‘Where’s the other tent, Samir?’
We were standing on the sand, around us a battalion of bags, bundles and boxes extending towards the distant horizon.
‘Well, we are good friends…’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Just good friends.’
‘If we know that, there is no problem.’
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘I checked the equipment and there is good news and bad.’
‘We have found strong materials, solid poles, not rusty, very cheap.’
‘And the bad?’
‘There is only one tent.’
‘What about the respect for foreign women you keep talking about?’
‘I do respect you.’
‘Then why is there only one tent?’
‘It’s very roomy. Huge. Family tent. Enough space for twenty or thirty people.’
‘It’s a good thing I brought enough money to buy my own tent, isn’t it?’
Half an hour later two locally made tents appeared. The loading began, accompanied by frowns, invocations and muttered curses. ‘Our forebears walked days with just a goatskin of water. Look at us now – we need rivers to last hours,’ said the elder.
There was a raft of spare ropes, straps, hobbles and halters for the camels. After that were the cooking and eating supplies, pots, pans and utensils, as well as a kerosene lamp and a stove consisting of a gas bottle with a cooking attachment including a teapot, six sticky glasses, plus a selection of water canisters, some filled, some empty – at Suleyman’s insistence – and one neatly disguised whisky bottle for emergencies only.
For bedding there were various thin mattresses and a half a dozen camel-hair blankets of varying sizes and coarseness, designed from ancient patterns, the dyes from berries and the wool from family animals. Two crates of vegetables, boxes of tea and three cones of sugar, two small hessian sacks of rice and semolina, and another two of oranges, dates and lemons would see us through.
I thought nomads are supposed to travel light, but Samir had stacked up a ton of stuff, including an amulet to guard against the Evil Eye, and his cartons of cigarettes. I, on the other hand, had my own pile of essentials and my extra large rucksack bulged at the seams with them. I had thermals for the freezing nights, water purification tablets for stinking well water, rehydration powders, snakebite and scorpion kits and a high-tech sleeping bag to keep me warm at Antarctic temperatures. As always when travelling to high-risk destinations, I was taking a few select items of solar-powered emergency equipment recommended by the SAS in Afghanistan: an Inmarsat Mini-M satellite phone (I had been tipped off that it was forbidden, but I was taking it anyway); a Miniflare rocket and an EPIRB, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio of the kind operated by ocean yachtsmen. And I had an industrial supply of antibiotics and other medicines, plus a range of travel fans, lotions, creams and an insect repellent guaranteed to ward off any living creature that came within twenty paces.
Crucial items I would carry in a bag at the front of the saddle – my money, papers, digital compass and some noxious black paste that Suleyman said was an essential for sore feet. My luxury items consisted of a volume of Tennyson’s In Memoriam – in honour of Edward Wilson, who had carried one with him on an expedition to the South Pole – and my lucky stone, so round and smooth that it reminded me of a dinosaur egg I had once picked up in the Nemegt.
The camels had their own essentials, including oats, dates and salt. Camels can go for long periods without moisture, even as long as six or seven months, but they need to eat daily and starve if they reject the unfamiliar vegetation.
A lengthy discussion took place over which pot should go in which bag, which box or crate should be carried by which animal, which rug should protect which rump. It is important not to overburden a camel. A half-ton cargo is normal capacity, but it has to be balanced perfectly, the canisters of water hung especially carefully. Any imbalance means the saddle rubs, which can cause a wound, and any soreness leads to the camel growing irritable. That, in turn, can result in disobedience, and even in lameness.