I woke, as always, to the sound of Brahim’s clear voice singing the morning prayers. It was cold, the coldest day so far, and getting dressed was a dance of putting more clothes on to take some off and brave the air outside my warm sleeping bag. My ear infection had got worse and the whole right side of my face was clogged, so I decided it was time to break out the antibiotics. The men had lit a fire to heat up their socks. ‘Asougwas Amayno! Happy New Year.’ We all greeted each other and embraced to welcome the new year. I sat by the fire eating my porridge and watching the orange sunrise fade to blue.
I did the dishes and trotted off to bring in Hector. I untied his hobble and swished him lightly on his back legs to get him moving towards camp. He knows I am a soft touch and stopped at every prickly thorn bush to grab a quick mouthful of extra breakfast. We set off at 8.17. No matter what time we wake up or how fast or slow we pack, we are always on the road within five minutes of that each way.
‘It is New Year’s day and today we are going to drink camel’s milk,’ announced Brahim. Lho and I nodded enthusiastically as we are both greedy for it and Addi made a ‘yeuch’ face. Even though he is a nomad born and bred, he doesn’t like anything with milk in it from any animal. An hour in to our walk, we came up to a neat, square white tent with a pointed roof which was obviously inhabited. There were about twenty goats close by and a big water container. A young girl came out and I went to greet her. The men stayed at a safe distance away, around 50 metres, with the camels. With no men visible, they would not come into a tent where there are women they don’t know.
The girl’s mother, Khadija, arrived and greeted me with surprise and then beaming hospitality. ‘Come in, come in. Drink tea with me. Have you eaten? Would you like some Goufiyya?’ Goufiyya is a staple of the diet and is made from milk and a kind of grain. I thanked her and drank deeply then asked if I could take some to the men outside. Brahim and Lho said, ‘Bismillah, in the name of God,’ and took long draughts. I persuaded Addi into a sip which he promptly spat out. ‘Not good, Zahra!’ He said and looked at me accusingly.
I went back into the tent where a black and white kitten was lapping at a dish and sat down for some tea, which was being brewed over hot charcoal. ‘Perfume, get the perfume,’ Khadija told her daughter, who promptly did so and sprayed me. My last proper wash was well over ten days ago and I do smell terrible but it is actually just one of the rituals of Saharan hospitality to spray guests with scent. When we had stopped in the city of Laayoune I had seen endless shops selling just tea and perfume. I drank my tea and took 3 glasses out for the men, then came back and said goodbye. At that moment, the father came striding up from the oued. He was tall and well built with a flourishing moustache and was carrying a large stick. Seeing that the men were quite far from the tent and that there was a woman with them, the stick was put down and greetings were exchanged. ‘I’m glad we stayed back away from the tent,’ said Brahim to me as we left, ‘he was big and that stick looked strong!’
We had stopped for our elevenses when up drove a watta. A watta is an old-fashioned Landrover and every nomad in the area has one, or a pick up. They are perfect for the terrain and the climate and the hard work that is involved in living in this harsh environment.
A short, stocky man climbed out, with the hood of his jellaba firmly pulled up over his chech (head scarf) to keep the wind out. We said our hellos and then asked him to join us for a snack, ‘No, no I have everything in the watta,’ he said, but he had to accept some orange when pressed. He crouched down. ‘Where is she from? Spain? France?’ He asked the men. ‘She’s from Scotland, Injleez,’ replied Brahim. ‘Yes, I’m from Scotland,’ I chimed in. Realising that I spoke Arabic, he looked at me sternly, ‘And which country are you in now?’ He asked. Now, this is a very tricky question and one that has to be answered with some delicacy, as according to which side of the political divide you are on, the answer is either Morocco or Western Sahara. I thought fast. ‘I am in the Sahara,’ I said, ‘But may I ask which country you are from?’ ‘I am from the Western Sahara, the Western Sahara in the west of Africa,’ he said firmly. Shortly after he left and we continued on our way.
The wind strengthened and started to whip up the sand. It hovered between hot and cold. ‘Why don’t you put on your jacket, Zahra? You will get cold,’ said Brahim. I said no as I was still warm from walking and he asked again. ‘I think I am ok, thank you Brahim.’ Five minutes later, he stopped the camels and brought me my jacket. I had not given the right answer. Actually, I was soon glad of it as the temperature dropped in the face of the wind.
Up ahead, we saw our friend’s watta. He had got to his shiqawa – the enormous plastic stores for water which allow the nomads to live here. He beckoned us over. ‘Come and fill your containers,’ he said. ‘Take as much as you like, fill everything and let the camels drink.’ This was a really generous offer as water is such a precious commodity and so hard to get. His stern manner had given way to kindness and he went to get a bowl from his watta so we could ladle water into the bidots more easily. The camels hadn’t drunk for five days so slurped thirstily, cramming their heads down into the trench. ‘My name is Mohammed Raha,’ he told me, ‘Don’t forget. Write that in your phone. Take a picture of me and tell your people about the Sahrawis.’ With grateful thanks, we left him.
Head down, I trudged into the wind. ‘Look, Zahra, look. The camels are coming,’ said Brahim. Through the veil of sand, I could see dozens of them running towards the water. They must have seen or heard the watta and were coming down to be watered. There were dark honey-coloured ones, pure white, and piebald, all different sizes. Some were galloping, others were racing each other in little spurts and the larger, older ones at the back were walking at a measured pace. Soon, I couldn’t see the water trench for bodies.
Now, the wind was gale force and directly in our faces. Sand stung any part of me that wasn’t covered. There was no point in speaking because nothing could be heard above the howling. My chech was wrapped tightly round my nose and mouth. It was wet from my mouth and from the endless river of snot coming out of my nose. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and lifted it up. Immediately, the desert blew into my mouth. Sand coated my teeth and choked in my throat. I pulled it back up and walked on.
Addi yelled across, ‘Zahra, Zahra, for you.’ He had found a solitary yellow flower, rather like a dandelion and had picked it for me. My mood lightened. ‘The wind is tiring for all of us, even the camels. It plays with your head,’ shouted Brahim. I felt better for knowing I was not suffering alone. The thing is, though, on this kind of adventure, you have to keep going. You have to keep walking no matter how you feel or what the circumstances are. There is no real room for misery or anger, you have no choice but to accept whatever nature throws at you. It is like one endless, excruciating lesson in patience.
We trudged down into a sunken bowl where some scrubby thorn bushes were growing and there was some shelter. Our 20km were done and it was time to set up camp. We have two tents, mine which is called Le Petit Fromage because it looks like a triangle of cheese, and the larger one which is the mess tent and the men’s tent. They are made of sturdy canvas with iron poles and secured with long, thick iron tent pegs. The centre of the tent is a large stone which the major tent pole goes in to. They are heavy but once they are up and pegged, they can withstand the strongest of winds.
Camp set up, we crowded into the mess tent and set to cutting up the vegetables for lunch: a salad of cucumber, onion, black olives, green peppers and raisins with sardines in tomato sauce, bread and hot, sweet, life-saving tea. I had brought eye drops in for the men and they all flung themselves on their backs and held their eyelids open with varying degrees of success. ‘You’re my Mum, thank you Zahra,’ said Addi.
nd now, after lunch, here I am huddled in Le Petit Fromage, typing this up as the canvas flaps like the wings of a thousand crows and the wind blows the sand in a scourge across the landscape.
Happy New Year to you and yours.
The Sahara Expedition is sponsored by Craghoppers and NTT DATA UK and organised by Jean-Pierre Datcharry of Desert et Montagne Maroc.