Extract from my journal from our ten day camel trek across the Sahara in Sudan in 2004, led by Michael Asher, author of my all-time favourite book: “The Impossible Journey”:
We walk for the first few hours, with the camels loping behind us. The camels carry a lot of heavy gear with all our personal stuff, tents, sleeping mats, mess tent, cooking implements and all our food for ten days. Water for drinking and cooking will be collected from wells along the route, while personal washing is not really included in the plan.
The weather is blisteringly hot with no relief from shade or clouds, while the scenery is uninspiring with neither impressive sand dunes, nor any kind of vegetation to break the monotony. Just sand. A few tufts of scorched grass dot the landscape and the odd dried-up acacia shrub. These plants seem to be rather small and insignificant here, unlike further south where they grow into tall, majestic trees. It's a brutal environment and we see few living creatures as we wander further into the sand sea that is the Sahara.
Although it seems to me that I am constantly drinking water and refilling my 1.5 litre bottle, I am aware that the glaring sun and unforgiving climate is taking its toll on my body and mind. Despite the frequent fluid intake, I am beginning to feel progressively unwell.
For a while the surface under our feet is soft sand that makes for hard going as the weight of my body makes me sink in, with the muscles in my ankles and calves taking the brunt of the work. Densely packed earth, baked, parched and cracked by the relentless sun gives way to gravel and stony ground seemingly sizzling in the merciless heat. This bleak and unforgiving environment demands respect, but I feel more and more ill as the morning wears on. Eventually Michael signals that it is time to stop for lunch. Close to tears and ready to give up, I struggle into the camp set up by the porters and collapse onto the ground.
A mess tent is erected offering some relief from the ferocious sun. My thermometer reads 46°C in the shade, and I feel like I am wilting, even in the shade. As my feet have been hurting for the last few miles, I carefully take my boots off, noticing both little toes are sporting blisters. Covering them with blister plasters, I put my boots on again and hope for the best.
Life around me is a bit of a blur, I hardly notice what I am eating and taking photos hasn't even enter my mind for several hours now. I must be ill!
After lunch I decide to have another go at riding. Fatima, the name I have lovingly given to my camel, is carrying bags of firewood as well as being mounted with a large wooden saddle for me. Several of the men stand by in case I fall when mounting the camel, but all goes well. I don't feel at all wobbly and the saddle is surprisingly comfortable. For the first couple of hours Fatima is plodding along quite happily, being led by Osman, while I am reasonably comfortable perched high above the ground.
Later we take a short break and Michael adjusts my saddle, moving it a little so that it is better for the camel. It may be better for Fatima, but shortly after we start off again, the wooden knob at the back starts digging into my bottom. After another couple of hours we stop again and as Fatima leans forward on to her knees and I lean backward to avoid headbutting her, the saddle totally disintegrates. I tumble, head first, onto the hard cracked earth. I don't have any pain, but feel somewhat dazed and confused. Michael is furious with the porters for not assembling the saddle properly in the first place (a basic structure, the saddle consists of pieces of specially shaped wood fastened together with rope).
I opt out of riding for the last few miles, preferring to trust my own two feet rather than the lofty animal with its rickety seat. The blisters on my feet are seriously bothering me now and I feel increasingly weary, ill and in pain as the trek seems to go on and on and on this afternoon.
Eventually we find a suitable place to set up camp and once the porters and cook have got their act together, we eat a very late dinner. It is gone 10pm by this stage, too late for me too eat (and we've been on the go since before six this morning), so instead I wander off and place my camping mat on the soft sand, settling down for a night under a starry sky.
With my blisters still being painful this morning, I strap my toes together with Duct tape so that they won't splay when I walk, hoping that will help; and I take a couple of painkillers too before we set off. I am as ready as I ever will be for today's hike.
We are over an hour behind schedule when we finally leave at 07:50. We lead our camels, like dogs on a walk in the park, making for quite a surreal spectacle: eight Westerners, each with a heavily-laden camel in tow, with Omran and the chef riding theirs. While David and some of the others complain of tiredness, I feel fine today, apart from the painful blisters. The landscape is still rather flat and uninteresting, but I have a lovely morning living out my dream of trekking across the Sahara with Michael Asher, just like in his book. As the sun rises higher on the horizon, the temperature increases and I try to drink enough water to keep me hydrated. The problem with such a dry heat is that I don't realise that I am sweating and thus I am not keep my fluid levels up adequately. I only come to appreciate this retrospectively, of course.
When we set off again after the mid-morning rest stop I mount Fatima and ride for a while to reduce some of the pain from the blisters on my toes and feet. After some initial wobbliness, Fatima and I get on just fine, finding a slow and gentle rhythm as we make our way across the desert. It is really hot now, with the fierce sun roasting us, the camels, the cracked earth beneath out feet and everything else in its wake.
Despite bouncing along with a spring in my step first thing today, I now feel increasingly awful: light-headed, dizzy and disorientated as well as nauseated. I try to ride it out, quite literally, but eventually I have to capitulate and call Michael over to tell him we need to stop for me to get down. I jump down on to the hot, hard sand and someone brings me some rehydration salts. Feeling more and more sick I start to heave and then promptly pass out. By the time I come to, someone has found a blanket and moved me to the shade. David, who has been bringing up the rear at the back of the camel train, rides up alongside and wants to know what all the fuss is about. One of the girls quickly explains what has happened and adds that I was convulsing while unconscious. It is not looking good. Michael asks if I feel well enough to carry on, but all I want to do is sleep, preferably in a proper bed in an air-conditioned room. It becomes obvious that I am suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration and most probably concussion as a result of falling on my head yesterday. After much discussion it is decided that David and I will return to Khartoum while the others carry on.
With no means of communication with the outside world, Michael sends one of the young camel handlers riding off to locate the nearest settlement, and hope that someone there is in a possession of a 4WD vehicle and are able to come out to pick me up and take me back to civilisation. One of the other girls, Ali, is a trained nurse and sits with me, talking to me and trying to keep me alert while we wait. She is a sweetheart and makes me feel a lot better, at least psychologically. I hate admitting defeat and giving up, but my health must come first. David later tells me he is secretly relieved that we are going back, but right now I feel like I have let everyone down. Michael is excellent too, reassuring me that this unexpected delay is absolutely no problem. I know that it will badly mess up their day, but I haven't got any energy to argue.
Eventually, several hours later, a flat-bed truck arrives and I clamber into the cab next to the driver. There is no room for David inside, so much to his delight he is asked to stand on the back, holding on to the rails. He loves the drive across the sand, while I drift in and out of consciousness inside. The driver is surprisingly careful and considerate, but the downside of that, of course, is that we make very slow progress. There are no tracks out here but the driver seems to know where we are going. Or at least we hope so. We seem to be weaving around a little, crossing loose tracks from time to time and approaching several clusters of make-shift refugee camps (for the Darfur Displaced Persons), driving in and out of narrow lanes between the huts, shouting out something each time and receiving an answer. What on earth is going on? The driver speaks no English whatsoever, and my Arabic is limited to a few pleasantry phrases – not much use in this situation.
Having driven via six or seven such camps, we eventually stop in a small courtyard within a complex consisting of one brick building among the straw huts. We are all taken off the truck and a young boy comes out of the house to talk to us. All I can understand is “Five minutes”, “one hour”, “policeman” and “car”. I am still no wiser.
A short while later we are off again, to another refugee village. Here we are introduced to the driver's brother, who is a trainee lawyer. Our puzzlement increases, but thankfully he does speak a few words of English. He explains that a third brother is a policeman on his way to work in town and we are giving him a lift. After a while a man with a saloon car arrives and we are beckoned down from the truck and into the car. Without many options open to us, and not speaking nor understanding the local language, we have little choice but to get in. The policeman sits in the front, David and I in the back. As we head off along the dirt track at a rate of knots, we do wonder what on earth we have let ourselves in for, but I am too tired and too ill to actually give it any more thought.
We are still driving as darkness sets in, and are beginning to get a little bit concerned as to where he is taking us. We are given a glimmer of hope when we see lights in the distance. Khartoum, I presume. Before we know it, we are outside the Acropole Hotel, and the driver runs in to get the owner, George, to come out. What a welcome sight. After much discussion with the driver, he explains that the first truck which took us out of the desert is licensed only for driving in the rural areas (to do with the amount of tax paid I believe, although the lack of tyre tread is also mentioned. At this stage I don't care, we are here now) so he chartered this improvised taxi to deliver us to our hotel. Of course, the taxi driver wants payment, but we stand firm and argue that Michael paid the original driver to take us to all the way to Khartoum and emphasised that we are not to give him any more money. Eventually the guy concedes and goes away to take it up with the truck driver.
It is a relief to get inside the building with an efficient A/C. I feel instantly better. George is my Knight in Shining Armour, serving us a cold drink and installing us in a room where I promptly fall asleep.
Another adventure has come to a satisfying, although unexpected, end.