth and that British subjects could enter Algeria without visas.
“This is not a British passport,” the guard answered. “These women must go back to Rabat for visas.”
And so it went on for three hours. The guard wasn’t going to let anybody in from a country he’d never heard of, and we’d be damned if we’d recross the breadth of Morocco.
A compromise was finally reached: The guard gave the girls a temporary entry visa, good for 72 hours, and they had to report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Algiers and explain their case within that time limit or they would be put in jail.
Exhausted from the hour and the ride-which from Fez had been through barren lands and mountains, and during which we’d had to labor for three hours repairing new breaks in the trailer’s undercarriage-we decided to camp at the first clear spot we came to. The border area was a mess of armed soldiers, concrete tank traps, and barbed wire, but a little beyond we found a hard-caked field and pulled off into it, pitching our camper and tent about forty yards from the road. We were asleep in seconds.
”Attention! Attention!” A voice was shouting at us in French through a megaphone. It was early morning and I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
“Defense d’allez! Defensed’allezl” The voice belonged to an Algerian Army officer up on the road.
Willy blanched: “He says we shouldn’t move. He says we’re in the middle of a mine field!”
“Mine field? I thought they’d gotten rid of those by now ” Al exclaimed.
“Got rid of what?” asked Woodrow, just waking up. “The mines. I edited a story about them at Argosy.” AI explained that about 15,000,000 mines had been laid throughout Algeria, mostly by the rebels to blow up French troops and equipment during the war for independence, some to prevent attack from Morocco. And after the war they didn’t even remember where they’d put a lot of them. They’d managed to dig up about half, but of the 7,000,000 left, a few were somewhere under, around, or in front of us.
“What does he say we should do?” I asked Willy, who was translating.
After several shouted exchanges: “He says we should stay here. He has no mine detector. He says in four or five days the mine expert is due back in this part of the country. He also says we’re a bunch of stupid fools to ignore all the warnings.” Far down the road a tiny sign winked at us in the morning sun.
A four-day delay would be intolerable and unsafe. The girls were afraid to try to leave, but I reminded them they’d be in jail if we didn’t.
The safest and surest way to get out was probably the way we’d gotten in, but it was impossible to find our tire tracks in the hard packed sand; so I decided to try an old trick I’d learned in the Marines. I took one of our arrows and to it tied a long piece of string, tied the string to a strong piece of cord, and attached the cord to the winch cable on our car. I shot the arrow onto the road, where the officer hauled in on the string and the cord and the winch cable until he had enough to work with.
Following our shouted instructions, the officer found a big boulder, about 80 pounds. With the help of several nomads who’d stopped to see the harib get blown up, he rolled it to the road and hooked the end of the winch wire around it. When I started the engine to activate the winch, the others took shelter beneath the camper, but I had to stay up front, my foot on the pedals, hauling in the improvised mine sweeper. The big boulder came tumbling and dragging along the ground, certain to detonate any mine in its path, and if the mine happened to be close to the car-I forced myself not to think of it, forced my mind back to thoughts of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo and the days when they didn’t have mined frontiers. With a solid clink the boulder hit the bumper. The path was clear.
But was it really? The boulder had certainly swept a path big enough for a pedestrian, but was it wide enough for the car and camper? We couldn’t take that risk, so the others walked to the road, marching one at a time along the narrow pathway. Al went last, carrying the winch wire which, on reaching the road, he hooked up to another big boulder that I planned to drag along a path parallel to the first. It was about halfway home when it hit a mine. The world erupted. My ears went deaf with the blast. The car seemed to leap straight up. Pieces of rock and dirt exploded skyward and settled over the car. But that was all. I was unharmed, the car was running, the path was cleared, and the Trans World Record Expedition was back on the road.
There was little to like about Algeria except the scenery. Prices were ridiculous: gasoline was a dollar a gallon, the highest we paid anywhere in the world; they wanted two dollars for a chicken, which in Morocco had cost forty cents; everything was three, four, or five times costlier than anywhere else in North Africa. It took hours to find a place to exchange money; no one accepted our Moroccan money, and even for dollars they offered an unfairly low rate. When Manu bought a bottle of Algerian red wine, world famous before independence, it was terrible. The farms we passed were without vigor. The Algerians had expropriated 22,000 farms when they drove out the French settlers, turning them into 2,284 “socialist production units,” operated by the state in an experiment that turned out to be a disaster. Lacking the skilled managers to run them successfully, supervised by heroes of the guerrilla war who had no inclination for farm life, and worked by men who had little incentive for doing a good job, the farms had come on bad times and food prices were soaring throughout the country. Though once Algeria had earned abundant foreign exchange by selling its surplus wine, olives, citrus and wheat abroad, it was now faced with an agricultural deficit in the millions. Discontent was widespread. Every 50 miles or so, a soldier behind a machine gun roadblock checked our passports and destination. But the scenery was another matter. At Oran we hit the Mediterranean coast and drove for hours through breathtaking beauty along a cliff road overlooking the sea; every twist and turn brought with it a more magnificent view. Five hundred feet below us were virgin beaches, quiet coves, thick forests of fir trees down to the water’s edge, sleepy fishing villages-the shining sands of the Costa del Sol, massive red rocks of the Riviera, wooded islands of Greece, soaring seaside cliffs of Big Sur-caves and jetties and dunes and bays, inlets and streams and waterfalls and ponds, almost every gift in Nature’s cornucopia of beauty.