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In the Footsteps of Caravans

Thirst, camels and fishy pasta – or how it is to walk through the Sahara. And a little bit on how to measure remoteness with Coca-Cola.

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Getting water

Getting water

The thirst was the worst part. I wanted something to drink constantly. No more than twenty seconds would pass by from a mouthful of water had been swallowed until I wanted to take another sip. But I had to walk it off, rationing my drinking to every half hour or so. Otherwise, we’d run our of water.

I didn’t expect walking through the Sahara would be easy, but my need for water surprised me – I would easily go through 8-10 litres a day – and I usually handle extreme heat well… The afternoons, in particular, were though, when the temperature, in the shade, rose to 40-45 degrees. Do I need to say that there isn’t much shade in the Sahara? And what shade we could find was only any help during our breaks. The hours walking would be endured in the burning sun. It all reminded me of when I was 18, and my parents took my sister and me on a vacation to Egypt. Temperatures there were high too and at some point one of the other tourists placed his electric thermometer on a rock in the sun to see how hot it was out of the shade. The thermometer crashed at 63 degrees, and we never got the final answer.

"Shade" in the Sahara

"Shade" in the Sahara

However, this trek was the main reason I had ventured out into the Sahara. While it is impossible to join a real Tuareg caravan – unless you bring a camera crew and the backing of a large broadcasting network (again, I’m looking at you, Michael Palin). Luckily, it’s possible to arrange one yourself. The word ‘caravan’ might be overdoing it as we only had one camel and that doesn’t really make a caravan, but the idea is the same. Anyway, what was eventually a ‘camel trek’ was my effort to follow in the footsteps of some of history’s most remarkable travellers. The caravans were the ships of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Connecting the Mediterranean, China, the Indian Ocean and Sub-Saharan Africa these traders (and their camels) brought silk, ebony, gold, wild animals and much more to Europe. From Mauritania and Morocco traders would regularly cross the Sahara or travel the length of it by foot. If you have ever visited Morocco or Egypt (or just seen the pictures in the brochures), you might have the idea that camels are for riding. That is only the case for the sick and the fatigue (and the worrier, but that’s another story). The traders of the caravans would walk. Camels are pack-animals here, and the load they carried was goods only. Using precious camel-power to carry the merchants themselves would limit the potential profit. So better pack a few extra kilos of products on the camels and then walk by its side. So that’s what I did.

Ali and his camel

Ali and his camel

Every morning Ali – my nomad guide and ‘camel-driver’ – and I would get up with the sun, around six a.m. He would brew tea, and we would eat the bread he had baked in the sand the previous night. Sidenote: Baking in the sand is simple: First, light a fire to heat the sand beneath it and push the fire aside when the sand is hot. Then, put the flat, raw dough in the sand and cover it with more sand. Third, light another fire next to the buried dough downwind so that the flames will heat the sand covering the doe. Once you have followed those three easy steps, let the soon-to-be-bread linger there for half an hour, after which it’s possible to uncover a baked piece of bread. Brush off the few grain of sand that sticks and voila – you have breakfast. Even through Ali put plenty of sugar in the tea, three shots of tea and a loaf bread is not a lot of energy to start our walk on. This tended to be an issue, as I would get hungry again within a few hours. But I’m not one to complain, so I didn’t.

Tea Break

Tea Break

Before we could leave, however, Ali had to find his camel. Yes, find it. In the Sahara. Camels aren’t tied down overnight as you’d might expect. Instead, Ali would tie its two front legs together, reducing any steps the camel could take to ten centimetres or so. This limits the camel’s range, but during the night, it’s still possible for it to get quite far on ten centimetre-steps. Often the camel would be out of sight by the morning, and Ali would then have to track it down.

Walking under the Sun

Walking under the Sun

Once the camel had been found and packed, we would walk for three to four hours continuously. No breaks, just keep walking. The only times we would pause was when Ali stopped for a few seconds to navigate, which he did by the sun. Our route was pretty easy, though. Due west for the first three days, then west, south-west for the final two. I could probably have asked for breaks, but Ali didn’t stop me, and I didn’t stop him. Something that Ali did praise me for – if I should brag but a little – and we could easily have done the trek in four days, not five. Though it’s still wouldn’t be the three days Ali would use to cover those 90 kilometres had he been by himself.

We would break from the afternoon heat around 11 and seek shelter from the sun under one of the few trees around. They don’t provide a lot of shade, but it’s better than nothing. Lunch (and dinner) would be rice or pasta with onion and canned sardines – all five days. Not very exciting, but it can stand the heat; obviously a decent quality of food out here. We would stay in the shade until four in the afternoon. Besides lunch, and drinking tea, there isn’t really much else do to than nap and read. So I have now finished the one book I brought with me…

Inside a Nomad Tent

Inside a Nomad Tent

The afternoon walks were the tough ones. While they only lasted for two hours, and the lunch had somewhat re-energised me, the heat was tormenting. The sun's rays had become ridiculously hot during the afternoon – the best resemblance I can come up with is standing too close to a giant bonfire. The morning walk would also still be in my legs, and I spend most afternoons watching the minutes pass by on my watch, wishing that it would be quicker. Once we’d stopped for the day, more tea was served before we would have another fishy serving of rice or pasta and once the sun had set, around nine, I was usually ready to crash on the thin blanket that, laid out in the sand, pretended to be a proper camp.

Desert "Camp"

Desert "Camp"

So passed the days. When so much of my day was spend walking and staring at the sand, there’s a lot of time for thinking. Just to give an example, in my head I manage to rewrite and perfect my opening line for a stage play I did during my first year of high school... hat was 15(!) years ago. I also came up with a range of lines worthy of Hemmingway for this blog, all of which (except this one) I have since forgotten. In general, I felt good. Sure, it was a challenge, but I wasn’t too exhausted, too thirsty (despite what I wrote above) and my legs weren't too sore – but I guess that is all relative. A notable exception was the second day when the strong winds that have followed me ever since Western Sahara suddenly decided to leave me alone. This made the heat (even more) unbearable, and I profoundly struggled through the second day. On the other hand, on the fourth day we were ahead of time and only walked for an hour-and-a-half before reaching an oasis for our mid-day break, meaning that most of the day was spend lying around during nothing – absolutely bliss. Even after that we still manage to arrive at the final oasis of Terjit before noon on the fifth day, giving me an extra half day to regroup.

Terjit!!

Terjit!!

And just to end this blog on another little side note: There are a few “travellers’ rules” to figure out when you are somewhere really remote – somewhere truly off the beaten track. I usually go with the ‘Coca-Cola Rule’. It’s a pretty simple, but clear, rule: Just ask the question, “is it possible to buy a Coca-Cola or is there any Coca-Cola merchandise [signs, parasols, small plastic tables, etc.] around?” If neither of those two criteria are fulfilled, you can indeed claim to be somewhere remote. The UN have actually considered using Coca-Cola’s deliverance system to provide humanitarian aid to isolated provinces, simply because the company is so efficient in spewing itself out everywhere. Though, neither in Chinguetti, Ouadane nor on the trek was there any signs of Coca-Cola, but as soon as we walked into Terjit, I saw a Coca-Cola poster. Though they didn’t have any Coca-Colas I could celebrate my arrival with (alcohol is illegal in Mauritania), it still marked the point where I knew that I had returned successfully from the desert.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:32 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert travel trek adventure walk camel sahara exploration mauritania atar chinguetti adrar Comments (2)

Cities of the Sahara

Ancient caravan stops in the desert, which today moves to the sound of the sand blowing through the air and the guitars’ insisting sounds of the past.

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Heading into the Mauritanian Sahara, I had to pass through a few unavoidable cities and towns. The region's central city is a garrison town and administrative centre, and nothing worth talking about. However, there were a few other places.

Chinguetti

Chinguetti

The cities of the Sahara’s caravan trade seems to have one thing in common. They rise out of the Earth, more like growing three than buildings. Or, I could be mistaken, are they being consumed by the sand and rocks they stand on? It’s impossible to tell. Chinguetti, the most famous of Mauritania’s caravan stops (at its height 32,000 camels passed through here every day), seems at one with the sandy dunes that engulfed the ancient city. A hundred kilometres to the northeast, Ouadane’s crumbling houses, mosques and city walls give off the impression that the stones have just tumbled down the mountainside, randomly forming the buildings that now form a ruined ghost town. Regardless, there’s something in the air in these place. Something more than the dust and the sand always blowing in from the desert surrounding them. The whistling sounds sand-grains make as they fly through the air hits at a whiff of history, that simply won’t leave the cities.

Ouadane's Old Quarter

Ouadane's Old Quarter

These cities were not only important for caravans. Medieval Islamic scholars congregated on these towns, as the caravans did not only bring goods and trade. They also brought knowledge. These scholars began to collect manuscripts and books, not only religious texts – Koranic verses and Sharia law – but also history, cosmology, Greek philosophy and Babylonian laws.
All this a thousand years ago, when Europe was still caught in the Dark Ages, and people through that the Earth was flat. 400 years before Copernicus figured out that the Earth moves around the Sun (not the other way around) did these Islamic scholars draw Solar-centric illustrations in their books – in the middle of the Sahara. More than 15,000 of these books are still stored in private libraries in the desert cities of Mauritania.

Librarian with his manuscripts

Librarian with his manuscripts

This is something that simply makes my academic heart melt. History and knowledge are dear to me – my brain having taken damage permanently from my bachelor’s degree’s minor field, Philosophy. These texts are such an important and invaluable part of human history and it is almost inconceivable how they have survived here – in the middle of the Sahara – for hundreds and hundreds of years. Stored away in small dusty libraries, in crumbling houses, surrounded by the massive dunes of the desert. The fact that these have survived is a tribute to our abilities as humans to take care of our shared history. To quote the Internet: “Faith in Humanity restored.”

Desert mosque sunset

Desert mosque sunset

History isn’t the only attraction here. Once the scorching sun is setting over the horizon of dunes life, return to these ancient cities. Blankets will be spread in front of peoples' house and the tea will be prepared. An important evening ritual here is to keep one’s friendships alive and well. People will thus make rounds. From house to house, from blanket to blanket. Many friendships go back to peoples' childhoods; some go even further back. Families, who have been close-knit for generations. In these cases, keeping the relationship healthy is not only a matter of social comfort – it is a duty to one’s family, one’s parents and grand-parents that are not taken lightly.

Spontaneous concert

Spontaneous concert

Central for knitting the social fabric of Mauritanian social life is two things: tea and music. The only thing that possibly can interrupt these ‘rounds of friendships’ is when the musicians bring out their instruments. Lead by an insisting guitar (these days more likely to be electronic than traditional) men and women alike will gather, spontaneously, around the musicians. Though these a subtle affairs, with most people sitting down, all will join the musicians. All bands will thus have one or two ‘lead clappers’, who will lead the crowd by showing the rhythms of the claps. Often, when there is more than one band clapper, they will clap different rhythms. They are thus equally a part of the group than the guitar, the singer or the drums are. As an attendant, all I have to do is pick one of the clappers and follow his lead.

Tea on the way - literally

Tea on the way - literally

The other central element to Mauritanian life is tea. Tea is a cultural ritual in many countries, but in few is it obsessed over as it is in Mauritania. Tea here is not just ‘a cup of tea’. It is the fuel for conversation and as such, it is no small business. Tea will be offered to an arriving guest; by merely passing in front of someone's house; or – in the middle of nowhere – when the taxi-brousse driver needs a break. But make sure you have the time before accepting a tea-offer. Brewing tea correctly in Mauritania takes no less than 40 minutes and easily more than an hour. Two pots and at least three classes are required in an endless ritual of pouring the tea between the pots, between glasses and between glasses and pots the taste of each serving is perfected. Tea here is not one glass, but three. The first strong – this one is for health. The second neither too strong or too sweet – this one is a life without too many extremes. The last glass you get served is very, very sweet – this one is for love. The glasses large shot-glasses and the upper half consist of white foam made in the pouring process. Drinking the tea actually takes a fraction of the time it takes to make it. The mean time is filled with conversation.
Mauritania is a conservative country, and it is easy to see in daily life. I found it worth it to slow down and appreciate this in the Sahara towns historic setting. Especially since I was about to head further into the Sahara for something that would be a rather challenging walk. More on that in a few days.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:57 Archived in Mauritania Tagged people desert culture history travel adventure sahara mauritania chinguetti adrar ouadane wadane liberaries Comments (1)

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