Everything turns in a second. That second when your tyre blows on the motorway, the doctor looks up from the test results, the phone rings at 3.24am…
We had just watered the camels at a well, one of the very few that we have found on the Sahara Expedition and filled up all our bidots. We’d stopped to eat our elevenses: an orange, a couple of biscuits and a handful of peanuts, and had set off again in high good humour.
Ahead of us was a sabkha extending for about 10km with 2km across. A sabkha is a kind of sunken bowl which is at, or below, sea level. The sand can be soft and usually we go around them for that reason. The great danger is that you hit a patch of quicksand. In this case, though, we decided to save ourselves hours of walking and cut across. The camels were now heavily laden with water and we didn’t want to make them work more than necessary. The sand was reasonably pale, not the deep red which signifies danger, and it felt solid underfoot.
We were walking in our usual formation, Lhou and Addi in front leading Callum, Alasdair and Sausage, and Brahim and I slightly behind with Hunter, Hamish and Hector. It was still early, around 11am, and the wind had dropped so my heart was light.
‘This sand feels good underfoot,’ I said to Brahim.
‘Yes, it seems to have got a bit harder,’ he replied.
Then came that second. Addi suddenly screamed out, ‘Lhou, Lhou, come and help me.’ I looked up. Callum was up to his chest in sand, plunging and rearing, his eyes wide in panic. Quicksand! Behind him, Alasdair had gone down too dragging the last camel in his wake. Their mouth halters, which are tied around the bottom of their jaws and then connected to the forward camel with a rope, meant they had no escape without ripping half their own faces off.
Brahim immediately turned his three camels round and started walking them quickly back to safety.
Addi was shouting directions at Lhou, while trying to pull Callum up and out. There is a huge bond of trust between Addi and Callum and I could see the camel giving everything to him. Lhou had got to Alasdair’s head but poor Sausage at the back was grunting and wallowing alone.
‘Zahra,’ yelled Addi, ‘Come here, come and take Callum.’ By now he had got Callum out. I rushed up and grabbed his halter and stood as calmly and quietly as I could while Lhou struggled to bring Alasdair up and Addi ran to Sausage, still mired at the back. Sausage is the gentlest of the boys and I held my breath as Addi coaxed him out.
The six of us, three humans and three camels, huddled together, all panting for breath and high on adrenaline. Then we took off after Brahim who was now 50 metres ahead, moving to the edge and safety.
In slow motion we watched as first Hunter and then Hamish sank screamingly down ahead of us. Lhou was leading the three, so Addi and I sprinted towards Brahim’s stricken team. Hunter was down deep and Brahim had somehow pulled his luggage off, Hamish was thrashing around but Hector was only in to his knees and Addi yanked him out, thrust his halter into my hand and dashed to Brahim’s aid. I walked as quickly and lightly as I could to the others. Addi got behind Hunter pushing him up as Brahim pulled and got him out, Hamish followed and the two were led over to the rest of us.
Trembling and still shocked, all six camels stood quietly by me while the men went to retrieve the baggage, lugging over the weighty water carriers and bags.
They loaded Hunter up again and we set off in single file, moving steadily in our old footsteps towards the far bank. For five minutes none of us spoke as we tested out the sand and took in how near we had been to disaster.
‘We were so close, if they had gone down any further, we would have lost them. We have escaped a great danger. Thanks be to God,’ said Brahim.
‘Thanks be to God,’ we all echoed.