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Day 64: The Ténéré Desert

Michael Palin - SaharaThings are better today. I've been taken off Ekawik and allotted a white camel of extraordinary docility whose name I'm told is Ashid. Instead of the VIP saddle, which threatened to castrate me every time I tried to dismount, I now sit astride a less glamorous but much more comfortable roll of bedding.

We have left the mountains behind but are still in a landscape studded with volcanic remains. Fields of cracked basalt rock occasionally break through the stony cover, providing streaks of vivid colour, jet black against the pale straw of the sand. The low ridges make for difficult going. The camels are not happy on slopes, especially if they are covered in soft sand, and Omar has to lead them down with great care, moving forwards at a slow shuffle, testing the ground, as if picking his way through a minefield. The camels slip and slide unhappily in his wake, back legs stiff, straight and awkward, as if this is the first time they've ever been asked to walk downhill.

I'm beginning to get to know the cameleers, though none of them speaks anything but Tamahaq. Harouna is the oldest and is frequently consulted by Omar. Elias and Akide Osman are the youngest, affable but detached. I get the impression that a career in cameleering is not all they want out of life. Izambar's chanting is becoming a bit of a bore, but that could be because I'm not getting the full benefit of his improvised lyrics, which occasionally crack up the entire camel train, probably at my expense. Omar is a good-natured and thoughtful man, unquestionably respected by the others. I've never seen him on a camel. He's always walking, keeping an eye out for loose loads, checking the route ahead. He speaks good French and I like to walk and talk with him, as it takes the mind off the monotony. We talk about the recent war between the Touareg and the government in Niamey. The Touareg, rather optimistically, demanded more funds and less interference. The north of the country virtually closed down for six years, Omar had friends killed and arrested and most of the foreign visitors were frightened away. As he was taking tourists on desert safaris for ten times the money he made from salt caravans, this seriously affected his livelihood. But he never considered giving up and doesn't expect he ever will. He likes walking with the camels. He says it gives him time to think.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 64
  • Country/sea: Niger
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  • Book page no: 180

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