“Horizon of Sand: A Night on the Sahara”
Late afternoon, and the silence is almost absolute—so quiet, I can hear this pen scratching upon the page of my journal. Evening approaches, but the sun still burns hot. The air hangs heavy and still. I pause for a moment and study the world around me. I lay on the top of a low dune, and the next cresting wave obscures all that stretches beyond. The horizon is close; below and above its imaginary line, there is a contrast of simple immensities—sand and sky, hues of azure and gold, broke only by sparse patches of green. This is the northern edge of the Sahara Desert in the African country of Tunisia. Southward, the desolation extends beyond my comprehension.
Occasionally, the camels snort and shuffle. A little while earlier, they both dropped down onto the sand, rolling and thumping their legs against the ground. I watched the larger one, the one I rode today, rear back and chew on his shaggy rump. Somewhere behind the dunes and scattered scrub brush, there comes the muted sound of our guide as he searches for firewood.
On the rough blanket beside me, my companion, Lisa, is scribbling down her own impressions of the day.
And what a day it has been . . . .
Early that morning, we climbed into a louage—an inexpensive, long-distance taxi—and left the city of Gabes. The journey south to the desert lasted hours, and each mile that rolled beneath the wheels took us further and further into the world of the ancients, where people lived lives virtually unchanged from the times of their ancestors.
When we eventually arrived at our destination, both Lisa and I felt the uneasy stirring of apprehension. Our driver stopped in an open, barren expanse of sand, and where there should have been a guide waiting to escort us out into the desert, there was no one. Close to a hundred saddled camels milled about, but humans, there were none. At the centre of the expanse, we could see a makeshift shelter with walls of rough-cut branches and a roof of palm leaves.
The door of the louage slammed shut, the driver gave us a last look through the veiled windshield, then he drove off across the packed sand. We stood there alone, feeling somewhat like castaways on the ocean. In the middle of nowhere; we now had no transportation, could not speak the language, and we had no guide. There was nothing for it but to go to the hut and see what Fate had determined for us.
It was a scene out of Indiana Jones. But for a haphazard “bar” tucked into one end of the building, the interior or the shelter was open; the floor was sand. Long planks ran the along the walls and served as benches for the few locals gathered inside. These men stared as we entered. For certain, they didn’t see many like us, not there, not that far from the city. Long beards, faces weathered from the sun, wind and blowing sand, authentic desert garb—they could have been plucked from antiquity.
We could not communicate, but we were greeted with friendly smiles, and the somewhat imposing “bartender” motioned for us to sit down and wait (like we had any other options). Later, surprisingly, he prepared a meal for us to share. That is, for all of us to share: the bowl of couscous had three spoons: one for me, one for Lisa, and one for him.
We spent several hours in that shelter. We wrote in our journals, wandered about outside, mostly we asked one another what we had gotten ourselves into. The questions hung in the air: what are we going to do when the sun sets, and how are we going to get back to the city?
As it turned out, there was no need for worry. Eventually, our guide arrived, and we began our little trek on the Sahara.
There were five of us who set out from that shelter: myself, Lisa, our guide (who would walk the entire distance), and two single-humped camels. I didn’t catch the names of the camels, but our guide introduced himself as Amid (short for Mohammed). We thought that he spoke Arabic, but he could have just as easily been speaking Berber. Lisa speaks English and French; I speak English with a smattering of Spanish (mostly alcohol related). I also sling a mean Shakespeare, but so far this has not assisted me much during my travels. Luckily, Amid also knew a tiny bit of French, so minimal communication was possible. Mostly, however, we “spoke” with gestures, facial expressions, and a good deal of faith. Before we set off, Amid gave us both chesches, long, narrow strips of cloth that we wrapped around our heads and used to protect our faces from the sun and blowing sand.
Our two camels were fascinating. First off, they were huge beasts—my head scarcely reached the level of their humps. They also appeared somewhat alien. It seemed to me that their legs had one too many joints. When they lowered themselves onto the sand, they would first lurch forward, then lurch back, then once again settle forward to rest. It was a very curious evolutionary design, but no doubt somehow beneficial for animals that stride the desert sands, which, of course, explained the bizarre hump of flesh that adorned their backs. Of course, I had seen pictures, but the real thing was much more strange. By far the most peculiar aspect of those animals was their feet. The first that that come to mind—I’m not kidding here—was Star Wars. The feet consisted of a heel and two gargantuan “toes.” When the foot hit the sand, it flattened out to almost double its size, the desert equivalent of snow shoes—sand shoes.
I cannot comment on the demeanor of all the camels in Tunisia, but the two we rode displayed considerable manners. We had been told that camels stink, spit and bite; however, this was not the case. I shared a few amicable tete-a-tetes with Lisa’s mount, and it never showed anything but mild curiosity. Well, mild curiosity and very, very bad breath. The only instance where I questioned this favourable impression was when it first came time for me to dismount. The lurch backward was so abrupt that I found myself catapulted from my saddle and landing butt first on the packed sand, simultaneously bruising both my tailbone and my pride. All visions I had of myself as a modern Lawrence of Arabia dissipated in an ignoble grunt and a small puff of Sahara sand. Was it intentional? Did I see a smirk on that bestial countenance? This mystery will never be answered.
We spent half a day upon the desert, and even in this short duration of time, the Sahara showed us a variety of different faces. Our first hour out was not at all what I had envisioned; the low dunes were sculpted over baked sand that felt like chipped concrete. The sun blistered, and the land felt inhospitable. In the distance, a long, rocky hill dominated the sky, and we could see scattered huts on the its sloped shoulder.
An hour later, we entered the desert of my expectations. Paradoxically, the simplicity felt overwhelming, nothing more than sand and sky—granular wave upon wave, diminishing to a vanishing point. Purely for the experience of walking in the Sahara Desert, Lisa and I dismounted and made our way on foot. The sand was surprising. At times, it felt like icing sugar, so insubstantial that our feet sank calf-deep into the dune, and striding atop a thirty-foot ridge became hazardous.
This desire for experience earned us a moment of trepidation: at one point, Amid outpaced us and disappeared behind the dunes. We could follow his footprints in the sand—as long as no wind came to obscure that record—nevertheless, all our possessions were tied to the humps of the camels. We were on foot in the Sahara with no food, water, or transportation. How long would we last? Who would ever find us? But then, there he was, waiting patiently, silently, beyond the next slanted wall of sand.
Much later in the day, after enthusiasm and wonder had been replaced by aching muscles and tender butts, we entered an area were vegetation added blots of green to the landscape. Although we would not reach it, there was an oasis nearby. That landscape was not as dramatic as the ones we passed earlier, but it had a more welcoming countenance, and it was there that we would spend the night.
My long reverie is brought to an end when Amid informs us (with gestures and smiles) that our meal is prepared. Almost unnoticed, he has returned with wood, sparked a spindly fire and then cooked a desert meal.
We first eat a type of flat bread that he bakes in the embers of the fire. It has a hint of charcoal flavouring, but in that place, on that day, it’s about the best I’ve ever had. Amid also boils a stew. By now, the sun has set, so we cannot be certain just what is in this stew. We are starving, however, so we eat what is placed before us, and it is delicious.
After cleaning up—using sand to wash the dishes, Amid does something unexpected; he flips the cooking pot and begins to use it as a drum. Patting softly with both hands, he sings a song in Arabic. It sounds like a lament, but it could have easily been a story of love for his desert home. As he beats on the makeshift drum, the scrub fire illuminates the right half of his face and body. The other half is in silhouette, framed by the low, cloud-hazed crescent moon and a spray of stars. It is a moment that etches itself in my memory.
Lying on the dune, warmed by the fire, and with Lisa by my side, the moment feels mystical. The clouds thicken and obscure the night. We wrap up in our blanket and fell asleep on the open sand.
Hours later, a cough from Amid awakes us both. I lay there, lids closed, attempting to slip back into sleep, but Lisa whispers that I should open my eyes. The ceiling of cloud has disappeared, and we share a Milky Way as clear and deep as we’ve ever experienced. Polaris hugs the horizon, where some mist remains. To the south are constellations that we have never seen. We talk for a time, quietly.
But there, with the desert all around, the words seem both too much and not enough.
Eventually, sleep returns.