THE MOROCCAN SAHARA
geographers... crowd into edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond lies nothing but the sandy deserts full of wild beasts
Plutarch, Lives: Theseus, c.100 AD
Retracing my steps a short distance to the roadstead of El-Betorni known only for its gas station, the last one for over 150 miles I turned off the main road to join Route 3454, leading ninety kilometres due west to the oasis of Alnif.
About ten kilometres from Rissani, abandoned sand-swept terrain began to force itself upon the landscape: largely flat, sandstone plains strewn with larger boulders and quartzite rocks that shimmered blindingly in the sunlight. The little remaining vegetation faded rapidly away, like a match that had once flared, bright and healthy, but had then hissed and spluttered and finally lain still, sheathed only in a thin veil of harsh but warm, lingering smoke. The lay and atmosphere of the land changed markedly. No longer the lush irrigation and tightly spaced habitations of the Ziz gorges and the Tafilalt, but a vast and empty aspect, illuminated with a harsh waxen light, naked and open to all the ravages of the desert. The reflected glare of the sun, especially, was much as I imagined my vision to be on waking from a coma: a complete white-out. This was a land of large but indistinct shapes and forms, with few details or visual points of reference. There was an overriding impression of a vast infinity.
The village of Oulad Saidena is a small cluster of adobe dwellings that straddles the brackish waters of the River Rheris. This far south, though, the river - like the Ziz - is no more than a chalky scree of rocks and pebbles, dry, dusty and dead. I had my dinner in the roofless confines of a ruined house, lapped all around with a thick solemn blanket of bleached sand and rocks that strangled a few sorrowful clumps of parched wheat. By now the sun had been overhead for most of the day, and for the first time I began to appreciate the difference that wearing the cheche made both to my body temperature and my liquid intake, for almost as soon as I removed it, streams of sweat began to roll off my brow and trickle past my mouth. In less than half an hour I had quaffed a litre and a half of water, and yet I was doing nothing more strenuous than eating.
Soon after the village the asphalt road ended abruptly, giving way instead to a faintly rutted track consisting of small dark rocks and coarse grey sand, through which the spines of desert-loving thistle protruded. All around me now, the remaining islands of cultivation vanished for good, leaving only a thin scattering of yellowed scrub grass and fragile bushes. I swallowed my apprehension. To the south stretched a vast and denuded hammada, a rocky plateau blackened through centuries of relentless heat and abrasion. To the north and my right rippled a sea of dirty beige sand and rock, beyond which the horizon was cut short by a looming mass of dust. To the west, where I was heading, the first eroded foothills of the ancient Djebel Ougnat rose from the desert floor, grotesquely contorted and twisted by some violent prehistoric eruptions. For the most part, the hills were a mass of lava flows, blackened quartzites, exposed reefs of grey granite, glossy mica schists, and sharp shards that cut through rubber and flesh (the rubber of my tyres and the flesh of my legs and arms) like a butcher's cleaver. In places, the stone and grit had oxidised to a dirty red, which shone obscenely in the glare of the sun. The wind rattled like rhonchus through the outstretched embrace of brittle acacia.
Many writers are tempted to compare such desert scenes with Dante's Inferno: hellish places of burning and bubbling sand under blazing mineral skies that one half expects to burst into flame. But however attractive this image may be, for the most part I found that the desert gave a sensation of having passed beyond these fiery cataclysms. The overriding impression was of a land deceased, a dust-blown corpse grown brittle through the ages, neither Heaven nor Hell, a land devoid of all colour and purpose. It is difficult to describe my feelings on being immersed for the first time in the immense silence of this strange and desolate land, the danger being that whatever I write will sound too simple, hackneyed or romanticised. The latter especially I dislike, but there are few other ways of describing the simple fact that I was deliriously happy! I was happy, I suppose, to my surprise, simply to be in the desert at all; to sense again the eternal fascination of the unknown. To relive my childhood dreams of innocence and naiveté, and to resurrect for a while my belief in a world where wishes do come true, where fantasy is fact, and where dreams are reality. The lone trail rolled on endlessly as I daydreamed, with still no sign of the absent asphalt road (in fact the asphalt was not to reappear for another 350 miles). Cycling was predictably sluggish, not least because I feared damaging the bike over the rocks were I to pedal any faster. As the sun began its westering, the hills drew near, and the sun sank beneath the ravaged peaks in hazy cascades of scarlet and violet, deepening to the blue of veiny blood, before turning still darker shades of purple in the chill of the desert night. I settled beside a low sand drift crested with a couple of thorn bushes, under which (it later became apparent) lived a colony of giant darkling beetles. Like many desert inhabitants, the beetles have evolved a peculiar adaptation to the elements: over the ages, their wings have fused with their bodies to trap a protective sac of air, an ingenious device that both provides insulation and prevents evaporation.
I awoke a few hours later, shivering, my fingers numb. I stumbled out of my Gore-Tex bivouac into a sand squall to fetch my sleeping bag, only to tread on one of the beetles, which crunched with a sickening finality as the fat crescent moon flashed one of its obscene smiles across the dirty sky.
I reached the sleeping village of Mecissi at around midday, having trudged for what seemed like ages over an increasingly bumpy track and the dust-blown Tikkert-n-Ouchchanem, the Jackals' Pass. A battered signpost announced the fact that Alnif was only 37km away, which pleased me no end. Even on a bad road, this should take at most two hours to complete. As I pored over my map, a large number of inquisitive children gathered around me. Unlike adults, children are exempted from the obligations of Ramadan, and in consequence they were to be almost exclusively the only people I was to see over the following weeks. It was strange to travel alone through a land populated only by children, creeping stealthily like a gold feverish explorer through the tombs of Pharaonic Egypt. Desert children were a mixed bunch. Some wore goofy grins and gawky sneers like those of stranded, walruses. Many others had blank faces that registered only incomprehension. Others looked sad and weary, often seeming to have lived through as much as a forty-year-old. Many were barefoot. Others wore battered plastic sandals. When trousers were worn, their flies would often be left undone (mothers, who would undoubtedly have noticed such things, were, of course, fast asleep). It disturbed me to notice that many children were cross-eyed, or blind. There was one such boy in Mecissi, who never knew exactly where to turn his head when being addressed. He was about four years old, had a snotty nose, badly flaking skin (scabies?), and had had his hair shaved off to avoid lice. For some reason, he was constantly being kicked by his two sisters. The elder wore an unusual patchwork dress, considered by Berbers to radiate good baraka, but by Arabs, bad. The other sister was about ten years old, and had much darker skin than the other children. She was not yet old enough to have to tie her hair back, and so instead wore it tousled and froppy over her forehead, a bit like a rag doll. She was dressed in a frilly but ragged lilac nightgown, and held her hands square on her hips like an irate school teacher. In return for having helped me draw water from the village well, she demanded that I take her photograph. Meeting children invariably occasioned this request. Whereas adults (who know better) cover their faces or look away from the camera (for it is believed that the camera steals away a portion of one's soul), the children unfailingly stared straight into its evil eye, often displaying fingered 'V' signs as though in defiance. I left Mecissi minus my last two bags of sweets, and ploughed on - quite literally, in parts - through a barren landscape flanked on either side by hills and escarpments strewn black with basalt and pumice. The going was slow and the heat blistering, although my cheche relieved the worst of the midday heat to give my sunburnt face some respite. For most of the day, I was followed by a slight tailwind, though it served little purpose except to swirl up little iblis sand spouts, at times lending quite a surreal appearance to the desert.
By mid afternoon I eventually caught up with the only person I'd seen since leaving Mecissi: an elderly gentleman swathed from head to toe in white linen. With considerable difficulty, he was pushing a moped laden with water filled Jerry cans and so I stopped beside him to ask whether he needed any help. After a lot of improvised sign language, I worked out that he needed me to kick start the motor. Pointing to my legs, he mumbled 'bon courage', a phrase that every Moroccan seems to know. For a good few minutes I struggled to get even a splutter from the damn thing, until the old man helpfully pointed out that the ignition lead had come loose. The motor rattled into action and the man beamed broadly. He then shook both my hands with a steely vigour, and zoomed off and out of sight over a nearby hillock. I cycled on a little further till I came to a fork in the track. To the south I caught another glimpse of the old man disappearing over another, more distant sand hill, while to the west the piste clambered on past the fringes of what looked like a palm grove, and then up into the hills. I took the former, hoping to run a short cut around Alnif.
Before long I came to a small settlement hidden in the depression of dry river gully, its course marked only by a thin line of ragged shrubs and stunted trees. Though my map made no mention of this place, I cycled on regardless, hotly pursued by a gang of over thirty children who added the improbable 'gateaux' to the litany of the more usual demands! The opposite lip of the depression bore the track up onto the edge of a vast, wind-scoured hammada, strewn with a very fine layer of red stones that made cycling almost as easy as on tarmac. To the south there were no longer any hills, giving the impression that I could see half way across the desert. All around, the horizon shimmered in the heat. To say that there was not a single blade of grass or a solitary clump of bushes is no exaggeration. There was only a flat brick brown expanse, the horizon, and the murky grey dome of the sky, over which, at its very zenith, the sun laughed mercilessly.
I cycled along increasingly hard to follow tracks, choosing whenever the track divided, the branch that seemed to be the most worn and frequently used. Most of the time, this was hardly at all. After an hour or so, a blood red silhouette resolved itself from the mirages to my right - the monumental battlements of Alnif, or so I thought. The sight cheered me considerably, for I seemed to have got the knack of desert navigation, but the hammada soon gave way to an area of soft and in places very deep sand, which got me worrying. However beautiful to my unaccustomed eye the sand may have been, it necessitated much walking, something that very quickly dampened my confidence as well as making me tired. Surely this could not be right, I thought, for the land here seemed impassable even to the most rugged of vehicles. It was two hours later still when a brazier in a Land Rover informed me that I had somewhat misjudged my 'short cut'. If I continued southwards, he said, I would not reach another settlement for over a thousand miles. In consequence, Alnif was now at least another forty kilometres away, and I was advised to turn back and aim for that beautiful red silhouette that I had seen, for it was not Alnif but an escarpment beside the much closer village of Achbarou (which, like many settlements, was unmarked on my map). I felt like a right fool, but the really stupid thing was that, even with the benefit of experience, I was to, repeat the same mistake again in the not too distant future. When eventually I reached Alnif at around six in the evening I was tired and frustrated, and in no mood to stop and talk (my mood hadn't been helped by being robbed by Achbarou's children of all my spare spokes). Situated in the valley of a seasonal stream that flows south into the desert from between the twin ranges of Djebel Ougnat and the granite mass of Djebel Sarhro, and enclosed by a narrow belt of dusty palm groves, the oasis of Alnif was a disappointment. As far as I could see, there were no pools of clear water, nor were there many songbirds to be heard, and the place had little of the feeling of warmth and sanctuary that I had expected from a Saharan oasis (in several instances, it now seems to me, I seemed to make up my mind about a place within minutes of arriving, and only rarely was humble enough to change my mind. It was as though I was too impatient to give time to places whose initial impressions I did not like).
As I wheeled the bike along the last stretch of piste into town, the wind picked up. With it came the sand, first in small gusts, but then gradually stronger and harder, stinging the exposed parts of my body and filling my eyes with dust. A small herd of goats being driven by a young Berber girl grew restless, and it soon became apparent that even the few birds that did reside in the village had stopped singing. The crowd of onlookers that I'd attracted scattered for the shelter of their doorways, leaving only the wind and myself in the street. Clambering back onto my bike, I made my way slowly down the gentle slope of a gully on the far side of town, my shirt flapping loudly in the wind. The soldier at the roadblock waved me through with uncommon haste, though he betrayed a faint sneer as an unexpected gust of wind threatened to blow me off my bike. Now the palms were thrashing about wildly and in the near distance the last trees of the oasis became obscured in a mist of sand and dust. Soon I reached the dry riverbed itself, spattered pink with oleander, a riverine bush said to have been created by Fatima's tears on learning that her husband Ali had taken a second wife. The remaining daylight faded rapidly in the face of the oncoming storm, so I wheeled the bike down and into the wadi (a dry riverbed). I settled and tried to write my diary, but hardly had I put pen to paper than a large bank of nitrogenous clouds rolled in from the north, lashing out at the hills with forked tongues of light. The onset of the storm itself was sudden and ferocious, forcing me to rush about covering and securing my belongings. Then, to my utter astonishment, it began to rain. Not for long, but it rained nonetheless. Warm, dusty, Saharan rain.
* * *
I opened my eyes to see two dozen camels encircling me. They emitted an unearthly chorus of whale-like groans, and were staring at me in much the same way as I must have been gazing at them: pure astonishment. For my part - once I'd got over the surprise - I was struck not only by their otherworldly groaning and peculiar, almost condescending, expressions of superiority, but by their great height. Their long spindly legs only added to this impression of hauteur, being improbably thin except at the hooves where they flared to resemble the buttresses of rainforest trees. On their rumps they bore the brands of their owner, who will often allow his herd to wander freely throughout a day's grazing, knowing full well that they will return in the evening for the food and water that he alone provides. Having said this, I once saw a very red-faced nomad with streaming blue robes dashing across a rocky valley side in pursuit of one of his camels, but every time he got close, the animal bolted. Finally the poor man gave up the ghost of the chase and trudged forlornly back to the herd, hoping, I suppose, that the beast would get lonely without its companions!
First introduced into the Sahara in the second century, the camel is, of course, the key to man's survival in the desert. Indeed, not just survival. Without the camel, there would never have been trade across the Sahara, and cities such as Sijilmassa, Carthage, Timbuctoo, Baghdad, Jiddah, Khartoum, Fès and Marrakesh, Damascus and Cairo, would never have grown as wealthy as they did. The camel's ability to survive without water is prodigious. With a stomach capacity of sixty gallons, and a limited ability to combine oxygen and hydrogen to make water, a healthy dromedary can cover over 40km a day for between five and eight days in high summer without drinking. In winter, this capacity doubles. The camel has other adaptations, too, to help it survive. Its toes, for instance, are webbed and hairy to facilitate walking on sand, and the hump for which it famous is used to store fat, which can be converted to energy when required. What I found most incredible (and hard to believe, it must be said) is that camels can run faster than horses. Perhaps there is some truth in this, for the name 'dromedary' comes from the Greek dromos meaning 'running'.
For so long indispensable, in recent decades the importance of the camel has suffered a drastic decline. The shift in world trade routes and requirements is one cause, but much more damaging has been the advent of Land Rovers, of cheap shipping and of air freight, which has rendered obsolete the caravans of old. It was sad to think that given another hundred years or so, perhaps even the camel itself will have become an endangered species in this desert.
The air hung still and warm. There was no sign of yesterday's storm. The town of Zagora, one hundred and sixty kilometres away along the southeastern fringes of Djebel Sarhro (via the village of Tazzarine) was my next goal. For a while, I kidded myself that the distance might be possible within the day. The hammada was good for cycling, and although some larger rocks and boulders were littered about, they lay, by and large, outside the ruts of the piste itself. Consequently, and for the first time since descending the High Atlas towards Er-Rachidia, I was able to keep the bike in top gear. I was also saved a few kilometres by two camel herders, who showed me a well worn short cut around the village of Aït Saadane, a couple of hours from Alnif. Shortly afterwards, I passed a truck that had beached itself on a large sand drift. It was a reminder that good fortune, especially in the desert, is rarely destined to last.
After rounding Aït Saadane, the quality of the track deteriorated, once more becoming a twisted carpet of fist sized rocks and stones that spun and slid as I tried to keep both my balance and my speed. Over confident, I misjudged a large trough in the track that jolted the bike so violently that a couple of water bottles were sent flying. At the same instant I heard a great crack, and to my horror turned to see one of my rear panniers lying on the ground beside the shattered flasks. The other pannier dangled precariously from the rack: three out of four 'guaranteed unbreakable' plastic hooks had snapped straight in two. Several minutes of anger and angst ensued, until I remembered that my otherwise useless anorak had a thick lace cord around the waist, which I used with a couple of bungy ropes to reattach the panniers. I counted myself lucky to have been able to surmount this difficulty, and from then on I cycled at a rather more cautious pace.
Snaking through a ghostly village of mud huts and scrawny goats, the piste rounded a low pass only to drop down onto yet another hammada, equally devoid of life. Only a few hardy trees, stubbornly rooted in the rocky ground, disturbed the almost moonlike desolation of this land. And so the day wore on, mostly without excitement. It was only late in the afternoon that I reached Tazzarine, tired, frustrated, and faced with the daunting prospect of still one hundred kilometres of rugged piste to cover until Zagora. Instead of entering the town I still had enough water and supplies to last a day or two, and my makeshift repairs seemed to be holding I turned south at a bizarre signpost embedded in a dry wadi, and began following a series of sandy tracks that in turn followed the riverbed. Before long, however, the wadi simply disappeared, and so I was left confronted with dozens of tyre traces spreading out in as many directions. The depth of the tracks indicated that only few vehicles had recently passed this way at least since the last sand storm which made choosing the 'correct' piste somewhat difficult. Ahead of me was a small range of hills that cleaved the southern horizon into east and west. Zagora, I knew, lay to the southwest, but all the tracks veered off eastwards. My map, alas, was woefully useless, although I was beginning to be spared the anguish of consulting it because the ravages of travel and of yesterday's rain were beginning to pulp its edges.
At the small and welcome village of Timganine (unmarked on the map), few people seemed even to have heard of Zagora, whilst those who had all pointed in contradictory directions, which prompted much arguing and discussion amongst themselves. Finally, one of the village elders was summoned to resolve the problem. The moqqadam reassured me that I was indeed on the Zagora piste, but he advised me to give up cycling and to wait instead for a lift with a travelling merchant. Stupidly (with hindsight) I ignored the moqqadam's advice. Throughout the Moroccan Sahara, my stubbornness made me intent on proving that I could manage perfectly well on my own. On seeing my response, the moqqadam raised his arms up the sky, and shrugged.
Barely half a kilometre out of the village, and not yet back on the piste, the wind stiffened, and for the second time in as many days, the sky grew dark. Tall columns of storm clouds that simply had not been there a few minutes before, reared up and advanced from the western horizon to block out the sun. Before long, half the land was plunged into darkness, save for a few eerie islands of sun-struck desert. Still my stubbornness determined that I would not return to the village... For a moment the clouds became edged with golden glints of fractured sunlight as the low horizon flared in the glowing embers of evening, but then the clouds moved closer still so that all I could see was an oppressively sombre scene in murky shades of brown and black. A distant lick of lightning, then another, lashed out across the darkness, accompanied by dull rumbles that shook the ground and my bones. The wind blew harder, whirling and howling, lashing the desert into a fury of sand and dust - a tumultuous racket over which distant voices from the village, real or imagined, seemed to fade in and out. Soon, the village itself disappeared into the chaotic onslaught of the dust. For a while, this was the limit of the storm: merely a particularly violent sand squall, it seemed. But after ten minutes or so, I looked to the north and saw, to my horror, a gigantic wall of sand hurtling towards me. Now the thunder no longer rumbled but roared down in deafening peals, and I watched transfixed like a deer caught by headlights as a tree near the village caught the blue light and burst into flame, only to be swamped by the swirling sand that within seconds had reduced my visibility to only a few feet. Even my bicycle, lying a few yards beside me, was swallowed by the blackness. I cowered under my rubber sleeping mat, hoping that the lightning might stay away.
Then... then came the rain, torrential, for twenty minutes falling as mud from the sky. By the time the clouds had passed on by and the winds had subsided, the land was left inundated, and for a few moments I seemed to be cast adrift on a vast, inland sea. It was incontestably the most bizarre sight I had ever seen. There was a disturbing stillness to the moist, cloying air, which smelt sickly sweet, of donkey or camel dung. Then, to whoops and yells of exaltation from the village, the evening sun emerged from under the storm's stranglehold to cast long, drawing shadows across the sand, land and sky intertwined with rainbows. The sand glowed a radiant orange, nurtured under a thick olive green sky the density and colour of which I would never have imagined possible.
I shivered as I trudged back to the track, only to find that it had been obliterated. The remaining puddles of sweet water drained away through the sand, and everywhere the desert steamed. Cycling, of course, was impossible on the damp sand that clung to the wheels and my feet, and so I walked instead in silence, pausing only to haul the bike out of the deeper drifts in which it often became engulfed. As I walked, the shadows grew longer still, before they merged with the night. After another hour of walking, I came to a sizeable sandy hillock, strewn with black lumps of coarse basalt. I had no idea where I was, nor indeed in which direction I was walking. The wind stiffened once again, and in my sodden clothes I felt cold and pathetic. I cursed the fact that I had not after all followed the advice of the moqqadam, and I cursed my own pig headed stupidity. After a miserable dinner of stale bread and jam, I began restlessly to pace up and down the hillock. A stroke of luck: I saw a distant light. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but it was still there, stationary, flickering as only oil lamps do. In a rare moment of common sense, I gathered together two mounds of rocks to point like an arrow towards the light, so that I might have something to aim at the following day.
The strategy worked, for in spite of morning revealing nothing but a sandy expanse enclosed by faraway hills and a pale blue sky, the rocks indicated a distant but distinctive mountain, which was to be my guide for the time being. At length, from the peak of a dune I spotted (to my great relief) the small oasis of Tarhbalt, whose outlying palm groves I reached at around midday. Two elderly men in white robes stared incredulously as I approached. I must have looked like Martian dropping in from Outer Space, for as I drew nearer, one of the men excitedly jabbed his partner's ribs and started gabbling. Our gazes met, and I shouted a greeting, which elicited a couple of wide and childish grins. Doum palm saplings rose beside the track, while above, flocks of goldfinch and blue rollers tumbled deliriously about the waving fronds of date palms. Eucalyptus, sweet smelling bougainvillaea, and syrupy criss-cross tracks made up the outskirts of Tarhbalt. Then came a few mud houses with thick walls and iron-grilled windows, and others nearby that had crumbled to dust. A handful of well-trodden donkey tracks led up to Tarhbalt's ancient Kasbah, perched at the very top of a hill like the fortresses of medieval Castille or the needlepoint monasteries of the Jura. It was a place replete in an aura of centuries-old custom and tradition, with steep muddy streets, collapsing roof beams and painted wooden doors that had probably been exactly the same over five hundred years ago. The Kasbah, it seemed, had been the source of the flickering lights.
The track filed past the Kasbah and down the other side of the hill to cross the dried up Tarhbalt wadi. In the middle of it, a gaggle of women stood beside a well, laughing (women always seemed to be laughing beside wells). Crossing over to the other side, the piste then took off up the mountain that had been my guide. After about a mile, I lost the possé of children that had been following me, and I found myself alone once more. This mountain, I found out later, was the eastern embrace of Djebel Bani, the southernmost ridge of the Anti Atlas. Stretching for almost a thousand kilometres from east to west, this granite and sandstone range is the longest of all the Anti Atlas. But, unlike the High Atlas, the Anti Atlas is no barrier to the Sahara, because the Anti Atlas is the Sahara.
Struggling over ever more broken terrain, I despaired about the condition of my bike. In only two days, I had suffered half a dozen broken spokes, shattered water bottles, snapped pannier hooks and bungy ropes, a broken inner tube valve, busted lights, and twelve punctures. I was also beginning to run out of water, having for some inexplicable reason not considered this in Tarhbalt. Without my mints having equally stupidly given them away in Mecissi my mouth soon felt like sandpaper. Without exception, all these problems had been caused by my own carelessness. With hindsight, I am thankful indeed for the healthy dose of good fortune that guarded me for much of my travels: the fortune that favours fools...
In the mountains, the heat hung heavy, and I tired quickly. The sun banged down as always, and my head began to ache. Sweat stung my eyes, and through my blurred vision the land shimmered madly. My back and wrists complained as the track clambered inexorably upwards over still more denuded rocks and boulders. In one place, they sheltered tiny flowers, no more than a couple of inches tall, with yellow petals protected with four minuscule needles offering, I thought, no more protection than Don Quixote's buckled lance. Soon after passing the flowers I heard a faint hissing which at first I mistook for a snake. No such luck; one of those pathetic little needles had embedded itself in my front tyre! To compound my frustration, a bottle of skin lotion that I had never used chose this moment to empty its contents all over my sleeping bag. For once, I blamed myself for all my misfortune: 'This is supposed to be a bloody holiday!' I yelled out loud. 'Not some fucking assault course!' If I remember right, I think I called myself a blithering idiot.
The descent was equally diabolical, and the going was correspondingly painful as I hopped the bike down the ledges and boulders. At the foot of the mountain, where I spooked a trio of camels, an impossible hairpin in the track made me realise once and for all that I was not on the proper piste to Zagora (I must have missed it by not visiting Tazzarine), because the track was barely wide enough for my bike, let alone a vehicle.
At about mid afternoon I reached a small and sleepy village snuggled in the lee of a still higher range of mountains. There was no one in sight. Glancing inside one of the clay huts, which turned out to be the general store, I saw five men sprawled asleep on the floor. I coughed. One of the men batted an eyelid, then suddenly jumped upright to stare at me in an almost apologetic fashion. His entire stock consisted of two packets of biscuits, a handful of sweets, some lentils and countless drums of cooking oil (I bought him out but for the last two). He had apparently been waiting five days for a delivery. I was told that Zagora was 43 kilometres away, and as the sun was still high in the sky, I set off with renewed hope and vigour, anxious to reach the town before dusk (why this haste, I never really knew). Repeating the pattern of the last two days, the skies once more gathered ominously in the west, although this time the desert was to remain dry. More disconcerting for me was the bleached goat skull that someone had carefully placed on a pile of bones at the junction of two rocky and uncompromising tracks. Past this worrisome sign, the track once again disappeared, leaving me to pick my way across the ankle twisting boulders. Everything seemed to be covered in dust, even the few thistles and tussocks of spiny grass. The blustery wind blew cold, waltzing dust devils across the ravines and up the steep canyons. With the clouded sky, and therefore the absence of the sun, I once more found myself without the faintest clue as to my bearing, and at times, I really did feel that I would never escape this labyrinth of rock.
By nightfall I had reached a wide breach overlooking a spacious sand plain. For an instant, I thought that I could make out a minaret and a stilted water tower in a distant corner, but the air was dusty and my eyes were tired, and if I rubbed them the grit from my fingers only made things worse. Worst of all, my food supplies had shrunk to only two tins of oily sardines. I walked the bike down into the valley, and then on for another four hours in the dark, before giving up feeling extremely frustrated, despondent, and somewhat scared. I felt ashamed at having lost my way, but more than anything else, I felt ashamed at my wanting and needing to reach a town, to reach out for the help of other people, to sense my helplessness and inadequacy. I had been humbled, if only for one night.
* * *
One thing that I was to notice throughout the Sahara was that the desert has a particularly ironic, even sadistic, sense of humour. For instance, it is surprising to learn that most tourist deaths in the Sahara are caused not by heat or dehydration, but by flash floods that drown the unfortunate victims. I say this here because, not even a hundred yards from where I had slept, I rounded a low sandy ridge to be confronted with a wide expanse of the colour green. Behind this rose the minaret and water tower that I thought I had glimpsed in the evening. To my left loomed the conical volcanic outcrop of the Djebel Zagora, which I recognised from a postcard I'd bought in Er-Rachidia... Very funny.
I reached the eastern bank of the Oued Drâa - arguably Morocco's longest river (it is seasonal in parts) - through irrigated fields of young barley and millet, interspersed with shadowy clumps of wishbone doum palms and small orchards of fig and pomegranate. Here and there, small knots of indigo robed people stood talking or gazing at the orange soil. Elsewhere, a little girl ran barefoot after a little goat. On both banks of the river, the tasselled fronds of tall date palms fluttered gently in the breeze, struck silver and gold by the morning sun. The area hereabouts is second only to the Tafilalt in renown for its dates - chestnutty and like honey - that were once regularly transported to the slaves working the salt mines in Mali. I gazed at the flowing waters obviously feeling relieved, but (I am a queer fellow sometimes) sensing a kind of anti-climax at the serene beauty of it all. After the last few days, I'd come to expect something rather more stunning and overawing, not just pretty.
Over on the western bank, the mosques of Zagora rose from behind thick battlements of ox blood clay. Many roofs and walls were adorned with colourful rugs and blankets, hung out for an airing. As elsewhere in the Moroccan Sahara, the older buildings were made of pisé bricks and resembled constructions found in Yemen. Their roofs were cornered with distinctive tapering turrets, and their windows were framed with whitewash, presumably to keep their interiors cool. Behind the town the land flattened out once more, giving way to a hammada laced with dunes. It is not surprising, given Zagora's strategic position, that the Almoravids chose this site to erect a fortress with which to guard the precious caravan trails to the Sudan.
By the time of the first Christian Crusades, ancient Ghana and Timbuctoo in particular had grown prosperous on the trade in gold dust, which was bartered with the Arabs in return for salt from the mines which Morocco controlled. When, in 1324, the vast caravan of the Malian king, Mansa Musa, passed through Cairo en route to Mecca (apparently with over eight thousand retainers), he sold so much gold that the market collapsed and remained depressed for decades after his passing. This show of wealth, of course, only further whetted Morocco's appetite for gold. The golden trade reached its zenith under the Saadian dynasty of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a dynasty which had originated in Zagora and the surrounding region of the Drâa. The most glorious period in this epoch was the reign of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansour, annihilator of the Portuguese at the Battle of the Three Kings. Al-Mansour presided over a rarely unified kingdom, and so was able once more to turn Morocco's gaze southwards towards the golden rewards of Timbuctoo. In Zagora, a mock serious sign for the benefit of tourists, depicts a grinning nomad with five camels, and is inscribed 'Tombouctou 52 Jours'.
Having finally disposed of the Portuguese threat in 1578, al-Mansour set about the creation of a professional army untouched by divisive tribal loyalties and disputes. With this in mind, he followed the Almohad precedent of relying on Christian mercenaries, a garrison of which was kept at Zagora. Al-Mansour also cultivated warm relations with England's Queen Elizabeth, and even suggested an Anglo-Moroccan alliance following the defeat of the Spanish Armada. All of this brought military as well as commercial security to his rule, and in the winter of 1590, a four-thousand-strong expeditionary force set out from Zagora to cross the great desert. Using firearms for the first time in the Sahel, victory came easily over the Songhai Empire (successor to Ghana and Mali), and the major trading centres of Timbuctoo, Gao and Jenné were quickly occupied. Although the mines themselves were never captured, the expedition greatly enriched al-Mansour's coffers. It is said that his first tribute from Timbuctoo consisted of thirty mules laden with gold, a large part of which (in addition to the spoils of the Battle of the Three Kings) he used to decorate Marrakesh's Badi Palace (which was subsequently destroyed by Moulay Ismaïl in a fit of extreme envy). As a result, al-Mansour's name was to go down in history alongside the title adh-Dhahabi, the Golden One.
Not surprisingly, when the Europeans finally gained the upper hand in Africa, they too were attracted to the enigma of the African Eldorado, whose great wealth had further been embellished by such venerated writers as Ibn Batuta and Leo Africanus. It was the account of the latter, especially, that was to capture the collective imaginations of Europe's gentlemanly salons. Leo Africanus had visited Timbuctoo on behalf of the sharif of Fès in 1526, and lyricised in lavish terms on the literally massive wealth of its king, who 'hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some of which weigh 1,300 pounds.' The word 'gold' adorns Leo's description like the call of a hundred sirens, and all agreed that Timbuctoo's houses were tiled with gold. By the close of the Middle Ages, the riches of Timbuctoo had become fabled beyond the imagination:
A foutre for the world and worldlings base!
I speak of Africa and golden joys.
Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II
To Europeans, Timbuctoo enshrined the essence of mystery. It was a mystery, however, that held a fatal charm: of the two hundred explorers who set off gold-feverish to cross the Sahara in the nineteenth century, only thirty-five were to return alive. And not only Europeans perished in the quest for fame and fortune. In 1805, a Moroccan caravan consisting of 2,000 men and 1,800 camels perished of thirst, not a man or beast surviving. The great irony of all this (and another of the desert's jokes) was that when the Europeans finally did manage to return alive from the forbidden city, they reported to everyone's disbelief and disappointment that it was in fact nothing more than a large village of mud and straw straddling the banks of the murky River Niger, and that its celebrated riches were nowhere to be seen. The mines, it appears, had been exhausted over two centuries earlier!
* * *
Excepting the ruins of the Almoravid fortress and the painted sign, Zagora had little to remind of its more illustrious past. The main thoroughfare the avenue Muhammad V, of course is a bland affair, lined with modern offices, an army barracks, banks, and a smattering of pretentious and expensive hotels of the type featured in women's fashion magazines (like Ouarzarzate, the town relies heavily on tourism for its continued survival). I arrived to see a few Europeans, mostly French, strutting about arrogantly in expensive designer sunglasses, as though Morocco were merely another promenade on which to flaunt their wealthy chic. Two of them were smoking, in open disrespect (at best ignorance) of Ramadan.
I spent two days in the town, recuperating, scribbling letters, and repairing my bicycle. To my surprise, there was a shop that sold spare bicycle parts, although the snapped pannier hooks were irreplaceable, and so I resorted to tying them on with string. I even found an amzil (blacksmith), who was prepared to weld the pannier racks back together again, which I'd only just noticed had sheared straight in two in all the bumping and clattering of the pistes.
The first evening, I was cooked a ragout by a fat Bavarian named Klaus who wore a sturdy pair of (wait for it) lederhosen! The ragout, though, made me feel ill (or perhaps it was the water), and so I went to bed early. The second evening was a beautiful night of stars and barking dogs. I met a teenager over-anxious to make new friends, which meant that he'd probably take me to the nearest bazaar, which in due course he did. The usual touristic fare was on display: carpets, rugs, teapots, slippers, green enamel pottery, ornamental daggers, and so on. I was pleasantly surprised, however - especially after having been taken for a ride in the infamous bazaars of Tetouan - not to have an intimidating sales pitch rammed down my throat, but instead to be kindly and courteously offered tea over a leisurely and unpressured conversation with the kid's father about life, business and the desert. I was asked, quite seriously it seemed, whether I would be interested in joining a caravan that was set to leave in three weeks' time for Algeria. Like so many well-intended offers I received in Morocco, I declined, for I was warming to the idea of a pedal-powered trans-Saharan journey.
Only when the boy's father left the room did the young would-be hustler begin, rather pathetically, to spiel the usual touristic banter. I ended up getting angry with him when he called me bourgeois, a common enough insult, upon which his father asked him to leave, and then apologised profusely. His son was right, though, in that I was lucky in having both the time and the money to travel, irrespective of how much I was spending or managing to save every day. Towards the end of the evening, my host hurried out to fetch a small tin chest, which he unlocked and opened to reveal more hard currency than I had seen in all my life. 'For building a hotel,' he told me, 'Insha Allah.'
* * *
The smell of smouldering charcoal stung my nostrils. It was a windless day, and time to move on again. After picking up my camera (which had needed cleaning of sand), I returned to the bazaar to barter an unused paella saucepan and a spare padlock for a couple of admittedly fake silver necklaces, inlaid with equally dubious turquoises and garnets, but pretty all the same. I set out after midday undeterred by the heat with Foum Zguid as my next goal, an oasis town some 130 kilometres to the west along the spine of Djebel Bani. The piste to Foum Zguid had only recently been opened by the military, and as a result I was able to glean very little information about its condition. No matter, for I soon found out for myself. Immediately on leaving the avenue Muhammad V, a handful of faint tyre tracks, etched in a mixture of soft sand and shale, sped off westwards, and within yards I was obliged to drag my bike rather than ride it. Past an airstrip and a few more disconcerting piles of vulture-pecked bones and cracked skulls, I found myself once again in open desert, Zagora dwindling away into a blur of hazy shapes and mirages. The bleached sky hung heavily over a wide and sandy plain, flanked on both sides with yellow hills. The horizon shimmered in the miraged reflections of distant sand dunes, and as I advanced, it unfurled only to reveal yet more dunes and empty space. There were more bones, too, strangely beautiful on the silky sand.
For the most part, cycling proved to be predictably impossible, and my cycling shoes made only of perforated nylon were no protection against the hot grains that burned my feet. At times, the tracks would disappear altogether under the dunes, and so I would make for what seemed to be more substantial ground. Sometimes I was lucky, but mostly I was not. I began to hate the drudge of pushing and dragging the bike over the sand, deep enough in parts to cover my calves. The temperature soared to over 45 degrees, which made the sand so hot that once, what I thought was another puncture turned out to be an old patch whose glue had melted. After three such hours, I had covered a paltry thirty kilometres. I was exhausted and frustrated at my lack of progress. Quite suddenly, I felt sick and giddy. I stopped walking, and discovered that I also had chronic diarrhoea. I sat down on the hot sand to sort out my mind, but within minutes had emptied out my stomach. I felt extremely weak and confused. My sweat ran cold, and my tanned skin looked yellow. I wondered, in a panic, whether I'd contracted cholera, about the worst disease one can get in the desert. The worry made me sick again, after which I unrolled my bivouac and fell asleep, with the sun still high in the sky. I awoke about half an hour later, only to be sick again. The second time I woke was in the evening, roused by the distant thrumming of an approaching vehicle. The throbbing grew louder, until, unexpectedly, the motor spluttered to a halt nearby. I looked up from behind the sand drift that was my pillow, to see a camouflaged personnel carrier, from which three soldiers had descended and were now walking towards me. A spasm of angst seized my insides: what if the place was out of bounds after all?
The first two soldiers walked straight past me, cradling small bundles of brittle brushwood. The third soldier almost collapsed in fright on seeing me. 'Argh!' was the first thing he said. Then, after a moment's pause, he held out his arms as if to exclaim: 'What the hell are you doing here?' but said instead, very politely: 'Ah, er, bonjour monsieur.' He smiled. I tried to smile back, told him I was alright (despite my splitting headache), that I was just a little tired, and, well, what a coincidence meeting him here!
'Do you like our country?' he asked, somewhat awkwardly.
'Yes, very much so.'
'And the desert?'
'Of course,' I replied. He clasped his hands together in exasperation: 'Akh, it's too hot for me.' Then someone from the lorry shouted something, and the soldier yelled back 'N'srani!'
'N'srani?!' echoed the incredulous voice, which then laughed with a high pitched whine. I stood up to acknowledge the voice, which belonged to a fat black sergeant. He stared long and hard at me, before saying: 'Good day, Mr. Nazarene. No worries? Then there are no problems.'
I was told that their regiment was encamped a little further up the track, although the army was unfortunately forbidden to lodge civilians. There was, however, a village not that far away in case I needed help.
'No, thank you. I'm alright,' I said, hoping that no one would notice the vomit-stained bush nearby. After they'd left, horn blaring and arms waving, I retched for a fourth time, and began to wish that I'd asked them for a lift after all. I felt ravenous in the morning. My nausea whatever had caused it had thankfully disappeared, and it was with great relief that I clambered back onto my bicycle. The disparate tracks soon converged once more, dissipating my worries of getting lost again, and for the first hour or so, I sped effortlessly along. Just before the village of Bou Rbia (the Father of Spring), however, the track disappeared under a morass of rocks and boulders, and continued like this for the rest of the day, slowing my progress considerably whilst also causing another three punctures.
Bou Rbia is a small but well-spaced group of the usual one-floor pisé houses, with dark doorways, a well in the centre of a sandy square and a few miserable asses that were tied to a couple of bedraggled palm trees. That, I am afraid, is all that I can remember, for in the Saharan evenings when I finally had the time and presence of mind to write I often found that I could remember only very little of what I had seen that day. So, for example, although I remembered seeing a silted up roadside well, I was unsure as to exactly where it had been. Even my description of Bou Rbia, limited though it is, is open to doubt, for I am uncertain even as to whether it was Bou Rbia. Often, I would find that unless I wrote down exactly what I had seen and done within a few hours, the blankness of the desert would likely cause me to forget, to confuse places. Most of what I did usually remember was a mass of apparently insignificant details, such as the branches of a particular shrub that I'd stood over for a piss, or an arrangement of rocks not far from where I'd had lunch, or the wadi where I once fell off the bicycle. Almost anything that broke the rhythmic and drudging monotony of cycling seemed to me, in retrospect, to be remarkable. The thing was that day after day I would be struck by the identical strangeness of the dunes, of the barren mountains, and the boulders, and would again and again be impressed by their form and their colour, no matter how many times I'd seen them before. No matter how many times, I would always remember those odd little details much better than, say, the only village for a hundred miles. Because every day I would again be struck by the strangeness of it all, and every day I would remark on it, and so I make no apologies for my repetition, for repetition was probably my most consistent companion in the desert: the whispering breeze, the rustling sand, the unremitting heat, the blurred but shimmering horizon, the mirages, the grey flinder plains, the grey bleached sky, the sweat on my forehead, on my legs, on my back, under my chin... Perhaps it is because there was so little to see and feel in the desert, that every little scrap I salvaged from my memory became so important. Towards late afternoon (with the worst of the heat behind me) the track swerved to the right and northwest, to cross over a dry wadi that I had been following for much of the day. Here, a few camels grazed on young grass shoots. Some were saddled, others burdened with sacks of grain or rice, and to my right I passed a brown tent, inside which, I presumed, the nomad and his family were sleeping off the remaining few hours of Ramadan daylight. The mountains and hills of Djebel Bani drew closer, providing a little shelter that was also the cause for the resurgence of the vegetation. There were locusts here too, sometimes in swarms so large that for hours on end the track would be totally obscured by a thick, vibrating shroud of yellow, green and brown. From a distance, they resembled a million bloated maggots feasting on a rotting carcass. Here, every riverbed, dry or stagnant, played host to the insects. Locusts, it hardly needs saying, have plagued agriculture since the very earliest times (they can consume their body weight of grain each day). The Eighth Plague of Egypt, over three thousand years ago, was recorded in the Book of Exodus, and Pliny the Elder noted that in 125 BC, swarms from the Sahara caused 800,000 people to perish in Cyrenaica, and another 300,000 in Tunisia. The pests returned en masse to Northwest Africa in 1986, and in places attained numbers of truly biblical proportions. But the devastation this year was to be the worst on record.
* * *
The next morning, after a beautiful sunrise over the banks of the wadi that I had been sleeping in, I left anxious to reach Foum Zguid as soon as possible. The track, of course, sanded up to become unrideable, and in the few places not swamped by sand, I had to cross thick areas of loose rubble and boulders. Usually, though given either a lot of courage or stupidity the rocky sections were just about rideable, albeit at the risk of further damaging my bike. Before long I reached the first of several small oasis settlements flanking the narrow river gorge (foum) that led into Foum Zguid. As usual, I managed to greet people just as the bicycle ground to a sudden and embarrassing halt in deep sand. Worried that I was on the wrong side of the river, I approached a couple of boys to ask directions. After being reassured that I was indeed on the right side, I was asked by the elder of the two whether I would care to drink tea with him and to share his hospitality, in return for a little of my time.
Mohamed Bou Douar and I were able to converse because he had learnt French at the high school in Foum Zguid. He led me through a small cluster of pisé huts to a larger house that was faced on two sides with withered plots of corn. Behind the house was the family allotment: three tomatoes, two lettuces, carrots, and a well, around which a shackled ass trudged in a doleful manner. The garden was less pitiful than symbolic, but worth it alone for the great pride with which the tomatoes were pointed out to me. Then, I was introduced to Mohamed's family, who were especially woken up for the occasion father, mother, brothers, grandfather and sister, all greeted me with the usual polite, if rather sleepy, inquisitiveness. I must have presented a strange sight indeed, with my battered bicycle and filthy clothes.
The formalities over, Mohamed took me to his private den, a shabby, windowless hut with walls of adobe and a roof of straw. On the floor lay two woollen blankets stained with oil and grease, sand, dried mud and dust. In one corner sat a large metal chest, which contained a clutter of greasy mechanical oddments. In another languished a rusty looking diesel pump, which was once used to haul up water from a well beneath our feet.
'Sit down,' Mohamed insisted. 'Tell me, Yunis [the nearest Arab equivalent to Jens], have you ever drunk mint tea?'
'Of course,' I replied. Nonplussed, he continued: 'Then I shall show you how to make the real marocci whisky. Now observe closely...'
The first problem was that he insisted absolutely on getting the water from the pump, rather than fetching it from the urn in the house, and this meant searching out a needle and thread with which to repair the rubber drive belt. The second problem was that the motor refused point blank to work. Yet, after half an hour of patient fiddling and poking, bashing and hammering, it belched into life amidst thick, black clouds of smoke. Outside, water began squirting out of a pipe into a clay trough, before overflowing into a set of carefully constructed irrigation conduits (the ass trudged on regardless). Another ten minutes were then spent vainly trying to light a tar coated log, until Mohamed finally resorted to pouring most of a bottle of petroleum over it. He lit a match. Instinctively, I flung myself into the nearest corner, as a large fireball blasted off towards the straw ceiling. Mohamed grinned sheepishly, then struck another match. 'No worries Moroccan matches!' he explained amidst a cloud of black speckled smoke. I wondered how on earth he'd managed to reach the age of sixteen at all.
For over an hour, he struggled to heat a small, soot-blackened kettle, in the end resorting once again to the trusty bottle of petroleum, oblivious to the resulting explosions. Meanwhile, we talked of many things. Mohamed wanted above all to emigrate to Europe because (like so many others) he said that there was no work for him in Morocco. He had seen many of his friends leave the village for Casablanca and Marrakesh, and had no desire to be left behind. The village, he said, was far too boring a place for an energetic young man like him (he flexed his muscles to prove the point). The problem was that in order to visit Europe he needed a banked surety of three briques (about £2,000), before even being allowed a visa. Who in Morocco, both of us wondered, could afford such a luxury?
Presently, the water began to boil, and the actual tea ceremony itself began. Curiously enough, the vogue for mint tea was unintentionally introduced to Morocco by the British. In 1854, so the story goes, merchants unable to off load their stocks of Ceylon in the Baltic because of the Crimean War, unloaded instead in Tangier, whence tea gradually replaced the traditional infusion of lemon verbena, sage, and absinthe.
To start with, Mohamed filled the teapot with a reasonable quantity of green China tea, along with a small amount of hot water. After a few minutes, he poured away the liquid, and once more filled the pot with leaves and water, together with sprigs of fresh spearmint and a huge quantity of (expensive) sugar hacked off a loaf (Mohamed considered it a breach of etiquette to serve tea that was too weak). The pot was then left to stand for a while, before small glass tumblers two to three inches deep were filled and then emptied back into the pot, an action Mohamed repeated more than twenty times until the froth in the glasses was an inch thick and sturdy, rather like the head on decent pint of bitter. The more the cycle was repeated, the sweeter and more syrupy the tea became, until once the desired sweetness and frothiness had been attained, the teapot itself was heated before the glasses were half filled, Spanish style, from a height of about three feet. The result of all this artistry was a golden liquid, syrupy but surprisingly refreshing considering that each glass contained barely a mouthful. And all this was just the first of three such glasses, the last of which was the most bitter: 'The first is for birth,' explained Mohamed. 'The second is for love, but the third is for death.' For some reason, he found this extremely funny.
* * *
The last dozen kilometres into Foum Zguid were dominated by clumps of palm groves, each belonging to a little mud settlement. In one I saw only an old man in a white jellaba riding a mule. At another, when I paused to ask directions, I was swamped by about fifty children, all of them grubby and wide eyed. As had become common, at first they stared silently as though I were a vicious caged animal, until someone plucked up enough courage to tell me their name, which unleashed a flood of other hopefully proffered names. Hoots of joyful derision met my attempts at pronouncing them. At the next village, my arrival had somehow been anticipated, and so the older boys had begun bossing the younger children about. 'Photograph?' asked a little boy. I agreed, but then the older children shooed the younger ones away so that I was left pointing the camera at all the bullies. Then, a man appeared and, assuming that the kids were bothering me, hounded them all away, only to pose the same questions that the children had asked.
I stopped in Foum Zguid only to stock up on apricot jam and a roundel of Laughing Cow processed cheese the only food that I could find and then continued south along a rocky trail until I came to a branch in the track. To my right, occupying a prominent position on high ground, was a small military unit: a dozen tents, armoured personnel carriers, jeeps, and five entrenched tanks, their guns pointing south towards Algeria. I was summoned to the base by a soldier.
'Nazarene!' he scolded. 'Quite exactly what do you think you are doing here?' I told him that I wished to cycle to Tata, and did he know which was the correct piste? He stared at me for a few moments, then demanded my passport. 'Come with me,' he commanded, and then walked off into one of the tents. There I was given a long and detailed form to fill in, stating exactly where I had been since I arrived in Morocco, as well as my vehicle number. When I explained that my vehicle did not have a number, he frowned and stated that in that case, I would have to turn back and get one. In desperation, I gave him some production figures that had been punched onto the underside of the bicycle frame. He frowned again. No driving licence? No registration papers? I lied feebly, and explained that the numbers on the frame were in fact also those of the registration. He eyed me most suspiciously, then took my passport again and told me to wait while he radioed my details to headquarters. A cold panic set across me. Had I been misinformed about the military situation? Had I been grassed up by the soldiers in the truck I'd met after Zagora? If he refused to let me pass, then where would that leave my little Saharan adventure? It seems to me now that, the more my hopes seemed unlikely, the stronger became my resolve to see them through. As soon as I realised that I was even considering the possibility of such a crazy dream, it would not let go. Half of any adventure always takes place in the mind.
The stern-faced soldier returned with my passport. Camera? Yes, I had a camera. Had I taken any pictures of the military whilst in Morocco? My heart skipped a beat, for I had stupidly taken a photo of this very base only a few minutes before. No, I hadn't, I said, feeling my face blush. He looked me up and down once again, and then announced that the piste ahead was very difficult and very dangerous, and most certainly not suitable for a young Nazarene and his bicycle. I replied that I had already been forewarned, and that, in my favour, I had already crossed over the pistes from Rissani, which was almost four hundred kilometres.
'Then may Allah give you courage,' he said wearily (I think it must have been the absurdity of my journey that finally melted his resolve).
'If Allah wills it,' I replied, and with that, cycled away as quickly as I could.
* * *
I set off downhill towards the River Zguid. The bridge had been washed away in flash floods a year ago with the loss of fourteen lives (all soldiers), so I waded across instead on submerged concrete slabs. Though refreshingly cold, the water was thoroughly salty, but I filled a few empty bottles just in case.
The piste after the river was indeed awful, and was made worse by a constant head wind. The path rose up and far above the level of the river, eventually flattening out on to yet another barren plateau, the edge of which drooped out of sight towards the river a few kilometres to my left, leaving only sky where the horizon should have been. After a while, I came across a young boy who was sat cross legged at the roadside, alone but for a plastic carrier bag and the flapping and fluttering of his dirty brown cheche.
'Salaam Alaikum,' I ventured, 'Peace be upon you.' I was greeted only by a heavy silence and the penetrating glare of his ruby crazed eyes.
'Labass? Are you well?' I continued, after a long pause. Again silence. Then, opening his mouth to bare his rotten, shattered teeth, he said: 'Mange moi.'
'Mange moi, mange moi,' he repeated in robotic fashion. I offered him some food, but he ignored it. Eat me. Eat me. That's all he ever said.
I left the boy a confused smile, and cycled away. As the sun began its westering, a little colour returned once more to the desert. The sky was no longer flannel grey, but a variegated wash of vibrant yellow, copper orange and cobalt blue. The sand, no longer lifeless, now glowed in a rich autumnal brown tinged with hints of old gold, and the long evening shadows gave back to the land some of the form and texture that the millennial sun had robbed it of. But still there was little vegetation, only the usual clumps of thistles and thorn grass. I began to feel very isolated on this exposed desert plateau.
My frustration at my slow, wind buffeted progress was exacerbated by the reappearance of sand drifts. In places they were so deep as to swamp even boulders that would suddenly jar the bicycle and my wrists if I had the temerity to attempt cycling. Walking over one particularly thick stretch of sand, muttering loudly to myself that all this was unfair, a Land Rover appeared over a nearby hillock and sped towards me. For the sake of pretence, I climbed back on to the bike and struggled painfully to cover a few yards, before slamming my balls into the crossbar. The Land Rover, a mud-caked service taxi from Tata, stopped on a nearby set of tracks, and its driver gestured that I come over. As I did so, I saw his passengers stare boggle eyed through the windows, most surprised at this apparition of the mad N'srani.
'You hiss Ingleeezh!' the driver exclaimed in a crazed kind of cackle. 'Akhaha, akhaha, akha, akha...' His voice wavered as he laughed.
'You hear onleee dogs and mad Ingleeezh man, aheh?'
'Ahaah! You from Mansheeeesta! You hear Mansheeees Unit, aheh!' He wished me all the good fortune and courage of Allah on my journey. 'May Allah lengthen your life,' he said (which worried me slightly). He told me that I was very brave, but I replied that I was merely a little m'zaza (mad), which triggered another bout of giggles.
Quite a number of people I met in the Sahara had heard of Manchester, and Liverpool too. 'Football geography', the phenomenon should be called. On the subject, I am reminded of a tale Paul Bowles recounts in his autobiography Without Stopping, when he had been invited to spend a musical evening with a Moroccan family whose uncle had travelled to northern England at the turn of the century. Towards the end of the soiree, the uncle unclapped the fingerboard of the prized family piano, and proceeded to pound it with his fists and elbows, apparently for almost eleven minutes. At the end of the unusual recital, the venerable pianist turned to his audience and proudly announced that that the title of his composition was 'Manchester.' The uncle's banging, one presumes, had been an interpretation of Manchester's cotton mills. I spent the night in another wadi, remarkable in that every bush, tree and blade of grass was infested with locusts. Not merely hundreds, or even thousands of them, but tens of thousands. I was even woken in the morning by them, falling sleepily off their arboreal perches onto my face.
From the first puncture of the day, which I discovered on waking, things went from bad to worse. I wheeled the bike over the wadi and across an area of bush to rejoin the piste to Tata, where I sat down to patch up the flat. Half an hour later, and ready to leave, I was consternated to find the air still escaping from the tubes. When I checked again, I found four little spines embedded in the rubber, spines that I then realised were from the thorn bushes that I'd just stupidly wheeled my bike through. Another half hour later - and now in a foul temper - I left the locusts and spines behind and started along a stony track edged to the right by a slanted grey cliff, and to the left by the still gradually downward-sloping plain. Another half hour later saw me sitting in the shade of a massive argan tree, stranded alone amidst a sea of boulders. I could have dwelt awhile on the strangeness of this solitary totem of life, but the only thing that occupied my mind then was those bloody punctures - I'd missed another five spines, making ten punctures today already. Angrily, I repaired the remaining holes, only to find that the glue wouldn't set because of the heat. I resigned myself to having from now on to stop cycling every twenty minutes throughout the remaining 120km to Tata in order to reinflate the damn tyres. It was an extra burden in the extreme heat due entirely to my own morning drowsy carelessness.
To the west of the argan tree, the colour of the land began to deepen, from a blinding chalky white to kinder and less lonely shades of saffron and a ruddy orange, across which the track roller-coastered over ridges and depressions caused by winter flash floods. The depressions were filled with sand, which compounded my frustration by forcing my constantly having to dismount the bicycle.
Towards midday, a village appeared in the distance, which cheered me greatly. The eighteenth-century Kasbah and village of Mrimina stands alone in the desert, and consists of the usual pisé buildings, wide sandy squares and tiny dark alleyways, sometimes almost completely blocked by sand drifts. I was accosted by a middle aged man who beckoned me to stay for a few days as his guest (again, I declined, hot headed Philistine that I was). While we were completing the obligatory address swap, an old man wearing a tatty grey robe handed me a letter to read, since, although he understood French, he was illiterate. Despite being dated November 1972, it seemed to give him great pleasure as I recited the few greetings and memories contained within, and he scuttled off contentedly as I cautiously cycled away from Mrimina, aware that my front tyre was once again going flat. My first sighting of the River Tissint was unexpected (it was not, of course, marked on my map nothing much was). The rough plain I was following changed back to a silvery grey colour, a wide and very bare valley littered with needle sharp flinders and other fragments that twice burst my tyres and sent me skidding and sliding towards the river. There, the track lost itself in a compact but verdant nest of riverside plantations. The mud walls of its dwellings were mingled with reed fences and storehouses, and the alleyways in between were thick with sand. Yet, in the shade of the palms, walking was a most pleasant experience, especially with the accompanying chirruping of birds. In the distance, the croaking of frogs and toads combined in chorus with the gentle gurgling of irrigation channels. There was no one around, just the steady krk-krk-krk of a few locusts, and the scampering of a rat on a pile of rotting orange peel and immature dates. It scurried away as I approached, leaving for the time being the beetles, wood lice and centipedes. The smell of this oasis, especially - even its donkey droppings - was a delight after the antiseptic environment of open desert, where I had smelt nothing but dust.
The river itself was broad and pebbly, but also stagnant. The water, where it still flowed, was salty, but helped me locate four more punctures on a spare tube. I figured that at the rate I'd been going today, I'd be needing the old spare rather sooner than I'd anticipated. From here, the piste threaded a northwestern path, through gently sloping valleys, again very wide and flat, and low grey hills. Despite the slight gradient, cycling was rapid on the small sharp stones, which tore at my tyres but thankfully caused no more immediate damage. Then, into a short valley whose abrupt sides of sheer rock looked like black icebergs floating in the sand. All the time, rocks small and large came tumbling down to strike the desert floor with satisfying cracks, sending miniature plumes of dust into the air. It was early afternoon, and exceedingly hot, so much so that my cheche seemed to make little difference to my rapidly increasing water intake. Yet, I felt exhilarated at my good workmanlike progress, in spite of perforated tyres, the awful piste and the heat.
Towards the end of the valley, sand drifts returned with a vengeance, sapping my strength. For a moment, I felt queasy again, but thankfully that moment passed by. Thickets, trees, bushes and grasses marked the reappearance of the river and the stagnant gorge of the Tissint Breach. Because of its steep rocky sides, which blocked out much of the sunlight, the colours here were pale and cold - tones of an overcast North Sea beach in winter: washed out lemon rind yellow, dull green, pavement grey, and a sky the colour of luminescent ash. A Land Rover driving in the opposite direction had immense difficulty in negotiating the powdery track, which was in parts only a couple of yards wide. Below, in the river itself, lay the mangled wrecks of a lorry and a car, reminders of what could happen if concentration were to slip. In consequence, the driver ignored me totally as he drove by, his gaze fixed hard ahead.
After the gorge, over the crest of a hill, I came to an oasis of thick, green palms, verged with dry frond weave granaries and tent enclosures, all guarded by five rambling Ksour and the distant hilltop village of Agadir Tissint. When I arrived, most people were still in bed. Others slept at the whitewashed portal of the mosque and at the old wooden door of an even older caravanserai, which seemed now to be used as a storage depot for several small shops. The name agadir is believed to be a variation of al-Khadir, variously: a mythical holy man; a psychic force; the eternal embodiment of Moses and the other Prophets; and the spirit that was said to have created the forbidden Tower of Toledo, a sanctuary for spirits and otherworldly forces. It is from the latter that the name's current usage springs, for it means a fortified granary that in the past formed the innermost sanctum of villages, a place where, when under nomad attack, the inhabitants could retreat and survive siege.
I was greeted by a brigadier, who had been driven down from the garrison by jeep, my presence having evidently been alerted by some unseen lookouts. Like the soldier outside Foum Zguid, the brigadier wanted my vehicle registration number, but thankfully left me in peace after a few minutes on discovering that I travelled in this fashion for pleasure. Madmen, by the way, are usually free to roam as they like in Morocco.
Passing through Agadir Tissint, the track began a tortuous climb up the sides of first a mountain, and then, as the setting sun became a hazy ball of cotton wool, the southern flank of a vast canyon, the view from which more than compensated for the atrocious piste. Far below lounged a grey and stony river valley, very wide, and graced with innumerable palm groves. On the far side stretched a vast land of rock, carved by the waters into the most surreal molten landscape I'd ever seen. Not merely several, but scores of deep snaking gorges cut into the land, from high up interlaced like macramé. Behind this bizarre geological wonderland rose the jagged reaches of the central Anti Atlas, barren and shrouded in dust.
I awoke on a sandy desert island, adrift in a sea of hard, cactus-like thistles. I felt tired and exhausted as my recent exertions at last caught up with me. The track continued regardless, ad infinitum over back-breaking rocks and boulders. The bizarre canyon soon gave way to the (sadly) more usual monotonous plains, flanked on all sides by distant hills and mountains. The going, of course, was slow and treacherous. One short lapse of concentration cracked my front pannier rack straight in two. Another momentary lapse and I smashed my remaining bottle of fresh water, leaving me with only a litre of warm river brine (though I was near enough to Tata not to worry unduly). In addition, I then managed to break off half of one molar with a green gob stopper that I was sucking to keep my mouth moist. Disaster is rarely sudden when it strikes in the desert. It is more likely to be a slow, gradual, almost insignificant process, that creeps up on its victim from behind and then cries 'Boo!' At least, that's how I felt, for although I was nowhere near to being in danger, my substantial collection of aches, pains and gripes, succeeded for much of the day in depressing me somewhat rotten.
Every part of my body was encrusted with thick layers of sand and dust. The sand in my ears fuzzed my hearing, not that there was very much to hear anyway, and the fingers that tried to pry out that sand were grimy, black, hard and scaly. My wrists were raw and badly swollen and my nose - oh, my nose! - was a crimson promontory protruding from a caked orange face pockmarked with beady sweat boils and flaking skin, a promontory often completely blocked up with a gooey mixture of orange sand and green mucous. I tried hard not to wipe the sweat away from my nose, because that only made it hurt more, but then the salt would begin to sting... Through force of habit, my mouth had almost developed a taste for the dust and sand that impregnated my food, regardless of anything I did to try to remove it. Flying particles also combined with the sunlight's reflection to result in more or less continuous blinking and very sore, glassy, bloodshot eyes, under which hung huge haunting black bags (I had smashed my sunglasses in a crash before Zagora). Even at night, if I closed my eyes I could see almost perfect images of the desert etched on my retina. On top of all this, the glare from the sun often also gave me the first murmurings of a headache, which over time became a dull, throbbing affair. My arms and sore back were encrusted in sweat salt, as was my once blue shirt that had turned white and was starched stiff. My trousers, too, had acquired indecent rips, which I considered worrying in an Islamic country (but come to think of it, I could hardly walk down an English street with my balls dangling out of my trousers, could I?) Add to all this my thirst which though not extreme, was uncomfortable enough and I eventually rolled into Tata to much the same kind of reaction that I imagined would greet a zombie clambering out of a slime filled quagmire.
* * *
I liked Tata. Surrounded by twenty or thirty Ksour and twice as many palm groves, it is a rambling oasis town situated at the convergence of three seasonal streams. Its inhabitants are a roughly equal mixture of Chleuh (Soussi) Berbers and slaves, both groups speaking the same dialect. There seemed to be little racial tension in evidence. Indeed, throughout Morocco I found that the only real racial animosity, apart from the traditional bickering of Arabs and Berbers, was directed largely towards me and other foreigners on religious grounds. If ever I had the time and the will to explain my family's long and complicated history (English-born, German, Syrio-Lebanese, French, Dutch etc) people often delighted in calling me 'a real Moroccan tajine' or else, a hajine - a mule. But sometimes, if they refused to believe that there could be such a mongrel (and a partly Arab one, to boot), they called a dog, an infidel, N'srani and the like. On occasion, I was even threatened with physical violence, and I came greatly to resent the associating of my individual identity with the collective moronism of politics, religion, and prejudice.
No such problems in Tata, though, and not once did I hear the word N'srani. I only really experienced racism in the larger towns. Here, in the desert, the people were invariably warm, friendly, generous to a fault, sincere, and remarkably tolerant of the nutter with the bicycle! For example, when, on arriving in Tata, I asked a shopkeeper for water, I was made a gift of fresh apricot juice, several glasses of pressed orange, and three bottles of coke, and was then directed to a kind of rest house set aside for students during Ramadan, who promptly invited me to stay for as long as I wished, and at their expense. Throughout the Sahara, it was only extremely rarely that my offers to pay for hospitality were accepted. More usually, my offer would be brushed aside as though I had committed some grave faux-pas.
Along with Sadik Abdessadek, Abd Dafari from Tamanarte, and Abdenbi el-Azri from Foum Zguid (all three were grandsons of Negro slaves, and had met at college in Tata), I spent the rest of the day chatting, fasting and sweating like a pig, while listening to the hypnotic desert rhythms of the three-stringed haejuj of Mahmoud Gania, himself the grandson of a Negro slave. I couldn't have found a better way of relaxing and recuperating even if I'd tried.
The sounding of the siren saw the unfurling of three spotlessly clean prayer mats, all printed with images of Mecca's al-Haram mosque, which, at first, were poked and scratched with tired, dusty fingers. Then, the students removed their slippers, and washed their hands, faces and feet with a little water, in a ritual ablution demanded by the Qur'an. Facing east towards Mecca, the students stood silent and motionless. Then, one by one, they crouched to kiss their mats, then stood, and then sat with their legs folded beneath them. A pause. Then again, with their eyes closed, they stood up. Standing distinguishes rational man from animals. Then, together, they bowed, their hands on their knees, in the act of a servant to a master. Again, the mats were kissed, just once, and then, within a few seconds of each other, all three men prostrated themselves, symbolising the total abandonment of their will to Allah. They stayed like this for quite some time, reciting prayers, supplications, and the glorious names of Allah. Once again, they sat up, then crouched and kissed the ground, and then sat up again, meditating, contemplating their prayer beads without even looking at them. Sadik, though, opened his eyes, momentarily disturbed by a crash outside. For a few seconds, he seemed anxious, but then muttered a few prayers, and let the beads slip one by one through his fingers. Finally, the students clambered wearily to their feet, wiped the sweat from their brows, and exhaled.
'Food!' shouted Abdenbi. The first evening meal of Ramadan (ie. breakfast) traditionally starts with a platter of dates and olives something easy to digest after a day of abstinence. The students also had a bowl of a curious brown powder, which they washed down with curdled milk and harira.
'Eat. Eat.' The students urged. When I'd swallowed several mouthfuls of the powder, my hosts suddenly fell about in hysterical laughter.
'Jrad, jrad!' they screamed. 'Krrk-krrk-krrk! Kri Ket!' they taunted, which, eventually, I understood to mean the crushed abdomen of locusts. The annoying thing was that it was quite tasteless: like a mixture of flour, salt and cinnamon, or like a nutmeg concoction that is eaten in the Rif (unsurprisingly, given nutmeg's narcotic properties). Learning the meaning of jrad also explained why, at daybreak two days earlier, I had seen a Land Rover disgorge three men, who then shook the trees and shrubs of the dry wadi and then stooped to collect the adult locusts, unable to fly in the early morning chill. To some people, jrad is a delicacy on a par with prawns. The egg laden females, especially, are much prized when boiled in salted water and then dried in the sun. They are eaten whole, legs and all.
After this delightful hors d'oeuvre, we hit town, an all-enveloping blackness dotted with the lights of stores and bedroom windows, lit up as in a dream, islands of warmth and humanity awash in a sea of darkness. Tata was a great place to be in during Ramadan, in stark contrast to Er-Rachidia. It was a child's fantasy: spectacular, medieval, magical, fiery, charming, and, above all, friendly. This was Ramadan at its best - not some solemn traditional ritual, but a joyous celebration of religion. Wide-eyed children tore about the streets shrieking and shouting at unfortunate mules. Some of them dangled little tin boxes with wheels on the ends of strings. Others sucked on special Ramadan treats of giant red lollipops. Smoke curled from joss sticks and candles, and figures and silhouettes gesticulated in the cool night air. Even the store that sold bicycle and moped spares was a bustling place, full of children wanting old nuts and bolts for their makeshift go-carts. How good it was to spend a night away from all that sand and dust!
Sampling street food was, for me, one of Tata's (and indeed Morocco's) greatest delights. There was anything that I might have wished for: palm weave baskets stuffed with figs, dates, sun dried tomatoes, pomegranates, apricots and apricot paste, walnuts and even quinces. Elderly men stood around in small knots, eagerly devouring kefta meat balls bought from street vendors, or else spicy merguez sausages. Other vendors hawked vanilla and almond blossom flavoured rock cakes, and paper wrappers containing chickpeas sprinkled with cumin and rock salt. The olive store was an Aladdin's Cave for me. On a long table placed in front of the counter, with its brass scales and weights, were fifteen large ceramic bowls, containing every kind of olive imaginable, varying in colour from almost white through shades of pink, brown, green and inky blue to black. Some were laced with harissa sauce (red chilli and garlic), others with slivers of preserved Marrakesh lemons, pickled peppers and carrots, or just wild thyme. As an olive lover, I spent a small fortune here, and would, have spent more had I not been dragged away by the students.
It was wonderful to see the people gorge themselves at sunset, to see their faces and expressions light up as their bellies filled up once more. Women wore their very best silken robes, and their jewellery, quantitatively at least, knew no bounds. In the single room restaurant, to which the students had been yearning to go all day, there was much animated arguing and chattering over harira and tajines. At first, tempers frayed all too easily with nothing in their stomachs. Voices and expressions rose and fell in angry gestures. Consonants were exaggerated into growls, teeth were bared, noses flared. And yet, towards the end of the evening, people were practically kissing themselves through happiness! Old friends walked home arm in arm, the gendarmes smiled and patted everyone's backs, and couples could be seen canoodling in the corners (and what's more, no one seemed to care). As we walked slowly back to the rest house, content and tired, I saw a strange sight. In a dark, unlit alleyway, the dung eating beetles had gone crazy rolling, falling, pushing and tumbling like drunken clowns over their moonlit feasts. A little boy with no pants on stood over them, and started pissing. A shrill giggle accompanied the poor little beasts as they sailed across the pavement and down into a drain.
* * *
I woke up still tired by the night's festivities, and only coaxed myself into cycling with the prospect of a properly asphalted road. If you'll forgive the pun, it was something that I had sorely missed!
The first twenty kilometres were indeed blissful: no fear of punctures, a good steady pace, not having to drag my bike over footloose dunes, no fear of becoming lost, and, best of all, not having to break my wrists over all those bloody rocks. The land itself, though, was still largely bare, on occasion graced with outlandish rubbery bushes bearing fig-like fruits that contained nothing but a mesh of corrosive sappy floss (possibly milkweed, or calotropis). The land generally had a grim aspect, rock screes tinted in shades of red and brown, but mostly in grey and black. At the oasis of Imitek, with its thick palm groves, the road swung south, against the wind, to skirt the western foothills of the Anti Atlas. I passed two makeshift airfields en route, set up as (ultimately futile) bases for insecticide spraying operations against the locusts. The town of Akka, reached after an easy seventy kilometres, was once, like Tata, Zagora, Sijilmassa, and the rest, a major caravan terminus. Flanked by sheer cliffs (hence its name, which means 'steep sided ravine'), Akka was an ideal site for the caravans, for it could easily be defended against bands of marauding tribesmen intent on redistributing the wealth of the trans-Saharan trade. Surrounded by about half a dozen crumbling Ksour, there was little to remind me of Akka's more gilded past. Nowadays, alas, it is now only a motley collection of nondescript concrete structures, complete with the now familiar Gendarmerie checkpoint (at most of which, I seemed to be detained not really for official reasons, but because their guardians were bored and just wanted a chat).
The afternoon's cycling was hindered by the wind, blowing with some force from the Atlantic (now only a hundred miles away) across monotonous valleys filled with tall, shifting dunes. I felt somewhat intrusive, passing through this forlorn land along the relative sanctuary of the tarmac road. The ride, albeit difficult (because of the wind), had little of the excitement or thrill that riding the pistes had offered. This place did not make me want to stay, but instead to get through it as quickly as I could, and so into the Western Sahara. My sense of intrusion was heightened on passing Talrhaïcht, a quite visibly impoverished village constructed entirely of mud. I saw no one as I cycled through, except for a couple of unusually disinterested children, who merely stared as I cycled past. The sign outside the pharmacy rattled noisily in the wind, as a constant stream of dust and sand shot through the village. Ahead, beyond a bleak and dusty plain, the tallest of the distant mountains seemed to float above the mirages. The shimmering dusty horizon that engulfed the few trees made them look short and fat under the weight of the sky. Everything seemed to be brown, even the sky, because of the dust.
At the next village, Oua Belli, my feelings were not so much ones of intrusion, but of depression. The place was remarkable only in that it was built at the foot of a vast diagonal face of black rock, covered in loose rubble which had buried many of the buildings below. Many more lay abandoned. The road twisted up and around the low saddle breach to reach Tisgui el-Haratine, a modern settlement that was in no danger from landslides. There was an empty school building here, its windows cheerfully plastered with crayon drawings and paintings. A few mules stood around looking sad and bored, as they always do.
I was to see no more settlements that day, although I was steadily to grow more miserable, for the wind made cycling torturously slow. The long straight road didn't help matters either, for I never seemed to be getting anywhere. Towards evening, the road twisted to enter a long (too long) windblown valley. There were bare rocky hills to my left, and bare rocky hills to my right. Even the seasonal stream that the road seemed to be following was bare and rocky, achromatic like the few dry bushes and scrawny acacia that dared despoil the land of its solemn lifelessness. The only excitement came from seeing large wild melons growing by the roadside. Their long stalks, like umbilical cords, looked like chains. I stopped to try one, not really understanding why such delicious fruits had been left uneaten. I soon found out, for their taste was indescribably putrid. The desert melon, or Colocynthis vulgaris, is emetic, and is therefore another of the desert's cruel jokes. It is thus also one of its rather more successful survivors. So on I trudged, hindered now not only by the wind but by an increasingly unpleasant sensation in my stomach. The next morning, the wind continued unabated, and it took me two hours to cycle the paltry ten kilometres to the next settlement, Foum el-Hisan.
Literally 'the Gorge of the High Sand Hill', Foum el-Hisan is known primarily for nearby prehistoric rock carvings depicting elephant, rhino, antelope and sheep-like animals that date from between 2000 BC and 500 BC. There are rock carvings to be found all along the Drâa Valley (Foum el-Hisan is only 30km from the river), and also at Tazzarine, by which I had passed eleven days before. Together with the world's richest source of prehistoric art Algeria's Tassili-n-Ajjer ('the Plateau of the Rivers') these mysterious paintings and etchings draw a picture of prehistoric Sahara quite unlike its present state. I found it hard to believe that until about 2000 BC, the Sahara as we know it now simply did not exist. Instead, amply-watered pastures stretched between the Mediterranean and the Tropics, criss-crossed with countless rivers that idled lazily into or out of hundreds of lakes. The profusion and variety of fauna that this rich land supported is staggering. Apart from a large and seemingly prosperous population of Neolithic cattle herders and hunter settlers, there roamed vast herds of elephant, giant buffalo, hippo, lions, leopards, giraffes, ostriches, antelopes and other big African game. Polybius, among many others, records that the Drâa was once infested with crocodiles, the last of which is believed to have been shot by French hunters in 1929.
Sometime around four thousand years ago, and for a reason that scientists and meteorologists are still unable to explain, the rains began faltering. Gradually, at first, the rivers and lakes receded, shrank, dried up, and eventually disappeared altogether as the desert took hold. In turn, crops failed, animals left or died, and finally, the soil that had been the lifeblood of this ancient paradise, turned to dust and blew away.