Day 14 - From Zagora into the Desert

We wake and pack to leave Zagora. Everything is ready for our trip across the southern desert.

The guide book shows us a picture of the famous sign to Timbuctoo at the end of town. Sam wants to find it. I get him to pose in his desert gear for it:

To Timbuctoo

The sign has obviously been repainted since the guide book photograph - not only are the camels different but the arrow is pointing in the opposite direction!

We turn left, away from 'Timbouctou', and head through a small village and then the tarmac turns to dust. We're now on tracks in the desert. Soon we have the feeling of being in splendid isolation.

Desert view

At a small hill with a well I take a wrong turning and we're on soft sand. Mike gets stuck. We jump out and my feet hit the burning sand. The sand ladders on the roof have been roasting in the desert sun for hours and are almost red hot, but they still have to come down.

Mike stuck

We start digging, and soon several of the locals who were standing by the well turn up to help digging. Mike is quickly out and we're on solid ground again. The locals expect some reward. Mike hands out some cash and they also ask for cigarettes. None of us smoke, so Mike offers them Polo mints. I don't know what they make of them. Or of us.

Mike is now feeling sick. He has had trouble keeping down any liquid and it seems his temperature is rising. Despite the air conditioning in the Nissan he's not getting any better. Sam discusses putting a drip line in him to rehydrate him. Mike says he's been like this before in the heat, and he's not dead yet. Sam and I discuss emergency plans, such as one of us driving back to civilisation.

But as the sun starts to sink and the temperature drops, we are less concerned, and Mike seem to improve. He's now sipping from a drinks bottle slowly, and we've given him some of our rehydration solution. It seems a good time and place to camp, so we pull up alongside the piste and put the tent up, to give us some shelter from wind-blown dust in the night. Sam and I wander off into the sand to talk, and spot animal tracks. Lizards are clear from their footprints and tail marks, but we also spot larger prints that could be foxes or desert rats.

desert sunset

Desert Campsite

Hazy low cloud has built up, and we have no spectacular desert sunset. Sam jumps in the back of Elsa, and I get into my sleeping bag in the tent alongside Abbie. The night is warm - but not humid - and I soon have to unzip my bag and sleep under it. I am tired, and hoping for a good nights sleep before we press on the next day. Passing traffic is probably not a problem, but I expect we might hear one or two cars or trucks pass in the night.

At about midnight, I hear a low rumbling in the distance. It sounds like a vehicle. Its faint, but getting louder. I must have been sleeping lightly. My expectation is that it will get louder, and then in a roar and a glare of headlights, will pass us by. But it takes its time.

I look out through the mesh of the tent and can see nothing back along the track. Then I notice that the tail lights of our Land Rover are on, and Sam is outside. The noise in the distance stops. I get out of the tent and walk over to Sam.

Its quiet. Sam signals for silence. I can hear nothing. The sky has cleared partly, and a near-full moon is lighting up the desert landscape from a low angle. Sam hops back into the front and switches the lights off.

"What's up?", I ask. "I don't know.", he says. He had heard the noise of the vehicle in the distance and got up to see what was going on. From the top of the Landy, using binoculars, he could just about make out a vehicle in the distance. He had put the lights on so that they could see we were here. And that was when they stopped.

We discuss theories. Gun runners taking weapons to Algeria. When they saw our tail lights they thought we were police, or army. So they'd stopped.

I grab my binoculars and scan the far hills of the barren landscape. Nothing. Sam directs me. Left of that hill. Right of that bush. We can hear faint voices, becoming louder, and more agitated. Then suddenly there's a series of silent bright flashes, lighting up the sand, and then, delayed by the distance, the sound of automatic gunfire hits us.

A number of thoughts go through my head in an instant. Wake Abbie, wake Mike and Carol, get everyone in the Land Rover and get out of there. Leave the tent, leave the Nissan, run like hell. But things unfold all too quickly in my binoculars.

Almost immediately two headlights shine out and we hear the engine being stretched to its limit. The vehicle starts off towards the south, and we watch it quickly disappear behind a hill. The sound becomes a low rumble, and it fades off into the far south, towards the Algerian border.

We decide to head back to the spot where the action had occurred, so we jump into Elsa and head down the track, headlights on full. It takes us about five minutes to find the spot. A man is lying across the track. Sam slams on the brakes and we stop and kick up a plume of dust into the headlights. We jump out, but its obvious there's nothing we can do for this young arab. He's lying in a pool of blood, and is very dead.

We listen again. Silence. Sam picks up a couple of empty rounds from the desert, and identifies them as being from a Russian rifle of some sort. For a moment we have no idea what to do next. We are a good day's drive from the nearest village, and there might be no other traffic through here for days or weeks. We can't take this man with us, and we can't leave him out here in the desert. We had already seen eagles and vultures, they would make short work of him. So we decide we have to bury him here.

We take the spades from the Land Rover and dig into the soft sand. I take my compass and made sure the hole points towards Mecca. We wrap him in a blanket, and gently place him in the ground. I read a few words from my English translation of The Koran. We fill in the hole. I take a map reference from my GPS so we can tell the authorities once we reached civilisation, although I doubt if they would have much sympathy for a religious extremist gun-runner. But to us, he was just another desert traveller.

note some details have been changed for dramatic purposes

Where's Elsa?
- Through the Desert to Erfoud