Notes from the road – SKELETONS FROM THE ZAHARA

Posted by on Mar 22, 2001 | 0 comments

In the Footsteps of Riley, October 2001

What lies below is the barely edited, only slightly expurgated day-by-day journal of my research expedition to the Sahara to retrace the route of the crew of the Connecticut merchant brig Commerce shipwrecked here in 1815 as they worked their way across the desert to freedom.

Half of the crew of eleven, plus a working passenger, would not make it. I had only the roughly drawn maps of the sailors who wrote memoirs. And as it would turn out, though I had permission to follow this route from one branch of the Moroccan government, the national police and the Army would prevent me from going inland as long as I was in Western Sahara.

While little came off as I had planned, in the end I had learned a whole lot more than I expected. It didn’t help that I had scheduled the whole trip a year in advance of 9-11 for the week following 9-11. The crew’s fate was determined partly by chance, partly according to how each man responded to the situation. This had fascinated me for some time, and I was here to learn more to better understand how they saved their lives or how they wilted under the privation, cruelty, alienation, and brutal elements.

The trip was made using Land Rovers and camels. We covered about 100 miles on the camels and the rest in the Land Rovers. The trip was immensely helpful in my writing Skeletons on the Zahara.

ZaharaMap

A 17th century map of the Sahara tracing Rilley’s and Robbin’s routes.

 

Day One: New York City
Day Two: Casablanca to Laayoune
Day Three: Laayoune to Dakhla
Day Four: Dakhla to Boujdour
Day Five: Seguia el Hamra I
Day Six: Seguia el Hamra II
Day Seven: Mohammed’s Home
Day Eight: Tarfaya
Day Nine: Life on a Camel
Day Ten: A Day of Wandering
Day Eleven: The Dooda Day
Day Twelve: Life Without Mohammed
Day Thirteen: Getting to Know Ali
Day Fourteen: The Last Camel Ride
Day Fifteen: The Hotel Uneasy
Day Sixteen: Agadir
Day Seventeen: Essaouira to Marrakech
Day Eighteen: The End

 

Day One

Saturday, October 6, 2001: New York City.

J.P. Kang, my technology guru and friend, and I have a 12-hour layover in New York City before flying to Casablanca, laying over 14 hours, and flying to Laayoune, Western Sahara. This gives me the chance to visit the New York Historical Society to look at Riley’s manuscript. Raw Riley is better than edited Riley for my purposes and, I think, a more likeable, real sea captain.

Notes from the New York Historical Society:

In a letter addressed “Dear Doctor,” last page diffe dated Sept 1883 same hand, Willima W Riley? writes: “None of the original crew was ever rescued. Sidi Hamet lost his life trying to rescue them.”

Signed James [Illegible]

First page starts: “ . . . the sequel which I have published . . .”

In Riley manuscript a pasted-in letter from Riley dated 20 February 1817 presenting the manuscript to Hon. Pintard Esquire &lbquo;with a request that it may be deposited with the manuscripts belonging to the New York Historical Society. A note from Pintard, I can’t fully read. Manuscript in Riley’s hand with editing over top. Appears to be source for book. Light to medium editing in firm, dark pen. Actually very light editing for word choice and slight wordiness primarily.

No. 17 “I began to encourage and press them” changed by ed. to “I began to exhort and press them.” Thus ed. made melodramatic. R. less prone to this. Also usually calls the crew: “the mates and the men,” not things like “my companions.”

No. 33 p 2: Re: Hogan (I think) Riley writes, “I saw the lash enter his flesh to the bones at every stroke.&rbquo; Ed. watered down to:I saw the blows fall on his emaciated and mangled frame.

No. 123, p 4: a note about repressing material about the Jews. Two previous pages (apparently a diatribe on Jewish merchants) are deleted.

Chpt XXVIII: “Having recovered my strength. . .

J.P. and I meet Ted and Claudia at Kennedy Airport. They are veteran Third World travelers, and Ted is going to take digital video of the journey. Ted was my next-door neighbor growing up. He and Claudia are recently married. In good spirits, we drink a few beers at an airport bar waiting for the flight.

 

Day Two

Sunday, October 7: Casablanca to Laayoune.

I prefer a more go-it-on-your-own travel, but this trip comes with handlers. This has its immediate advantages. Jouwad, the outfitters representative, meets us at the gate and introduces us to Fouad, our driver. He takes us to our hotel, where we shower, and then escorts us around the city in his black Mercedes with a reclining back seat. We are constantly amazed by the collision courses with cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians and collisions narrowly avoided. At a busy intersection, Fouad shines the Mercedes door on the backside of a guy cleaning his car.

Casablanca is a squalid city with shanties behind mud walls and burning sewage. But also with King Hassan II mosque, third biggest in the world after those in Mecca and Medina and with the tallest minaret, 200 meters. It is built over top of the city’s pounding surf and is an eerie combination of high-tech and tradition, with titanium-brass sliding electric doors, polished marble, mosaics, and carved wooden screens to hide the women behind. Beneath are Turkish baths and Moroccan baths and ablution rooms with rows of mushroom-like marble fountains for washing. Walls are made of Venetian stucco: lime, egg, etc., which is good at absorbing humidity. Our guide is a slim, shifty cynic, very clever, a natural hustler if he weren’t giving English-language tours of the mosque.

One gets the feeling that all of this is done for its propaganda value. Most mosques are closed to “non-believers.” This one is cavernous and sterile feeling. All the gadgets and materials seem there to impress. The guide speaks with unselfconscious haughtiness, certain at our wonder and astonishment, certain that this is proof of Islam’s superiority.

On our drive afterwards along the shore we see the king of Saudi Arabia’s summer houses, side by side, one for his French wife, one for his Saudi wife. And King Mohammed II’s Casablanca house, as well as a modern Catholic cathedral made of concrete and colored glass and one of the 33 synagogues here, both most notable simply for their presence.

5:00 P.M.: We return to our rooms for a nap, a second shower and the news that the United States has begun bombing Afghanistan. Tony Blair speaks for the Allies. In German Type below the screen but not in English, the ticker news reports that Bin Laden has declared that the war against Jews and Christians has begun. We are in a country that is 90% Muslim, but not a sign of antipathy.

6:00 P.M.: We gather in the hotel lobby for a pow-wow with Jouwad. &ldquo:It will take an extra day to get to Dakhla,” he says. Then, “The boat will take three days” (we had one day in the itinerary). “It is 240 miles.” “No, it is 81 miles,” I say, quoting the Africa Pilot. We consult my tourist map and settle on 110 miles. “But the drive from Laayoune to Dakhla will take only 6 or 7 hours,” he says. “Then we must drive through the night,” I say. This goes on and on. There is a discussion about the boat being paid for in advance, which Jouwad claims it has been (…time would prove it hadn’t). He goes sanctimonious about how business is done in Morocco assuring us that it has. “Why was I repeatedly told that we could do it in a day if it will take three days?” I ask.

Sensing the subterfuge, Ted gets confrontational. He is even more of a hothead than I am, which I must be mindful of.

“I am telling you reality,” is Jouwad’s reply.

On the way to the airport, I tell the others I think it is a bluff. We could paddle there in three days. There is no place to stop, even if it would take three days. Why is he testing us? He also says we can’t go 50 miles in a day on the camels. I argue this. Basically all the promises Hamid made on the phone in our negotiations over details have been called into question. At an impasse with Jouwad, we reach a truce invoking the words “In shallah,” “God willing.”

8:20 p.m.: We meet Remi, the photographer, just in from Paris, in the airport. He seems amusing and easygoing, at least on the surface. J.P. is a great travel companion, stoic, into his electronic gadgets, asleep sitting up right now.

 

Day Three

Monday, October 8: Laayoune to Dakhla.

4:30 A.M.: We get up to drive into the desert. Those of us who came from the States have slept about four hours in the past 36, but while the others slouch in the back, I am wired as we enter the desert, the headlights illuminating the moonscape around us, which will never seem so mysterious as it does right now. Achmet, our driver concentrates on the road as Arabic stringed music blares from the Land Rover stereo to keep him awake.

9:00 A.M.: We arrive in the town of Bojador, charmless concrete shells of buildings with sewage burning in the gutters, and drive down to the docks. This is where I am supposed to sail from and there is no boat bigger than a fishing dinghy. There are dozens of them, each with five benches, little wooden dinghies. The boats are moved by mules and carts with car tires. There is no sailboat of the type I need this side of the Canary Islands. I have paid Hamid $1,500 to get a boat here. I am incredulous that after all our planning, including prepaid cash, he never arranged to have a boat delivered. When I ask to go out in a dinghy to survey the coast, they say the surf is too rough. They won’t go out no matter what I am willing to pay. I walk on the concrete and stone jetty that creates their harbor. A soldier stationed at the point holds a gun swaddled in rags and packing tape over his shoulder. He takes a drag on a butt and the smoke is a relief to smell in the deathly stench of desiccated fish guts. Okay, so we will drive to Cape Barbas.

10:00 A.M.: Just stopped on spectacular bluffs S of Cape Boujdor. Drop of at least 100 feet, very steep and rocky at top. Wind blowing so hard that you can only talk from a foot away. Sea is green for half a mile out turning dark blue. Big cloud passes like a Zeppelin over the sea, casting opaque shadows. I think of them as schools of ravenous fish moving through the water. A dark-skinned old man with a punched face, wearing a colorful robe and shesh posed for Remi like a peacock.

10:20 A.M.: Sand stinging back of legs as we walk down in half mile of hummocky dunes to eastern bluff. This is just around the bend from the last canyon and closed but to the sea. The bush catches sand and is buried alive, sticking up brown and gray and crisp, buried like bones. I am looking at two wrecks, a small tanker in the distance S and mast tops of a fishing schooner in the fore. The sand blowing across the beach makes it alive shimmering, ghastly, reflecting light. Both are Moroccan, this probably a sardine boat wrecked for probably two decades. My shoes are filled with sand. I stand on plankton-covered rocks at low tide looking up at the green to rust to white-pitted metal hull, watching a gull blown backward land nonchalantly on the stern mast. It serves as a metaphor for this desert coast, going backwards but taking it in stride. At any time you can see four rows of breakers. We come with plans, programs, agendas, and schedules to be met. I shake Jouwad’s hand vigorously thankful that he has brought me to this place and to show him I understand now.

12:40 P.M.: Still driving S on this endless road. Just before Dakhla 219 road marker, we see our first pure dunes in piles that pop off the russet landscape like a Matisse cutout of a Delacroix. This fades to more dirty tan, rock-strewn plain on either side with heather-colored scrub brush. Berber music throbbing and twanging from tape player keeps Achmet awake at the wheel. We are on one lane of pavement suddenly facing an 18-wheel flatbed. At the last second, it pulls one side over on the shoulder and we pull one side on the shoulder and we scoot by each other. This is repeated again and again. Dakhla 209, see a “sandnado” racing across to E.

1:20 P.M.: At Noadihibu 556, we hang a left onto the desert, drive half a mile to a line of acacia trees (food for camels) and park for lunch under an tree. The crew of six puts down mats and rugs and mattresses with a round wooden tabletop in the middle. We listen on Ted and Claudia’s short-wave radio to the news of the bombardment of El Queda targets in Afghanistan and the riots in Pakistan and Gaza. Iran and Iraq have objected. Turkey supporting. Egypt “concerned” at civilian suffering.

J.P. has me set up on his camera bag with a Berber pillow to the side and a jacket over the computer and my head to keep light and sand out. The raw powerful elements here must be felt to be appreciated. The wind howling near the water is deafening, as is the surf in some places. The beaches just S of Cape Bojador could well be the beaches where the Commerce wrecked. We covered about 180 miles this morning and made three stops.

4:20 P.M.: Dakhla 150… The landscape is more sparsely populated and looks older and drier down here, more deeply carved. We passed an immense wadi system called Oued Craa ten or fifteen miles. There are fewer people here; before lunch we saw random walkers crossing the horizon from time to time. Now there is no one. At Dakhla 129: to E a shallow canyon whose floor is sand dunes that look like a glacier, dropping off to W into emptiness over the sea like a glacier, dusted white with sand.

4:45 P.M.: Dakhla 109: We pass a hovel town of cinderblock, plywood, canvas on the flat ledge above the sea. Would expect to see tumbleweed around here but anything that can tumble is either caught and burnt by the nomads, sandblasted to powder by the northeast wind, or swept over the edge into the Atlantic, as if under a giant rug.

Dakhla 105: Sand piles to E, 100 yards from bluff over the sea. A crumbled Stonehenge. After lunch saw a Great Pyramid. You can see whatever you want here in its desolate twin.

5:30 P.M.: We stop on the cliffs by a fishing shanty village (D92), similar to the one we passed earlier . I accompany Mohammed as he searches for tea. We pass a patchwork tent of canvas, plastic held down by fishing net and rocks. The floor is dirt. There are another dozen and a half and a dozen dogs. The men and a boy greet us, shaking hands and tapping hearts. They show us their 16-inch loup de mer, which they have caught with long poles after descending 200 feet to the caved-in strata boulders below. “You want them for dinner?” they ask, displaying the fish in the back of a truck under a piece of canvas, not an ice cube for 50 miles. The men and a boy surround me close in. Mohammed somehow talks us out of the group and back to the Rovers. I stick close by him.

There Mohammed grabs hold of a fisherman’s rope and lowers himself over the cliff face. He bounds down a steep face of fallen stone and sand above the breakers, and I momentarily wonder if he is suicidal. I wasn’t going to over the north-facing ledge until I thought of Riley. I had to overcome my fear and descend the cliff by the tangled-sea-tackle rope attached in the sand somehow beneath a pile of stone. I knew only that the fishermen, and Mohammed, trusted in this rope. I could see their footprints below and their trampled fishing perches. Scaled a twenty-foot vertical with good footholds that can also be hand crushers if you are not careful. At the bottom of this you can go left or right or straight ahead 150 feet down to spumy boulders. Where a fallen ledge standing on end creates an open-air cave, I head left. Here the desert had generously deposited tons of sand to make the descent to the fishing perches easier. The NE trade wind, the homeward wind for American sailors, has filled the crevasses with sand and powdered the sedimentary strata as well. I ski downward two-Rockports at a time to the craggy fishing seat, which is littered with muscle shells and the heads and bones of wasted bait.

6:00 P.M.: Having been stopped at half a dozen mud-bunker guard stands along the highway to show passports and tell the names of our mothers and fathers, it is at the final stop just above the Dakhla peninsula where we got the shaft. It all starts to go bad when the pencil-necked gendarme behind the typewriter asks me the usual questions, including name of parents, and I realize he is looking at Ted’s passport. He calls Ted in, yanks the paper out of the typewriter, and balls it up.

We play with the black and white and liver-colored puppies, identify constellations, and spot three satellites before Achmet brings us to the local gas station café.

8:10 P.M.: Two hours later we are still in this miserable spot with a loud TV blaring war news in Arabic.&nbbsp; At least we have hot café au lait. We watch hazy war images and wait for a “message” concerning us. Achmet is with the gendarmes trying to get approval for us to move into the “very restricted” area south of Dahkla. I could almost crash where I sit, eyes are sagging seriously.

Three hours later instead of going to our tent and dinner we are escorted into Dahkla, where we are interrogated by the Royal Gendarmes and the Army.

After our ordeal, we check into a hotel. Jouwad with a quivering jaw tells me they have taken his identity card, and we might have to cancel this part of the trip. I know he isn’t fooling around when he tries to get his cigarette to his mouth and it clatters back and forth on his lip. He needs only kind words. “Look, Jouwad, as long as you are trying hard for me it is not a problem,” I say.

 

Day Four

October 9: Dakhla to Boujdor.

In the morning, the news is all bad. We have been refused permission to go to Cape Barbas and been told that we will not be allowed to go into the interior, where they say all the paths are landmined. Furthermore, the proverbial police escort is following us to the county line.

11:00 A. M.: Leaving town we are stopped at a checkpoint. Just before J.P. puts his video camera to the window to film, the sharp-suited and capped gendarme is arguing with two furious Sub-Saharans. A whole car caravan waits to head S, and there is much confusion. All spit-polished, controlled wrath, a peacock with an audience, the gendarme is in his element. When he engages in this stare down of the shouting, gesticulating going-nowhere man, J.P. can’t resist the urge to shoot. No sooner than J.P. raises the camera, a gendarme inside the guard hut, sees him and shouts at us.

The stiff-necked, puffed-up gendarme outside now looks through the back window of our Land Rover with opaque eyes. His bristly Saddam mustache marching on his lip as he shouts at us. Though frightened, we sit impassively. Then he says, apparently to amuse himself, “Tell me a story.” After 24 hours of polizei, gendarme, militaire and 2ieme Bureau harassment, J.P., an Old Testament scholar can only silently sway his jaw. Now the gendarme is amused. “Tell me a funny story,” he demands even more emphatically, the difference between the gendarme and the white scorpion, common on the Sahara, being that the scorpion doesn’t sting you for fun.

“You are a student? How do you say, a researcher?” the gendarme, who has read J.P.’s passport, says. He agrees. “You are doing research on Moroccan gendarmes,” the gendarme states, the twitching in his face indicating the expected payoff. “Moroccan duanes are not nice,” he says. “Moroccan Polizei are not nice. Moroccan gendarmes are not nice, especially ones with mustaches in Dakhla!”

We force laughter. He suppresses a smug grin. With relief, we perceive that he has reaped his reward from the encounter.

Just before Laayoune 400: is one of my favorite sights here, seen on the way down, the white sand desert between shallow canyon walls with dark strata at top appears to flow right off the edge of the world, as if it were trying to fill the sea. The steel-blue endless sea horizon.

Noon: We stop where the sea has carved a deep ravine into the coast. On both sides, the bluffs tower 250 feet above the beach, but here the sand covered boulders allow one to slip gradually down. I follow the sole tracks of a man and a goat winding into the vortex until they arrive at a steep rocky fissure. I go down hand over foot to a ledge. I peer over …nothing, no footholds, no ledges …nothing but sand 20 feet below and the continuing footprints of the man and the beast. I search the sides of this ravine and find heads of petrified coral at least 100 feet above the sea. In one fold of the ravine wall, the loud drone of the sea is cut off from the direct route but reflects to my ears from the back wall and then from the front wall making the sound you hear inside a shell.

3:25 P.M. : Passing the sand dunes we saw yesterday that look like sleeping crescent moons lying on their sides.

Jouwad, who had gotten permissions for us in the first place at the capital of the S, Laayoune, is still visibly angry, shaken, sad. “They had six of them all asking me questions at the same time, like I was from the Polisario. They are stupid. They know who we are. We signed in at every stop. I was down here a month ago getting permission. Now they say they don’t know who we are. They know about the story for National Geographic. They don’t care.” We left Foum-something, outside of Laayoune, yesterday after a 4:30 am wakeup. I went to sleep last night at 1:30 without dinner. Got up this morning at 7:30 and had two cups of café au lait for breakfast. Now we eat lamb tagine in a Muslim filled gas station cafe with two TVs showing war scenes and protests while men in the cafe pray in two open-door prayer rooms beside the bathroom with a squat hole and a faucet. The attendant doles out soap powder for the sink. Now I need a 10 minute snooze before Boujdor where we will take a fishing boat our to look at the coast.

6:35 P.M.: The molten-sand sun just set a tad S of W from Boujdor. We are camping behind the beach on the northern edge of town, and I am just contemplating where the wreck might have been. The only place that seems to fit with Riley’s picture would seem to be the beaches S of here. There are no bluffs here by the town. Today had its frustrations …we were again denied the boat, the seas were too rough …but I am at peace with myself, whatever happens here. I am sitting on a rock with a pile of conk shells, snail shells and sturdy russet-and-white clamshells to take home to my girls.

Earlier, in the town of Boujdor I was harassed for the first time by a large ash-colored teenager and his friend. “Are you French? English?” they ask me as I look at a week-old Figaro.

“American,” I say, without qualms, though I sense a hustle.

“What do you think of this guy?” the big one asks, pointing to a photograph of Osama bin Laden in an Arabic magazine.

“He’s not a friend of mine,” I reply, still not getting it.

“I like him very much,” the youth declares.

I walk away. The collective unease begins to tell on us. When I return to the Land Rover, we argue about the boy’s true intent. The others try to downplay his Osama Bin Laden comment to me and this makes me mad. We are coming apart at the seams.

 

Day Five

Wednesday, October 10, 2001: Boujdor to Seguia el Hamra.

9:10 A.M.: We cannot so much as ride in a fishing boat down here. The colonel of the post, who speaks English and attended college near Reno visited us last night and said we could go out in the boat today, but this morning he says we also need approval of the Caid, who cannot see us until later. The police car is still here. The men slept overnight in the car.

11:40 A.M.: We take the Land Rover across the riddled desert between the road and sea N of Faux Barbas. At about .5 miles from an opening between two bluffs, I get out and jog to an abandoned fishing village of stone and block. The beach is narrow stone and sand with many small polished stones some of which I gathered for the girls. I walk on giant smooth white stones like turtles’ backs beneath the vertical cliff, which only a desperate man would attempt to climb without equipment. This part is only passable when the tide is out. I have reached an impasse. I wave and wave to the Land Rover on the bluff to the N, where I told them I would meet them. I cannot get there. Apparently they do not see me.

Passing back through the village, I am confronted by a lone man, who suddenly emerges from one of the buildings.

“Are there others nearby?“ he asks.

“Yes,” I lie, beating a hasty retreat.

They are still there when I reach the trailing Rover, which is waiting by the road. I think and hope it’s our Rover. But it’s only frowning Jouwad. I had headed for it only because the other Rover on the bluff was out of sight and so I thought they might have returned to the road. My heels and toes are chewed up from running in Rockports with no socks. But thank God I ran because I was able to follow the Rockport tracks back and I would have otherwise been lost. They are terrified of landmines even though there are lots of footpaths and tire tracks. I stayed on these zigzagging back the whole way.

3:00 P.M.: We eat a late lunch near Laayoune behind a dune. The gendarmes (blue on blue with red star badges with a crown in the middle) watch from across the road. “We have a saying,” Jowad says. “When the stomach is happy, it tells the head to sing.”

Afterwards we head into Laayoune to meet with head of tourism, El Khaloufi El Mana, Delegue du Tourisme, BP 471 Laayoune. He is a quiet and intelligent guy, married to an Ouled Bou Sbaa. His father was a warlord of sorts whose Reguibat men fought for the French in Vietnam. He had wives here, in Mauritania, and Algeria. El Khaloufi has siblings all over. He looks at the Riley picture of the wreck site and says he knows it exactly, S of Bojador 20 or 30 kilometers. They have a path down the bluff Riley shows.

After meeting with El Khaloufi we drive to the souk and buy laelthamine, long swaths of blue cloth, “ shushes,” which Mohammed helps us tie around our heads, Sahara fashion. I give some curious kids in the souk the colorful pens I have brought. This makes them beg even harder. I start to get irritated. Then they ask me “Where from?” “America,” I say.

”Ah, Bush,”they say laughing. “ Bomb. Boom. Boom. Ha, ha!”

Adult eyes begin to turn our way. We soon make a hasty exit.

In the late afternoon, we enter the Seguia el Hamra, at a remarkable spot by the oasis Lemseid, like a shallow Grand Canyon. To the SW the canyon disappears in rippling waves of sand in infinite regression. It is a sight that lifts our spirits. There are some people on a blanket drinking tea. They come from the city to the desert just to have tea.

“They must have the sand, ”Achmet, our very good driver, who is going to swap me some music for something, tells us. “Some former nomads living in cities fill their terraces with sand so that they can pitch a tent there to have tea.”

Around tea before dinner, Jouwad explains that on the desert if you have a visitor, you kill your only goat (the least valuable of animals, meaning you have nothing else at all), to feed them. Your trust in God so much that you know “in Shallah” he will feed you the next day.

El Khaloufi comes out to the Seguia and joins us for dinner and brings me the book Estudios Sharaignos by Julio Caro Baroja. He says he will take me to the beach pictured in Riley’s drawing and we will drink camel milk at his cousin’s place on the way. By the end of dinner he seems to be backing off a bit. (Ted always notices these things.) He was born on the Sahara. We almost managed to buy wine tonight. Instead, Jouwad and Mohammed make tea, and we sip it staring at the red coals and talking to El Khaloufi. Mohammed says nomads always drink three cups of tea (Chinese green). The first is the strongest, the second the best, the third the weakest. We need all three after the pains of the last couple days. He pours in a big stream.

Jouwad talks about the acceptance of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Morocco. In Marrakech a major mosque is fronted and backed by a synagogue and a church.

11:45 P.M.: We are bivouacked in the Seguia el Hamra under the Northern Cross and the Southern Cross. I will not sleep in the rubber-smelling individual tents but on the rug in the open-fronted Berber tent, where I scribble by the lantern now. The Seven Sisters, Taurus and now Orion rise above our bright yellow outhouse. This is our second night of camping and my second without a shower but the dry air wicks the moisture away. Even though I ran today I am not sticky anywhere.

Mohammed is sleeping here too. He and I talk a good bit using French, Spanish, and Arabic. “Hogar,” he says, tapping my shoulder. “Look.” He is animated, wheezy, funny and friendly. In the job space of his national ID card, it reads: “sans.” He has a wife and a three-year-old daughter and a different name on ID card than he told us. He says his father told him that whenever he saw a shooting star, someone had died. When he saw a bright one, it was a great man. Mohammed tells me he has two brothers (out of five) in the Polisario, one in Cuba learning to fly, a chilling fact, and four sisters, one in Mauritania, also Polisario. He also has two brothers in the Moroccan army.

 

Day Six

Thursday, October 11: Seguia el Hamra.

Seguia el Hamra means “red channel,” supposedly because the walls of the river valley are red, according to one of my sources. But they are not red, at least not that I saw. Mohammed offers a more plausible reason; because of the many battles the nomads fought here. But then I think who the hell would fight over this? We cross the actual riverbed of the famous Seguia el Hamra in the center of this valley. It is a groove barely as high or as wide as our Land Rover. I ask Mohammed if there are any rivers in Western Sahara with water. He says, yes, there is one down near Mauritania. It is about 45 kilometers long.

Note to self: The Grand Plate is Couscousou River?

At last this is what I came to see. Ugly desert, a mind-field of ankle-breaking black stones. This is what Riley described. Despite my bum ankles …a legacy of organized and playground basketball… I get out and run on it. Then I lie down on it with no shirt on to see what it felt like for Riley to sleep on. It is pain that I have sought long and hard to experience. The place is so empty and exposed that even the clouds in the distance are a welcome sight, even though if they don’t and won’t ever provide any shelter. Our bag of gorp feels like the riches of the world here. You cannot imagine more dire nothingness.

At 10:40 A.M.: At the meeting of Oued Share, which isn’t on the map, about 60 kilometers inland, we see a mother and a baby camel. The baby sleeps in mother’s shadow. Mohammed approaches using signs because camels won’t listen to people they don’t know. Camels won’t give their milk unless they want to. Thus, the person who milks the camel is important. Camels lie down when they want to cut a babe off. Jackals attack just after the camels go to sleep when the mothers are tired.

Mohammed is a camel-racing instructor on his third wife. He likes to holler like a baby camel on steroids and dance. Or he’ll holler, “Whoa, Pater (for J.P., which he cannot say easily), ca va?” His father was a mercenary for Franco and then for the French in Algeria. When I ask, he tells me that Arabs on the desert drink camel urine for four reasons. The first three are medicinal …for gum infections and toothaches; for stomach ailments; as an antidote to poison …and they drink only the urine of a female at least three-months pregnant (it takes that long for them to know the female is pregnant; gestation lasts 12 mos.). The fourth and only other reason they drink camel urine is because they are really thirsty. Then any camel urine will do.

At the opening of the Share …where Riley might have stood and believed the width of the oued to be eight miles, as he writes in his narrative “…we see a hill with a monument.” I get out and run over the stones in the hard backed earth. Mohammed tells me, “Walk on stones,” Mohammed tells me. ”Good for stomach. Sharp stones very good.”

I climb the hill. It is the graves of three children, at least three decades old because they now have to bury their dead in nearest town. Muslims are buried on sides facing Mecca. Stones mark foot and head, in some places a female is marked by a stone on the stomach. A bowl on one grave is for pouring precious henna on the babe. Gray, spiky brush lies nearby a large pile of stones. Wood for burning is precious here, but no one will take it for fire because it has been used to keep jackals off the graves. All we see is camels, one tent of a camel keeper. We stop at a camel skeleton, neck arched back at the rise of a hill it could not climb. It still has its long eyelashes and wrinkled hide that sounds like a fiberglass canoe when you tap it. Bright white flat ribs. Mouth agape in a silent scream.

12:30 P.M.: Another long, good morning given the circumstances. We drove 47 kilometers into the Seguia to find a Bou Sbaa home and there I was told the tribal history by a noble of that tribu , who happened to have his own slave, a black teenage boy. As soon as we brought out our video camera, they made the boy go in a back room. At one point, he said, “Now that I have told you about the Bou Sbaa, tell me something I don’t know about Morocco, something you have discovered.”

5:00 P.M.: Heading back to Boubka, we haul ass over the hard sand …I check the speedometer, 90 km/hr, until we reach a spot where it is all hacked up. A camel bath, where the camels have layed down in the sand and churned it up.

Tonight we celebrate Remi’s birthday with wine and a cake, and he seems way pleased. He tells me his girlfriend thanked me for taking care of him. The guides dress up a donkey in an outfit for some tomfoolery.

 

Day Seven

Friday, October 12, 2001: In the Seguia el Hamra.

Idris Asgaugh had 12 sons. He divided the grand Morocco …the Maghreb …including Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Libya, into 12 parts. They fought. The oldest, named Mohammed, was not content. He went to Tlimsane in Algeria, where he joined the tribe Brabcha and became a Mussleman. He did nothing but study the Koran and studied so hard that he became magic. The Brabcha came to his house and demanded he serve him a sheep, as is the custom. He said no. He didn’t want to. He turned the sheep into lions. He had seven children. He came to the Sahara. He started to fight the Portuguese. He divided the land for his 17 sons.

We visit the oasis at Lemseid, which now part of a rustic outdoor hotel, and then go into Laayoune. Then we load into Achmet’s Land Rover. I started talking to him about cures. He shows me the scars on the meat of his forearms and the top of his head, also on his ankles where he was burned to cure his stomach problem, four years, five months ago. He was then tapped with a hot stake on his shins and elbows. This, he promises, saved his life, and he does this to his children now when they are sick.

I am amazed because Riley mentioned this form of medical treatment in 1815. I thought it bizarre even then. But today it is almost inconceivable.

Noon: We are in Mohammed’s home with his sister, wife and his sisters’ two children. We drink tea made over a charcoal brassier. They serve nuts and dates and give us small gifts, a decorated skin bag and a decorated pencil. Achmet and I go to return a book to El Khaloufi and sudeenly the Royal Gendarmes pull us over. They are worried because the others, whom we had left behind at Mohammed’s are not with us. They are watching us. Achmet seemed rather charged that Minster of the Interior has put out an a.p.b. that we should be protected and helped wherever we go. He has a lot of spirit and more than once shakes his head at Jouwad’s pusillanimity, saying, “You cannot live in fear.” (He was sent home soon after, leaving us with an uncommunicative driver.)

After dropping off the book and bidding adieu to Mohammed’s family (I give Mohammed’s niece a watch …she beams), we go to the home of the patriarch of the Bou Sbaa’s we met in the Seguia el Hamra for another tea ceremony. The boys kiss the hands of the old men after shaking hands. The old men are shown much respect even by our guides. Claudia is ushered off to be with the women, who shower her with gifts, gowns, bowls, and bracelets.

I, as guest of honor, sit next to the patriarch, who shows pictures of his sisters and brothers, who like him were Mujadeen against the Spanish. They tell me that he is a very honored scholar and will be buried with 50 relatives around him. But the small 18 th c. English book that an Englishman gave him and that he was going to show me turned out to be …after he carefully unwrapped it from a pouch …the dog-eared business card of journalist, Michael Griffin. He tells me that when the Ouled Bou Sbaa came to the desert, they were the peacemakers. If there was a dispute, between two tribes, they would give sheep, goats, camels, and blankets to the aggrieved to make all all right. (Contrast this with Ali’s story about the Bou Sbaa!)

When it comes to the Riley story, the Ouled Bou Sbaa grandpere says that he knew a story like the one I was talking about. He says it was the chief, Sidi Mbara, who ordered that the Americans be taken to Essaouira. I absorb the atmosphere while Remi plots something sinister with a young Turk (not literally) in the corner.

They ask us many times to stay for dinner but we refuse. Leaving, we are led by a Royal Gendarme GMC with blue lights flashing to a place where we have been told we can not start our camel caravan.

“You are the only Americans in this province,” Achmet assures us.

6:30 P.M.: We are bivouacked on the beach. I am sitting on the beach N of Tarfaya near the rusted out hull of a fishing trawler. It is wrecked bow-first like the Commerce and is lying on its port side open to the N wind. Two blue-robed mujadeen on white camels just rode up. Their faces are hidden behind black laelthamine.

Camel for dinner. Nobody believes me. It is served with potatoes and carrots. Remi, the Frenchman and so our culinary expert, thinks it is mutton. We are a little giddy knowing that we have a 6 A.M. wake up call for our first day of camel riding.

9:00 P.M.: For some reason all the tents are far apart tonight. J.P. is now sleeping in the communal tent with Mohammed and me. Ted and Claudia tune in to BBC news, which I don’t particularly want to hear. Jouwad visits to tell us three good reasons for bigamy. In Islam, a man can have four wives. Here the wife has to go in by herself and request it. 1.) If wife can’t have a child. 2.) Wife is lonely, men travel a lot. 3.) A good woman trying to raise a child needs help and she could use a hand around the house. Jouwad asks me if we saw the two camels beside the road just before Tah, which where the old WS border was. They had been killed by a landmine. I say to Jouwad, “It should get better now that we are out of WS and in Morocco.” He says, “Yes, well, Sahara Occidental is part of Morocco but yes.rdquo;

Mohammed and I talk about many things, including how to choose a good racing camel. Here’s what Mohammed looks for in a camel:

• The foot isn’t too big and the bone connecting the foot to the ankle is short.

• Ankle is long.

• An open chest, elbows wide like a bulldog.

• Pointed ears that stick out a little bit.

11:00 P.M.: With Taurus bright in the sky overhead, we turn in. I can’t help but reflect: Wow, two dead camels by the road before Tah, killed by landmines …one headless, the other gutted.

 

Day Eight

Saturday, October 13, 2001: On the way to Tarfaya, we learn to ride camels.

8:10 A.M.: The camels bark like sea lions as we mount them. They sit. We climb on, in front of the hump. Rising to their feet, they stick their tail end up first so that you are looking down at a 45-degree angle, wondering how long you can hang on before their front end rises. When that happens, you are jolted backwards. I almost flew head over feels off my camel’s rump. The way its legs unfold, you get the feeling you are on some sort of prehistoric creature or a 1960s alien fighting-machine. It is like nothing else.

deansquatting

Dean on the coast in the evening.

Our planned 7:00-7:30 departure finally pulls out. We pass two wrecks and tons of debris and garbage swept onto this north-facing coast. Giant rusted drums, smashed fishing dinghies, a whale carcass, fishing nets, buoys, all arranged in lines by the tide. Crates and cooking oil containers, the refuse of fishing vessels dumped over the side ends up here where it takes on a new life. Valuable items have been dragged up above the tide line for future retrieval. Buoys on poles are staked every so often as if marking some scavenger’s territory. It gives the beach a remote, eerie feeling. One gets the distinct feeling that the laws out here are those of the Wild West or Lord of the Flies. Take something if you dare. It is a scavenger’s paradise. A number of hovels pop up unexpectedly behind dunes. One, made of stone to our great surprise, even has a car out back protected by an automobile slipcover à la middle America, a reminder that the coastal road is just over the western dunes.

11:30 A.M.: Bluffs appear, and shortly after noon, we seek shelter from the sun and wind in the shade of a boulder part way up the bluff. The boulder makes about a 20-foot shelf with a clearance of two feet, just high enough for travelers to seek shelter there from a storm. Both directions offer a sweeping view of beach and the shallow sea. This also would have been a prime place to lay in wait of stranded ships.

Our six fettered camels all hobble over to the same bushy dune to graze. Ants with aluminum-colored tails for reflecting the sun arrive to recon us for the same. We made just 15 kilometers before stopping for lunch. Ironically, with all the tension and emotion we have faced in dealing with the authority’s efforts to derail our expedition, I almost lost it after we got started this morning, when we rode through so much garbage on the dunes. It was a discouraging start. Nevertheless, now we have something to celebrate …being off the camels …with a tea ceremony. Tea is the one of the few comforts you have to look forward to in these austere parts, a comfort Riley did not have. Tea was not ubiquitous in Morocco and on the Sahara then as it is now. Today it is crucial to good morale. Three times we drink, three different strengths of brew, always saying “Besmillah!” whenever we take the cup (“In God’s name!”). Privately, I raise my glass to Riley.

We eat salad Niçoise for lunch with fresh sardines, plus Devil’s mess, which sends two of us directly to the rocks for relief. The camels chew their foul cud and foam at the mouth. This is what we came for. They set down as gently as forklifts with pallets of brick. Naturally, the photographer leaves, just after lunch when we spy a cafe by the highway. In some ways this is just one big expensive photo shoot.

After lunch, we have new energy, and with a morning of riding under our belt, we notch it up a gear. Mohammed goads his camel, and we start to haul ass down the beach. This is disconcerting: imagine sitting on a barstool on a horse while looking out the window of speeding car. Rafts of foam fly back in my face from my camel’s huffing mouth as I hang on for dear life. And then I feel a disturbing sensation. My saddle is slipping to the side. I fight off panic and search for a way to gain control of the situation. But it’s useless. The next thing I know I am heeled over the side of the heedless dashing camel. Then I am staring at his whipsawing legs. Sliding, still sliding. I let go. . . .

Mohammed rides up to me lying stunned on the beach, trying to sense slowly if anything is seriously damaged. If it is, I don’t really want to know. He shouts, “You are okay! Those who fall from camels never get hurt.” Then, “Why are you disturbing me?” Then, “It was your fault.” I do not respond other than to shake my head to clear the cobwebs. This sense that some things are written in stone pervades the culture. Just as our guides in a brief frank discussion about 9/11, say, “Osama couldn’t have done that. He is a Muslim, and a Muslim couldn’t have done it.”

The amazing thing is that when Riley fell from his camel in 1815, his guide said the same thing to him. And I paraphrase: “Riley, if you had fallen from an ass, you would be dead. But since you fell from a camel …camels are sacred …and those who fall from them are never seriously hurt. You are okay. Let’s go.”

3:45 P.M.: My ass on fire, I insist that we stop so that I can get my rug back from Reguibat (a.k.a. Mohammed), which he had swapped with me after lunch for a thinner one. I thought nothing of it at the time, but Mohammed knew what he was doing. These blankets go over a doughnut of straw that surrounds the camel’s hump and provide the only cushion between you and the camel.

4:15 P.M.: I am riding barefoot. Pater slumps in his saddle. With the front end of his ill-fitting round brimmed sun hat cocked up, he makes a stunning Sancho Panza. The lone highway that stretches the length of Western Sahara from Morocco to Mauritania squeezes to the coast and we have to cut across it. After riding on the other side of the road for a while, with all vehicles honking and waving …Mohammed knows every one and, it seems, does illicit trading with most …we are beside the sea again but a hundred feet above the water, the bluff a wall of craggy brown rock. Behind us is a view of repeating points reminding me of Kauai’s Cathedral. I count 19 jutting bluffs, black silhouettes, over boulders and white spume giving to mist. We are riding towards Cape Juby lighthouse, then three kilometers beyond to the campsite. We’ll be damn glad to get there.

After riding 38 kilometers, we prefer to jog at intervals towards the end. The middle of my backaches and my tail is skinned up. We are thankful to see the lighthouse at last, but it is getting dark and, though we can see 30 kilometers or so to the mountains, we cannot find camp. We have to call and have a Land Rover come get us. Dismounting, Mohammed suddenly hits the deck with a massive thigh cramp. As we wait for the Land Rover, we all pop Advil to ease our pain.

6:40P.M.: We eat dinner in our Berber tent, rugs on poles. Being inside the tent, I am reminded of the Arab homes we have entered here. All, like our tent, are virtually empty. They seem cavernous with just rugs and pillows. (I recognize the blanket and pillow Mohammed camps with from his living room.) They have no wastebaskets. They waste almost nothing. In the Seguia el Hamra, when Mohammed threw a plastic water tube out the window, he could not understand why Claudia was outraged.

Spaghetti for dinner with fresh fruit soup, finger bowls of salt and cumin for condiments as usual. Morale is up even with the pain. Ted is smiling. Claudia is talking to me (our camels were roped together most of the day behind Mohammed). Up tomorrow at 6:15 for 7:30 departure. Mohammed, J.P., and I are sleeping in this tent, while the others opt for their own private tents. All are in the sack by 10 o’clock on this starry night. Ted even wishes me goodnight.

10:20 : At the end of the day, I have some serious questions to ask myself. But first I have to care for my body. I had nearly cracked a rib in the fall. I had stained the back of my pants red with blood from chafing and my muscles and bones were pulverized from the inside of my thighs to the top of my butt. Could Riley and Co. in the condition they were in possibly have traveled 50 to 100 miles in a day? Certainly not as we know them on a map. There are no straight lines in the desert. Traveling from light to darkness they might have covered such a distance but in a serpentine way.

Could we continue on, and at that not near the pace I had expected to make?

Some of my experiments on this journey are successful and some are not. Some are in ways that I could not anticipate. In Laayoune, I had asked Mohammed to buy me a pipe made of sheep bone and the stuff they smoke to ward off evil eye. He took a bill from me and returned with shinbone pipe complete with the wool still on it and a leather pouch for holding a substance he calls manaji. I don’t know what it is, though one guide told me it is nothing more than tobacco from Mauritania. I have a hard time believing it is the treasured substance for warding off evil eye, but Mohammed likes to smoke it in the evenings. It makes him even more loquacious.

Tonight after the others scatter …primarily because Mohammed shouts when he talks, and we have to repeat everything we say …in a patois of French, Spanish, English and Arabic …to understand each other. He and I pour over the maps …Riley’s, the Michelin 959 and the ITM 1:900,000 scale. It all seems to come together, things that Hamid said, connections I have made to Riley’s map, which shows the 20 th parallel too far N. As with the height of the bluffs, Riley exaggerated distance too. He probably did not go all the way to Mauritania but to the Assouard area. Mohammed describes to me in his at-once booming and raspy mellow voice, the features of the area, none of which are on the map. Noticing a flaw in Riley’s map, “The dunes always NE to SW,” Mohammed says, motioning.

“Three things there are named Assouard,” he says for the third time, making scratches on my map, “A well, a mountain, and an oued (wadi).“ He also proudly shows me the exact places where the Reguibat finally wiped out the Bou Sbaa, in Mauritania.

 

Day Nine

Sunday, October 14: Second day on camels.

7:50 A.M.: We are finally in the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight, except sand, rock and thorn bush. The camels eat the spiky bush even when it’s nothing but sun-grayed wood. Some views vast, others 20 feet to a hill. We shun the radio, not wanting the war news to invade our newfound peace. The three newspapers, Newsweek and Time that I bought in Laayoune the other day, thanking my lucky stars at the time, go unread. Instead of discussing the sorry state of the world, I ponder whether or not I want to have the camel feast. Claudia, who seemed to fare better than the rest of us on the camels, explains the importance of rolling the pelvis with the motion of the camel as your ride while keeping your back still straight. Something else to ponder.

9:15 A.M.: This morning Pater forgets the GPS, so I run back to camp for it. The land looks flat but it isn’t. In the brief time that I am gone, the caravan disappears, six camels and six riders vanish. I soon see them as they emerge from a depression in the dunes, but it hits home how fast you can get lost out here.

As we skirt the dunes, I relax, relieved that the dissension of the past week, with all the uncertainty and constant changes to the itinerary, seems to have also vanished. The pall has lifted. We laugh and joke, and when we challenge Mohammed to stand on his moving camel, he pops his feet up onto the saddle, and then lifts himself, riding like a surfer, using his goad for balance, until he is fully extended and whooping at the top of his lungs, intoxicated by the view.

I like Mohammed with his wheezing. He is a big-hearted chatterbox, who rides the biggest whitest dromedary with elbows splayed out like Ben Wallace going for a rebound, hands clutching lead and goad. The only thing that helps my pulverized tail is mimicking his bellicose posture, back straight, elbows extended, no hand on the sissy bar. It all is in the mind, so I try to convince myself.

We are on Sebjet Renaves, a plane of rippling black rock and sand topped by pristine dunes some in clusters, with Saarinen type lines. We are all stiff and sore from yesterday’s ride. As we get into the rhythm of riding for the long haul, I sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for everyone. This helps ease the pain. Claudia and J.P. join me for the refrains, “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” Not to get too heavy, I follow this up with “Pop Goes the Weasel” (words courtesy of much lullaby time with my little ones). Afterwards, whenever my camel racks, I belt out “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “For All the Saints” …songs memorized long ago at prep school …to drown out the whiner inside me and to coax my body to flow with the jarring. I think of the irony of the lyrics and am thankful that the guides don’t understand English. To myself I pray the Lord’s Prayer and promise to keep doing so today to relate to the devout Sahrawis, Riley, and the Creator …and because in the Sahara it does seem that only by the grace of God does anything go your way.

We pick up two goat skulls with horns, bleached white by the sun. Some green cedars told us about this well.

11:25 A.M.: We reach a 15-foot deep well ( hassi, Arabic, or bir, Berber) full of water …two feet, anyway, a veritable ocean out here. As we approach, there is a little jostling going on amongst the thirsty camels. Mohammed climbs down into the narrow well to fetch the bucket. We pull up water and empty it into a stone trough. The camels slurp away in big noisy draughts. Two Izarguien boys come to the well to talk to us. They are Mbark, who wears a black shesh , and Mohammed Ami, who wears an Asics baseball hat, well faded by the sun. They have 30 camels, many young or stunted. These are not the formidable prehistoric-looking crane-necked beasts we have but scruffy, mangy looking things. I have a new-found appreciation for the quality of our mounts. After 20 minutes the camels are done and we get ready to move on.

Not all of us want to ride all the time. It is too painful. Mohammed points out a straight line to our destination to Claudia and Ted, who are walking now. They disappear into the endless folds of the desert while we take a more circuitous camel-friendly route around the dunes. The sky grows increasingly overcast and eerie as we go. Looking across their route from atop of my camel, I see infinite dunes, and the possibility that they are lost grows heavy on me like the dark clouds. I began to chastise myself as group leader for violating a cardinal sin on the desert: allowing part of the group to splinter off carrying no water. Mohammed becomes alarmed too. We ride faster to the rendezvous.

When we reach the road where we are to meet, there is no sign of Ted and Claudia, and we begin to worry. I feel very insufficient as a leader. We scan the sand hills with binoculars. No luck. Eventually, we ride down the road instead of going back into the dunes to look for them. Then we see them walking up to a lookout on a hill. Just as a situation can seem dire one minute, it can dissipate the next and make you wonder why you ever worried.

We are now sitting over a canyon of salt flats. Mohammed starts a fire with brush and charcoal, which he breaks with a stone. He has Sultan vert de clime gunpowder tea, a block of sugar, which he also hammers with a stone. The sugar is yellow on the sides and has little hairs stuck to it. When Mohammed, always relishing the role of teacher, serves me tea, he won’t let go if I say “Thank you.” He makes me say “besmillah” (“in the name of God”), as is the Arab custom. “Toujours dit besmillah!” he crows.

The salt flat looks like something out of the Klondike with white heaps like snowdrifts on glacial silver-blue water (behind it is sand, to the side sand). Up here red and sand-colored highly stratified bluffs. A salt mine worker in a hooded green jellaba crosses the horizon like the grim reaper and now reclines beside us smoking a cigarette and chatting. He came, shook hands, and hugged Mohammed and Ali, our other guide, who has brown teeth and speaks no French, forget English. [How wrong this would prove to be!] They are laughing about how Pater rides the camel all tense and holding on tight. The guest is Abraham. He lives here on the salt flats, which we are getting ready to cross.

Sometimes I look across the desert and I can’t believe that Riley did what he said he did. But deep down in my heart, I know that he did do it …give or take a few dunes.

10:30 p.m.: This afternoon we rode long and hard. We’re recovering at another good camp in a Berber tent with two rugs for a floor and open to a brilliant starry sky. Mohammed and I rap again into the night in the tent, watching the light show in the sky as he smokes the sheep shinbone pipe. Mohammed tells me that he has two brothers and a sister in the Polisario (the anti-colonial militant group now opposed to Moroccan rule in Western Sahara), which gives me a chill, and two in the Army. I look at his I.D.; under work: “sans.” “How about driving a cab?” I ask.

“I couldn’t work hard for the person who owns the cab,” Mohammed answers, “because I know everyone in Laayoune house by house. If they asked me for a ride, I would give them a ride for free.”

 

Day Ten

Monday, October 15: Day 3 on camels; a day of wandering.

Nowhere is this journey to be straightforward, and this morning, Remi and I make the decision to return to the salt flats. The going ahead does not look good because the highway is mashed to the coast by rugged hills, and there is a picture Remi needs. So we decided to take the camels back for the shot and then to truck them past this uninviting stretch of coast.

This is a bit of a blow to moral. Only Ali and I ride the camels back over an elevated plain. The rest sleep in and lie about, recovering from two jolting days on the camels.

It is sunny and very windy. Ali and I ride the Malian camels each with two of the pack camels tied to the back. I make the most of this solitary ride; the respite from having to worry about my crew is a relief. We ride faster. What can I compare it to? At its best it is like sitting in the back of a school bus on a mountain road and at its worst like riding in the bow of a Criscraft in a choppy sea. Wham, wham, wham. The gate of a camel is called a “rack,” and that about says it all. As a tyro, you want to hold onto the metal bar that is attached to the front of the saddle for that purpose. But it makes about as much sense as a broncobuster wrapping both arms around the neck of a wild mustang. If you do that then your torso is thrashed about in every direction.

Clearly, camel technology has not changed much in two centuries. As far as my research goes, I value every bump and jolt on camel back because this is essentially what Riley and his men endured. There is no sugar coating this experience. It is brutal, and you constantly struggle to maintain control, to stay on your camel, to keep it moving, to keep it moving in the right direction, to maintain your possessions.

As I am being thrown about, I try to stash my sunglasses in a pocket. When I go to get them again an hour or so later, they are gone. These are prescription wraparound Ray-Bans. With the wind gusting like it is, losing my sunglasses is more than just a nuisance. My eyes burn and become rimmed with fine grains of sand. Rubbing only irritates. Pulling down the eyelid has its limits. Once we descend down into the salt flat, we wend our way through the pools. Finally, we see the packed up Land Rovers above us and Remi directing us to the sight where he wants to shoot. We had ridden through the previous day.

11:20 A.M.: Remi photographs us riding the camels abreast through the icy blue reflective pools. Now I make Ali lead me back across the dunes to look for my lost Ray-bans. After riding all morning with only a brief rest, Ali is not pleased to be walking in the noontime heat. I am hating it too. This is my day of wandering, physically and psychologically. Keeping my eyes glued to the ground in fear that I will walk right past my $400 glasses is tedious and agonizing.

I soon trail Ali far enough so that his sandals no longer flipped sand in my face. Your mind spirals inward. The wind and the rattling Advil in my pocket were all I could hear. The Advil soon became the saddest sound in the world, telescoping me back to childhood and reminding me of the futility we all experience …the wrestling against things that we can’t control or didn’t know better than. There is extreme pathos there, and irony, for to adults these things seem insignificant. I wonder at my parents’ inability to intervene and my own inability to help my daughters with the things that nag them beyond my comprehension.

Ah, but I have a solution to this infinite psychological regression. I open the bottle, feel the Advil, pick up a handful of sand and fill the bottle, and put it back into my pocket. I marvel at the contrast in texture, the slick-surfaced Advil, one of the few things I had seen that was impervious to the fine grains of sand. I could sift them out later.

At camp we do not find my sunglasses, only piles of trash. I recognize the label of last night’s bottle of Kaar red wine. One of the crew has smashed the empty bottle on a stone.

The search abandoned, we watch the ferocious spectacle of loading six camels in the bed of a small truck. The wranglers push and shove the spitting, barking, neck thrashing, and kicking camels until they are arranged in two neat rows.

We drive up the desert coast to the white dunes, where will restart our trek to Goulamim tomorrow. 221 kilometers to Goulamim, Oued Ewarrea. The route to Tan Tan is mostly a narrow strip of land by seas with a number of lush Oueds running to the sea. A flat plain stretches to the east to a long chain of hills on the horizon. At Reserve Biologique Naila, where we stop for lunch, you look down into an estuary with green marsh, where the Berber fishermen collect aquatic flowers to feed their animals. A long impressive bank of dunes holds out the sea.

We hit the Internet café at a little town south of Tantan this evening and are late getting into camp

After dinner, which Claudia does not attend, I have a talk with Ted on the bluff side of the tent overlooking the sea. They are unhappy and thinking about cutting out. The trip, admittedly full of unanticipated headaches, is not what they had expected. They had pictured only the romantic crossing of the desert on camels that I had so enthusiastically talked about back in Virginia. I can understand their disappointment.

Like Riley, I hadn’t delivered the trip I had promised. It was not my own Riley redux we were experiencing but the real and very current hardship the desert and its ill-at-ease occupants chose to dish out. These are both physical and psychological, both personal and shared. At times it feels like I am a helpless captain with a tortured crew, reliving Riley more profoundly then I ever could have imagined. Good for me but not for the innocents with me, and at times I just want to be rid of them.

What surprises me, though, given that they have spent a lot of time in West Africa, is how mentally unprepared they are for the headaches, even if they are more than expected. Talking about some of the issues helps. Their mounting hostility had sent me into bunker mode, and now we let it all pour out. Ted says he will talk to Claudia and they will tell me in the morning if they are going to stick it out.

Back in the Berber tent, Remi shows me a picture of his redheaded Irish American girlfriend, an actress in New York, who he met through the Internet. Mohammed and I talk more about camels. At the track, the best sprinting camels can go up to 25 kilometers per hour. They can run a seven-kilometer race in 15 minutes. In the country, they can run from 10 to 15 kilometers per hour. Around Tiris, they cut the nose and twist the skin to mark their camels. Mohammed likes these. He teaches me some camel related vocabulary:

ashgar = blonde

akmer = red

aghawa = black

azrak = mixture

arkshar = white head, colored body

 

Day Eleven

Tuesday, October 16: Back in the saddle, day 4.

We eat delicious crepes with honey for breakfast, served as all our meals are by robed Kareem, a silky skinned fellow with passive eyes, who moves and speaks with uncanny calm and seems born to dignified domestic service.

Ted has bed bugs, but he and Claudia have decided to stay and seem happier for having made a choice to stick by.

We cross an elevated plain empty except for darmousse , a bulb-like cactus with white milk that I am told is poisonous, and enough small birds that I notice them. I am on a lead camel, a Malian prince, and I have to take saddle management into my own hands. I insert my shoe in the back of the saddle under the cushion. Excellent; now I notice that the rope whip I am wielding has chewed a hole into the side of my thumb and created a bad blister just above and to the side of my knuckle.

I have a gravity theory about camels. Left to their own devices, they would stop and desist, like the man we saw in Saguia el Hamra who looked like a totem pole. We cover 17 kilometers in the morning, and a little before noon, we approach a well with two large crows perched on either side of the u-bar suspended over it. The crows stare at us audaciously as if trying to figure out which one of us to eat when the time is right. Three squat mangy asses stand guard but scurry off as we approach.

I am still mounted on one of the Malian camels as they all begin to jostle for position at the stone trough connected to the well. Without saying a word, Ali starts working out from the well in an ever-widening spiral. He bends down, brushes something off, and rises with the hidden bucket for the well. He also finds a gallon jug, which he attaches to a rope, runs through a pulley and lashes to a camel. The camel pulls up the water.

1:00 P.M.: We are sitting in the inescapable dung dust around the well and in the middle of an empty plane. On a dirt mound beside the well, Mohammed blows on the bush coals in a makeshift firepit. Sitting on the overturned well bucket, I make the discovery that a “dooda” is a fat white slug that starts as a tiny parasite in a camel’s nose. It grows until it blocks the camel’s airflow and then gets snorted out, a birth of sorts. The dooda, looking like a pearl onion with legs, crawls away to do whatever adult doodas do.

I am, of course, reminded of the song with that animal in its refrain and begin teaching Mohammed “Camptown Races.” Being the fast learner that he is, he gets it right away. Soon we are crooning away together. The fact that Mohammed has problems pronouncing some of the English words does not intimidate him a bit. We make a dreadful noise. It occurs to me that the parts that make sense to me make no sense to him. And the part that means something to him …“dooda”…meant nothing to me two minutes ago. Nonetheless, singing the song together unites us in a way that even meaningful words could never do.

After tea and lunch, Claudia wanders off to have some private time. Ted and J.P. rack out. I scribble. Until we hear Mohammed’s call, “Allez, depêche toi!” “Let’s go, hurry up!”

2:00 P.M.: As we ride, Mohammed talks. He got his name from being such a good camel chooser that they called him “fils de Arab.” He wants to have four wives: one from each of Western Sahara’s major tribes: Reguibat, Ouled Bou Sbaa, Tidarin and Iziguin. This will provide him with good will among all the people there, that is, everyone but the Moroccans. He says camel milk is good for a man’s sex drive, and the snails are good for a woman’s, especially for making babies.

Note to self: What is actually in a camel’s hump? Fat, dark gray with yellow highlighting, according to Mohammed.

Mohammed’s demonstratives are the language of our trip. “Tousjour dit Besmillah!” (Always say “Besmillah” (in the name of God), as opposed to “thank you.”) Or “Pourquoi vous n’avez pas dit Shalom Alikoom? Tousjour quand un fait un rendezvous avec quelq’un on dit Shalom Alikoom’! (“Why didn’t you say Salaam Alikoom (peace be with you)?) He also tells me the Arabic proverb, “Only those who ride camels know about camels.”

While I enjoy Mohammed’s stories, I am more and more frustrated with the slow pace of the trip, especially when the guides walk slowly. I tell them to get on the camel and I will run. Ali insists that I ride the camel. I insist that he ride the camel. I tell him he is too slow. He challenges me to a footrace. The next thing I know we are sprinting barefoot up the path. I have trained for this trip, running five to ten milers in the humidity of Virginia. I pull ahead and stay just far enough ahead to wear out Ali. He gives up and laughs. Our small caravan is strung out over a quarter mile, moving at the exact same pace it has always moved. They have won.

Mohammed is our local guide and it turns out he is out of his territory. We reach the stunning dark coast with smashing waves on craggy boulders. The only problem is that dead ahead is the massive Oued Draa, blocked by sand and filled with neon green water. There is no way down to the beach from here, and there is no crossing for a long way upstream. Mohammed should have cut this corner off.

We will stop early today, and find a crossing tomorrow. Mohammed starts to ask me if he has been a good guide, in a sort of aggressive way that makes me uncomfortable. He tells me to tell Jouwad, the headman, that I want him to stay. Out of frustration, I run the last five kilometers to camp. I sweat hard. The sweat disappears. I have blisters on the two biggest toes of my right foot. We have traveled only about 30 kilometers today.

4:30 P.M.: We camp on the edge of the Oued Draa, a canyon that blocks our progress north. We look out onto a spectacularly even conical then vertical, flat-topped hill, looking like the top of a tagine dish or the tip of a nipple. After we rest, Ted and Claudia and J.P decide to go into Tan Tan to visit the Internet café and take showers at the public bathhouse. I decide to stay and explore the oued with Ali to search for a place where our camels can cross.

Ali climbs like a goat, moving headlong over the precipice and picking his feet up nimbly on the shifting stones. We climb down to a dry riverbed with green strata. Then up onto a flat crusty sand-and-stone plateau, down two more faces onto a hundred-foot ledge looking down to the red-sand banks of the Draa. A herd of 30 black camels passes beside the river. We climb up a steep face of scree and look at the river snaking into the distance. No crossing he says in Arabic and sign. We take a few steps. I look around. I need to communicate with my scout. “Allah houakibar,” I say, raising my hands to indicate the beauty. He repeats the oft-heard words meaning “God is great,” and we head back. We have connected, I feel, I hope, without language. Enough said. All said.

I come out with pockets full of smooth and colorful speckled river rocks, (I found one large rock with jewels embedded in it like concrete. I brought it back to camp but am leaving it on the desert.

When he sees us, Mohammed gathers brush and makes a fire. The brush makes surprisingly good coals, very fine but hot. He scrapes out a little pile and places the teakettle on them. Jouwad, Hussein, Remi, Mohammed, and I sit down on the stones and snail shells and drink small glasses of tea on the edge of the wadi. We have only three glasses and we each will have three rounds, so we continually recycle the glasses. As we pick up hands full of perfect bleached snail shells, Jouwad tells us, not surprisingly, that snail soup is a specialty of the region, though this is not the season for it. Riley and his men, I remember, lived off these snails.

In the fading light, the valley below is a pointillist landscape of browns, grays, and steel greens. It is all stones, thorn bush, and short cactus. There is just a touch of river on the corner of the canvas. We talk about the Green March, when the Moroccans sent 300,000 people into the territory in a revolutionary bit of gerrymandering. Hussein, who is the brother of the owner of our camels and whose only reason for being with us is to keep an eye on the camels, tells us that another of his brothers was killed by a landmine then.

As I head for a shower, Mohammed catches me and asks me if I have talked to Jouwad about him yet. I tell him I will.

I take a bucket bath with hot water …oh so good outside naked in the warm, dry air, where it has not rained for three years.

I join the guides at their fire. We make ourselves comfortable leaning against saddles, blankets, and camels. Ali, Mohammed, Hussein, and Kareem grill sardines, which come out of a big bag bought four days ago. Ali and Kareem are fastidious. They pour water in little steady drabs for cleaning hands after using bread as a napkin. Sardine skins and bones are picked up and placed in a bowl to be tossed aside. The light playing off our faces and the camels is picturesque, and I run to get Remi, who is resting in his tent. He comes. Unfortunately, Mohammed is growing testier. He gets upset with Remi because he is photographing and Mohammed does not have his robe on. They have a little shout.

Eventually, Remi and I retire to the Berber tent to wait for J.P., Ted, and Claudia for dinner. They do not come, and Remi and I polish off the better part of a bottle of wine, not too bad this one, a fruity Beaujolais-tasting wine from Las Cellier de Meknes. They do not arrive until almost 10 p.m.

As we learn later, on the way into town, the driver left doughnuts in the sand to mark turns, but he could not find them in the dark on the way back. They got lost. Fortunately, J.P. had recorded their journey using the GPS device he had. So he directed them blindly using the device. They searched for an hour before seeing our fire.

At the town’s Internet cafe J.P. had gone on-line and realized that my wife was on-line in Richmond. While I was down in the wadi searching for a path to cross our camels on, the two sent instant messages to each other, J.P. telling Jessica that we are safe. I cannot cross the stream, but they cross a millennium.

 

Day Twelve

Wednesday, October 17: Day 5, life without Mohammed.

7:00 A.M.: I am back at the edge of the wadi sipping coffee and sketching the distant tagine hill, perhaps the shaft of an ancient volcano.

This morning, my shirt has the pleasant smoky smell of thorn bush fire. I am becoming trail seasoned. We have a long day ahead, but it should be scenic. We will have to detour about 25 kilometers inland to a crossing and then head another 20 kilometers up the coast. Still, this is only a fraction of what I had hoped to do.

Yesterday there was a fog coming in from the coast. Last night it looked brooding, and this morning the sun rises through a thick haze. I hear the sea, even five kilometers away, a deep low roar like wind rushing through trees here, and I am reminded of when Riley and his men were approaching the coast and they woke up in the middle of the night thinking they were hearing an approaching sandstorm; after a few minutes of intent listening they figured out that it was only the distant roar of the surf that they were hearing.

Despite my lobbying, Jouwad has fired Mohammed and already his replacement has been brought out from Tan Tan. We hug Mohammed, slap backs and hug again. In a short time, he has become a good friend. But he is out of his zone of expertise now, and I feel constrained in how much I can lobby for him. We have only six camels. There is no room for a navigator who cannot navigate where we are going. He does not have a job in the camp staff, and so the cut is inevitable. After dinner last night, he put on his ceremonial robe and was hangdog. Either Jouwad had already told him, or he knew what was coming. He wears his robe this morning too; it is a symbol of his honor and always worn on any kind of formal occasion. I give him an American flag pen and 200 daroms as a tip. He does not look at the money, just puts it in his pocket.

8:30 A.M.: A salty wind pursues us from the sea as we ride along the arid haze-enshrouded plateau above the gaping Draa wadi. Despite being still and brackish, it gives life. Salt deposits pock the dirt here. But below it is fertile, and bush camels graze on the shrubbery, their necks swaying like giraffes and egrets and other sea birds flying above the bright green water. We see no people though.

11:30 A.M.: After covering 17 kilometers, we reach the crossing and ford the Draa, which is about 30 feet wide and several feet deep. We cross on cannonball-size stones, the camels stumbling awkwardly as their padded feet slide over slick surfaces looking for a grip.

Reluctant to leave the water, which at least gives the illusion of coolness, we head up the other side on a sweltering piste, or track. Around lunchtime, we see a nomad tent and head off the track in search of shelter from the fierce sun. Children run into the tent as we reach the surrounding debris of their encampment. We enter a sweltering, fly-ridden tent, a tattered patchwork of blue plastic and fabric. Sacks of grain slouch along one side, and there is very little else other than the family who live there. The women and children huddle together at one end of the tent, while a taciturn man sits at the other. There is a strange sense of tension that we have not felt elsewhere. Most of the conversation we make seems to be among ourselves, and the hospitality we bestow upon them.

Skinny Feraji, Mohammed’s replacement, who is bizarrely dressed for the desert in hand-me-down wool pants and wingtip shoes, prepares the tea. Far from the showman that Mohammed was, he rarely speaks, and so it is not the spirited occasion that Mohammed’s teas always were. The father, a gruff gray-haired old goat of a man, does not make matters any easier. He refuses us permission to take photographs, and when I ask him if another year of drought might drive them out, he responds in eerie metaphor, “The gazelle must return to the place where he was born to die.” His wife (veiled) a great beauty judging form her five gorgeous children …two boys and three girls, including an infant who did not like the taste of the cheese we gave her …might not have agreed that staying there was a good idea. One girl with hazel eyes and lovely brown skin with dark bushy hair to her shoulders, about ten, my eldest daughter Hazel’s age, keeps looking right at me, perhaps because I have the fairest hair and coloring in the group. She breaks my heart.

We give the children our fruit and hard-boiled eggs. They are curious but silent. One young boy hovers around us but does not respond to any congeniality. After tea we cut up our sandwiches and pass around the condiments we have. When the food is passed to the old man, he hoards it, and so I have to be sure to hand him things last. Like the others in my crew, I eat only a quarter of a sandwich for lunch, the rest going to a nomad family.

This encounter with the intransigent old man and his lovely children who seem destined to waste away in this ruthless place cast a pall over us as we ride off under the still scorching afternoon sun. There is no shelter in sight. We ascend onto a vast sand-gray plane and ride for hours. This is a stretch that tests our tempers and wills. Feraji and Ali are silent unless spoken to, and so we don’t have any distractions other than ourselves. One plain gives on to another. We are not near the sea, so there is no relief in the view either. Remi is with us but unhappy about it. He wants the Land Rovers to come get him, but we have lost cell phone contact. With all his gear, he takes an extra pounding on the camel. It is painful to watch. Finally, he jumps off his moving camel in a fury, hands his camera to Ted and storms off in the direction of the coast.

Not long after that, we stop for water. Ted gets off his camel and moves in front of it. He grabs it by the ears and, in mock anger, yells, “You blankety, blank camel, when we get to the end, I am going to eat you!”

Never underestimate the intelligence of your camel. This camel knew it was being dissed. Ted grinned and uttered his characteristic mumbly laugh. The camel’s head quaked back and forth, and then it’s mouth opened and cud, which smells awful, erupted out of it.

Ted let out an “Arrgh!” And we all broke out in laughter. Ali brought over the jug of water and doused Ted. Ted, being a good sport, emerged from the shower grinning. Then we noticed: he had cud in his teeth.

We ride further. A woman approaches us, and implacable Ali suddenly becomes giddy, insouciant. He tells us as she approaches that she is beautiful. How he can tell, I have no idea since all we can see is her eyes and the occasional flick of her ankle as her robe kicks up. He speaks to her flirtatiously. She is responsive. Then she leaves, and we leave.

We keep expecting to see the coast, but another plain roamed by camels emerges. We still have not established phone contact with our base camp. Finally we see a fishing village. As we approach in the fading light, a group of turbaned men praying in a clean-swept patch of sand watch us ride up. They are all sitting facing east toward Mecca. In the backgound, a vitriolic radio voice spews war news. When you are lost, everything is more ominous. Dark clouds scud off the ocean as silent breakers tumble to the shore. The rows of steely breakers and rising fog are taking on a Last Judgment look.

We let Ali and Feraji talk. We debate trying to find lodgings here. Then we decided to head up the coast and hope for the best.

6:15 P.M.: At last we see headlights approaching from the north. It is one of our Land Rovers. A small miscalculation on the route-planners part has left us 10 feet from a cliff and 16 kilometers short of camp at sunset. Ted, Claudia, Remi and J.P. load into the Land Rover, which takes them to the camp. This is a relief. After the long day, I am happy to be rid of the shipmates, at least those whose complaints have become tiresome; and that is not to say that I don’t feel responsible for the unhappiness. I know that there are many things that a more experienced explorer would have planned better. These things are painfully obvious now. But the fact is, we are on a journey in a place that is little known and less under control, and there is very little I can do about our situation except try to be good humored about it.

I stay with Ali and Feraji to keep the camels moving toward camp. By staying I get more riding time on one of the good camels. The fact that I want to stay with my camel longer is a revelation to me. Only three of our camels are really rideable for any length of time. The blond Malian camels are to the &nbp;“Saharan” camels like Tennessee walkers are to draft horses. Nobody wants to ride the others, though J.P. has taken nicely to one of the black ones, fittingly for J.P., a divinity student, named Abraham.

We ride in the deepening haze for about 20 minutes. Seeing a fishing shack on the cliff’s edge, Feraji indicates that he knows the occupant and that he wants to stop. This is not what I have in mind at all. I had planned to ride the rest of the distance to camp, rest briefly, and then continue on. But Ali wants to stop too. Since we have already had a long, trying day, I agree.

We enter Brahim’s six-foot by 10-foot shack by window-sized door covered by a tarp. The room is lit with white light by a glowing gaslight sock connected directly to the stem of a gas tank. Brahim has lived here for 12 years, returning to Agadir-Stuka every other month for 10 days to see his wife and family. His only piece of furniture is a bench, which serves as a bed and table. There are bidons of water, a little rug, windows with plastic or Styrofoam and fishing net covering them. He has a clock and a cellphone. His wardrobe hangs from a two-foot line. Drinking tea and eating Moroccan bread rubbed in olive oil, we sit on the floor among bidons of water, piles of onions and tomatoes, and two gas canisters, the one, tapped at the stem, shooting a beam of light through the window directly into outer space.

A cousin of Brahim’s, who works in the States, has sent him a Shakespeare 3000LX rod and reel bought with Marlboro incentive points. Brahim holds the kit up to me with evident pride and expectation and asks me to translate the instructions. He fishes 300 feet down, reeling his catch up from the surf along the rocky bluff. He has noticed a reel of thick, coated line, which he thinks might be useful. It turns out that this is a rod that can be converted from a spinning rig to a fly-fishing rig. The coated line is useless for his purposes.

Brahim shows us his chest where he throws his catch, breaking salt over it. After an hour, we leave the bright lantern light of Brahim’s, we feel our way to the camels. In the inky dark of a Saharan night, the Atlantic roars like a NASCAR track below us. As my eyes adjust, I catch a glimpse of Cassiopeia over head. The gaslight sent out a ray like that from a lighthouse into heavy black emptiness over the sea.

Mounted on my camel again, I follow the dark shadows of Ali’s three camels up the ghost of a track. We are tired and silent but I feel pleasantly exhausted, relaxed for the first time in a while. The camels are very stealthy. I feel like a smuggler slipping across a border. Then the light of the Land Rover fills the sky.

9:20 P.M.: Joseph has returned with food and camping gear. Ali, Joseph, Feraji and I eat meat together (mutton, beef or camel …nobody knew) and something like cooked pear with our hands Berber fashion out of one shared bowl. We camp with on the edge of the desert just above the sea. As I fall straight to sleep, I am still wearing the T-shirt I ran in at the end of the day yesterday and walked/ran in the first 12 kilometers today.

 

Day Thirteen

Thursday, October 18: Day 6, Getting to Know Ali.

6:30 A.M.: The sun is just starting to eliminate the fog as Ali and I ride off each with two camels roped to the back of us. Feraji and Joseph stay at the camp, still asleep when we leave. During the 16-kilometer ride to camp, Ali carries on a conversation for the first time. It turns out, he speaks some French, English, and a few other languages he has picked up bits of while guiding. He tells me about his family. He has eight children, ages three to 20. They all live at home (four boys, four girls). He isn’t sure how old he is. We estimate around 47. His house is crowded, so on many nights he simply grabs a blanket and sleeps outside. He says he can exist anywhere for a night no problem with nothing but a blanket. He tells me that the white camels, which I thought were from Algeria, are from Male and are worth about $1,000 each.

Ali and I pass a painted stone saying, “Do not enter,” then some abandoned tanks and troop movers, adding to my feeling of running a frontier border. We cover the distance to camp in a little over two hours, a fairly leisurely pace though without the frequent stops of a larger group.

10:15 A.M.: The camp at Cap de Tir, a military base, is pitched behind a 20-foot dune protecting it from the wind off the sea. Everyone seems to be rested and in subdued but relatively good spirits. Remi is cleaning the sand, humidity and camel vomit off his equipment. The others are watching two albino scorpions fight.

10:25 A.M.: Heading out. Everyone is ready for the dry desert again after the wet blanket that wrapped us last night. All the complaints I think to make about the camels and saddles when we are in motion seem pointless in camp. Jouwad is a pitiful sandbagging yes-man. He simply agrees with whatever you say, and then does nothing. We all miss Mohammed’s spirit, spunk, I think. It is too quiet without him. He kept things happening, exotic with his Sahara pride and virility. The rest are deferential, miniature Jouwads, spoiled by sucking up to tourists. Ironically, my very liberal, cultured friends had a harder time tolerating the spirited Mohammed at times.

11:15 A.M.: We take a right after the military kasbah, hang a left near the bleached thighbone of a camel, and there before us is the most stunning sight …a mountain of sand, enough sand to repave the billion dollar beaches of the Eastern seaboard in crystal clean powder. We drop into a valley of heather-purple groundcover at the foot of the 40-meter high dune. Three barefoot Atlas Hassane tribesmen in black sheshes and ankle-length gowns are here watering their herd of some 40 female camels, of the red and black variety, at a stone-and-brush encircled source. A thin noble-faced boy is in a pinstripe derra. The men laugh a lot, the younger man with a black mustache and goatee with a smooth, angular, hazel face and a shesh, not wrapped around his cheek is right off a movie set. One with a gray mustache test-drives one of our Malian camels around the valley of the well, which is hemmed in on three sides by the giant dune. Kasbah tower overlooks this perhaps once fertile valley, where the mountain of sand blocks out the noise of the nearby sea and radiates heat. We round the dune and reach the fogbound coast. The camels in front of us disappear through a curtain of gloom.

Noon: Standing by the skeleton of a 20-foot whale still with some flesh on it. The camels walking in front of me are an apparition in the pulsating haze.

1:50 P.M.: We are about 10 kilometers from last night’s camp heading NE up the beach, which is about a hundred yards wide and runs into dunes that rise in half a dozen tiers. I am on foot this morning. As I trail the camels over small but choppy dunes closer to the water, I contemplate camel riding: Can camels go fast? Yes, but so can dumptrucks. It isn’t easy and it doesn’t last long. Put a camel on a perfectly good track, and he won’t outpace you by much if at all. A camel, like a dumptruck or tank, is a specialty vehicle. Start going cross-country and the utility of your camel grows, the harsher the terrain and the longer the march the more valuable the camel. Walking through sand whether on the desert or on the beach, the camel’s stamina and portobello mushroom feet pay off in spades.

This beach, as on the first day of our camel trek, has a salvage line, where all the ship wreckage and ocean debris beaches. It is strewn with an incredible array of dross: intact fluorescent light bulbs, metal gallon, five-gallon, and 10-gallon drums, and wooden fish crates. One item worth stopping for: half of a shovel handle; now that will get your camels attention! Nets with buoys and other useful items are periodically dragged 10 feet above the tide line for later use. There are few nomad dwellings here, where the giant dunes meet the sea. But the tide line has been marked randomly by wooden drift poles with nets of buoys and bottles strung from lines. Who has done this and why? I can’t say. No one shows their face. But I feel watched over.

Among the bigger things washed up here were the 20-foot whale and something that looked like a porpoise but had a long sharp beak and many small teeth, about seven-feet long. Also a 30-foot boat which is now a partly buried skeleton of iron-plated keel and wooden ribs with rusted spikes.

We take a break for tea, brewed over a scavenger’s putrid sweet-smelling fire. The desire to push on, to get somewhere is pervasive.

Ali collects decorations for the camels. The two blonds he festoons with necklaces of whelk shells. The good red and the good black get necklaces of plastic doughnut-shaped floats. The two “goats” nada.

Rippling white sand dunes, like being over the clouds. St. Exupéry named these the “Plage Blanche.” They have no black stones to color them. The autumnal ocean has been very rough the past few days and has an angry roar. The sky glowering, fading into white clouds hang on the sea almost to the horizon giving way to colorless sky topped by nearer tempestuous sky.

It’s a long way down the beach and I time “For all the Saints” and “Glory, Glory,” my touchstones to the girls back home, over and over. They are both almost exactly four minutes long, or at least my versions are.

After a long increasingly monotonous day, Feraji makes a big mistake when he predicts that we will see a path up off the beach in the next two kilometers. Ten kilometers later we are still searching. Feraji is a weaselly waif awkwardly featured, a smoker who can’t stay on his camel long at a stretch. He has no change of clothes, and the outfit he wears is woefully unfit for the desert: brown check wool pants and black leather city shoes. They didn’t tell him he was going to be on a camel. So many people turned down the job when they heard it was on camels. In a sense they had shanghaied him. Once on the desert, he had no place to go. Or so you might think, but Feraji kept running into people he knew.

Near a small shipwreck just off shore, we see Remi on top of the bluff where he has set up to take a photo. He is so far away that we can barely make him out and cannot identify him, until he tosses sand in the air to indicate to us, Arab style, that it is him and not just some random observer.

Just at the wreck, we cut up through the dunes on steep slopes that sometimes send the saddlebags flying up to our ears. Remi takes what will be spectacular photos as the camels plunge into the fine, loose sand up to their knees. In the wide band of dunes I realize how deafening the sound of the ocean is. It is like walking into a sound studio.

Up top, Remi is smiling having gotten a prize photo he wants for the story. Camp is not far away. The slick, colorful desert stones shimmer in the early evening light.

Note to self: Let me be the first to admit that I underestimated the Sahara. In planning an expedition to learn more about the conditions endured by Captain Riley and his crew after they wrecked on the coast of the Great Desert, I had foolishly concocted a schedule suitable for a busy executive trying to shore up his 4th-quarter results. It soon collapsed under the weight of expectations and chance. I hadn’t planned for the effects of September 11 or for the war in Afghanistan, which began on the day my team arrived in Casablanca and flew to Laayoune.

Chergui = Hot NE sand wind that blows from January to May

Irifi = Chergui, hot and dry

 

Friday, October 19: Day 7, Home Stretch on camels.

 

This morning in camp, Jouwad is hangdog from two brow beatings last night. It all came together for me after Ali told me on the homestretch that in Zagora, where they usually cater to the tourist trade, they travel 10, 15, maybe 20 kilometers a day and that the guides always lead the camels on foot. I remember the first day when they took up their stations leading our camels on foot at the end of a rope. I was incredulous, like no way dudes. If we aren’t going to go faster than you can walk, then why are we on camels? Now I realized in concrete terms that the outfit I hired and that agreed to carry out my itinerary was completely incapable and had no intention of doing it. In fact, they tell me they thought that after the first day we would back down. This has been the source of much tension on the trip. Jouwad, as the headman, got to hear my reflections on the subject last night.

Just as in the days of old, the guides always come to the travelers for medicine, whether they have a cut or a headache. I am feeding Ali a steady diet of Advil. This morning, he and I talk about riding bareback: “Two, three minutes… gone,” he says, motioning to his backside and clinching his fingers. “Then you fall. No good.”

Ali tells a story about the Ouled Bou Sbaa. They held that they marked their camels by splitting their lips. But all camels have a bi-sectional upper lip that connects in the middle front. The Bou Sbaa would approach the Reguibat’s or Delim’s camels at a well and, pulling apart their upper lip, say, “These camels are marked in the Ouled Bou Sbaa fashion. They must be our camels.”

Mohammed and Ali are a contrast in style. Ali was Crocodile Dundee, capable of any feat, always active but a man of few words. Mohammed was the spirit of the desert. He was loud and boisterous, carefree and emotional, a natural-born teacher. “When we meet on the desert, we don’t have many problems,” he told me. “We want information. Avez-vous du tee?”

Ali has been riding camels all his life. He sleeps outside and gathers the hobbled camels each morning. Ali is a gaunt, weather-beaten hard-working man, so it surprises me to find out that he is Hussein’s brother-in-law. Hussein’s brother owns the camels, and Hussein, who is soft looking, appears to come from a wealthy family.

From my own new storebook of camel knowledge: Batten down the hatches. Everything that can move will move. I left both pairs of sunglasses, $700 worth, on the sand. Carry a big stick: Camels do not move unless you beat them. They do not turn unless you beat them, and they do not sit unless you beat them. We carry big sacks of dates to supplement the camels’ scrub diet. Pater has taken a liking to the black camel Abraham, which is helpful, one less person to rotate on the whites.

This morning, we take another spin on the beautiful 45 kilometer Plage Blanche. Remi has me pose as a Christ-figure …arms out with cords connected to the muzzles of the two big white camels draped around my wrists. He shoots this in black and white. The sea is very shallow, and the waves begin far off shore.

Feraji, who hates riding the camels and is always relegated to one of the worst, has strapped a Land Rover seat cushion on to the top of his camel as a pad, but he still he suffers on He walks mostly. This reminds me that you should never count on someone else to adjust your saddle. Whether it’s a Land Rover seat, a pair of shoes or water bottles, create your own solution.

We cross a river on stones on foot. Some of the camels drink the sea river. We talk to a cute little girl riding on a donkey. She has the water bidon to fill up for her family and her book satchel for school, which she attends from noon to five. She beat the mules’ neck with a stick.

We cross a wide scrubby plateau that reminds me of the American Southwest toward hills that are dark shadows in the sun rising from primordial dust. We reach the hills and climb a hot dusty steep dirt road. We are spread apart. A dry flint river runs along side our path. We come to abandoned houses, a petrified apiary, and a desiccated cemetery …all casualties of the drought.

1:50 P.M.: On a plateau in the mountains, bald except for cacti, slate sticking straight up as if they exploded from the ground, we stop for lunch and have post-prandial tea with Feraji, as opposed to pre-prandial with Mohammed; it’s just too hot to get motivated. I can hear the roar of the sea. When I first become conscious of it, I think the tea fire has gotten out of control.

Buzzed by fighter jets, we cross field after field, which formerly had wheat and corn …and dried river beds now smooth streaks of brown earth.

This is our last camp. We stop just short of Goulamim, a town known as a gateway to the Sahara and for its camel market. We will drive there tomorrow. Sidi Hamet skirted Goulamim, when he was passing this way with Riley. He knew there would be nosy and powerful men there. Two other sailors, Archibald Robbins and William Porter would stop in Goulamim on their way north and work as slaves. Afterwards, we will work our way in the Land Rovers up to Essaouira, where Riley and his men were at last set free.

The final piece of my plan had been to roast a camel, just as Hamet did before leaving the Bou Sbaas and heading north with Riley. Hamet tried to cook the camel secretly at night behind a dune, but the hungry Bou Sbaas detected the scent of boiling blood and came on the run. All night they “helped” Hamet butcher and roast. They pilfered almost the entire beast, leaving Hamet with just fifteen pounds of smoked meat to feed eight men on the journey.

Riley’s immediate share consisted of a steaming bowl of liver-like boiled blood, which he washed down with the ropy fat that he scooped directly from the camel’s slashed hump.

With America newly at war in a Muslim country, I had lost my appetite for the camel feast, which would have fed seventy. Instead, I had had Jouwad buy a goat to feed just us and our crew.

At our barren campsite, we cannot even find wood to roast the goat.

At dusk, Ali slaughters the small horned goat, skins it in one piece, and with the sang-froid of a Sahraoui cowboy blows mouths full of water through its rear end to clean out its intestines. While the meat simmers in a pot over a gas burner, the rest of us sit in front of a brush fire. Ali bakes bread the way Riley described two centuries ago, on a bed of hot rocks, and serves us the charred organs of the goat.

In a sonorous tenor, Kareem sings doleful songs to the beat of a bongo. Before now we did not know he could sing. I have a pang of regret; there is so much still to learn here. For a moment time ceases to matter …I wasn’t looking backward or forward. The smoke, the smells, the melancholy music seems to rise out of the land itself. Riley could have done this.

 

Saturday, October 20. Day 8

Sitting in the piano bar of the Hotel Anezi, which we quickly dub “Hotel Uneasy.” Agadir is a rocking city, especially for people just off the desert. Last night I watched Ali slaughter the goat for our dinner in the drought-depleted Anti Atlas. Tonight I am sitting along in a posh but depressing piped-in-music bar waiting for my compatriots to return from shopping. I already blew my load today: $40 at the camel market/souk in Guelmim for a pair of “antique” dolls and four “amber” and tin boxes. These items are so unique that I just saw the boxes in the hotel gift shop window. In fact, I saw them at the souk on practically every tinkers’ blanket. I made the most basic mistake. I should have looked before I shopped. A bit of advice I later received was do not ask for a price unless you are prepared to buy. Once you ask a price, they expect at least a negotiation to take place. And a bit of savvy I later taught myself was never to ask a price period. Name a price. To do that you have to know the market, and know what you would pay for an object. If you ask the merchant to name the price, it is always ridiculously high, and a difficult one to haggle them down from because you feel like you are insulting them. They are not insulted but they know how to play you. It is theatre of the absurd, but effective nonetheless.

 

Sunday, October 21: Agadir

Just drove over the plain to Stuka/Ait Beha, a walled town Riley mentioned visiting, only to find that the old seciton had recently been leveled for modern development.

 

Monday, October 22: Essaouira to Marrakech

8:45 A.M.: Standing near the tower in Riley’s sketch. “Sweara” means “well-designed city,” first pre-planned city. The fishermen are in with their morning haul, cleaning long flat fish with button eyes. The gulls hovering over the dark brown rock squawk like banshees for the guts and brazenly drag them off as they are cut out. Walled city to N looks much as it did in the sketch. Fishing boats made of Eucalyptus. Essaouira built at time of U.S. formation. Sultan was fighting a Berber revolt in Agadir. Sultan invited Jewish population to augment trade. In gate: one St. James shell, six (I think) crescents for Muslim, and six (I think) roses with cross of David for Jews, 10,000 of the 25,000 who moved here were Jews, but there are none now. They moved to Israel in 1948. Orson Welles shot part of Othello here in 1949. North bastion of scala (fortress in Arabic) is round with nine ports for Barcelona-made canon (1780). View of dark craggy stone with crashing surf. Abdul, our guide, says, “Look, you can see America.” “Castles in the Sand” by Jimi Hendrix was inspired by ruin of a sultan’s Kasbah about 10 km S of Essaouira.

The British consulate, which is across from the town’s now-abandoned main Synagogue, is entered through a door next to an arched passage, not a grand door but with stone trim. It is now divided up into a number of apartments.

11:40 P.M.: We go into a private house after giving a woman an hour to clean up. On roof see tower used for ship spotting. The Union Jack wooden flagstaff stands like a branch in winter. It is on Rue Laalouj, which literally means, “Many Christians converted to Islam.”

 

Tuesday, October 23: The End

I am returning with enough beef and grief to fill a deep and dry oued. Jouwad got no tip from me this morning, which in some ways was a difficult decision. In some ways it was not …no boat, no Bou Sbaa guides, not enough camels, no firewood for our goat roast. He even had the audacity to leave during the middle of our breakfast instead of waiting until we left. Maybe he already knew there was nothing in it for him. There were kindnesses. He picked up wine for us at our expense. He did point out the mountain salt mine on the way to Essaouira. His primary function since the camel trek was to get us to the tour-package, rubber-buffet hotels they booked us in and to take us to his various merchants for shopping. That’s all he really wanted to do.

It wasn’t until a while after I returned to the States that I gained sufficient distance from my trek on the Sahara to realize how much I had absorbed there. The lessons happened almost despite my best laid plans. And perhaps the biggest lessons of all were: Never give up no matter how dire the circumstances. Remain alert and look for the answers that are given not just the ones you seek. I owe a debt of gratitude to my guides Ali and Mohammed el Arab, whom I hope to catch up with again some day on the Sahara, and also to Ted, Claudia, Remi, and J.P. for accompanying me on what turned out to be a more arduous journey than any of us expected.

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