Desert Rats

Today’s slide show: Sand and Sun.

Camel at dawn

We awake to the sounds of old men snorting and humphing—our camels have arrived and are grazing some sere scrub a few yards from camp. They are very tall, with impossibly long and knobby legs and a cavalier look. All are male, and they are hobbled with thick ropes between their front legs. The Tuareg load them up with all our gear and 600 liters of water in plastic containers, and they take off down a long-vanished watercourse.

We begin our trek with a clamber up the 400-foot-high sand dune, rose-red in the morning light. Mama slips off his camel-leather sandals and makes the climb barefoot, moving up the hill like a ghost. For the rest of us, it is tough climbing in the deep sand, the opposite of walking on sunshine, more like walking underwater. After laboring for half an hour, we edge noses over the sharp crest of the ridge and gaze down into Algeria and then back toward the vermillion cliffs of the Akakus, a tableau of frozen violence through which we are supposed to hike. It is already 90 degrees at 9 a.m. as we descend the sand billow and begin our tramp in earnest.

For several hours we trek, up over the 4,000-foot Aogeraq Pass, while the temperature wheels to 104 degrees. Not far from here, at Al-’Aziziyah in Libya, the highest temperature in the Sahara was recorded: 136 degrees. One of our party, veteran adventure traveler Frank Headen, picks up pieces of fulgurite, fused particles like silica glass, formed from lightning striking the sand. I pluck a pottery shard from a footprint. We pass rocks etched with fossils, left over from the shallow sea that lapped the Sahara in the long Tertiary period (somewhere around 65 million to 1.6 million years ago). Then, in the distance, we spy a lone acacia tree in a tongue of sand—our lunch goal. Two camels with saddles wrapped around their ungainly backs have been stepping with us, their wide, padded feet making no sound on the soft sand. Mama uses his long staff to halt the camels and offers rides to the group. Cheryl Sulima, a bank analyst, has a swollen eye from a pesky sand particle that blew in, and Frank is suffering from an upset stomach, so they accept the offer, though the camels protest with sounds like Wookies in heat as they mount. With saddles creaking, the two-toed animals plod off, throwing off little puffs of white sand.

The camel is not native to these parts. It was introduced from Arabia, probably around the third century, long before the Arab invasions, but it quickly became indispensable. In the peak of the Saharan summer, a camel can endure up to five days without drinking anything. A man, other than a Tuareg, can last but one.

Water is necessary in the Sahara, but shade is a miracle. At 1 o’clock we stagger into the scant shade of the thorn tree, branch tips torn by camel tongues, and collapse. We’re all spent and thirsty from this first hike, and spread out like dead eagles on the mats. John Canning, media sherpa and photographer, and I unroll the ­ Brunton flexible solar panels to charge our batteries.

For a couple of hours we rest in the heat of the day, then Bastien asks for volunteers to help dig a path for the camels over the sandy Tafaq Pass. Ann Duncan, a Seattle portfolio manager, and I offer our services, and we head with Bastien and Mama to another huge dune that divides two oueds, dried-up water courses. As we zigzag up the dune, we use our tin dinner plates to shovel a path the camels can step along. This is hard work in the superheated air, and I have to stop and swig from my Nalgene every few minutes.

On the far side of the pass, we face an otherworldly panorama of gothic cathedrals, medieval castles, moon mesas, McDonald’s arches, and Disneyesque spires of balancing rocks, splashed with red and ocher, all seemingly baked into the landscape. We make our way down to camp, arriving as the sun is finally setting. It has been a tough day, and my one-size-too-small Tuareg pants have been chafing my groin, which now has a painful rash.

After the mats are unrolled, John plugs his laptop into the solar-charged battery and gives a slide show of the day’s photography—with a Lenny Kravitz soundtrack—to the Tuareg, who watch the wizardry through the gap in their sheshes. We sup on lentil soup, couscous, and goat stew, with a dollop of cool Crème Mont Blanc, supplied by Bastien, poured over dates. We finish the meal, and every other repast, with Tuareg champagne—a triple serving of strong green tea boiled over a wood fire, poured from a height to make cappuccinolike foam, then reheated and poured into small glasses. After tea, we lay out our sleeping bags. It’s too warm to tuck in, too warm for even a sheet, so I lay naked under the Saharan stars and slip into sleep.

Though he has never been through these mountains and never been to Libya, Bastien consults with the Tuareg and reports that today is to be an easy trek, a short hike to Oued Babou, our lunch spot, where we will also camp for the night. Spirits hearten, and we take off after lingering in camp until well after the sun has arced over the ridge, beginning its hot shower on our heads.

After an hour’s trek, we come to our first sighting of prehistoric rock art—a giraffe, a hippo, a bullock, wildlife that prospered in a greener, gentler Sahara, before it turned into the arid sandbox it is today. There are some 1,300 rock-art sites scattered through the Akakus, dating back 12,000 years.

Then it’s out into the hard sun, rambling down Babou Wadi. We drop into a deflation basin, an oval lowland scoured by constant blowing. We wander through a forest of “ventifact,” rock polished by sand and carved into far-fetched shapes. Now it is really hot: my portable thermometer shows 110 degrees. The heat radiates back from the ground, creating little eddies of convection turbulence. It’s like walking on a griddle beneath a heat lamp. We’re beginning to wobble. Heinrich Barth, the German explorer who passed through here in the mid-19th century, noted, “It is indeed very remarkable how quickly the strength of a European is broken in these climes.” At one point, we stumble up to a rock ledge and take a short rest in the shade. Cheryl’s left eye is swollen shut. Frank’s shirt is crusty and stained white with what looks like a skin of ice. “I’m saltier than a country ham,” he grimaces. After a few minutes, though, Bastien pushes us back out into the sun, saying we need to continue.

We’re now into midday, and the heat seems nuclear (indeed, the French tested a series of 13 nuclear devices not far from here in the 1960s). We are not suffering from an overabundance of shade. All talk has dried up. Some are getting low on personal water, and the extra water is with the camels, who took a different route. At around 1, we crest a ridge and see another lone acacia in a wadi—that must be camp.

But Mama says no. We will take a right at the tree and head into a side canyon, perhaps a half-mile away. The goal seems attainable. So, we trip across the hyperarid landscape (Sebhah, at the other edge of the Fezzan, is credited as the driest place on earth). We march over a level plain of lag gravel cemented by gypsum deposits and dotted with black slablike stone. It’s like skulking through a graveyard. At the head of the canyon, John Canning and I take a respite in the shade of a boulder, and I apply some aloe jelly to my groin, now ablaze in pain. I have to walk like a cowboy to keep from chaffing further. Then it’s back into the full power of the sun. My temples feel as though they’ve been bound with rope pulled tight; my head feels both too big and too brittle, as though it might crack open like an egg in boiling water. Sweat pours out, but my skin is dry. Finally, around 2, I reel into camp, utterly exhausted, in an ecstasy of thirst, and with the most of the group still behind me.

The camels are already grazing the sparse provender, having arrived via a shortcut earlier. As the last of the team collapses in the shade of an overhang, there is discontent. “More like a forced march than an adventure,” someone grumbles. “Paris-Dakar without the cars,” gripes another. “Marathon des Sables without water,” bellyaches one more. After a partial recovery with long pulls of water and a rest, a group meeting is called. Five of the 10 Americans announce they would like to abandon the trip and fly back to Tripoli. Cheryl’s eye looks worse, redder and puffier, and she seems delirious from heat exhaustion. The others simply admit that this is hotter and harder than they had anticipated, and they would prefer to exit than continue to suffer.

I can’t argue. The Sahara is not a place for the timorous, and I am suffering my own private hell with my rash. So, we pull out the Iridium satellite phone and call in a couple of vehicles that will meet us for lunch the next day, pulling out the coalition of the unwilling. The remaining five will be Frank, Ann Duncan, John Canning, adventure travel vet Hugh Westwater, and me.

With lines redrawn in the sand, the afternoon is relaxed. We play a version of desert Bocci ball, using gourds as balls, and watch as the Tuareg, puffing on Camel cigarettes donated by Hugh, play their version of checkers (al-karhat) using camel pellets as pieces. As we roll our sleeping bags, Bastien warns us not to camp close to rocks as scorpions hide in their nooks and crannies during the day and come out at night, and they will naturally seek out the warmth of a sleeping bag. I ignore his advice and camp in the lee of a boulder to avoid the spitting sand that is beginning to whip, the lesser of the evening’s evils.