Many years ago I spent several weeks in the Sahara desert. One part of the trip was a journey from Tamanrasset to the oasis of Djanet. About seven hundred kilometres as I recall. There was no road then, just pistes and only four or five places along the route where one could get water. One of them being an abandoned foreign legion fort where the water was salty.
I was travelling with two Italian friends. By the time we got to Tamanrasset, the vehicle we had started out with was no longer available, so we arranged to be carried by a Libyan truck which was travelling to and past Djanet.
The truck’s cargo was goats and after we had secured our passage, we spent a day watching the driver bargaining prices with a succession of goatherds. I remember various herds of goats scattered around the landscape waiting for their turn to be inspected. As the sun went down, a deal was struck and we all set off.
The goats were loaded on the upper deck of the truck. We (and twenty-odd Mauritanian immigrants) were sat in two rows on a platform on top of the driver’s cabin. I and my two friends were sat in the back row near the edge. This meant that for the whole journey you received an unceasing succession of friendly butts in the back from the goats. If you wanted to hold on to something, you could grip the bars separating you from the goats, but not for too long because being butted on the fingers really hurts. The people in the front row didn’t have anything to hold onto and I remember that every half an hour or so we tugged a gentleman in front of us back up to a safe position, since being rather heavy he used to slip down inch-by-inch towards the front and the road.
It was a very spectacular way of travelling, although we soon decided our driver was mad and began to call him Amin. At one point, he had a race with another truck.
It was not a surprise really when the truck broke down. The crew dug a hole in the ground, drove the truck over it and proceeded, as far as I could see, to disassemble the engine and then re-assemble it. This did not seem to help. Despite what we had read about people always helping each other in the desert, none of the vehicles which came by, stopped to inquire whether we were in trouble. Eventually it was decided that the goatherd would set off on his own on foot with the goats, while we proceeded, very slowly, on three cylinders. So slowly, in fact, that when we got to Fort Gardel, the next watering place, he was already there. Eventually, though, we reached Djanet. The last few miles were spectacular, with sand dunes on the right and basalt and sandstone cliffs on the left.
Reaching an oasis after crossing the desert is a big event. After you have spent days without seeing plants or water, you seem to have reached a haven of luxuries: water, dates, oranges, buildings, trees. We found a hotel which was completely empty. The manager gave us one key, to an entire wing. We had fifteen showers to choose from. Djanet would have been even more spectacular if we hadn’t arrived in the vicinity of a national holiday. They told us that all the aircraft in the country had been requisitioned for the fly-by. It seemed a bit unlikely, but when we went to the market it was obvious that there hadn’t been any deliveries for a long time. I remember an array of stalls displaying nothing at all. The emptiness was interrupted by one or two cans of sardines here and there.
One evening, though, I saw something which looked as if it had been charmed up out of a legend. A little path broke off from the road. It was marked out by a row of lit-up fruit-juice cans. I walked down the path and came to a café. The counter was built from fruit-juice cans too. I almost expected to meet a djinn. I hadn’t drunk fruit juice for weeks.
I walked up to the counter. “Yes?” the man said. “I’d like a fruit juice” I said. He looked at me for a while. He looked at me as if he had been tending a bar whose counter was made of brick and someone had just asked him for squeezed brick juice.
“Mint tea?” he asked. Because that the only thing he had.