Into the Sahara

By Dorsey, James Michael | The World and I, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Into the Sahara


Dorsey, James Michael, The World and I


The blowing sand rocks our Land Rover as we reach the outskirts of Timbuktu. Mahkmoud leans over the steering wheel and peers into the hazy lemon yellow that fills our windshield. There is no horizon between earth and sky and I wonder how he can continue to drive with no reference points, yet on he goes with the instinct of a desert nomad. I realize that for him, this is normal.

He tells me these storms can last for days but I do not care. We have finally reached one of the oldest and most remote cities on earth, so let it blow. Pierre and I have come to see the Tuareg, the Blue Men of the Sahara, an ancient Berber tribe that ranges from southern Morocco, through Mauritania, south, here, into eastern Mali. They are regal in their indigo turbans died from the ink of Mediterranean Sea urchins and their flowing blue robes. Astride one of their white camels they are a sight directly out of the "Arabian Nights."

Later, at the hotel, in hopes to enter their world for a brief time, I ask Halis, my Tuareg guide, if it might be possible to don the blue robes for a quick photo, hoping he will not take offense. "No problem,' he says as he disappears into the night. An hour later he is back at the door, arms piled high with blue fabric. "We will all travel as Tuaregs," he says, "It will make things easier.'

I do not know what this means until he points at the wall map. Tomorrow's destination is his home village of Arawan, a former Foreign Legion outpost, north of Timbuktu in the trackless Sahara. This is an area my guidebook calls "Bandit Country." It is the only speck on the map for 120 miles in every direction.

I had not bargained for this but cannot pass the opportunity. Halis has shrugged off my query about bandits, saying they will not bother us. My own paranoia will have to decide if this is simply his own hubris, or a statement of fact. We are going into the deep desert not only with, but dressed as Berber nomads.

We awake early, tying and retying my turban in hopes of not making fools of ourselves. Just after dawn I walk through the hotel lobby feeling totally self conscious but no one gives me a second look. I am just another Tuareg in search of morning coffee. An hour later we are bouncing over loose sand, headed north, with 20 gallons of gas and four chickens on our roof. What have I done?

There are no roads and few trees, only low scrub brush and moving dunes. Tuareg boys learn every star in the heavens and can easily navigate by them, but when I ask how he does this by day, Mahkmoud points to a tree and says, "That is where we ate spaghetti," and at another saying, "That is where we camped with the Germans." He knows every natural formation like I know my living room, for this is his.

We barrel along at thirty miles an hour, our wheels sometimes airborne, and Mahkmoud smiling like some demented Parnelli Jones. He is having a great time while I must blank my mind to the obvious fact that if we break down here it could be days before anyone finds us. He and Halis frequently argue in French and I am later told this is over Mahkmoud's choice of trails. Halis feels we are better off sticking to established tire tracks while Mahkmoud prefers to blaze his own way. All I can do is try not to think of broken axles.

At one point we crest an enormous dune and Mahkmoud tells us to get out and walk down in case he rolls the car. I am about to do so when I realize that would mean we are alone and on foot in the Sahara. I refuse and tell him why. He laughs, and with a loud throaty scream guns the engine sending us hurtling down a 100 foot wave of flowing sand, covering us in the process and forcing me to restart my heart.

Time and again, we "surf" the dunes and I finally learn to relax and trust his expert touch as we careen downhill at various weird angles.

After four hours we stop under a stunted mesquite and within seconds Mahkmoud has a fire going from broken branches after producing a spark with flint and adze while the wind howls around him. …

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