Did I mention the Sahara was a bit windy?
The constant howling gale might be great for drying washing, but it made it impossible to wash washing – for the first time we had to do it indoors, in our tiny sink, one garment at a time. It took 4 hours.
Meanwhile Sampson was fixing the stuck fridge sliders, again. Zola did his washing for him as penance for pulling it out too far; he doesn’t know his own strength these days. When the washing was finally all dried, we turned the truck’s rear end back into the wind, so it was safe to open the door – a near lethal bang had almost broken Cleo’s back that morning.
It was our coldest night yet in the desert, 19˚ inside, 16˚ outside and 17˚ in the fuel tank when Sampson checked, so he swapped the feed out of recycled palm oil (which hardens at sub-17˚C temperatures) into the sunflower oil tank to be safe. On the bright side, it was also our first night without a mosquito net.
As well as relentless wind, the relentless flies were driving me mad. How, with the whole of the Sahara to play in, do they consistently manage to land on my lips and march along my hat brim while doing T’ai Chi? Now we know why the nomads dress as they do.
We’d finished term 2 work and were waiting for exams to be sent from school. On Saturday morning Zola was obsessively reading the Edge chronicles while Ruby was driving me mad arguing that reading books didn’t make you any more intelligent. I was desperate to escape the debate, get out of the truck and walk while the wind still relatively light, so was rushing to clean my teeth. Somehow I managed to stumble, jackknife and jab my eye into the spray top of a water bottle Ruby had made to discourage the cats from climbing on the table. I screamed: for a split second I thought I’d punctured my left eyeball.
As I staggered backwards and fell on the bed, Sampson and Ruby were horrified to see my lower eyelid twisted inside out. All my eyelashes were stuck on the inside. Luckily it watered so much I was able to massage it back the right way round. The relief when I realised I could see again was huge; my eye was just massively bruised. In the absence of a gel pack, we improvised with a bottle of cold water from the fridge, then Sampson bandaged me up like Pudsy to give it a rest.
While he was busy figuring out why the solenoid was returning bio-diesel to the veg oil tank, the kids escorted me on a walk; I had to hold their arms, because I had no depth of field. We didn’t see snakes in the dunes that M. Hassan had warned us about, but just before we left we did see a lone wolf in the distance.
As we set off, Sampson was bemoaning the state of the front tyres – the crumbly edges of this tar road had resulted in more wear in these last couple of weeks in the Sahara than the previous six months through West Africa. The fact there wasn’t anywhere to do wheel alignment in Dakar had made it worse: if Big Reg went faster than 55kph, he started shaking.
I had very blurry vision for more than 24 hours. The throbbing was worse when sitting up, so I had to lie down in the back. At lunchtime, Sampson rigged up a bag of iced water to hang from my bedside light to relieve the inflammation.
So I wasn’t much help half an hour later when Sampson pulled over to assist Assange Diagne from Dakar, who’d just had his back wheel blow out on his very low clearance Ivesco panel van.
Assane and his partner have a goods transportation business and he spends his life ploughing up and down the highway between Morocco and Senegal. His van looked like it was carrying more than its own weight of stuff on the roof. One tyre was flat and the other was in ribbons, the whole thing threatening to tip over.
First Sampson got a proper metal shovel down off the roof – Assane was trying to dig himself out with jack handle – and I was proud how both the kids set to help with a will.
After an hour Sampson tried to drag Assane out backwards but only dug the van in further. After another hour, Big Reg managed to pull him out forwards, burning the clutch and irreparably scarring the tar with the hub, but at least he was back on the road. It took another hour to change the tricky second back wheel. Assane was really stressing about delivery deadlines, periodically sitting back on his heels in dismay. When I found out he wasn’t fasting, we gave him some water and a few sweets to keep him going.
We were swapping cards when another car full of Senegalese stopped to check he if he needed help. “No worries,” said Assane, gesturing at Sampson, “we’re already sorted”. He explained we’d been there three hours already and the worst was over. They thanked us and I grinned and said “On est ensemble!”. It was good to feel we’d paid back Mamadou’s act of kindness to one of his countrymen. We asked Assane to phone him when he got back to Dakar and pass on our love – what goes around…
We drove on, past El Argoub, another empty toy town next to a military base full of unsmiling blokes.
To pass the time, we were reduced to inventing games like Douglas and Martin do in Cabin Pressure. ‘Things That Are Beige” didn’t last long. A lot more fun was “People Who Should Have Been in Lawrence of Arabia”: Sandy Toksvig, Camelron Diaz, Dust-in Hoffman… and “Alphabetcha-can’t-carry-on”: Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Frene Ginwala – off you go!
The monotony was briefly broken by this:
After driving through miles and miles and MILES of absolutely sod all but sand, like this:
it was a real shock to drive around a corner onto the Dakhla peninsula and suddenly be confronted with a hundred holiday-makers doing this:
Apparently Dakhla’s a top spot on the World Championship kite surfing calendar. So it seems even constant relentless wind has some perks…
It looks like Morocco has been pouring cash into developing Dakhla for the tourist market. There was brand new infrastructure everywhere: hospital, power station, docks…
– all liberally spread out because space is never the problem in Western Sahara. It could almost be called impressive, if one could forget it was in occupied territory.
I was wary of taking close-up photos of military installations, even though the main barracks looked exactly like a Legoland castle with crenellated walls and turrets, and the naval HQ like a toy ship, with a giant blue anchor leaned against it and everything…
The atmosphere seemed subdued but the main reason for that might be because amenities such as the public swimming pool and restaurants were all closed because it was Ramadan.
Big Reg took a drive around the rest of peninsula until Sampson found a potential surf spot down by the fishing village of Lassaraga.
Grinning toothless fishermen gamely traded wave-mimes with Sampson while I sat in the truck imagining the lives of their women. It broke my heart.
The wind was officially driving us nuts by now. Trapped inside the truck without exercise, Ruby was becoming unbearable. Her typical obnoxious teen mood swings were being slowly pressure cookered until she finally exploded into a tantrum where she swore at her Dad.
On top of that, we had to back Big Reg up in between buildings to stop the truck rocking in the gusts and get some sleep. A pack of bratty boys were throwing stones at supper time and, we suspect, cut the tarp around the bikes in the night. We were glad to leave.
Moroccan men appeared squat. The older ones we saw in Western Sahara were generally miserable. The younger ones showed more bravura, with mini-Mohican shaved heads, skinny jeans and attitude. Where were all the girls? I never saw one between the ages of 4 and 30.
On the tenth day of wind, we were heading north to Boujdour, and Hub and I were discussing options for our future. Sampson wanted to quit driving at 4pm but at 4.45 was still looking for somewhere. When he finally saw a safe spot, he pulled over, then started reversing into it…CRRRRRRUNCH. Bloody hell. How did he not see the two hapless blokes in a Golf Passat behind Big Reg? And why on earth had they pulled up behind but not overtaken? Thank goodness no one got hurt.
The driver was in shock, and did very well not to lose it with us. He was a military guy at the Boujdour base who’d gone to Dakhla for his day off, all jaunty in his shorts, and we’d ruined it for him. I patiently waited for him to calm, took all responsibility for the damage and asked him if he wanted tea if he was not fasting. In the end he was reassured enough not to call the gendarmes, which was a huge relief as we had no Moroccan insurance. We promised to pay for the panel beaters when he got a quotation, swapped numbers and gave him $100 deposit. We duly paid the balance into his post office account a few days later. Thanks for your trust M. Hassan.
The next day was Zola’s birthday and I woke very early. If I hadn’t been looking outside at the dawn, I would not have noticed the police van crawling very very quietly up to Big Reg. They checked us out then backed away again, almost silently. It was a very impressive, a skill hard learned. I think we were tracked every step of the way across Western Sahara.
We got up at 6.30 and Sampson pulled out his secret stash: slabs of Aero and Galaxy chocolate from the Gambia, big bags of biltong and droewors bought at the Protea SA food shop in Dakar. I have never been so glad of his sneaky hoarding. That lot plus a Billabong mini-Leatherman tool kit, a little black book and a tube of Pringles meant the birthday boy got a half decent haul of presents after all. I wrapped them all up in colourful scarves in ten minutes. I love how truck birthdays are so low stress.
On Day 14 of the wind, we stopped at the Sea Point promenade-ish end of Tarfaya next to a tiny statue of a biplane painted green. I had seen a sign to the Musèe de Saint Exupéry on the way through town, and remembered Antoine de Saint Exupéry as author of Le Petit Prince (allegedly the fourth best-selling book of all time). When I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found out that he’d been a pioneer of international postal flight, flying the route between Toulouse and Dakar and working for a couple of years as airline stopover manager here at the Cap Juby airfield. He earned his first Légion d’Honneur from the French government for “negotiating the safe release of downed pilots taken hostage by hostile Moors”.
I also learned about Wind, Sand & Stars, Saint Exupéry’s seminal account of the experiences of the first airmail pilots to ply the routes between France and West Africa written in 1939 – months later I ordered it from the City of Cape Town central library and read it over Christmas. His evocative prose about the Sahara echoed the simplicity of trucklife for me:
“In the desert, as on shipboard, one is sensible of the passage of time. In that parching heat a man feels that the day is a voyage towards the goal of evening, towards the promise of a cool breeze that will bathe the limbs and wash away the sweat. Under the heat of the day beasts and men plod towards the sweet well of night as confidently as towards death. Thus, idleness here is never vain; and each day seems as comforting as the roads that lead to the sea.”
The chapter entitled Prisoner of the Sand is a grueling account of his surviving a plane crash and subsequent four days of dehydration in the Libyan desert in 1935. I felt his words should be heeded by the citizens of drought-stricken Cape Town in 2017:
“Farewell, eyes that I loved! Do not blame me if the human body cannot go three days without water. I should never have believed that man was so truly the prisoner of the springs and freshets. I had no notion that our self-sufficiency was so circumscribed. We take it for granted that a man is able to stride straight out into the world. We believe that man is free. We never see the cord that binds him to wells and fountains, that umbilical cord by which he is tied to the womb of the world. Let man take but one step too many… and the cord snaps.”
This experience is said to have caused him to hallucinate the character of the Little Prince, who came to comfort him as he lay near death, reflecting: “I have nothing to complain of. For three days I have tramped the desert, have known the pangs of thirst, have followed false scents in the sand, have pinned my faith on the dew. I have struggled to rejoin my kind, whose very existence on earth I had forgotten. These are the cares of men alive in every fibre, and I cannot help thinking them more important than the fretful choosing of a night-club in which to spend the evening. Compare the one life with the other, and all things considered this is luxury! I have no regrets.”
On reading about it, I reflected there is indeed much to be said for extreme experiences which allow the priorities of your life to be brought into sharp relief. I was not surprised there have been several movies made about the inspiring Antoine Saint Exupéry.
“I am not talking about living dangerously. Such words are meaningless to me. The toreador does not stir me to enthusiasm. It is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life.”
The Sampsons had fun in Tarfaya:
“No man can draw a free breath who does not share with other men a common and disinterested ideal. Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
That afternoon, we were visited by Salek the fisherman, who had popped down to the beach on his bike and stopped to chat. He was greatly enamoured of our whole adventure.
Salek speaks quite brilliant English for a man who has learned solely from interaction with tourists, who must be fairly few and far between. He also knows Spanish and gets by in German. He quite obviously understood French but was reluctant to speak it – this was evident in several Sahrawis we spoke to. They seem to prefer to use the language of their original colonists, rather than the present ones. “You can’t trust the Moroccan,” said Salek grimly, “His heart is black, put him behind you.”
We spoke of Saint Exupéry and he gave me directions to the Museum, while trying to remember “that sentence” the famous author wrote “meaning when you look at someone and you know you can talk to them”? He said he was so happy that “today I decided I just had to come to the beach” to allow him to meet us – proof, he thought, that “God makes friends”. It was only later I realised that the much-quoted line from Le Petit Prince he was searching for was not about trust or confidence but instinct:
“On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The museum display was impressive, detailed and very moving. Saint Exupéry and his peers such as Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet are revered across the Francophonie for their bravery. Of course, the great irony of this aviator-author being fêted in this part of the world is that he wrote his most famous story in exile while deeply depressed about the occupation of his country by the Nazis.
Saint Exupéry escaped to North America and appealed for US assistance to overthrow the Vichy regime while writing Le Petit Prince, as well as Letter to a Hostage dedicated to the 40 million French living under Nazi oppression. France had been occupied for a couple of years at that point; Western Sahara has been occupied since 1975.
I wondered if the Friends of Tarfaya who maintain the Museum are supremely aware of the irony and subtlely putting one over on the authorities..?
In 1943, aged 43, 8 years over the limit, Saint Exupéry returned to active duty with the Free French Air Force to fight with the Allies. He had repeatedly petitioned General Dwight Eisenhower for an exemption despite limited mobility due to his previous crash injuries. He was reinstated to his old squadron, on provision that he was to fly only five missions, but it was during his ninth reconnaissance of German troop movements in the Rhone valley on 31 July 1944 that his unarmed plane vanished off the coast, south of Marseille (almost exactly where we are now as I’m finally writing this up).
“It is only when we become conscious of our part in life, however modest, that we shall be happy. Only then will we be able to live in peace and die in peace, for only this lends meaning to life and to death.”
Saint Exupéry disappeared just three weeks before the Liberation of Paris. Like his timeless hero Le Petit Prince, France remembers them as “innocents who fell from the sky”.