I am soon joined by Maria, Matthew, and Jan.
The view is spectacular, with the sun peeking over the horizon in the East, the camp at our feet to the South, Araouane on the horizon in the North, and our footprints trailing back along the crest of the dune to the West.
When we return to camp I attempt a butt slide down the steepest part of the dune, but end up simply sitting in the sand. The whole sorry episode is recorded on video by an Emmy Award winning television producer (said video to be updated here once I get the sand cleaned out of my video camera and repaired).
After breakfast a camel train from Araouane arrives. We each don a shesh (Tuareg turban) climb aboard the camels, and set off across the dunes.
Separated at Birth?
Susan in Sahara (left) and Tuskan Raider - The "Sand People" on Tatooine (Right)
Susan in Sahara (left) and Tuskan Raider - The "Sand People" on Tatooine (Right)
It is while sitting on the camel with the camera extended arm length into the wind, shooting video and these still shots, that enough fine grain sand is blown into the camera that it shuts down with an angry error message - thus ending all video for the duration of the trip.
Somewhere along the way, I get the idea that it would be cool to sit cross-legged on the camel, as I vaguely recall Peter O'Toole doing in Lawrence of Arabia. This turns out to be a particularly bad idea. As I raise my legs, my feet appear in the camel's field of vision, spooking him, and he lurches forward. I faithfully obey Newton's laws of motion, and remain in approximately the same spot in space until discovering, cartoon-like, that there is no longer a camel beneath me. I fall to the sand in a heap, much to the concern and amusement of my fellow travelers. Dusting myself off, I get back on board, and manage to complete the rest of the ride without incident.
We tour Araouane, once a great trading port on the the shore of the Sahara sea of sand, now mostly derelict, it's two hundred inhabitants eke out a meager living supporting infrequent camel caravans, supplemented by tourist dollars. I did not get the name of the local teacher and guide (pictured here) who escorted us around the town, but his presentation was remarkable. His quiet demeanor accentuated his dignified pride in the town's history, and evident deep sadness in it's current state. We would find another connection to Araouane amid the manuscripts in Timbuktu a few days hence.
Back in the Land Cruisers, we turn back South and head for Timbuktu. Not many picture for the ride back, but there were plenty of stories. The journey proceeded in fits and starts, as one vehicle after another would get stuck in the sand, blow a tire, or simply break down. The entire convoy would, of course, stop and wait for the wayward vehicle, often with one or more Land Cruisers backtracking to help.
It was evident that we were not making the progress over the ground that Paul had planned. Our lunch location was determined when the rear brakes on Kofi's truck failed completely. While we ate, we watched in amazement as his land cruiser was jacked, blocked, brake fluid drained and the right rear wheel assembly stripped down to the disk and pads. Out in the middle of nowhere. A jury rigged repair was effected, but the group was getting concerned about the implications of the continuous delays. If we did not get close to Timbuktu for tonight's camp, it would seriously compress the few short touring hours during the group's one day in Timbuktu.
The issue became critical when Kofi's vehicle broke down again a few kilometers later. This time there would be no repairs. A variety of options were discussed and rejected, including splitting the group and driving into the night. It was decided that the only viable option was to consolidate, drive as long as it was safe, set up camp in the dark, break it down in the dark and get moving at first light. Passengers and supplies were transferred to the remaining vehicles. Much to Kofi's chagrin, his car was abandoned for the night. It seemed like a good plan at the time, but it left no safety margin should any problems occur at the end of the day. Which, as Murphy would have it, is exactly what happened.
Maria was now riding with Matthew, Sigrid and me in John's "Zebra" land cruiser. Light was starting to fail when we hit a patch of soft sand and buried both right wheels up to the axle. A click ahead, Bouj identified a campsite, circled the wagons, and two vehicles marked the spot. We could see a third Land Cruiser midway between us flip on their headlights to mark the route to camp. The last vehicle soon appeared to help John dig out. It was decided that the passengers should be ferried back to camp while the vehicle was extracted. Sigrid and I got in the car, but for reasons I still don't understand, Maria and Matthew stayed behind. We all assumed the the truck would go back to pick them up. As it turns out, Maria and Matthew would walk to camp in the dark, led by Bouj. You'll have to get that story from them, but I heard Maria relate an episode where she was scrambling over a dune in the dark, to find Matthew standing there looking back at her in disbelief. "Bouj is praying." he whispered.
It occurs to me that a side story from the day should be explained. Earlier in the day, as we we waited for the Tuareg military entourage to repair a flat tire somewhere behind the last dune, my idle mind began to weave a Larium fueled paranoid fantasy regarding the well armed Tuareg military entourage, who, it could reasonably be perceived, were deliberately trying to slow us down. After all, we really did not know who they were, who they were protecting us from, and whether the tour was paying them enough to give us the kind of - you know - "protection" we need. And they had guns. Lots and lots of guns. And they were Muslim and wore turbans and were kind of scary looking. Recognizing this for the irrational paranoia that it was, I decided to share it with a sensible, level headed fellow traveler, expressly to be reassured that this was indeed a laughably irrational fear. I chose Matthew as my confidant, thinking a government budget accountant was exactly the sort of solid common sense citizen to provide that reassurance. The conversation had exactly the effect I hoped, so that by the time I was back in camp waiting for the rest of our gear, I had forgotten all about it. Matthew, on the other hand, now standing on a dune in the dark, not knowing the direction to camp, not knowing where the Toureg entourage were to be found, accompanied only by Maria and Bouj (who was currently prostrate facing Mecca on the dune in front of him), could thank me for the paranoid fantasies now rattling between his ears. Coincidently, he was on the same Larium dosing schedule as me. Poor bastard.
Well, No harm - No foul. All vehicles and personnel made it back, and the camp was successfully set up in the dark. Over dinner, with a little wine and Johnny Walker Red Label to take the edge off the day, there was nothing left to worry about. Nothing, that is, except the continuous bolts of lightning flashing in the sky in front of us, behind us, and on both sides of us. But there was really nothing to worry about. After all, this was the dry season. I asked Jan, who lives in the desert in Arizona, if she thought it would rain. "No" she said. "I don't think so." When I asked Paul if there were covers for the screen tops of our tents, just in case it rained, he assured me it would not rain, and they were really not necessary. But just to humor me, he instructed the crew to dig out and distribute the covering flies for the tents. So there was really was nothing to worry about - until the moment the skies opened up, the dry season rain shower started, and we all scurried back to our tents to affix the covers before everything inside got soaked. Nothing to worry about at all. With nothing to worry about, I could relax in the tent, and think back to the conversation over dinner, when Paul got exasperated with my questions about the lightning and possible rain and finally exclaimed:
"Don't worry! I tell you - it will not rain! If it rains, you can have my head!"I lay in our tent in the dark and rain, listening to Mark laughing hysterically alone in the tent next to ours, and wonder what the hell I am going to do with Paul's head.