A young Canadian adventurer's African diary
Peter Stollery traveled like a native through Africa. He rode with Arab convoys through the Sahara, walked the jungle track on the Guinea coast, thumbed through the Congo. Here he begins his account of Africa at ground level — an Africa few white men have ever stooped to see
PART 1: NOMAD IN THE SAHARA
Map shows Stollery's desert route. His story starts overleaf ►
As I DROVE UP THE HILL past the Casbah, the damp spots on the streets of Algiers were drying under the morning sun. When I reached that traffic circle high up from the harbor and looked back on the sea. I couldn’t help wondering how long it would be before I'd see something wet again. It was the first of July and I was heading overland by car for the Niger River. Before getting there, I had to cross the hottest part of the Sahara in the summer.
Back in Sidi-bel-Abbès, where I had been living for a while, everyone had told me it was impossible to cross the Sahara in July. When the director of the Touring Club of France in Oran heard my plans, he said I was crazy. It's not very difficult for a private individual to cross the desert by car in the winter, providing he puts up a $200 bond with the Touring Club of France (I had the princely sum of $1 10 in my pocket at the time). The club will look for him if something goes wrong. However, between
May 25 and the middle of September, the Sahara is closed. Nobody will look for you-—at least that’s what the director of the club told me in Oran. I was going to try it anyway.
The land between the desert and the Mediterranean is a fertile coastal belt about seventyfive miles wide. The Atlas mountains are the dividing line between desert and vineyards. My first objective, heading out of Algiers in my little four-horsepower Renault, was the gorge of the ChifTa River—actually a series of gorges where the ChifTa comes tumbling down out of the mountains. Because of French operations against the Algerian rebels, you arc not allowed to stop your car in the twisting ten or fifteen miles that the road follows the river up into the mountains. Two nights before I left, the army had a running gun battle with terrorists near the road. Several people were killed. At the entrance to the gorges is an army checkpoint for all vehicles going south. I was to find it the first of many. A pleasant young French soldier looked over my authorization to enter the Sahara. He asked where I was going. When 1 said Ni-
geria, he shrugged his shoulders and answered: “OK, Nigeria, why not?” and marked it down.
Several miles into the gorges, I made one unauthorized stop to take photographs. It was a quick one and I nervously eyed the towering cliffs on each side of me. After all my preparations, it wouldn't have looked good if that was as far as I got. I didn’t stop again until I reached the next checkpoint at the exit of the gorges.
Leaving the gorges behind me. I climbed the first range, the 'Leihen Atlas, to the High Plateau. Boghari. the first town on the plateau, is 136 kilometres south of the coast. The scenery changes quickly, from the lovely green fields near Algiers to the thick forests of the coastal lace of the mountains, on to the steppe country. At Boghari, everything has a burnt look.
Leaving Boghari, I saw my first camels. Several ragged Arabs were driving the herd along beside the road. The Arabs wore white turbans called shishes and the striped woolen cloaks known as djelebas that are used by mountain Arabs to keep warm during the cold nights. Along the side of the road were crookcd-Iook-
ing mud huts with the ends of poles sticking out of the flat roofs. The road was dead straight, but beyond Boghari there were ten miles of detour. In places 1 sank two feet in the dust.
At Djelfa the French Foreign Legion mans the two control posts. A German sergeant scannet! my papers. He looked a little suspicious but told me that the road to Laghouat should be sate. He said that most of the rebel mines were put in the soft shoulders ofT the pavement. The pavement is only a single lane. When two big petrol tankers meet, they have to drive with one side on the shoulders. Whoomph! They get it.
About halfway between Djelfa and Laghouat. I got out of the car to check the engine. Just as 1 was about to get back in. 1 noticed a thin black wire across the road between my front and rear wheels. My front wheels had already crossed it. It was a mine wire. As 1 had to go one way or the other. I tied toward Laghouat. My car had been too light to set it off.
The French Sahara is divided into two districts; Laghouat is the capital of the eastern district. I saw
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Nomad in the Sahara
continued from page 19
The caïd and I sat down under some palms for a tea-drinking ceremony
Laghouat from a distance, a group of green smudges that turned out to he date palms. You don't realize how desolate the country through which you’ve passed is until the green of a palm tree jars you.
Laghouat is the sort of place people think of when they think of North Africa. Perhaps P. C. Wren had it in mind when he wrote some of his stories. 1 sipped a Pernod on the long veranda of l'Hôtel Saharien and watched legionnaires wearing their Saharan uniforms—great white baggy pants with a sort of cross design embroidered down the sides of the pant legs—-stroll by. There were French gendarmes wearing the same pants but in black with the cross in white thread. Mysterious - looking Arab women completely covered with white sheets shuffled up and down the street. Arab camel troops, their burnooses criss-crossed with cartridge belts, strode here and there.
On the southern edge of Laghouat there is a road sign that says: "Capetown !(),()()() kilometres." Just after the sign, there is a checkpoint and then the road goes straight as far as the eye can see across the flat, clay-colored desert. I ieft Laghouat at sunrise so as to be at Ghardai'a, the next major oasis, before the intense heat of broad day began. Gharda'ia is 203 kilometres south of Laghouat. At about the halfway mark the French have a rather odd control post. They write your name down in a book and make you wait until there are three cars to go in a convoy. You are not allowed to leave
this control for Gharda'ia singly. It’s a security measure because of rebel attacks on lone cars, and vehicles coming in the opposite direction have to go through the same procedure. If there was another post farther along to insure that the cars stayed in convoy, it would be understandable. However, this is the only one. You go the first half of the journey alone. Then you wait until two more cars arrive, and then head off. The fast cars go as fast as they can because of the straight road and people with small ears, people like myself. finish the second half of the trip as alone as they w;ere on the first half. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait. Two large American cars were already at the post when I arrived. As soon as we were out of sight of the soldiers, they left like a shot.
During five years of war in Algeria, Gharda'ia had had only one incident. A grenade was let off in the street two nights before my arrival. It's generally a quiet place, too much out of the way for the terrorists, who confine their activities to the newly discovered Algerian oilfields 175 miles to the east. There are really five towns, each in one of the nearby oases. The people are Mozabites. and Gharda'ia is the unofficial Mozabite capital. Like so many of the people living in the Sahara, the Mozabites were chased there by somebody else. At one time they were the rulers of Algeria. They were deposed by one of the numerous invasions and had to seek refuge in the desert. They
are considered something of the Protestants of the Moslem religion. They believe that the descendants of Mohammed have no claim to be honored, and elect their own leaders.
1 spent the afternoon driving around a couple of oases. This was my first real experience with sand, and 1 immediately managed to get stuck. The narrow sandy paths among the date palms and peanut fields of an oasis are meant for donkeys and not for cars. 1 got myself into a very difficult position. On each side were two stone walls. At first the road was wide enough but as 1 continued along it became narrower. 1 didn’t want to stop in the sand and finally found myself wedged in between the stone walls. Having sunk in. 1 couldn't back out. As it was early afternoon, everyone was inside his mud hut keeping out of the sun. After a while an Arab came down the path with a load of sticks on his donkey. He stopped and examined the situation. He went away and then came back with some more people and together we lifted the car up bodily and carried it out to where the road was wider. They wouldn't accept any money for their help and one man said that we should have tea. Instead of going anywhere, we sat down on the sand underneath some date palms and his young son brought along a silver teapot with one of those oriental-looking spouts. He also hollowed out a place in the sand and dumped down three glasses and some peanuts. My host turned out to be the
caïd, or chief, of this particular oasis. He spoke good French and was a splendid fellow. It was difficult to realize that the man wearing a flowing white burnoose. white turban and sandals had fought in France and knew the Riviera as well as his Saharan oasis. One thing 1 learned from him. When an Arab invites you to tea, you must never leave before drinking three glasses—that's bad manners. The tea is not like the drink Canadians know, but is made from mint leaves. To sweeten it the drinker takes a large cake of ungranulated sugar and breaks a piece off by hitting it with his glass. Since then I've drunk gallons of the stuff, and I have never seen it made without someone going through the ritual of breaking the sugar with the edge of his glass.
After leaving my friend. 1 went back into town. That night 1 slept in the yard of a construction company. Bright and early the next morning 1 left for my next stop. Fi Goléa. 320 kilometres to the south.
Only fifteen days before, the road to Fl Goléa had been finished. Until then the trans-Saharan track started at Ghardaia. It's one of many French schemes for opening up the Sahara. Fventually. a paved road will go all the way to West Africa. It's a pretty ambitious idea. Instead of making an expensive two-lane highway, the French are building it one lane wide; better to have something than nothing at all.
Halfway to Fl Goléa is a resthouse or bordj. and a well. In the summer this is the only place on the 250-mile stretch where you can get a drink of water. When I passed, there were some Arabs pumping up muddy water to give to their herd of camels. In the bordj there was a filter that cleaned the drinking water to
some extent. In the Sahara, drinkingwater standards change drastically.
About a hundred miles from El Golea sand was drifting across the newly laid macadam. Until then, there hadn’t been much sand, just clay and pebbles. Here the road ran beside one of the great
sand seas. Believe me. it looks just like a sea. In all directions the sand rises and falls in great waves. It's impossible to
keep the dunes from blowing across the roads and I had to shovel my way through several times. The blowing sand covered my tire tracks as soon as I’d passed. The brilliant glare from the dunes is blinding and without sunglasses I could hardly bear to look at them.
I had just pushed my way through
one of these sand piles on the road and
was wondering where El Goléa was when I found myself approaching a valley. In it were the green palms of the oasis. The effect is remarkable. One minute you’re all alone—it’s like being in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. The next minute you can see Arabs with their camels and donkeys, tending small plots on the valley floor.
The main feature of any French post
in the desert is the annexe, where the commandant and any government offices are to be found. I drove down the main street looking for the annexe. A European came out of the only bar I could see and stood looking at me. I stopped and asked him for directions. He told me where to go and then asked how far I’d come. He was astounded when I said Algiers. He had a car like mine and had been debating whether it would get him to Algiers or not. I was the first person he’d seen who had ever come so far south in a small Renault during the summer. I felt quite proud of myself, not knowing that I wouldn’t gel much farther.
El Goléa is considered one of the most beautiful oases in the Sahara. There are several square miles of cultivated plots with narrow canals running in and out. The irrigation system is simple: a canal, two or three feet wide, runs along beside the mud-walled plots, and there are small ditches running off it into the plots. The owner of the plot puts some mud into the mouth of the ditch running into his field. When he needs water, he just knocks out the mud and water runs into his ditch.
Jutting up on one side of the town is the ksar. an ancient town built around the top of a steep hill. Some of the dwellings in the ksar are just holes dug out of the hillside, and poisonous snakes and scorpions make their homes there.
Among other things. El Goléa has a swimming pool built by the military. It's open to the public and 1 went with some
French soldiers for a swim. I have underwater swimming equipment and I took it along. Nobody has ever been more astonished than the young Arab boys at the pool when they got a look at my fins. Living almost a thousand kilometres from any body of water but a swimming pool, they couldn't understand what these things were for. They lined up to try the stuff.
Until I reached El Goléa. my idea had been to go down what is known as the Hoggar track to the Niger, passing through Tamanrasset, deep in the Hoggar mountains of the south Sahara. There is another route called the track of the Tanezrouft lying to the west. It runs almost parallel to the Hoggar, hitting the Niger near Timbuktu. Still farther west, there is a track going south from Morocco. For the last few years it had been impossible to get through on it. 1 was told, because of a rebel army in the south of Morocco. These rebels have nothing to do with the Algerian war but are in opposition to the King of Morocco, and they hold several oases through which the track passes. A French friend of mine tried it but was arrested by a rebel leader. He was badly beaten and put in jail, aid he escaped only by removing the bars from the window of his cell.
At the annexe I was told that south of Tamanrasset the Hoggar track was a sea of mud. The rains had started. The only thing to do was to cross over to the track to the west. The only road that goes over starts at In Salah, 420 kilometres south of Fl Goléa, and joins the other track at Adrar. I decided to try it. The chef J'annexe must have heard of my plan for I was called in and asked to show my contract of assistance, in case I got in trouble on the road. Of course I didn't have one so he told me I must go back.
"Your car will not go fifty miles on the track below here.” he said. "Besides, it is inclined to heat up easily.”
But I disobeyed the order and at four o'clock in the morning, a few days after my arrival and with the assistance of a certain French sergeant. I headed south from Fl Goléa. The chef was asleep at the time. No more pavement, just two wheel impressions to follow.
Between Fl Goléa and In Salah, there is an old French fort called Fort Miribel. It's 143 kilometres south of Fl Goléa. That's as far as my car got. It was the tires. The first few miles of the track aren't bad but then you climb to an upland region called the Plateau of the Tademaït. Fxcept for the odd wadi here and there, it's dead fiat and covered with stones. In fact, it's the country of the black rocks. The Tademaït is one of the most forlorn, dead and desolate-looking places on earth. But for Miribel and the odd Arab with his camels, the place is uninhabited except by snakes and scorpions. In an area 200 by 250 miles, there's not a drop of water. Here the route is across sharp pebbles, and sometimes there are big rocks right across the track. You have to drive out into the desert and around them. Fortunately the first of my fiat tires came when I was only twenty kilometres from Fort Miribel. I pul on my spare. I thought I'd fix the spare at Miribel ami buy some inner tubes at In Salah. My friend the sergeant at Fl Goléa had given me a letter to the sergeant at Fort Miribel and I found some rather lonesome soldiers there who were only too glad to give me a hand. They gave the car a mechanical going-over anil 1 spent the day there waiting for night to continue to my next stop.
All day the heat was fierce. The fort was built in the I X7()s, and the sleeping quarters were like caves built into the stone walls. On top of them the soldiers
used to keep watch, walking a sort of catwalk just behind the walls, guarding one of France’s most desolate outposts. About noon a truck showed up. An Arab and a European came into the fort for a drink of water. The European turned out to be a French major on his way to Tamanrasset for his holidays. He had hitched a ride with the truck. The truck was taking him as far as In Salah. where he hoped to find another going down to Tam. We started talking and 1 invited him to come along with me. He agreed and we decided to leave together in the evening.
At eight o’clock, with no water but some thirty-odd cans of the major’s beer strung along the outside of the car in a wet towel, we said goodbye to the soldiers and left. We got about thirty miles from Miribel when the tires gave out. The major and 1 drank most of the beer on an all-night march back to the fort.
The next morning 1 set out for the car with some soldiers in a jeep. We took all the stuff out and pushed the car out of the way of traffic. Leaving everything at Fort Miribel, I got a lift on a passing truck back to El Golea. 1 have never been more dejected. At El Golea, 1 found that there were only half a dozen inner tubes for my car in the whole town. They carried no stock of tires because there was only one other 4-hp Renault in El Goléa. Mine was the farthest south in Algeria and it was in an unenviable position.
Luckily there was an army convoy going to Miribel the next night. They took me along and I put new tubes in the tires. Even then 1 still figured on going all the way by car. But when one tire went flat while 1 was fixing another, it was too much. I offered to sell the car to one of the soldiers for ten dollars. He refused. Back I drove to El Golea, having several more flats on the way. That was the end. The heck with the car; 1 decided to hitch-hike.
The day I got back to El Goléa for the third and last time, a mechanic came over and offered to buy my car. He knew someone who was leaving for In Salah the next day and told me he would fix it up if I sold him the car. 1 was so happy to get out of the place, I would have given him the car, but he didn’t know that and I got nearly $200 for it. At four o'clock in the morning, I left El Goléa for the last time.
It was an Arab in a Dodge Power Wagon who took me to In Salah. We arrived there at noon. I always think of In Salah as “the furnace.” To add to the incredible heat, everything there is red. The town is made out of red mud. Arriving anywhere in the Sahara at noon won’t give you a good impression of the place, but In Salah is really the end of the world. It’s on the edge of the dune area, and it’s gradually being inundated. Already half the town is covered. I was told that in fifty years you won’t even be able to find where In Salah was. It won’t be a great loss. 1 had to spend the night sleeping on the ground and killed a viper a few feet from where I made my bed. When I awoke the next day, a sandstorm was starting. In one of the Arab stores I bought seven yards of white cheesecloth, wrapped it around my head, and sat out the storm. They tell me it was only a mild one, but I couldn’t walk a hundred yards up the street—the blowing sand cut right through my shirt.
By a stroke of luck, there was a truck going west to Adrar. The driver said he could take me along and we left in the evening. 1 met two French boys who were also going to cross the desert and get to Dakar in French West Africa. Because I had asked first, I rode in the cab
of the truck and they rode on the back. Just outside In Salah we passed the petrified forest. It’s hard to believe that at one time there were forests around there, but that’s where In Salah gets all its firewood.
It’s 350 kilometres across to Adrar. We did the first half by midnight, slept stretched out in the cool sand and made the last half in the early morning. After that terrible night at In Salah, the cool sand felt good.
South of Adrar is the Tanezrouft. In the language of the Tuaregs, it is called the great nothing. For hundreds of miles,
there isn’t a shrub, a blade of grass or a drop of water. It’s one of the most desolate regions on earth, and most of it is unexplored. Apart from the occasional nomads driving their camels across it, nobody lives in the Tanezrouft. West of the track there arc no army posts. There is nothing.
The first thing I had to do in Adrar was report with the two Frenchmen to the gendarmes, who said that our papers were not in order. The French atomicbomb centre of Reggane is only 139 kilometres south, and everyone needed spe-
cial authorization to be in Adrar. Not only that, but although there was an Arab convoy going to French West Africa every fifteen days, the next one wasn’t for ten days. They would turn our cases over to the colonel in charge of security. Also, because of security, we would have to stay in a hotel and there was a curfew.
We managed to find a truckers’ hotel that was pretty cheap and the three of us stayed in one room. The next day, when we reported to the gendarmes, we were told that we might stay and wait for the convoy, but we had to report every day
to the police. The gendarmes told me that if I had been in a car I would have been sent back. As it was, they couldn’t do much else but let me wait.
Days passed. The two Frenchmen left for home. They had heard stories about West Africa; the people, having attained semi-independence, were supposed to be taking it out on Frenchmen. Then there was the heat; the French boys couldn't stand it. During the afternoons, the temperature was 122 inside our darkened room. The thought of what it would be farther south was not encouraging. I
hadn’t known them long, but at least they were companions in difficulty, and to be left alone in Adrar with nothing ahead but trouble was hard on the morale.
One evening before they left, the Frenchmen had a visitor. It was the driver of the truck that had brought us from In Sälah. He demanded two thousand francs from each of them. It seemed that he’d needed time to work up the courage to ask. They told me that after a big argument they had paid. He was supposed to be looking for me. I told them that it didn’t matter; he hadn’t mentioned it
when I asked for the lift, so I wouldn’t pay. He never did come after me, but it turned out that his brother was the chief of the convoy going south, and he made it pretty tough for me to find a truck to take me. Finally the authorities ordered one owner to do so, for they had to get rid of me somehow, but 1 had to pay ten dollars for the five-day trip, which included my grub and water.
In Adrar I saw some of the finest-looking men I’ve ever seen. Mauritanians from the southwest. They had driven a herd of camels in to sell. Tall, strong,
handsome men, they wore blue turbans and, at first, I thought they were the legendary Tuaregs. They strode around the market buying supplies. Compared to these fellows, the ordinary Arabs look pretty weaselly. The Mauritanians think nothing of making a thousand-mile journey across any part of the Sahara on camels. I found that they buy camels in West Africa, cross the Tanezrouft, and sell the camels in Adrar, where they get almost double the price.
After a couple of false starts, because our military escort didn't turn up. early one morning about fifteen trucks lined up and headed out of Adrar. People waved to us as we turned out the southern gate of the town. We were on our way. Our load was made heavier by large drums of gasoline, for there was no more to be had until we reached Gao. 900 miles away. We had to be escorted to a point fifty kilometres south of Reggane. This was supposed to deter any spies among our company.
We passed a string of oases and, except for one broken spring that was quickly fixed, arrived in Reggane with no trouble. This was the place I’d read about in the papers for months; “Reggane, centre of French atomic research.” At least I thought there would be some modern buildings, but no; around the village
there is nothing. You could quite easily be on the moon. Everything of importance is concealed in the surrounding desert. Just a few red mud huts make up the place. An Arab told me that every few years it rains a few drops; he always has to put on a new roof. Once whole pieces fell out of it. for with the slightest bit of rain everything disintegrates.
There was a really miserable gendarme on duty when I reported to the gendarmerie. At first he told me that my papers were not in order and I'd have to go back. Then, as it was obvious there was no way of getting back, he told me I’d have to sit in the cab of the truck until the convoy left. I was not allowed even to go into one of the mud huts to get out of the sun. While one or two gendarmes stood guard over me from a doorway about fifty yards away, I sat in the cab and watched the thermometer climb to 130. The truck motors wouldn’t stand the heat of daytime driving and we had to wait until the late afternoon.
To keep our water supply cool, we had what are called ghcrbas strapped to the outside of the trucks. They’re goatskins, and they keep the water surprisingly cool. The insides are made watertight by an application of rancid butter, and the water from new gherbas tastes pretty awful. We filled the bags at Reggane, where the water has magnesia in it. It has the same effect as milk of magnesia.
Late in the afternoon we left our escort behind us. The next human beings lived in the French Sudan, 500 miles away. We rarely followed the track, but just dodged the boulders and drove where the ground looked hardest. At times we plowed through sand. Once in a while we'd go along with the trucks spread out like a fan. It was eerie to see; to the right and
At one in the afternoon, the thermometer at Poste Weygand registered 149
to the left were the headlights of fifteen trucks at intervals of a quarter mile, but the end of the line was out of sight. We broke the journey a few times for cups of mint tea and arrived at our stopping place late in the morning.
For aid to travelers, the French government has two small posts in the 500 miles between settlements across the Tanezrouft. They are both abandoned
after May 25 because of the terrific heat. The first one, called the Poste Weygand, is just a tumbledown shack with a cistern of water. At one in the afternoon the thermometer read 149. Inside the shäck we all just lay on the ground and suffered. 1 had always thought that Arabs could weather this kind of heat easily but most of them looked as if they were about to die. The only difference between
me and them was the amount of water I drank; between noon and four in the afternoon I drank twenty litres — four gallons — and was always thirsty. For five terrible days my body didn’t pass a drop of water. The Arabs just drank glasses of mint tea.
At the cistern beside the shack we filled up the gherbas. All around it lay hooves and heads of sheep and goats. Some con-
voys bring along a couple of animals and butcher them to eat. We had dried camel and goat meat instead. A sheep’s stomach lay just in front of the door of the shack. Nobody even bothered to move it, and it just lay there and stank. Filling the water bags emptied the filthy cistern and at the bottom we found a layer of sheep manure and part of a sheep’s carcass. Well, if you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink anything.
The idea of course was to sleep during the day and drive all night but nobody could sleep during the day because of the heat. So when we left about six in the evening, we drove only until midnight and then stopped for a few hours’ nap. The Sahara may get cold at night in winter but during the summer the temeprature in the southern part drops to only about 100. The difference makes it seem cool.
Before stopping for our nap, we had supper at the signpost saying Tropic of Cancer. We ran into more sand and the trucks got stuck. The Arab drivers were wonderful, though, and mine was one of the best. He could pick out the hard places with uncanny regularity, and he rarely got stuck. To the untrained eye, especially at night, all sand looks the same. These lads all of a sudden make great circles out into the desert and go around a soft patch. You wonder how they know it’s there. As my driver explained to me: “Once you slow down, you’ve had it. The trick is to go as fast as you can and never stop.’’ At times we were flying along at sixty miles an hour.
Instead of stopping at Bidon V. the second of the two abandoned posts on the Tanezrouft. we went fifty kilometres farther on. That was where I saw' my first African, by which I mean Negro African. A watchman from the French Sudan, he was guarding a petrol dump. The chief of our convoy knew him and while we sweltered underneath the trucks the chief slept the day in the watchman’s tent.
That was the day I gave up hope that I’d ever sec Canada again. It w'as no hotter than it had been at Poste Weygand, but I suppose there is a limit to patience and endurance. The heat of the Tanezrouft cannot be described and thoughts start running through your head like "What am I doing here anyway? How did I, Pete Stollery of Toronto, ever come to be dying of exhaustion in a place like this?’’
But that evening, as we continued on our way, the air became fresher. We were really getting into the tropics and it had even rained. We almost got stuck in the mud. Not only that, but I was finally out of Algeria. We passed a big sign saying Soudan Français, Afrique Occidentale Française.
Early in the morning we pulled up at the first settlement south of Adrar. It was the Tuareg village of Tessalit. On the map it’s only a dot, but it was more than a dot to me. Just before it. we’d encountered the first small bushes I’d seen for weeks. There had been palm trees around the oases, but that’s not the same thing. To see something growing on its own is quite an event after the Tanezrouft.
After a passport and customs check by the one gendarme who is unfortunate enough to be stationed there, I went looking around Tessalit. It’s different from the other towns and villages I’ve seen in the desert. Jutting out of the Tanezrouft like a castle are the small, rugged, rocky hills that form the western edge of the Hoggar. There are a few Arabs and a few blacks, but most of the inhabitants arc the “blue men,” the Tuaregs.
The French call the Tuaregs the Knights of the Sahara. Strong, tall, hand-
some men, they are found only in the extreme reaches of the south Sahara. They are Moslems and are white but they’re not Arabs. No one is sure who they are.
The Tuaregs founded Timbuktu. They differ from other Moslems in that the men wear the veil and the women don’t. They reverse the positions of other Moslems: the woman is considered the head of the household and is not for all intents and purposes a slave. The Tuareg cross, a symbol they use, is one of the reasons many people think the Tuaregs were once Christians. The horn of their camel saddles is in the shape of this cross.
Walking around the market in Tessalit, I saw some of the most beautiful camel saddles I’ve even seen. Some of the crosses in front were made of what I’m sure was pure silver. One man was loading a white camel. He was wearing two cartridge belts and packing a long, ancient-looking Mauser rifle. I didn’t see a Tuareg with bad teeth. I’m sure they never brush them or take care of them, yet the teeth of all the people I saw were gleaming white. I’d like to learn why.
As we moved on from Tessalit, there were more bushes and even the odd thorn
tree. Nearly all the people we saw were Tuaregs; there were practically no Africans. At one place the driver stopped to have tea. I noticed a Tuareg and his woman sitting underneath a bush and went over. He invited me to take some mint tea. Just as I was drinking the first glass, my driver honked the horn to warn me that he was leaving. Quickly the Tuareg took his wife's glass and his own and filled them both with tea. After all, I couldn’t leave without drinking the three glasses. I gulped them down, one right after the other.
It was much cooler and my driver said he was going to make the Niger and Gao by nightfall. The other drivers decided not to continue until the next day. We rolled along, seeing more and more natives on the side of the road. Naked black children waved as we went by. All at once, there was the Niger. I was a long way from the Mediterranean. Instead of the oceangoing ships of Algiers, there were tiny dugout canoes; not a vast sea, but just a muddy river that had dried almost to a trickle. A couple of hundred miles to the west lay Timbuktu.
Sure enough, my truck was first to arrive at Gao. As we drove down the street, people came out cheering and waving. We carried dates and tobacco for them for the next fifteen days. The driver took the truck to the customs house and we clambered down. The Sahara was behind me and West Africa lay ahead. I went and had a cool glass of beer. ★