Today’s slide show: Libyarated!

The sting in the Sahara

I awake to a black scarab on one side of my bag, a pale locust on the other. Footprints of a Rüppel’s desert fox and a Dorcas gazelle crisscross camp. John’s sleeping bag is encircled by the tracks of a legion of scorpions that seemed to soldier to the edge of his bag and then scurry away, perhaps, he conjectures, driven away by his smell. As I stand up, bowlegged, my inner thighs are so chafed they bleed. I consider applying the cool Crème Mont Blanc as an ointment—it’s a desert topping, it’s a salve—but instead I elect to abandon my Tuareg pants for a pair of cotton shorts. Others have gone to shorts and the Tuareg seem to take no offense. In fact, Ann later reveals that while each of the women have received a marriage proposal, the Tuareg voted my pale, water-rich body the sort of physique they most admired, if only I were a woman.

It’s another hot toddle—four hours under a sun hissing like a blow torch rather than the promised two—to the lunch spot where the vehicles are to rendezvous. We chew on Laughing Cow cheese and pâté smuggled in from France by Bastien, our own South Libya Beach diet. We lounge, do crossword puzzles, read, and sing show tunes. Ann knits a sock. At home, we often wish for a whole afternoon with nothing to do. Now that we have it, most are restless. At 3, I set my thermometer in the sand just beyond our sanctuary; when I check a few minutes later, it reads 136 degrees.

Late in the day, two Land Cruisers come roaring over the sand. It’s too late to head back to Ghat, a six-hour drive, so instead they ferry those evacuating to the next camp while the rest of us hike across a field of black bony rocks—a former lava flow—then down into a sand gully. We’re a small group now, the sun is low, and the mood is merry. Acrwof starts singing and dances alongside the swaying camels, occasionally breaking out in cascades of silly laughter.

Camp is in the middle of a wide wadi called Anteburak spotted with scratches of grass. While Bastien rolls a cigarette, the camels roll around in the sand. When the camels stand up, they are so covered with Saharan sand they blend into the dun-colored cliffs—camelflage. Mama catches a black lizard from a tuft of grass, a Tuareg cure for hepatitis, he claims. He challenges us with a Tuareg riddle: What wears out if you don’t use it? We’re stumped; he grins, and points to the ground—a trail. Bastien says the tufts in the trail are favorite hangouts for deadly sand vipers, and we should avoid them. But the susurrating wind is kicking sand, and I bunk down behind a large grass tuft and hear some sort of clacking sound as I drift off.

After morning tea, hugs and addresses are exchanged and the group splits as half head back to Ghat along with Ludovic to catch a flight back to Tripoli, then home, Libyarated at last. The five survivors start out for the next camp, but after a short distance, stoic Frank begins to complain about a double pain in his side. He seems imbalanced and flushed. We put him on a camel, but he is almost delirious with pain, and Mama walks alongside to make sure he doesn’t fall off.

We finally make camp in a beautiful tributary, Tin Talahat, around noon and spread Frank out beneath a shady rock balcony. He struggles to his feet several times to slump behind a rock and vomit. I give Frank a pain killer, and he confesses he is convinced a kidney stone is trying to pass—it has happened to him before, once in China, and he knows the feeling too well. I call a U.S.-based medical evacuation service on the Iridium and speak with a doctor, who confirms it is likely a kidney stone, which is sometimes stimulated by heat and exhaustion. It also can turn deadly. So we call in another extraction vehicle and wait. A black and white mula-mula bird flitters by, which Mama says is good luck. The Land Cruiser finally arrives at sunset, too late to return. We make a bed for Frank, feed him more pain killers, and hope for the best.

Frank leaves at 5 a.m. in a Land Cruiser, along with Bastien to assist. Of the 16 who originally signed on for this trip, there are now four remaining, including Ann, who has had two marriage proposals from the Tuareg. We now have no French guides, and none of us speaks Arabic or Tamashek. And Bastien took my satellite phone. So we are alone in the Libyan Sahara with our Tuareg guides and a dozen camels.

As we lumber back to camp after spending the morning exploring galleries of rock art, the wind begins to whisk the sand like flour. The sky turns a hazy yellow, blurring the sun. Suddenly, sand fills ears and noses, lungs and pores. It grits teeth, turns eyes the color of fermenting beer. We are in a sandstorm. The dunes are smoking; the wind makes a scratchy drumming sound, caused by the piezoelectric properties of crystalline quartz, the same way a needle on a phonograph translates vibrations into sound. The full Sahara seems to be shifting, migrating. The Tuareg draw their sheshes across their faces and cast their eyes downward; the camels squat, backs to the wind, and close their long-lashed, double-lidded eyes. We climb into a cave, but it is more of an eddy, and the whole of the Sahara blasts through. We’re finally getting, it seems, our just deserts. All we need now to complete the experience is a plague of locusts.

We finally climb up the back side of an “inselberg,” an eroded pillar from the Akakus remnant bin, and find a bit of a reprieve from the storm. There we play hearts into twilight, awaiting vehicles for the final return to Ghat. At sunset, Hapip Khlil Abulkharim, a radio controller at Ghat International, swings his Land Cruiser into camp. He apologizes for arriving so late, saying he took a circuitous route: “This is an open area, a dangerous area. There is a lot of smuggling through this region, arms to Algeria and people from Niger and Mali.” In 2001, a lorry broke down in untracked sand carrying illegal immigrants from the south. Ninety-six  passengers were found dead. “It’s a big problem here, so I took the safe route.”