It has been so cold in Vancouver this winter that I was reminded of a really hot day decades ago.
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Late May, 1971, and I had been living in Zagora, for a few weeks already. Zagora lies close to the indistinct border Morocco shares with Algeria. Further south, and the last habitable oasis before the Great Desert, lies the village of M’Hamid. During the months I had lived in Marrakech, I had heard tell that the camel trains to Timbuktou gathered at M’Hamid before heading south for Mali and the Upper Niger. I was determined to find out. In fact, I was determined to get to Timbuktou. To do that, I decided to hitch a ride to M’Hamid on one of the heavy trucks we had seen occasionally head south.
Zagora, an oasis famous in the history of the western Sahara, is a hundred miles or more south east of Marrakech, and on the farther side of the High Atlas. My friend Ken and I had gotten here by hitching a flatbed truck south all the way from Djema el-Fna in the big city. We had no idea that the truck would take the steep and curving mountain roads at 100 miles an hour, nor that we would literally have to tie our belts to the truck and then to our wrists simply to hold on as the flatbed careened wildly from side to side. I was only 21 but I knew right then that I would never be so scared again in the whole of my life.
After the incredible noise and crush of Marrakech, Zagora had turned out to be a zone of peace. A garrison town, it had a couple of thousand or so permanent residents, a few hundred conscript soldiers, an assortment of Taureg coming to and from the weekly market, and a half dozen hippies. Ken and I, two Frenchmen and two Dutch girls lived on the south side of town, in a grove of trees along the slow, brown Dra River. The Dutch girls lived in their VW microbus, while the rest of us slept on the open ground. During the day we hung our groundsheets in the trees to create shade, and we kept the few groceries we could afford — watermelon, mainly — in the river.
I had left England the previous winter with a small army pouch, a bed roll and thirty pounds. By the time we arrived in Zagora, I still had my bedroll, I had no clothes but the djelaba I wore, and I had the equivalent of five pounds in dinar. Life was good: We ate cheaply and well at the local cafes, drank orange juice by the bucket, mixed with the locals, made friends with the Bluemen, made fun of the occasional Land Rover Adventure Tourists. We were stoned all the time, from morning til night, each of us having stocked up on the necessary supplies before leaving Marrakesh. Life was indeed good. But now I wanted to move on.
The road to M’Hamid was also on the south side of town, bearing off from the river road, the two paths demarcated by a low stone chip wall. I arrived at the junction in the early dawn. The view was bleakly magnificent: dunes, rock slabs and shimmering dust hanging in the sunrise. I sat down, leaning against the wall, rolled a thick joint, and waited for a truck.
By eleven the sun was high, bright and scorching. The hood of my djelaba was pulled low over my face giving me the only shade available. I smoked another joint and watched a local farmer mercilessly beat a donkey about half a mile away. For the longest time I couldn’t work out what he was farming. Then, with a flash of kif wisdom, I realised he must be farming for stones. And all the time he beat his donkey.
I must have fallen asleep because it came as a shock to me that the sun was so low in the sky. I was sitting in a wide pool of dampness, the sweat from my body soaking my djelaba and the ground on which I was sitting. I tried to stand up, but couldn’t. I wasn’t sure why, thought it might just be a stiffness from sitting so long with my knees hugged to my chest — the better to create a tent-like space under my gown. I tried again and my feet just wouldn’t push me upright.
The faintest tingling in my feet made me look down. My toes looked like tiny stalks of stewed rhubarb, purple and fat. While I sat there through the heat of a desert day, the hem of my gown had failed to cover my toes: they were badly sunburned and I had immediate and detailed and horrifying visions of rough amputations taking place at the fort medic’s office. I gently covered my toes with the edge of my gown and wondered what to do. Just about that time, Ken and one of the French guys came looking for me.
It was about a mile to our river encampment and they carried me every step of the way. Once there, they gently placed me in the river so that the heat in my feet could be dissipated in the cool stream. I screamed at first, but quickly relaxed, lying full length in the water. Later, the Dutch girls brought me food from the nearest café and made sure I drank as much water as I could. Even later, we were joined at the riverbank by one of the locals who had become a regular visitor, sharing our kif and telling us news from the outside world. he listened to my story, a smile playing across his face.
“The caravans have stopped for the year,” he said.
“Sure. They finished last month. They start again in September. No one tries to cross the erg in summer.”
I looked at my blackened toes, took another toke and learned another lesson.
That’s an exotic story. Awesome! No smartphones or internet back then. Life was real.