I stood, literally, at the end of the road. The fresh tarmac ended in a neat ledge above the golden sand, and a clear blue sky pressed down on all horizons. From here, tyre tracks fanned out southwards into the vastness of the Sahara. It was only mid-morning, but already the sand burned my toes, which stuck out of my sandals. I pulled my pack under the sparse shade of a tree beside the last petrol station for 400 kilometres. All was silent, except for the rustle of leaves in a limp breeze.
Every journey has its point of no return and this had to be mine. I had followed the thin vein of my dream, a red line on a Michelin map of Africa, to where the road ended and the dust began. Beyond lay mystery—the infinite spaces of the Central Sahara, the biggest sandpit in the world and ghost of lush forests in former ages.
I had arrived the night before at In Salah just in time to see the bus pull out for Tamanrasset, the next stop on my route. The official told me the next bus was not for ten days, then walked off. I wandered around the oasis. Mosquitoes droned above a stagnant pond, which was surrounded by crumbling mudhuts and sagging palms. I walked out into the desert before lying down to sleep on my mat. In Salah—if God wills it. If God wills it, I will get a ride out of here tomorrow. If He wills not, then I will not either.
I was heading for Central Africa, but I was mindful of the saying ‘the journey, not the arrival, matters’. Since finishing my studies in religion at London University, I had travelled restlessly through Europe and the Americas in search of an elusive sense of harmony with the world. Perhaps I could find it in the vast empty spaces of the desert.
About once an hour a jeep or truck would pass and I scrambled out of the shade to hitch a ride. But they were all loaded up with petrol and water for the next stretch and sped past me, hurtling off the tarmac into the dust of the desert beyond. I paced around under the tree and adjusted my turban, which protected my scalp from the sun. Sweat formed around the rim of my sunglasses.
I walked to the petrol station for a drink of tepid water. While I drank I heard the distant roar of a truck. A minute later a gleaming Mercedes petrol tanker pulled in to deliver. A wild-looking Arab jumped down from the cab, dressed in dirty red T-shirt, jeans and turban. He slapped the attendant on the back and I caught a glimpse of twisted yellow teeth behind a spiky beard. He was short and bony, with leathery skin and bloodshot eyes. The attendant gave him a greasy hug. The driver shot me a curious glance and asked me where I was going.
“Tamanrasset,” I answered. “Can you take me there?”
"The company no permit passengers,” he said, “but I help you. You got twenty dollars, you come.”
I hesitated. It was a lot more than the bus would cost, and maybe I could still get a free ride. I glanced up at the gleaming cab and decided that I couldn’t miss the chance of a couple of days riding so high through the desert. I pulled out a $20 bill and shook his hand.
“Aziz,” he said, pointing at his chest.
“Mike,” I said, pointing at mine. He pocketed the bill and went to offload his petrol. I walked back to the tree and picked up my pack, then climbed up into the cab to find two more Arabs settled into the bunks at the back.
Aziz leaped into the driver’s seat. “Mike, this Ahmed, my brother,” he said, pointing to a round-faced boy of about twenty. “He go Tamanrasset, look for wife.” He gestured at an old man with a thick-lined face and white-haired chin. “This Sayeed, my father-in-law. He go Tamanrasset, look for me.” He burst into laughter and banged the huge steering wheel with his small fist. Ahmed and Sayeed nodded at me but remained stony-faced, obviously understanding no English.
Aziz pressed the starter and the engine came to life beneath us. The heat was stifling. I couldn’t wait to get going and feel the breeze whip by. But before he drove off, Aziz pulled out a bottle of red wine, took a slug and offered it to me. Its acrid warmth burned my throat. I returned the bottle to its hollow beside Aziz. He threw the cab into gear and it swayed slightly. His foot came off the clutch and we lurched forward onto the tarmac road. For fifty metres we gathered speed. Then the soft suspension lulled us as we dropped off the tarmac into the welcoming sand.
Within minutes we had left behind the golden sand and green palm fronds of In Salah. We drove across what seemed a Martian landscape—brick-coloured rock that stretched out in all directions without a glimpse of vegetation. Then the surface became softer and the track was ribbed with corrugated bumps. The cab vibrated heavily for a moment, then Aziz hit the throttle and as we gathered speed, the ride became smoother as we planed across the surface. He grinned and took another slug of wine, holding the trembling wheel with his left hand.
Some hours later, Sayeed tapped Aziz on the shoulder and signalled him to stop. Aziz and I jumped down, followed by Ahmed and Sayeed with their prayer mats and water bottles. Careful not to waste a drop, they washed their hands and feet, then knelt on their mats to offer soft, guttural praises towards Mecca. Aziz disappeared behind the tanker with his bottle of wine and I wandered into the wilderness. I marvelled at the paradox of deserts, the fact that such emptiness could be so fulfilling. I was a witness to utter desolation, but the silence soothed me, the spaces comforted.
The sun was sinking fast, approaching the horizon like a liquid balloon. The sky was streaked with colour—blood red, pink, violet, indigo. A few stars already stood out bright and clear. I had no idea how far we’d come, but somehow it didn’t matter. I walked back to the truck where the prayers still went on. I watched fascinated as the prostrate bodies lowered and raised their arms to the east, their fingers forming long, pointed shadows.
Aziz told me we would camp there that night. Ahmed and Sayeed disappeared, then returned with a bundle of sticks. They dug a shallow hole and prepared a fire, while Aziz rummaged in a box of food. He pulled out a bag of flour and a bowl, then began to mix some dough. I helped break up the brittle sticks and inhaled the smoke as it curled upward, drawing a pale yellow flame into the night.
Aziz came over to the fire with the dough in one hand and a bottle in the other. He squatted down, his blunt toenails digging into the ridge of sand around the fire. With a mischievous smile to the others, he produced a pack of cards, lit a cigarette and began to shuffle. We played a few rounds of brag and drank what must have been the third bottle of rough wine that day.
When the fire had built up a good base of embers, Sayeed smothered the flame and scraped aside the glowing wood. He placed the dough into the sand beneath the fire and dragged the embers back on top. A short while later he pushed aside the cinders and dug out the swollen loaf from the sand. He brushed it off and broke off a piece, releasing a rich aroma into the clear night air.
He called Ahmed, who was already half asleep. Together we broke the bread and dipped it into a hot, sticky sauce. Aziz and I washed it down with wine while the others drank water. After eating, I watched the embers slowly bury themselves beneath a layer of ash. Then I went to the cab for my sleeping bag and rush mat, and walked off into the darkness. I pushed some sand under the mat to make a pillow and took in the sparkling canvas of the sky for a full minute before drifting off to sleep with shooting stars trailing on my eyelids.
I woke to see, in the pre-dawn glimmer, that I had slept within a few metres of a donkey’s skeleton. Its jaw jutted out of the sand and its teeth were fixed in a surreal grin. I hurried to join the others, who had already got the fire rekindled and water for tea boiling. Squatting beside the fire, watching colour creep into the world and sipping a hot tea, I looked forward to an adventurous day ahead.
Ahmed joined Aziz and myself at the front of the cab and we bounced southward for a while across a drab terrain. Then Aziz slowed down as we approached a fork in the track, which branched out either side of a dry gully. Ahmed gestured to the left and Aziz swung the cab that way. We veered towards the east, and the flatness gradually gave way to undulating hills scattered with dry brush.
The track divided in several places and each time Ahmed pointed confidently to the left or right, as if he knew every inch of this featureless landscape. But soon we were following a little-used trail that passed through powdery dunes. Aziz became nervous. He turned to argue with Ahmed and the truck swerved off the track. It ploughed into the pink sand and ground to a halt. Aziz threw his hands in the air and turned his glaring eyes on Ahmed. Sayeed tried to pacify him, but he ranted on, impossible consonants and vowels jumping forth from his throat.
We jumped down to assess the situation. I ran my finger through the sand, as fine as talcum powder. Sayeed wandered around the truck, muttering to himself, while Aziz and Ahmed hurled abuse at each other. Aziz climbed back into the cab, started it up and crunched it into gear. The wheels spun and a shower of sand covered us all. Aziz jumped down, his beard quivering with agitation. Then I began to understand his concern. Every vehicle passing through the Sahara carries sand ladders and shovels to cope with this particular hazard, but not this one. We had to dig out the fourteen huge tyres by hand. The sun was climbing fast and I started to drip with sweat as I clawed with my hands beneath the wheels.
It took us half an hour to clear the wheels, but still we needed something for the tyres to grip on to. There was nothing in sight but we split up and managed to find a few shards of rock, with which we formed a small ramp in front of the wheels on the main axle. This time Aziz handled the controls with more care, and eased the truck up on to the comparative firmness of the track. Ahmed gave a little jump of relief. Sayeed pressed his hands together and glanced skyward. A wild cheer came from the cab and we walked after it. Aziz drove off several hundred metres across the desert before pulling up, and then continued his tirade against his brother as soon as we arrived. There seemed little doubt now that we were quite lost. From the cab I saw no end to the treacherous dunes.
Aziz thrust the truck into action again, but with no tyre marks to follow, it was only a matter of time before the truck sank once more into the sand. Aziz slapped his hands down on the steering wheel. We all jumped down and started the long task of excavating the wheels.
What began as an adventure was rapidly becoming a bore. I scooped out the sand, knowing that within a short time, I would be starting all over again. It was as if we were in a sea of quicksand, with no idea whether the shore was a hundred meters or kilometers away. We made little progress that day. By evening we had dug the tanker out eight times and faced our ninth attempt the next day. We were all irritable, sweaty and tired. Ahmed was keeping well away from Aziz, who gulped menacingly at his wine bottle. Nobody bothered making a fire, and soon we were all slumped asleep on the sand that had drained our energy that day.
All was ready for our first attempt to free the truck on the next morning; the wheels were cleared and slabs of brittle rock placed beneath them. Aziz climbed up into the cab and started the engine, but in his impatience he let out the clutch too fast and the wheels spun violently, kicking out the slabs and burying themselves deeper in the sand. We all yelled at Aziz to stop, but he stood up swaying at the wheel, gritting his teeth and stamping hard on the throttle. The main axle was soon buried, and the back wheels had completely disappeared beneath the sand apart from a thin black strip. At last Aziz turned off the engine and jumped down, screaming at Ahmed. Sayeed stepped in to separate them, and dragged Aziz round the side of the truck to show him the extent of the problem. Aziz slumped into the shade of the truck and buried his head in his hands.
After leaving him to cool down a few minutes, Sayeed approached him again, and after a subdued conversation, Sayeed and Ahmed set off walking into the vastness of the desert.
Aziz explained that they were going to look for help, though it seemed a crazy idea to me and I wondered whether perhaps we had seen the last of them. I settled into the slither of shade by the truck beside Aziz and accepted the wine bottle that he kept pushing towards me. The combination of heat and booze soon had me sinking hazily into a dreamy state, but I was snapped out of it by excited shouts approaching us.
Sayeed and Ahmed were panting and sweating, chattering excitedly. Aziz translated the garbled Arabic. “They find truck, go Tamanrasset. Wait us.” He started pulling his few possessions from the cab. “Over there,” he gestured, “hurry!”
“So, are you going to leave the truck here?” I asked.
He kicked the part of the front wheel still above the sand. “Fuck truck! Fuck brother! Fuck Allah!” he bellowed, thrusting his wine bottle at the sky.
Sayeed climbed into the cab and pulled out two tattered bags, while I grabbed my backpack. We set off walking through the sand, which still tried to swallow us up. I tried to pick out the firmer patches, but invariably stepped through a thin crust into the scalding sand below. As we crested a small rise in the sand, I glanced back at the tanker, which looked like a huge whale surfacing in a sea of sand, gasping for air.
In a few minutes we came in sight of the truck that Sayeed and Ahmed had found—an old Bedford with a rebuilt chassis, strengthened and raised for desert travel. Its occupants were squatting in the shade beneath it. The driver’s face was hidden beneath a massive indigo turban and a large pair of mirrored sunglasses. My eyes instantly sought and found a shovel and sand ladders strapped to the side of the truck.
It turned out that the Tuareg family had hired the truck to take a harvest of dates from their small village to Tamanrasset. We climbed up on to the sacks of dates with the driver’s wife and two children, while Sayeed was offered a place in the cab with the driver and his mate due to his advanced years.
Aziz sat with his legs dangling from the side. He glowered at Ahmed, who snuggled up against the headboard. Of the mother, I saw nothing—she kept her face covered with her black scarf throughout the ride. But the children fascinated me. Both about five years old, they romped around on the sacks like pigs in a mudpond. Their features were almost Mongolian; high cheekbones, narrow eyes and straight black hair flapping in the breeze. They took a curious interest in me at first, but soon forgot me when they found out I couldn’t speak their language.
I began to cheer up as the truck roared to life and moved away from the shifting pink sands and across firmer terrain. The driver had said that he hoped to reach Tamanrasset later the same day, but after recent misadventures, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Nevertheless, after a brief prayer stop at sunset, we charged on and a couple of hours later we pulled into the sizeable desert outpost of Tamanrasset, the only town for hundreds of kilometres around, located in the geographical heart of the Sahara and a necessary staging point for all travellers heading north or south.
I shouldered my dusty pack and left my Arab companions with a sigh of relief – somehow they seemed set on an unavoidable path to disaster. I wandered into a tourist compound where VW campers and Land Rovers were parked beside snazzy tents, and forked out for a dingy room in the main building.
After a refreshing shower, I stepped into a bar attached to the compound, eager to exchange travellers’ tales and perhaps hear of a few must-see places for future travels. I listened to accounts of trekking to Machu Picchu, riding the trans-Siberian express and spending three months in Kathmandu on a hundred dollars. Yet the storytellers seemed more concerned with inflating their egos than anything else.
I left the bar and took a walk around the town, now bathed in the cool glow of moonlight. Beyond the town, I could just make out the silhouette of the Ahaggar Mountains, which looked like a jumble of columns and spires in the pale light. After just a few hours back in the ‘civilized’ world, I was already longing to be somewhere isolated and remote.
I wandered into a restaurant, and while eating a tasty bowl of couscous and goat stew, three French travellers joined me at the table. They were planning to make a trip to a deserted hermitage in the Ahaggar Mountains the next day, and when they saw my interest, they invited me to join them. Intrigued by those misshapen mountains, I jumped at the chance.
The next morning I squeezed into their tiny Renault and watched spellbound as we approached volcanic rocks frozen into symmetrical shapes. We passed a wall of pitted columns, which formed turrets at the peak against the deep blue sky. Another outcrop formed a spiral, like an enormous screw emerging from the earth. All around were isolated pillars, rising sheer from the desert floor like prehistoric rockets turned to stone.
We stopped frequently to take in the lunar landscape as we climbed higher and higher, then finally arrived at the abandoned hermitage as the sun was setting. My heart stood still at the view: the desert, vast and endless, stretching out in all directions; the faint lights of Tamanrasset twinkling at the base of the mountains; the mountain valleys already lost in shadow; and the magical pillars, glowing in the last rays of the sun as if with a light of their own.
We walked quickly around the hermitage, which was now riddled with lovers’ initials. While my French companions spread out a mat and prepared an elegant salad, I wandered around chewing nuts and an orange from my pack, entranced by the scene. Soon the darkness was total and I rolled out my mat on a ledge outside the monastery to sleep.
* * * Now, I don’t know how many years later, I sit on that same ledge and scrawl these words. I knew the next morning when I awoke that my physical journey was complete, albeit not where I expected it to end. I thanked the French travellers for the ride and left them to descend alone. On exploring the long-abandoned hermitage, I came across a room locked with a rusty padlock, which almost crumbled in my hands.
Inside, I found the dusty, faded journals of a French ascetic named Charles de Foucauld, who had built the hermitage. I sat enthralled as I read of his physical and spiritual struggle for survival. It seemed he was fed by the inhabitants of a small village a half-day’s walk away who considered him a kind of heavenly healer. The last entry read: “Today I will go to the peak of Mount Tahat in preparation to leave this earth and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I found his bones on that peak and buried them in a posthumous grave. I wandered through the valleys and found the village that had supported him. When I told them that I came from the same hermitage, they took me for his reincarnation and showered me with offerings. And strangely, I seem to have developed a healing touch that can cure most of their ailments, as he had done before.
Back in the hermitage, I embarked on my own spiritual journey. I sat for hours and days, still among the stillness, allowing my sadness for the human condition to surface. Gradually, it expanded to unbearable limits, until I thought even the parched mountains would cry. But then I burst through the sadness into a sea of wonder, a sense of awe in face of the sheer power of nature.
Since then I have lived in stark amazement of the elemental world around me. I love my interdependence with the villagers, who never even questioned my coming, as if it were foreseen. My every breath is a miracle, and every day a display of the divine magic of creation. Every evening I glance up at Mount Tahat, which I know will be my last vision of this world.
The view from this peak has not changed at all, although tourists no longer come up here since a rockslide cut off the road some years ago. Perhaps by now the tarmac strip at In Salah has spanned the desert, drawing flocks of tourists to look out over this wilderness through the tinted windows of an air-conditioned bus. But somehow I doubt it. For me it will always finish in a neat ledge above the golden sand, tempting travellers to step beyond the end of the road.