Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
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.