CHASING THE LIZARD'S TAIL
It is man, not the desert, that eats you.
Arab proverb (12)
I left Atâr in the afternoon. I figured that the 440km to Nouakchott would take about four days, a higher daily average than I had achieved between Choum and Atâr, but one I thought reasonable because I had been told that the road from here on was well surfaced. Both my bicycle and I were in good shape, and my water supplies were back up to nine litres. I also had the five remaining loaves of ant-infested bread, two pounds of pink Senegalese peanuts, and a few cans of sardines. Supplies along the way, I was told, were easy to find, for there were several roadsteads set up for the express purpose of catering to travellers' needs. I was also told that there was a military roadblock thirty kilometres down the road, where I would be able to refill on water, and that there was the possibility of another roadstead one hundred kilometres further along. In any case, the copper-mining town of Akjoujt lay just 180km away - at most two days' cycling - and, from past experience, there was usually at least one vehicle a day that I could flag down in case of an emergency.
The forty-degree heat and the stifling grey flannel sky colluded in the absence of any breeze to deprive me of even the faintest illusion of coolness usually afforded by the northeasterly trades outside the sheltered hills of the Adrar. In almost suffocating humidity, and with my already sweat-stained trousers clinging like leeches to my legs, I slowly threaded the bicycle though the remaining dilapidated huts and shacks to the south of the town. Passing the last few clumps of irrigated date palms that hung motionless like spiders in the thick webbed air, I found myself once again alone and in the comforting desolation of the desert. Although I was sweating profusely and felt clammy, it was good to be on the road again, to be moving. Atâr, like Choum, had been little more than a brief interruption in my journey across the desert.
Before long, I came across a small group of workers 'resurfacing' the corrugated road, using gigantic sand ploughs that spouted clouds of orange dust. An impromptu diversion veered off into the surrounding hills, strewn with coarse but yielding sand. True to form, everyone preceding me had beaten their own tracks, irrespective of where others had travelled before (a practice common to all desert tracks that results all too often in 'roads' spreading sideways over several kilometres). In consequence, a plethora of tyre traces scattered off into the hazy distance. For once my luck held firm, for as I pondered the way, a heavily laden goods truck appeared on the horizon behind me. Waiting till it had passed, I continued roughly in its direction and then, when the lorry itself had disappeared from view, I followed the dust plume thrown up in its wake. When that too had vanished, the welter of tracks had reduced considerably, leaving just a couple of well-grooved tyre ruts and a set of camel hoof marks.
The two tracks, entwined and twisting, snaked around and through the dull weather-beaten granite hills, sometimes rising to avoid wispy sand dunes to the west, sometimes falling to avoid the boulder-strewn wastelands of the east. On and on the lonely tracks meandered, past the occasional acacia, dusty, grey and brittle from months of drought, and past ragged clumps of equally desiccated thorn bush grasping with exposed gnarled roots at the bare rocks and boulders. Sometimes the tracks would merge before plunging deeply into the unseen gorge of a long-dead river, before climbing steeply back up onto another plateau, only to plunge down again after a few more kilometres. Sometimes, the tracks would disappear altogether under the sand.
Some hours later - it was hard to tell exactly because the sun was still shrouded by the blanket of cloud that made everything look a muggy and dirty orange - I rounded the side of a hill buttress to see a small building in the distance: the military outpost. The building - a small hut of whitewashed stone with a corrugated iron roof - nestled forsaken on the outside curve of a sharp clockwise hairpin; the start, I hoped, of the descent to the silken sand plains of the Mauritania-Senegal basin. The checkpoint was established in 1976 during the first conflicts with Polisario, ostensibly to protect the important oasis springs of Terjît, a few kilometres into the hills. A decade after the ending of hostilities, the ever tightening noose of drought has drastically diminished the size of the oasis and so the checkpoint is now mainly used for the extraction of much needed taxes from the few remaining merchants and travellers.
Beside an orange barrier that hung limply across the track, the occupants of the lorry I'd followed were embroiled in a vociferous dispute with a scab-faced soldier, who leant casually on the open cab door, ubiquitous Kalashnikov hanging from his neck on an old battered leather strap. His 'uniform' consisted of standard-issue khaki trousers and a dirty pale-blue T-shirt bearing a faded logo of sorts. As the travellers shouted at him he would turn nonchalantly away to gaze instead at his dusty boots that were idly kicking about pebbles at his feet. Only when replying to the tirade of insults with a string of his own did he ever look up. As far as I could gather, the argument centred about the lorry, which was piled sky high with precariously balanced crates, boxes and about two dozen people. In itself, this was hardly an unusual sight in the Sahara, but this particular soldier was evidently not prepared to let the lorry pass unless he was paid a tax or a bribe. As I approached, the soldier glanced briefly over at me, before turning back to continue the argument. Bemused, I walked up to the building instead.
Inside its sticky, windowless gloom, a fat Negro soldier sprawled, snoring heavily on a bed of straw-covered clay bricks. An old rifle and an empty bandoleer were lying on the ground beside him. I noticed with some amusement that he wore the other half of the thinner soldier's uniform - an army jacket emblazoned with colourful honours, and a misshapen olive-green kepi that shielded his face from the flies. A magazine cutting of the Mauritanian flag was stuck on to the otherwise bare wall over the bed, the yellow crescent Ramadan moon embracing Venus on a background of Muslim green. Various other objects - a small gas burner, a blackened ceramic teapot, a bag of sugar, four minuscule glasses, a bag of China tea and a large blue and white enamel bowl encrusted with rice - rested on a soiled prayer mat by the door. Sensing my presence, the man grunted and opened one eye, and then closed it before asking gruffly: 'What do you want, Toubab? There are bandits and criminals here.'
The water was contained in a hairy goatskin guerba suspended by a nail on the rear wall of the building. It was cold and tasted curiously sweet due to the expensive luxury of argan oil. I filled my bottles and returned to the front of the building where the argument had flared up upon the arrival of the Negro soldier. Above angry shouts and furiously waved fists, I thanked both guards, who continued to ignore me, and cycled away.
Happy in the knowledge that I was making good progress, I began to dream of Senegal and Dakar, and of all the things that I had heard about them. Then I thought of home, and I was pleased that I wasn't there. The Sahara was fine, absolutely fine, not to mention a hell of a lot easier to cycle across than I would have thought. According to my information, the next roadstead was now just over a hundred kilometres away, two thirds of the way to Akjoujt. With a full three days' supplies remaining, one hundred kilometres was a pushover, I told myself gleefully, and, as I had hoped, the track swerved strongly to the southwest and I soon found myself bouncing effortlessly down rocks and boulders. Although the murky atmosphere still abounded, it was hot and so it didn't take long for the water to heat up and acquire the plastic taste of the bottles. As I descended, sand began to fill the ruts that I was following, slowly burying the stones and pebbles of the higher Adrar, and made cycling in many parts a good deal smoother and easier than before. But the sand also made my already sore eyes stream tears. Occasionally, iblis dust devils would appear from nowhere to whip up swirling, opaque columns, sometimes 30 or 40 feet high, which would suddenly disappear, leaving a gentle shower of grit to rain delicately back onto the ground.
After a good hour's cycling, the track turned sharply. Beyond the bend, a battered Mercedes truck bearing a blackened cylindrical tank had crashed off the road. Mangled pieces of metal and shattered windscreen littered the diesel-stained rocks between the track and the lorry. All four tyres had burst. I clambered onto its rear. The lid of the tank had been thrown off in the crash, revealing a small murky puddle of discoloured and putrid water. Inside the cab, the steering wheel and dashboard were covered in dry blood. I thought it extraordinary that the driver's personal effects had still not been removed: a blurred photograph of a pretty young woman, a small tattered copy of the Qur'an, two cigarettes and a magazine cutting of Mecca's al-Haram mosque.
The track continued roughly southwards along two, by now largely rock-free, tyre ruts, with puddles of rusty beige sand lapping the boulders at the sides. The temperature cooled and swarms of flies and midges congregated above my head. Flies are especially irritating in the desert as there are not that many other things to stimulate one's mind. Flies up my nose, on my eyelids, in my ears, down my mouth, flies everywhere - bloody things! A few kilometres further on, still pestered by flies, I found a large sand dune to settle behind, and decided to call it a day. I stared at the blank page of my diary. It needed filling but I was unable to concentrate, so I stared instead at the mute grey sky. Eventually, the sun broke through the dust on the western horizon, briefly swamping the desert with warm shafts of light that danced mysterious shadows on the sand. Today, I mused, had marked the completion of three months on the road (only three months! - it felt like twelve). Three months of travelling, three months of living my life the way I wanted to. The tour was no longer the mad venture I had once thought it to be, but had become a way of life, as normal as working nine to five from Monday to Friday. The last colours of evening faded away, and I found myself staring at the blank page of the dusty sky.
I was woken abruptly by the angry buzzing of motors, and turned my head to catch a glimpse of the last of the French Land Cruiser expedition speeding over a nearby ridge, leaving a plume of dust shimmering brightly in the rosy morning sunlight. The beetles and bugs burrowed back into the sand, and as the throbbing of the jeeps faded into the distance, I was again left alone. Then I cursed, for I realised that I had missed the extra food and water that Adem had promised to bring.
The clouds had cleared overnight in the renewed trade wind. This was a mixed blessing, for although it dissipated the stifling humidity, the clear skies would result in much higher midday temperatures and so I would feel more thirsty. I was also feeling slightly sick, probably because of the various bits of the deceased goat of the checkpoint guerba that floated around my water bottles. It was late morning when I finally clambered on to the bike and pedalled wearily away. According to my map, the rocky foothills of the Adrar were today to give way in the southwest to the relatively flat and featureless terrain of the sand plains between the Akchâr and Amatlich dunes, which flank much of the road to Akjoujt. The road did indeed continue southwest for a while, but then veered sharply and into the blinding glare of the sun.
This easterly bearing did not make sense, for I was now travelling away from the Route Nationale and away from Akjoujt. Yet I had passed the military outpost that I'd been told about, and the French expedition had also passed this way, so I tried not to worry. My map, though, was too simplified to be of any use, and so I was left with no real choice but to continue along the track, hoping that it was merely one of several mapping errors or part of some detour. However, the further I cycled the more worried I became, especially as there were no real features in this monotonous land to distract my mind. Neither, come to think of it, could I see any trace of the Frenchmen's vehicles. Always, the same hills to my left, always the same dunes to my right, and always the same track taking me towards the same hazy mirages in the distance. Always, too, the same blazing ball of white fire that hung like a curse above my head, leaching all colour from the desert. Sandstone mountain edges drooped like half-closed eyelids, naked as on the day of creation, and naked now, dead. Is this the fate of the earth, that it will have been and gone in a solitary batting of an eyelid, unnoticed and inconsequential? Hours slid by, with only my tiredness testifying to the passing of time. I began to worry about comments I'd heard in Atâr along the lines of: 'No way, it is impossible to cycle to Akjoujt.' Perhaps I should have paid attention to these warnings, rather than have taken them as further encouragement.
Several hours later, as the temperature touched fifty degrees, the track had still not changed direction, and, to deepen my dismay, had become fainter and seemed less frequented by both camels and motor vehicles. Surely this could not be La Route Nationale? According to both my maps, it should almost certainly have veered to the west long before now. There was, however, a thin little line printed on one of the maps that went southeast. If I had somehow got onto this track, then I would eventually find myself on the fringes of El Djouf! Even so, the only thing that was certain about the maps was that they were both inaccurate, and so, armed with this valuable piece of knowledge, I decided that it would be wisest to keep on going, for the track, I figured, had to lead somewhere.
Still feeling unwell (my head was spinning slightly), I cycled indifferently through the sand and rocks. On and on in the unrelenting heat I travelled, sweating profusely, cursing profusely and worrying more and more that I might have to retrace my steps to Atâr. But then, I wasn't at all sure that I would be able to retrace my steps, for the wind was making them indistinct, and in places invisible.
After another hour's dejected cycling, the mirages melted away to reveal a bend in the track. A few kilometres further on, I started around and down the last few grotesquely folded layers of exposed hill buttress. As I descended, the soft shapes of sand dunes became visible on the near horizon to my right, peering alluringly from between the depressions and troughs of the surrounding rock. The track twisted down precarious bends, and clung ever tighter to the prehistorically etched mountainside. Then I spotted the fringed fronds of two palm trees peeking out amidst a cluster of boulders and sand drifts. I ditched the bike, and walked over to the edge of the crag. I saw several more clusters of palm trees. There is an Arab proverb that says that the palm tree must have its head in fire and its feet in water, and so, determined to prove my hunch correct, I heaved myself down the rock face, and continued along what would have been the bed of a stream. A little while on, the pebbles and boulders fell away to the skeleton of a dry waterfall, and in the splash pool ten metres down, sheltered from the wind and sand, I saw water.
Whooping with joy, I clattered and clambered noisily down the rocks, dislodging an avalanche of dust and stones. At the bottom, I found myself facing a couple of miraculous pools of water. The smaller one was turbid and stagnant, but the larger one contained water of such crystalline clarity that the rock forming the pool effused a most delicate tinge of amethyst. Small lizards lounged lazily in the shade of a few boulders, and a couple of eight-winged dragonflies honed in to inspect the visitor. As I moved closer, I heard a rustle at my feet and glanced round to catch the black tail of a viper disappearing into a crevice. Among the reeds in the pool swam tiny blood-red and brown fish, along with tadpoles and beetles and camel-spiders. I cupped my hands and took a sip. It was fresh and cold, and tasted faintly of mint. It sparkled brilliantly as it flowed from my hands and back into the pool. A handful of tiny saffron-yellow chaffinches, desert warblers, and a turquoise trumpeter finch chattered excitedly, as an acid-green gecko eyed the scene suspiciously from under a palm tree.
After all the sand and dust, to see the colours, to taste the water, to smell the scents and to breathe the dustless air - everything that one would normally take for granted, existed here as a microcosm of paradise. There were even a few tufts of grass growing in the mud between the two pools. It was ages since I had last seen green grass. I stood and gazed dumbfounded at this beautiful aberration, listening to the birds and the locusts and the dragonflies.
Until the Desert knows
That Water grows
His Sands suffice
But let him once suspect
That Caspian fact
Emily Dickinson, No.1291
* * *
As I walked back to the bicycle, I saw a nomad walking towards me. Behind him and next to my bicycle were stood three enormous bull camels with ratty tails, and another nomad. The men were dressed in tatty loose-fitting riding trousers, over which they wore sky-blue smocks tied loosely with simple belts, into which silver daggers were thrust. Both sported voluminous dark green turbans, tainted orange by the dust. The face of the man walking towards me was a soft hazelnut-brown, though his hands, like the thorn bush, were black and gnarled. On seeing my dripping water bottles, he smiled, greeted unusually abruptly, and then walked on down with his companion towards the pools of the guelta. I sat down to eat. Before long, the nomads returned. The first was muttering and shook his head. He explained that he had been to the village of Oujeft at the foot of the hills and was looking for somewhere to water his herd of a hundred camels (waiting a few kilometres back).
News of the village relieved me enormously, and I was assured that it was possible to rejoin the Route Nationale by going via the village. The nomad then mumbled something about the villagers being crooks, the reason being, as far as I could understand, that they were charging him an extortionate price to water his camels, but that he would have to accept because the herd had not drunk for four days.
The road to Oujeft continued down several hairpins, each one revealing just a little bit more than the last of the huts and palms below. In the ravine off one particularly severe bend, lay the gutted shells of a bus and several other vehicles, deformed and twisted. I heard later that the bus had claimed seven lives. It seems that the road from Atâr to Akjoujt is famed, even fêted, for its fatalities: accidents due mainly to freak sand storms caused by the Harmattan. It is ironic that this once prosperous caravan route, once an artery of life across the desert, should now be remembered primarily for death. It is also sadly apt, for drought has rung the death knell for the village of Oujeft.
Situated at the foot of the southernmost skirt of the Adrar, sixty kilometres from Atâr, Oujeft is a small village that has been almost totally abandoned. The village has an aura of having fought a battle and lost. Most of its buildings have been left to crumble, and those that remain are shuttered and closed to the hostile ravages of the outside world. There were few people to be seen. The fate of Oujeft is the same as that of thousands of similar settlements across the Sahara and the Sahel. A well fails and sand drives in. Then another well fails and the crops won't grow. The trees wither and die, the young people leave and never come back, and the door is left open to the desert.
Two decades ago, Oujeft was entirely surrounded by a green belt of palm groves. It had even been possible to cultivate the hillsides, those same arid hillsides of rock and sand that I had just descended. In better times, houses were built using carefully chosen rocks that were meticulously pieced together in the manner of English dry-stone walling. The walls were then plastered with laterite mud gathered from the riverbed during the hivernage (the winter rains). Mud would also be used with palm tree fronds or millet stalks to make the roofs. Year after year, the walls and roofs would be repaired and then replastered with fresh mud, often mixed with cow dung or straw. But the recent spate of droughts made replastering impossible, and in consequence the roofs had begun to cave in and the walls began to fall. Many of the buildings abandoned in the famine already lay as crumpled heaps of grey rubble, barely distinguishable from the rocks and sand to which they were returning.
Cycling through the village, a couple of children appeared from out of nowhere and started chasing me, making grabs at the water bottles on the back of the bike. As they ran, they shouted to unseen friends who appeared from dark huts and alleyways to join in the chase. This I didn't need, for it was too windy and the track was too rocky to outpace them. But then, I didn't much feel like having to run after my water bottles either. I carried on cycling, hoping that they would tire before me.
'Bonjour, m'sieur!' they cried cheerily. 'Stop!' I carried on stubbornly, pretending not to hear. 'Hey Toubab, arrête!'
Briefly, I glanced round, and saw that my spare tyre, usually hooped around the rear panniers, had been pulled off and was lying on the ground amidst a small cluster of grubby children. Fed up, I stopped cycling and dismounted. I was tired and that made me feel angry at having been forced to stop by a bunch of insolent kids. I walked back towards them, thanking them sarcastically for having stopped me, but they just stared back silently and my words floated harmlessly over their heads and away in the breeze. I gave up being angry. It wasn't really in my nature anyway, and the little bastards looked too innocent! I tried a goofy grin instead, which elicited a fit of giggles from a girl who had both her thumbs stuck in her mouth. She almost choked.
The children smiled sweetly, before unleashing a flood of questions and demands to drown me in: 'M'sieur, voulez vous me donner ouguiya... un stylo... un cadeau...' and even 'un gateau pour moi.' (it seems they confused gateau with cadeau). I gave them some money but they just asked for more.
At the end of the village, several workers with cranes and trucks were sinking a well. Both it and the old well beside it were in the centre of a dry wadi, which in times past would have supplied the mud for the buildings, and fish and water for the villagers. One of the workers, a burly haratin with arms like bulldozers, explained that the old well had silted up and was beginning to cave in, and so it had been necessary to build a new one. The French expedition, the worker said, had passed by earlier in the day, and they had apparently heard mention that Choum had miraculously had rain the day before. The haratin hoped that Oujeft too would get some rain before long. 'Insha Allah,' I replied, looking up at the dry sky.
As we were talking, one of the sand ploughs that I had passed near Atâr trundled past and continued straight on towards an area of dunes. The well digger explained that these dunes were covering what had been, until a decade ago, the Ancienne Route Nationale. This information finally made sense of my maps, for they showed only the newer route from Atâr, from which I had been diverted because of the resurfacing.
The track from Oujeft headed south, and soon deteriorated into waves of corrugations, this time made trickier to cycle because the troughs were filled with an extremely soft cinnamon sand that would all too frequently grind the bike to a sticky halt. I couldn't even try to avoid the ruts, as the surrounding sand was far too soft for any kind of cycling at no matter what speed. Out of frustration, I started pushing and pulling on the pedals as hard as I could, mindlessly ignoring the ridges. Within twenty metres, one of the plastic water bottles bounced out of the rear panniers and smashed on the ground, and I watched helplessly at the water draining into the sand. Worse still, a few minutes later I discovered that another bottle had cracked and shed half its load, soaking my diary and a precious loaf of bread. Standing there beside my bike, there was nothing but silence screaming mockingly at my stupidity. Worst of all, I was now only carrying six and a half of my initial nine litres of water, and I figured that the remaining 150km to Akjoujt, given my unforeseen detour, would still take another two days. The only permanent settlement on the route of which I knew - the supply hut that I'd been told about in Atâr - was still some eighty kilometres away, and even if I were to find water elsewhere, my reduced water-carrying capacity made getting to Akjoujt or the supply hut a rather more urgent matter than before.
About an hour later, the track veered sharply to the right, almost cutting back on itself. To my intense relief, I was travelling westwards, and as far as I could see, the track continued all the way towards the flat horizon over which the sun was gradually sinking, the horizon where tomorrow I should hopefully rejoin the proper road to Akjoujt. Taking advantage of the cooler evening air and my rediscovered high spirits, I cycled on until the remains of the day were swamped by the night. I lay down next to the track under a myriad stars and felt my body heat slowly dissipate into the sand. I closed my eyes and let my memory tumble into a morass of images and sounds, colours and feelings tangled in webs of darkness, all confused and all forgotten as I drifted peacefully into sleep.
There is a sudden flash of light. Startled, I open my eyes but it is still dark. The moon has disappeared. It is cold and I hear a slow and ghostly drumming resonating in the wind. For a moment I am confused, not knowing where I am or what is happening. There is another flash of light, this time accompanied by the low rumble of distant thunder. The drumming increases with the wind, tearing up sheets of dust and sand from the plain that come crashing painfully over me. Faster and faster the furious wind blows, lashing and whipping the sand into a spinning, howling, yelling and chaotic frenzy. Abruptly, the confusion subsides, and within a matter of minutes the atmosphere has become heavy and sombre, presiding claustrophobically over a thick, violent silence. There is no sound. I wait, but nothing stirs, not even the wind. I dare not breathe. The world has been frozen by this absolute silence.
With a deafening scream, an electric blue spear of light hurls down from the heavens to strike the desert about half a mile away. I try to run from the bicycle, for it is the best conductor for miles, but before I have time to get out of my sleeping bag another bolt explodes nearby, accompanied by even fiercer gales and the renewed drumming of the madman. The storm rages briefly, and then, as quickly as it arrived, it vanishes. The clouds part to reveal once again the naked brilliance of the stars and the full moon. For a while there is an eerie silence in the now still air, broken only by the occasional and distant rumble of departing thunder. Still there is no rain. The Moors call the drumming the Spirit of Ghaul, for he is the drummer of death, an evil, wandering djinni, ever eager to snatch away the weary traveller's life, should he ever pay too much attention to his desires.
* * *
Morning smiled sweet and innocent under sparkling skies of azure. There was no sign of the storm except for the track having sanded over, as had my bicycle. With the absence of any wind the temperature rose considerably, soon taking the edge off the freshness that the storm had brought, and before long the atmosphere once again was thick and syrupy. Nonetheless, the brief spell of freshness had brought new vigour to my tired body, and for a while cycling was easy and relatively painless. Soon, though, the track was overwhelmed by sand, and the going correspondingly grew slow and difficult.
The track crossed back over the Tayaret wadi, that pretended to have snaked through Oujeft. Here, no longer sheltered by the Adrar, it was marked only by a thin and perfunctory line of more or less dead acacia, blackened and brittle and only still anchored in the sand because of their long and wiry roots, most of them already exposed like the naked aerials of banyan trees. Sand dunes had begun to form around them, and it was only a matter of time before the last of them would be devoured by the voracious sands. It is said that the acacia can tolerate desiccation so extreme that its branches become brown and brittle, and are still capable of recovery. The acacia can also reputedly withstand fire, but most remarkable is its ability to survive interment for several years, eventually to be exhumed by the relentless southward march of the same dunes that had once buried it. Nevertheless, all living things need water, even the sturdy acacia, and sadly there may well be no more water left by the time that these particular dunes have moved on.
Within seconds of crossing the wadi my front wheel began to soften to the delicate tune of a puncture. Sitting down wearily on the sand, I mused that I had at least been fortunate enough to have found a pump in Atâr, and that I was lucky to have been able to cycle here at all. Waiting for the glue to set, I gorged myself on some peanuts and the mouldy and still ant-infested bread. The water was hot and tasted sour - the bottles had not been cleaned for weeks. Soon after leaving the bushes and their thorns, a distant lorry crossed my path from right to left, north to south. It was the proper track to Akjoujt. The two tracks intersected a few kilometres further on beside a canvas awning and a small, tin-roofed hut. Its occupants, a disagreeable middle-aged man and his wife, scurried out of sight when they saw me approach, and I had to search around to find them. The man was dressed in the traditional blue boubou and white smock, the woman in a black gown and black yashmak. Both treated me with the utmost suspicion. I was told that I was at the village of Agrour Sfaya. Glancing outside the hut at the tent canopy and the sand, it was evident that I was at best at the remains of Agrour Sfaya. Was this the supply hut that I had been told about? It seemed to be much nearer than I had imagined, and that would mean that there might not be another supply hut at all, a thought that I would rather not have had to contemplate.
Unfortunately, the couple could not clarify matters over whether there was indeed a hut further on, or how far I was from Atâr or Akjoujt. Of greater concern to them was the task of selling me something, anything: petrol, rice, a plastic laundry basket, a barrel of tea, as well as a packet of those dry Algerian biscuits. I bought the biscuits and was given three litres of water from a chipped blue urn inside the furnace-like hut, bringing my supplies back up to six and a half litres. The woman then replaced the lid, held out her hand, and scowled.
Preparing to leave, I discovered that the front wheel was flat yet again, and so to repair it I installed myself under the canvas awning. I should have guessed that there had been two thorns stuck in the wheel, and not just the one that I had already removed. To my dismay, I discovered that my penknife had disappeared. I had probably left it on the ground while repairing the last puncture, and I cursed at the prospect of having to walk back to find it. Grudgingly, I heaved myself to my feet and turned around to see the man standing behind me. He held my penknife in his hands, hands that were idly cutting slits into the tent posts while the man stared coldly into my eyes. 'It slices well,' he said.
The tracks converged and headed out southwest towards a shimmering expanse of sand. As far as I could see there was nothing but a vast expressionless gulf, reaching far out towards and beyond the murky horizon. It was ringed in places by the tall shimmering mirages of sand dunes, blurring the distinction between land and sky. For the second time since leaving Atâr, I got worried. For sure, I had expected to see sand along my journey - indeed I had quite looked forward to it - but this was plainly ridiculous! With the exception of myself and the bicycle, everything but everything under the sky consisted entirely of sand. My map hadn't shown any significant dunes actually along the Route Nationale, and the road itself was classified as 'improved', whatever that meant. Here, it was patently no such thing.
The task of finding the supply hut was also beginning to worry me, for assuming that Agrour Sfaya had not been it, I reckoned that I was still a good day away, and getting lost after the impromptu diversion had screwed up any notion I had had of how far I was from Akjoujt. I had further reason to be careful, for already today I had drunk two litres, and the midday temperature was only just peaking, at 52ºC. Thankfully, the track in most places was still just about rideable, so long as I kept up a reasonable speed and avoided particularly soft patches of sand, given away by the deepening or disappearance of the vehicle tracks. If the avoidance of the softer patches was impossible, or if I noticed them too late to take evasive action, then a burst of speed would usually gather enough momentum to carry me across.
As the day wore on, I found that more and more walking was required. Perhaps because of this I felt the dry atmosphere all the more keenly. Pushing the bicycle tended to exhaust me much more than cycling, and the scorching sand came into direct contact with my feet. As I walked, I mused on my own insignificance in the face of all this desolation. Cast adrift in a sea of rolling waves, hot, uncaring, faceless and overawing. I was helpless, and yet somehow happy that I was entrusted to the mercy of this great void - Mother Earth, if you will. I was happy to be embraced by this vastness. Yes, I am insignificant, but perversely the revelation of this strengthens self-respect rather than destroys it. The wind whistled softly. I trudged on, half the time cycling and the other half walking, yet happy, despite everything. The singularly beautiful sight of a bird high in the sky, flying south, made me even happier. Senegal, I thought, here I come.
Some hours later a Land Rover sped towards me, the noise of its engine muffled in the wind. I jumped onto the bicycle, ashamed to be seen walking, and struggled off towards it. A very startled European leaned out of the window.
'Salut. Ça va, non?' he asked in bewilderment. I guess he half expected me to groan and ask for a lift, but instead I smiled and nodded, and asked the same of him.
'You must be mad!' he exclaimed. 'What are you doing here with your bicycle'? Mais dites donc, you really are mad!' He later explained that on first seeing me he had thought that I was a stray camel, but then, on reflection, and as the mirages around me cleared, he'd decided that a camel wasn't so short and narrow, and so I became a donkey. Only as he drew closer had he realised that the donkey was in fact a cyclist.
'Anglais?' he asked, like everyone else.
'Naturellement,' I replied.
Albert introduced himself. He was Belgian, lived in Nouakchott and worked for a charity that constructed wells in the desert. He was on his way to inspect a series of projects all the way up to the ancient ruins at Aghouedir (300km northeast of Atâr), including the well at Oujeft. Albert's anonymous companion was middle-aged, balding, and wore - of all things - a pinstripe suit, shirt, and tie! He was the Belgian ambassador's aide-de-camp in Dakar, and, it seems, had just come along for the ride.
If I managed to make it to Nouakchott within a week, Albert kindly offered to put me up and also to take me to an exclusive restaurant called El Frisco. All I had to do was ask for someone called Naf, who would introduce me to the chef, Bhoo Nomdu, who would organise everything.
As we said goodbye, Albert apologised for not having any water, but instead gave me a packet of biscuits, a carton of apricot juice and a bottle of coke, which I quaffed in seconds. It all tasted the same in the heat, and in any case, all that my taste buds had tasted over the last ten days was sand. The biscuits were even less palatable than the ones I'd bought in Agrour Sfaya, being inedible without copious amounts of liquid to wash them down. I junked them. Meeting the Belgians, though, made me hopeful that I would soon reach Akjoujt. If Albert was correct in his estimation, the town was about 60km away, and so, with luck, tomorrow I would find myself its star attraction.
It was already dark when I came to a stop at the lip of a gentle sand crater, up which I had been struggling for the best part of an hour. I wheeled the bike off the track and parked it behind an incongruous boulder, lit up eerily in the lime-glow of the moon. I lay down on the sand, too exhausted to untie the kipmat from the bike. I had drunk relatively little today, but my body still felt fine, albeit tired and sore, as was now usual. Before long, the headlights of two trucks appeared in the distance, bobbing and partially miraged by the lingering heat haze. The vehicles stopped some two hundred metres in front of me. I heard voices and could make out three figures. Suddenly, the talking ceased, doors slammed and the trucks drove off.
I awoke late, extremely tired, with the sun already thumping heavily (for some reason, the desert sun always seems to thump at its hottest). It was a windless day, still and quiet, and by the time I was packed and ready to leave, the temperature had shot well over fifty degrees. A mile or so ahead, and partly hidden behind a small dune, I passed the sand plough that had passed me in Oujeft. One of its giant tyres had exploded, and the driver was nowhere to be seen. I presumed that he had been picked up by the two lorries last night. Before me sprawled an imposing tract of wasteland, the same as yesterday, only more impressive in the relative mental calm of morning. The land seemed more belittling. Masses and masses of beige sand, and nothing but. Absolutely nothing else, not even the faintest trace of vegetation, present or past - just sand. Stretching off into the distance lay vast cradles of sand, like gigantic flattened egg trays with their dimples not quite squashed flat. Dunes about 150 feet high ringed the near horizon, coming closer to my sides and thus effectively enclosing the length of the route. I say 'route' because there was nothing left that could even vaguely be called a 'track'. Strong winds overnight had obliterated the remaining vehicle traces.
The thick sand necessitated walking, and within a few minutes of surprisingly difficult slogging, any aspirations that I had entertained of reaching Akjoujt within the day evaporated. Given this, my priority was now to find water, which meant reaching the supply hut, the existence of which I was beginning to doubt. If my calculations were correct, I figured that it was about fifteen kilometres away. As I cycled, the mid-morning heat, which had initially been a pleasurable glow of warmth seeping gradually through my body, became uncomfortable, and then unbearable. By midday, the thermometer strapped on the handlebars had breached 55 degrees, and was still rising. The skin on my face, in spite of the cheche, was hot and sore, and my hands were hard and scaly. At first imperceptibly, the heat sank deeper towards my bones as my skin grew hotter and hotter still, until of a sudden I shouted out in pain. I stopped cycling and unwound my turban, clasping my left cheek so that I could feel the heat transfer onto the palm of my hand. I soaked the turban in some of my remaining water, ran it over my arms and then wrapped it tightly and securely around my head.
Sometimes I would manage to keep to a rhythm of sorts. With every down stoke of the left pedal, I would breathe in, and then with the right stroke, I would breathe out, and so on until it became hypnotic, whereupon I would invariably grind to a halt. For hours I struggled on like this, exhausted, sweating and cursing over the too-thick sand that was holding me prisoner. I was beginning to wish that I was back over the corrugated ruts, for at least they were just about rideable (if uncomfortable). Although the crusted surface sometimes held my weight, most of the time it cracked to allow the bicycle to sink through to a soft and deep undersurface, forcing me as usual to get off and push. The charade of mounting and dismounting in the sweltering heat repeated itself endlessly and pitilessly. Heaving myself off the crossbar after a typically short but exhausting slog on the pedals, I would need to rest a few minutes to regain my breath and drink a little water, before having to push on with forty kilos of baggage and bike. Pushing was infinitely worse than cycling. The soles of my shoes were no match for the burning sand on which they trod, and it would always get into my shoes. My feet began bleeding through their many blisters.
As the hours passed, I felt more and more distraught. Surely I had now covered the fifteen or so kilometres to the hut, for even in the desert I could manage a paltry five kilometres an hour. Yet still the hours passed. Only when the sand was thin or compact enough could I empty my shoes, remount and ride off - usually only to have to dismount another fifty metres further on. I sat down on the hot sand to eat: peanuts, the ant-infested bread, and hot water. By now, I'd given up picking out the insects from the bread but just ate it as it was, regardless of my silly qualms. I sat eating with my head between my knees, pondering what lay ahead of me as I stared and fiddled with the stones at my feet. It was unbearably hot. I might just as well have been walking naked, for in this temperature my clothes and turban gave me little protection. The skin on my nose was peeling every twelve hours on average. Even my fingers were crusted hard and scaly and were themselves also peeling badly, probably due to vitamin deficiency as much as anything else.
At one point, the front wheel sank suddenly into a trough of deep sand, sending me sprawling across the handlebars. I still remember approaching the ground in graceful slow motion, and then cursing aloud as I landed face down on the sand. For once, I didn't leap up to check that the water bottles were still intact, but instead just lay there, exhausted and motionless and my eyes closed. I tried to convince myself that I was comfortable lying there, and, to my surprise, I found that I was. In fact, I was so tired that I toyed with the idea of simply falling asleep there and then, but then the sand started burning my arms and face and made me jump up. I righted the bike and set off again, only to come to another grinding halt a few metres further on. I started walking.
Here and there, the bleached skeleton of a camel or a goat or a donkey protruded from the sand, though I was still spirited enough to take a self-exposure photo of myself next to a camel skeleton, using three bottles and my diary as an impromptu tripod. Despite the heat, I had restrained myself sufficiently to have four litres of water remaining by mid afternoon. All the time now, I had to wear the turban wrapped tightly across my face to prevent excess water loss from my mouth and nose. Though this made me appreciably hotter and made breathing more difficult, it kept my throat moist and that was what really mattered. By late afternoon my mouth was parched regardless, and there was still no sign of either the hut or Akjoujt. I began to despair a little, especially at the sluggish pace, and yet it was my anger and frustration that for the most part fuelled my determination to continue no matter what.
Determination not withstanding, I began to experience the first symptoms of dehydration: extreme exhaustion, my willpower becoming harder to sustain, reality becoming harder to cling onto. The mind starts playing tricks and your imagination goes haywire. I looked around me. The dunes rose and fell, like the sun over broken-back landscapes of shattered dreams, overlaid by the imaginary strands and clusters of rocks and shrubs, twisted fragments of the mind that out of the abruptness of the desert made the future of dreams and hope eternal. Intertwining, interlocking, but always abrupt, the dunes end as they begin, caught in the paradoxical violence of the desert calm. I imagined trying to outstare the glaring sun, but for all its brightness I couldn't see a thing. One day, I shall win, I told myself as I fumbled around blindly for a water bottle. Like me, the water was hot, but I drank it anyway. Then I felt sick. I heard the brief cry of a bird, but it was far away, and its song was drowned out by the wind, warbling, distorted, failing, falling... I was alone, yet the bird carried on singing inside my head. Let me free, let me free, it cried. You are free, I thought, and it flew away. I was staring at the sun when I realised that I had been hallucinating. Shocked by my sudden dehydration, I drank a little more water in the hope that it would go away. It didn't. I simply could not believe that this was happening to me. Dehydrated hallucination, I had thought, was something that one only ever read about in books or saw in cheap Western flicks. All those images of lost desert travellers crawling on all fours, face in the sand, crying 'Water! Water!' - in my more lucid moments, I felt like a living cliché, a thought that brought a smile to my bleeding lips.
As evening drew close I felt my hope gradually slipping away. I was confused at the absence of the supply hut, at the absence of Akjoujt, and at the fact that nothing seemed to make sense any more. Although I knew that losing hope was fatal, I could not prevent it trickling slowly out of my grasp. Dehydration, in addition to its physical effects, destroys the higher emotional passions. Even dreams become perverted and confused, frightening, all the time sucking off what little spirit remains in both mind and body. One deception trails into another, leaving little room for reality to reassert itself. It is self-deception, nourished by dehydration, that more than anything diminishes the will to continue. My desperation and confusion continued until the relative clarity of the desert night gently eased my senses back into my bedraggled mind. 'Happy the Sahara, where day and night swing man so evenly from one hope to the other,' wrote Saint-Exupéry. As I lay down on the sand and took stock of the situation, I realised that the supply hut, if ever it had existed, had probably been hidden behind a sand dune on some separate stretch of track. I had three litres of water left, enough for one day at most, but well below the six litres that I had usually been drinking. I also realised that I could have asked the drivers of the two lorries last night for water, and I felt stupid at my thoughtlessness. I fell asleep knowing full well that I would have to reach Akjoujt the next morning, for otherwise the midday heat would further worsen my dehydration.
* * *
For once I awoke early, with a little renewed hope born of the peace of night. Yet, as the first few hours passed by to reveal nothing more than the same timeless sands spread, as always, to all four corners of the world, I began once again to despair. I felt an old recurring wrist injury return, which if it got really bad would rule out cycling altogether. My hands were now badly cracked and covered in open sores, as were my lips. I had also begun shaking uncontrollably and, perhaps most tellingly, was sweating nowhere near as much as I had been, a condition that leads to hyperpyrexia (hyperthermia). Worse still was that the mental effects of dehydration returned with a vengeance. To save what little water I had remaining, I promised myself not to drink anything for the first few hours at least. Yet within an hour I found myself involuntarily drinking from a bottle. Much as I tried to stop myself virtually committing suicide, my body would not listen. In vain I tried to tell it of the crime it was committing, but my hands listened only to my immediate thirst...
I felt so angry at my helplessness. 'You stupid bastard,' I yelled after I'd eventually managed to wrest the now empty bottle away from my lips. Dehydration slows the mind. At the same time, the body becomes deaf to it, and because the mind has become slow, it can't react in time to what your body might be doing. Mind and body become two separate entities. Any break in communication between the two necessarily results in two states of being, a form of non-clinical schizophrenia. As a result, I was now down to two litres, having been awake for only an hour. I was utterly disgusted with myself.
I absolutely had to get to Akjoujt, but in the still swelter of the desert day, I found myself increasingly desperate. Akjoujt now seemed little more than a figment of my imagination. I had been underway from Atâr for almost five days, and still there was no sign of the town (God, I was supposed to have reached Nouakchott by now). I was worried that maybe I'd overshot Akjoujt as well, but surely that wasn't possible? I felt anger and frustration at being so physically helpless, and that all that I could do was plod on regardless, and all that I could see was yet more sand with no sign of life anywhere. The vehicle tracks had more or less disappeared and so I was left following merely my instincts and the ever-vaguer promise of eventual sanctuary. I felt so angry. Angry at being cheated, though by whom or what I did not know. I just knew that I had been cheated. And yet there was nothing at all on which my anger could be vented, and in consequence it grew and grew, feeding off itself to such an extent that at several times in the day I had to stop walking just to shout and yell myself hoarse, simply to prevent myself exploding. All that I could think about was the great injustice of it all. Why me? Why me, of all people? Why was it that I should suffer so much? I had not harmed anyone, so why me? But I could think of no answer.
As the sun increased in intensity, my frustration and anger turned again to despair and hopelessness. Silent despair and hopelessness. Rather than feeling overawed by the desert, I now felt cowed by it. I was utterly helpless and utterly isolated. I had not seen a single living creature for over two days - I was scared. I felt, and was, quite simply, pathetic. Once, I stumbled and hit my ankle on a pedal. I cursed. I cursed the desert for doing this to me. I cursed the fact that I had no water. That I was exhausted. I cursed that I was stupid enough to be here in the first place. I cursed the fact that I couldn't give up. Then I smiled, for indeed I had a choice. On the one hand I could give up, and wait for the off-chance of a passing vehicle, or else risk dying, defeated within myself. On the other hand, I could risk being killed by the desert. Perhaps I didn't have a choice after all. I clambered on to the bicycle and started pedalling. But then, a few minutes later, I would again start cursing, and would find myself once again entertaining the idea of giving up. As the afternoon temperature breached 55ºC once again, thirst had taken over my thoughts.
Over a distant cluster of dunes, I saw a clump of welcoming palm trees, their leaves hanging limply in the stifling air. At last a sign of life, although I couldn't yet see whether the trees marked the outskirts of Akjoujt or an unmapped oasis. Either way, I was as relieved as I was happy as I left the piste and pushed the bicycle towards the trees across the soft hot sand that enveloped my feet, only to realise as I approached that they were merely boulders playing tricks on my tired eyes. Dejected and shocked, not least because of having succumbed to a cliché so hackneyed, I turned to push the bike back to the piste along my already melted tracks. My shoes were full of sand that burnt my feet, and so I sat down and emptied them, staring entranced at the bloodied grains falling from my shoes as through the waist of an hourglass. I stared at an ant climbing my leg, but it fell off and scurried away to the shade of a stone. I recalled my feelings on leaving Manchester, cycling down the A34 on a drizzly and overcast February morning, wondering what would replace the gloomy Cheshire plains as my horizon. I righted the bike, and tried to imagine the wet tarmac skimming underneath, but all I could see was sand.
The hallucinations returned. I imagined that the sand was drinkable, although I knew perfectly well that it wasn't. Then I started considering how many steaks I could make out of my arms, depending on how I carved them. I worked out ways of amputating them without it hurting, without it bleeding my insides too much. How to stop the inevitable gangrene from setting in, how to deter any interested vultures. When you're dehydrated, your mind wanders without your knowing it. But when you're really dehydrated you start believing all this shit. Your body completely takes over from your mind. Then you've got to fight your body because it doesn't like all these stupid things you're forcing it to do, like live. Your body just feels like lying down and stopping. Not dying, just stopping, resting. You, however, your poor dehydrated and hallucinating self, somehow you know that you can't just rest because if you do you'll probably never want to get up again. On the other hand, the thought of just lying down for a while becomes so tempting, and for a minute you almost succumb... I craved nothing more than to be embraced, held tight, reassured by something secure and dependable. Even so, I realised the futility of my daydreaming, and again all I thought of was water. Then I tried to block this from my mind, because it was making me thirsty, but in vain. Water was now all that I wanted, indeed, all that I craved. Everything that I had ever cared for was now represented by that barest of necessities. And a hundred times again I would deceive myself into believing that what was in fact a boulder was a well or an oasis or a settlement. A hundred times again I would resolve never to deceive myself. The agony of false hope is the greatest curse of the desert, its sickest joke, and perhaps that of life too. Still more walking and still more cursing, and by the evening, my thoughts were simply going round and around, repeating themselves, repeating subjects, repeating words, repeating noises, repeating themselves. And in that way, by coming almost to ignore the world outside the cocoon of my mind, I survived the blistering day to walk into the cool of night.
The descending sun resembled a red Chinese lantern, briefly returning some of the colour and music to the desert that it had taken away during the day. The sky darkened, and the colours faded away to be replaced by the ghostly charm of the rising moon. Still there was no sign of Akjoujt, not even the faintest gloaming of hope in the murky darkness. I had just over one litre of water left, enough for about four hours if I ignored the fact that I was already dangerously dehydrated. I stood still next to the bicycle, gazing at the void ahead of me. Again I was overawed by the stark beauty of this empty and monstrous land. I listened to the silence. It was playing a fine line between tranquillity and violent agoraphobia. I was but a tiny drop in a vast ocean of barrenness, a solitary grain of sand amongst all these dunes. I was a human being, nineteen years old, weighing seventy kilos and five feet nine tall, all but engulfed by the Sahara. Thousands have died in it, and no one, not even the nomads, trust it. Yet here I was, stranded alone and quite possibly lost in the middle of the world's harshest desert in summer, exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, with precious little water and food remaining, and with only a bicycle as my sole companion. I started laughing. Then I started dancing. The more the situation struck me as being ludicrous, the harder I laughed and the quicker I danced, until, in shrieks of helpless laughter, I was so tired and hot that I just had to sit down, my lungs shaking, and tears running down my face. For the moment at least, my thirst and all my worries and feelings of anger and frustration and desperation and helplessness were forgotten. I fell asleep with sand drifting over me like a gentle shower of rain.
It was late morning, and I was already exhausted. My mouth was dry and the sores on my lips had opened up again. I felt so tired that for a while, the effort required even to stand up and fetch water and food from the bike was too much, and so I stared skyward instead. The sun above me shone a brilliant silky white, obliterating the blue from the sky. I could see points of light flitting across it like sperm, first a handful, then hundreds and then thousands of them, all spinning and rushing about in the hallucinations of my deadened mind. Soon there were so many of them that I could no longer even make out the sky. Everything grew darker and darker, and yet my eyes were still wide open.
A while later, I don't know exactly how long later, I realised with a start that I was still staring at the sun. I stood up, shaking from both the shock and my hunger, and tried to snap myself out of my daze, but my eyes merely locked on to a nearby sand dune and so I stared at that for a while. I managed eventually to eat the remaining loaf of bread and to take a sip of water, though by now even eating had become a painful affair because of my lips and my sand-papered throat. Still dazed, I climbed on to the bicycle, only to fall off the other side. I was neither shocked nor scared at my state. Not even confused, but just dazed like a drunkard. I realised that I wasn't feeling particularly well, but then I didn't much care either. In fact, I no longer seemed to care about anything. I just picked myself up from the sand, took the bike and started walking away into the silence. I never looked back, but just carried on walking through the desert, my feet still bleeding. At first, I stumbled frequently on my leaden and numbed legs but then, as I continued, the walking became a little easier. A world of shimmering mirages filled the world in a blazing vision of madness. Relentless, merciless, the sky spat fiery curtains upon insanity furiously pumping, bubbling. I no longer knew, nor even cared, about death. My head contracted, pounding, heavy, thoughtless, devoid of feeling, plodding relentlessly onward. The sand bubbled and swirled. I gazed too long and stumbled. There was no pain, there were no feelings. No thoughts, floating, marching hypnotically into oblivion. I thought of nothing as I pushed the bicycle slowly along the track. I felt no mood or emotion. I felt no pain or sensations. I thought of nothing. Thought had become irrelevant. So on I cycled, saying nothing, thinking of nothing, and doing nothing except struggling, until it seemed that there was nothing left in the whole world but this huge dumb emptiness and me.
Sometimes, my mind would slip back into a few moments of lucidity, as though to reassure me that it was still there. I vividly remember talking to myself about chocolate bars, but invariably my mind would just ignore my words and shut itself off from the outside world. So my words would then trail off into a sad swirling wordstring of nonsense and then I would stop talking and stare instead at the sand passing beneath my feet as I plodded slowly onwards and back into my senseless daze.
Other times I would kid myself by staring at a distant dune and thinking 'when I get to that dune, I shall almost be there.' But of course, when I did eventually get to the dune there would be nothing to see but yet another one, even further away, and so I would think again 'when I get to that dune, I shall almost be there.' Unnoticed, I would stare again at my plodding feet. First the left, then the right, then the left, then the right, until, again, I caught myself in a trance and no longer realised that I was still staring at my plodding feet.
Once, towards midday, I sat down on the sand and asked myself what the hell I was doing here. I stared glassy-eyed at the sand at my feet without bothering, or half an hour later even remembering, to answer my own question. There no longer was an answer, and half an hour later, back in my dazed, cotton-befuddled mind, having forgotten what it was that had made me want to sit down in the first place, I got up and carried on. After a few kilometres, I stopped for a piss, my first in four days. I pissed barely half a litre of dark fluid into a spare bike bottle.
I did eventually succumb to the temptation of lying down at the side of the track. With the tranquil and unhurried repose of a man lying on his deathbed, I felt my life ebbing ever so gently away from me and back into the earth. Without my even knowing, I was finally at peace with myself. No longer confused, no longer despairing, no longer frustrated, I accepted fate without so much as a whisper of regret or self-pity. I cannot pretend to any courage or bravery, though, in the face of my imminent demise, for I was no longer conscious of it. In my advanced stupor, emotions such as caring and fear never crossed my mind, having long since faded into the obscurity of the past. Moreover, it was no longer even possible for me to care or fear. The possibility of finding myself on the brink of life and death had already been considered many weeks before. Anyhow, my transition from the temperate climate of northern Morocco to the searing heat of Mauritania had been gradual. In a way, I was already immune to the fear and panic that I would undoubtedly have felt had I suddenly found myself in the desert without food or water. All fear is ultimately the fear of the unknown. Once fate is recognised, it is no longer unknown and so there is no longer reason to fear it. The spectre of my impending demise was in fact almost too easy to rationalise. Fate had become fact and that was that.
By mid-afternoon, my eyes were extremely sore, both from sweat and the reflected glare of the sun. I closed them. The horizon, a hellish fusion of red sand and black sky, spread slowly to cover everything that I could see. On and on I pedalled, sand and dust now stinging my face in the rekindled trade wind, arriving hot and dusty from the north. Then the imaginary haze of a distant mirage, dark and luminescent, appeared over the crest of a dune. Hypnotised, I plodded on, the mirage looming ever larger as I approached. And then, as quickly as it had appeared, it disappeared, water sinking into sand and leaving nothing behind but a bare grin on the desert floor. I opened my eyes to find that I was still walking. I walked like this for most of the day, until the sun sank down over the western sky.
Darkness had already fallen as I wearily pushed my bicycle off the camel tracks, only to settle a couple of yards away in the imaginary shelter of a small sandy copse. Even at night, I had little respite from the blazing midsummer heat. The night-time temperature kept well over thirty degrees due to the trade wind that blew in from the Western Sahara. I collapsed with throbbing head onto the sand, too tired to bother about untying my kipmat or bivouac from the back of the bike. I was exhausted to the point that I was too tired even to fall asleep. I had a paltry three quarters of a litre of water remaining, having drunk almost nothing during the day. The only advantage to my dazed state was, I suppose, that I was no longer having to battle with my body to stop it from finishing my remaining water. It was as though it too had given up the ghost of pretending to life. My poor lips, though no longer bleeding, were shrivelled and felt brittle. My hands were in a similar state, but still bled occasionally, as did my feet, though I did not even have the energy to take my shoes off for the night. My back and wrists were sore and swollen, and the skin all over my body flaked rapidly and painfully. My eyes ached, and I could no longer spit out the phlegm that was blocking my throat, making my breathing harsh and painful. For the first and only time in my life I considered that it was quite likely that I would never see the sun set again.
And yet, my tiredness was one of the most beautiful and intimate feelings that I'd ever experienced. The exhaustion was of the purest kind, brought on solely by physical exertion, and it challenged incessantly both the innermost mental and outermost physical limits of my body, and then passed beyond still further. I just lay there, between sand and stars, motionless with my legs splayed-out, arms flung behind me and my parched mouth gaping up at the sky. A dew-like crust of delicate sweat beads formed on my frown and chest, occasionally letting loose trickles of salty liquid, which wound their way teasingly down my skin before disappearing into the sand. A fly hopped about restlessly on my belly. During the day, the only assaults on my senses had been of the most basic and extreme nature - thirst, hunger, heat, incessant physical work and my already strained tiredness - and their collective effect had been to clear my mind of all thoughts except those necessary to the basic task of surviving. Consequently, when the struggle was given time off at night, my mind, stripped of every trace of superfluous emotion, was left free to re-enter a higher plane of thought, which this time reasserted itself in a completely fresh way, uncluttered by any triviality of thought or emotion. I couldn't decide whether it was total sensory deprivation or overload that I was feeling, for they both seemed the same to me.
As I lay prostrate on the ground, my spine started to tingle, the sensation creeping up my back and then down into my legs. I felt my nerves sparkling, my every muscle twitching and each and every pulse from my heart radiating gently outwards through my body until I felt that I was conscious of even the very last cells in my toes. The throbbing pain of exhaustion gradually ebbed away as my thirst became tolerable and my fantasy finally became utterly tangible reality. I had stared at the sky a thousand times before, yet this night, it possessed the most captivating brilliance. Above me hung an intricate and glorious tapestry, intricate in its minutest detail and glorious in its overwhelming vastness, a vastness matched only by the desert. The haloed moon's lips smiled serenely across unimagined billions of stars, and I felt as though I could reach out and touch each and every one of them. The bright constellations of Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Orion had long since been engulfed in a myriad other stars and galaxies, all equally as bright and awesome, shining in every colour and intensity conceivable. The Milky Way slit the desert sky with a luminescent carpet of gently twinkling gemstones, from bloodstone to emerald, aquamarine to moonstone. A giant meteor flew blazing across the sky, exploding near the horizon in a gentle sparkle of confusion. It was the first time I'd ever seen a meteor.
I closed my eyes. Except for my own breathing and the occasional howl of a lone jackal in the distance, the world lay shrouded in silence. Intently, I listened to the air rush down my throat and plunge into my lungs, only to linger a while before slowly being expelled back up into the sky. My breathing slowed and my mind concentrated ever more intensely on the phrase that I had most often heard in the Sahara. You're mad. You're mad! The accusation replayed itself faster and faster inside my head, like reverberations from an iron bar being run along railings, until the phrase became nothing more than the distant silent echo of something that I no longer was. I saw milky ripples on a pond after the first drop has fallen.
After a while my lungs ached so much that I unconsciously reversed my breathing and began hyperventilating. The faster and deeper I breathed, the more I became hypnotised. It was like two people sucking and blowing down both ends of the same straw, sharing the same airs of hope and friendship. Images of the last few days flashed before my closed eyelids - flickering candlelight moonscapes - the nomad camel-herders whose lives I was briefly sharing - a young child grinning a gap-toothed smile - incandescent skeletons - an oasis and its crazy profusion of life - a grave strewn with thistles - the feelings of desperation, of frustration and of a great excitement - the leer of a camel - images of endless tracts of sand - of my sweat playing on the handlebars - of laughing and dancing and shouting - of the sun beating relentlessly down from the merciless sky... Faster and faster and faster these images of madness came flooding back, until my body was left quaking in the spinning reflections of the shadows of my mind. I stopped, suddenly, panting, and opened my eyes to gaze once more at the heavens as my pounding heart raced oxygen through my veins and I realised that I was crying, and I realised... and I realised that I was laughing.
I felt as though I were leaving behind some uniquely earthbound force called gravitation, called insanity. Insanity was no longer even relative but hopelessly irrelevant. In its place was an intense love of life, a love that, far from being passive, had as its heart the childlike fascination of the unknown. Without my love of endless self-exploration, and exploration of the world I find myself in, the very foundations to my life would become stale, rotten, rancid. I felt that if I died that night, it would have been the most perfect ending to anyone's life.
For three hours I lay thus awake, too engrossed even to reach over to the last full bottle of water to ease my throat. Then, all of a sudden, I felt sleepy. I rolled over on the sand, closed my eyes, and fell asleep.
The sun rose quickly over the eastern sands, blinding my vision in a kaleidoscope of shimmering yellow and golden rays, throwing long pointed shadows over the dunes. Although today I had especial reason to dread the sun, there was something very reassuring about it. I remembered thinking last night that the sunset might have been the last that I would ever see. I looked again to my left and saw the blazing sun rise once more up into the sky. The sun rises and the sun falls, but then it rises again. The sun, for all its brutal harshness, represented the only constancy over all the formless madness of the desert. It is the cruellest of all paradoxes.
Breakfast consisted of the remaining peanuts and dry biscuits. I had half a litre of water remaining, half a litre of urine and no food, and yet I felt strangely calm and relaxed, even lucid. I not only realised my own insignificance, but that the responsibility for my life lay entirely in my own hands, my own legs, my head and my heart, and in nothing and nobody else. I realised that I, and I alone, held the responsibility for my fate and my future. That only I had the power to continue my life. The strangest feeling at that moment was to realise that the only reason remaining for my existence was quite simply to survive.
I felt an immense pride. There was no way in the world that this bloody desert was going to claim me without a fight. I was on my own. It had been my own decision to cycle here, on my own volition, my obsession, my pride, and it was entirely up to me to succeed. I promised myself not to drink anything until my collapse, and felt then that I could do anything in the world, anything at all. With a final defiant shout to the desert and the sun (in fact, it was probably rather more of a croak), I climbed on to my bike and started pedalling towards the south. The ground seemed to speed past as I flew over it, and I was surprised at my temporary and final burst of strength, the last reprieve of dehydration. On and on I surged, ploughing through sands that would yesterday have been impossible. For a change, I was moving at much the same speed as the following wind, which made for a deathly silence superimposed only by the whirring and clicking of the bike, my own grunting and panting and the occasional rustle of pebbles being thrown up in the air behind me.
The sun had been directly overhead for quite some time when a white speck slowly appeared from out of the mirages on the horizon. I stopped cycling and stared in silence, as disbelieving tears trickled down my cheeks.