It is easy to see why the Tuareg call this place the plateau of rivers. The land ebbs, flows, rushes and pulses. It moves constantly. Where there is sand it is icing-sugar fine, swept smooth by the winds and sometimes bearing minuscule footprints hinting of moonlit hunting dramas. Rocks and stones lie scattered like fallen vertebrae, eroded, as if searching for something irrevocably shattered.
Ahead, the horizon feels unreachable, the distant peaks stark and impermeable, like the wall of stone that separate the two sides of my life. The thin line of our caravan is oblique and meandering, winding, perhaps, towards another, new place, where regrets will become dust.
The two men talk – about the weather, its whims and idiosyncrasies, about rain clouds that are dream-makers, about trees that could kill you, and those that could keep you alive.
Father and son seem a perfect foil for each other. For Samir, the desert holds a hypnotic majesty. It is a place of oleander blossom, acacia and palms spreading their shade in the sun, of vast, wild secrets that hold mystical beauty. Whereas for his father, these are lands where the soul and body are tested, where inner strength is crafted and insight gained.
Samir notices the patterns of the sky and land and the ever-changing winds. Suleyman warns that the hot ground burns holes in the soles of your sandals. Samir believes in love. Suleyman feels sorry for those poor souls who love, the type found in the West. For him, love is a disease of passion in which the senses and emotions give way to madness.
All the while, the camels listen, heads held high, swaying their necks in agreement, or snorting as if in protest. At first Fleabag resists her nose line, as if uncomfortable in middle position. Walking beside Samir seems to soothe and calm her. She has no issues with love.
We march until the light begins to fail, squeezing a bit more out of ourselves. Late afternoon, among the powdery rubble, a smooth patch of ground is enough to pitch camp and couch our tired camels, who carp and wriggle. Large bushes with prickly foliage cleansed of their winter dust, or an isolated tree provide wind shelter.
I gave Fleabag a stroke and she gurgles, regarding me through her long lashes as if to say, ‘Agh! So you are still here. What do you want, seriously?’
‘I’m not really sure,’ I tell her, and she chews her cud, as if to say the discussion is over.
The tents don’t take long to put up. Samir begins a fire by rubbing a stick sharpened at the end to a point with another, longer, dry stick. When the flames leap over his fingers, Suleyman throws on some teheregle, to dispel bad spirits.
Supper is stew, or duwaz, eaten from a shared pot, and tagela with oranges and cardamom biscuits. We lean against sun-warmed rocks that would burn your skin if you touched them in the daytime. Now, as the temperature falls, they are like hard electric blankets.
Samir ‘cleans’ the dishes by pouring sand on them and swishing it around with his finger. Despite the exemption from prayer that Islam grants to all travellers, Suleyman walks into the distant vacuum and I see his dark outline slide out a prayer mat. It is the one that smells of camel dung.
In the dying day, the camels play in the dust. The high peaks look unworldly in the distance, sparkling from the radiance melting over them. Samir tells stories about the deeds of his forebears, those navigators of the great routes whose invisible paths traced the past like small tributaries.
We sit listening to the silence for a while, although for the two men it is not silence because they can hear the sounds of the winds and the animals.
As night’s cold gathers us in its arms, Suleyman speaks of the practice of fire watching, a kind of willing the heat to enter the body practised by nomads on long desert journeys. It doesn’t seem to work.
Darkness falls. I undress inside my sleeping bag, relieved to have survived the first twelve miles unscathed. The torch makes circles on the canvas sides of the tent, one pale ring outside and another a darker one like a kaleidoscope with a dot in the middle. I switch off the light, remembering an old love, and drift to the lullaby tinkling of camel bells.