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Day 71: Tamanrasset to Assekrem

Tamanrasset to Assekrem, Algeria 
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With Tom Sheppard, doyen of the desert.
Michael Palin - SaharaJust as I'm constructing romantic notions of mythological lands, a squat white Mercedes jeep bounces down the track towards us. Not unbelievable in itself, but quite a shock when I see it has British number plates. It pulls up and out gets a bony, angular man of late middle age, with a flick of fair hair and a quick, elfin-like energy. With mutual exclamations of surprise we introduce ourselves. His name is Tom Sheppard, a well-known traveller with books to his name.

Like many twentieth-century Englishmen, from T. E. Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, he has a passion for desert, and particularly this part of the Algerian desert. He's been coming here for forty years, following tracks marked on the old French maps.

'The Hoggar's very special.'

He likes the compactness of the area, and that there is, within 1000 square miles, such an extraordinary combination of mountain and dune.

'Pristine dunes, quite untrodden by anyone at all.'

He hasn't seen another human being for eight days, one of which was his sixty-eighth birthday. He describes it with almost military relish.

'I had a really special meal on that one. Meat and two veg. Chilled grapefruit for goodness sake. Damp kitchen towel, wrapped around the tin, the dryness of the air makes evaporation and you get cooled grapefruit segments. What more could you ask for a birthday?'

Life has been made much safer for him since the advent of satellites.

'God bless the Americans for putting them up there.'

He enthuses about something called EPRB, Electronic Precision Recording Beacon - basically a distress signal, which bounces off a satellite to centres all over the world. He's had to use it in Libya recently.

'And they were on to it, just like that, eleven minutes after starting transmission.'

I'd like to talk a lot more, but Tom politely turns down our offer of lunch. Though he exudes conviviality, his pleasure is in going solo, and as his dust-covered Mercedes, as compact and self-contained as its owner, crunches off down the track, I find myself distinctly envious of the man.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 71
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Tamanrasset
  • Book page no: 198

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