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Day 18: Smara Camp to Tfariti

Western Sahara 
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In Western Sahara. Camel stew with the drivers.
Michael Palin - SaharaThe only exception to the general air of lethargy is the presence of a single swallow, darting and swooping above us.

I assume this is the border between Algeria and Western Sahara, but no-one seems quite sure. Bachir, squinting into the wind and dust, says we must move on, we've many hours' driving still ahead. Najim, who's driving me and Basil, has wandered off and ambles back as the engines are being re-started, bringing wild dates for everybody, straight off the tree.

There is no surfaced road of any kind, but we follow the piste, as they call it, and every now and then pass a black tyre half sunk into the sand. The sight of these markers, sometimes at 5- or 10-mile intervals, becomes immensely reassuring.

At least someone has been here before us.

For a while, the terrain turns viciously stony, as if all the sand cover had been sifted through, leaving only this underlay of sharp grey points, jabbing at our tyres and sabotaging our progress. Ironically, it's on a much less hostile surface of soft white shells that we have our first puncture. Bachir kneels, scrabbles in the dust and picks out a handful of stones. He straightens up.

'Look, you see. Shells, little fish. This was all sea bed once.'

The desert as ocean again.

A half-hour later we're hurtling across a hard-baked gritty plain, flat as an ironing board, with nary a bush or a boulder breaking the surface as far as the eye can see. The drivers can at last put their feet down, and we fly across the desert, each vehicle swathed in its own dust, a string of small clouds chasing each other.

It's well into the afternoon before we find anywhere suitable to stop for lunch. A scattering of smoothly rounded boulders offers shade and there are a few dry and whitened trees for fire wood. As the drivers gather wood, the cook, a middle-aged man with a broad, guileless face, thick moustache and greying hair, walks a little way off and falls to his knees in prayer. He picks up a handful of dust and rubs it up and down his forearms and on his brow, mimicking, I suppose, the act of purification in a waterless world.
Western Sahara 
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Tyremarks on the surface of a typical reg, the flat gravel or coarse sand plains which are a driver's delight.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 18
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Smara Refugee Camp
  • Book page no: 68

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