Parked up on the side of the road eating sandwiches – the vast featureless stony plain of the hammada stretched as far as the eye could see in front of us and to our right – I started to wonder if maybe I’d imagined the terrors of the previous night. And no, it wasn’t that I found the miles of endless hammada a particularly uplifting landscape. I prefer a bit more topography in my deserts. It was the view on the other side of the road that did it for me. We could see the sea and oh, how we’d behaved like a pair of over-excited school girls when we first saw it.
The urge to go and throw ourselves into those toothpaste ad breakers after miles and miles of parched landscapes was overwhelming. Not however, overwhelming enough to get us anywhere near the edge of the steep cliffs that sheered down to the beach below. So near and yet so far! I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that the view was particularly stunning either, it was just because it was the sea at last. We were near Dakhla so we thought we’d have lunch and see if we could spot it through the haze on the peninsular. We couldn’t, but according to ‘the Book’ it’s turning into a Winnebago Wonderland with its endless beaches and not too bad eateries.
Dakhla is about as far south as you can get without a visa and it’s becoming an increasingly popular winter destination for European ‘retirees’ who like fishing, eating fish and hanging out in brothels. It seems Dakhla could be in the running for the title of ‘Sin City of the South’ should things get a little busier. According to the map we’d spent the night in the car park of the Café Restaurant Motel Barbas and it was there, at 8 o’clock that morning, we’d bought half a dozen or so side-plate sized loaves of bread, flying saucer in shape and alien in taste and texture. Way back in Bamako when we’d sorted out the tinned food on the truck, we’d found a small, dusty tin of apricot jam. It appeared to be of Chinese origin and on close inspection probably dated back to the Ming Dynasty!
So it was then a toss-up between possibly activating a curse upon opening and witnessing the contents of the ancient Chinese artefact, or bloody Laughing Cow cheese, again. So what if The Wizened Claw of Wu Wang was out to get me, I thought I was dying again anyway, so what did I care? Claire looked me in the eye, got out her multi-tool thingy and calmly opened the tin, and……. it was……. REALLY NICE JAM! The bread however, ah well…the bread – now that was a different story. We knew just couldn’t possibly have bought sheep fodder cakes again. Could we? Nah – we’d seen other people buying them and they didn’t have any sheep with them either.
So it was definitely for humans. It was just a little on the hard side with a slightly odd taste – there seemed to be equal parts salt to sugar in it. After a bit of experimentation, the most palatable combination turned out to be jam and bloody Laughing Cow cheese together. Sweet and sour sandwiches. The simple pleasures of life eh? A mediocre view and some gum-numbing sandwiches were all it took to make me look back on the previous night as just another one of those things that could happen, to anyone, anywhere. Dinner had been fantastic, an enormous tajine of chicken and chips, each. More milky coffee, more heavy duty medication and then bed, ‘...to sleep: perchance to dream’ (1).
‘Claire?’ I shouted up to the back of the truck, ‘Why did you say we were parked next to this sign?’
A muffled and sleepy voice came from the darkness of the platform behind the cab, ‘Security.’
‘So when we’ve been parked up before in the middle of nowhere at night, we were safer than we are in this car park?’
There was silence. If she’d been awake she’d have answered. She’s like that – this woman who could sleep standing up in a wardrobe. Once she’s out, she’s out. This is more than can be said for the petrol station sign. It was monolithic, a bit like the black slab out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (2)*, only it pulsed with that intensely bright, white, type of light they use in pathology labs and mortuaries. I lay on my back in my sleeping bag, covered by a most hideously and garishly patterned acrylic blanket which was in turn under a rough woollen blanket bearing the logo of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees** printed on one corner. I shivered.
The gaps between each pulse of slightly brighter white light were so small they were barely perceptible – almost subliminal. Likewise there was also a slight increase in the pitch of the continuous low buzzing noise emanating from the monolith that accompanied each pulse. Also pulsing on the same frequency was the headache I’d had off and on for 3 weeks. It was grim. It was one of those ‘if there is a god then can you turn the light out please’ situations which, once resolved, would become a ‘now god, how’s about dealing with the pain and fever’ situation. The row of half-sized, mock-Victorian street lamps that ran along the edge of the car park and were dotted around in the patio garden had been turned off.
Like that made any difference! I hate light pollution. I could never live in a town or city – even the handful of street lights in my village I consider to be serious overkill. And don’t get me started on those profligates who start wiring up their Christmas lights in August each year. By the end of a night of total delirium, I’d decided that I was going home to shoot the street lights out and that the monolith was God. I’d rather live on the dark side if it’s all the same to you. Needless to say, the car park ‘security’ acolyte got short shrift from me when he came looking for his handout in the morning. Now, a couple of hundred kilometres later and what felt like a couple of hundred °Celsius warmer, I was feeling a hundred per cent better than I’d felt whilst communing with god. Totally knackered but definitely better.
So much so, that I missed the next couple of hours of hammada which was a bit of a shame I suppose. But, all was not lost. I did manage to convince Claire that yes, I really did want to have a look at the plants. Although the hammada is usually described as flat, rocky desert which it is, in Western Sahara it’s also got loads of amazing plants. The tallest type of plant looked disconcertingly similar in shape and colour to the heather on the hills in Scotland and possibly Madagascar! (3).
There was another plant that covered the ground in huge swathes in some places and, from a distance, looked like it was a mass of dark red flowers. And another that always seemed to spread outwards in the shape of a star. Of course, they must have been xerophytes to survive in that environment. (There’s nothing worst than a smartarse is there sometimes?) It’s just a scientific way of saying they’re very very drought resistant. Imagine going down the garden centre and asking if they’ve got xerophytes. They manage to survive by storing water inside their stems and leaves which is why they feel fleshy to touch. They’d be grown as house plants where I live, if you could buy them there in the first place. I’d no idea what any of them were called and I’ve still got no idea because, surprise surprise, I’ve not found any information on plants of the Western Sahara. Now there’s a niche market. Nevertheless, it was a happy woman that promptly fell asleep the minute the truck set off again. Easy to please, that’s me.
(1) Shakespeare, W. (C16th), ‘Hamlet’
(2) Clarke, A.C. (1968), ‘2002: A Space Odyssey’ and Kubrick, S. (1968) Film, ‘2002: A Space Odyssey’
(3) Kilner-MacPhee, H. (2006), ‘Mauritania Journal, Part 6’
* Take your pick
** There are lots of blankets for sale in Mali including huge numbers of these UNHCR blankets. Nobody could tell us where they had come from and we didn’t know why they were being sold rather than given away. They were the warmest and cheapest but we did feel slightly uncomfortable about buying them. It could have been quite legit or it could have been a scam. Difficult.