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Day 60: Tabelot

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Michael Palin - SaharaUneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Despite accolades from forty-year-old Touareg women, my dreams are more Sunday morning indigestion than Saturday Night Fever, and, waking before dawn, I reach for my head-torch, toilet paper, garden trowel and matches and extricate myself as swiftly as I can from the tent. This is never as easy as it should be, and as I corkscrew my way out into the surrounding darkness I imagine this is what it must be like being born. The sky is clear and dense with stars and the temperature has plunged 20 degrees. It's a good walk to the nearest patch of cover, and as I crouch over my excavations it occurs to me that these are the only times when I'm truly alone in the desert and should be savoured. By the time I'm home and dry, as it were, I have to pull on a sweater to keep warm.

An hour later, the deep lilting cry of Tabelot's muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Check my clock. It's five. Soon there are sounds of life, soft footsteps passing my tent, grunts of goats and bleats of sheep. There's no such thing as a lie-in in the desert.

Some thirty camels are assembled on a stony stretch of ground surrounded by low houses. Mohammed Ixa, glass of tea in hand, points with languid admiration at the white camels, peculiar to this part of the Sahara.

'Le chameau d'élégance,' he purrs, in a Maurice Chevalier sort of way.

For some reason, I've been allotted the most non-white of them. Indeed, his name, Ekawik, evidently means Blackie. There is much laughter from the camel team as I try to pronounce the name, so I'm probably saying something rude by mistake.

Meanwhile, Omar moves quietly amongst them, inspecting a harness here and there and helping one of his eight-strong team to heave baggage, bedding, food and water aboard. The camels endure all this with permanent expressions of weary disdain, as if the whole of the rest of the world is a bad smell they have to endure.

The salt pans of Bilma lie 350 miles to the east and the journey will take almost two weeks.

Omar's plan is to set off this morning and get ahead of us. The first two days will be along mountain trails so narrow and precarious that we shall be unable to get our filming equipment anywhere near. He will rendezvous with us at the point where they emerge from the mountains into the desert proper.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 60
  • Country/sea: Niger
  • Place: Tabelot
  • Book page no: 173

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