The sky was brilliant blue, the air hot and still. I was picking prickly pear flowers and handing them to Fleabag. There it was again, that same angry grumble I had heard earlier. I looked up to see a jet thundering overhead like a colossus in descent, undercarriage open, wheels unpacked, in undeniable clarity.
The aircraft let rip its ear-splitting roar and Fleabag’s head turned. Then she bucked. Fortunately Samir had her neck rope but the force of the engine certainly shook the sand off her back – and the load she was carrying.
Agizul flew across the half-submerged tent at top speed and pulled up 200 yards away, settling near an agar tree.
Seconds later I was sitting down, sheltering in Usem’s wide shadow. The plane had gone and gritty figs carpeted the sand where prickly-pear flowers glinted like diamonds.
Suleyman, having quietened Usem and the others, strode off to retrieve Agizul. Even as his figure grew pocket-sized on the horizon, the atmosphere between us changed. He shouted something back, his voice an echo. He knew he had been rumbled.
Agizul was flustered, his long neck tenser than usual, his blubbery lips a little paler. Suddenly, he couched. Was it fear? It was Samir who calmed him down and who, on closer inspection, discovered his swollen, crimson lip. He was slavering green spittle.
A poultice of tajart leaves had to be applied to cleanse the infection. Suleyman gathered the ingredients and pounded a paste from leaves. Afterwards he suggested turmeric, which, he said, was very soothing, and would be effective for our eyes, because obviously they were deceiving us.
He wasn’t fooling anyone. ‘What are they doing landing a plane here, in the middle of the desert?’ I asked, as we pitched camp. ‘There aren’t any airports?’
To his credit he just came out with it. ‘It’s the drugs operation,’ he said straight off.
‘I see,’ I said, not raising an eyebrow.
Inside I was shaking. South American drugs cartels transport hundreds of tons of cocaine annually to remote airstrips along former caravan routes criss-crossing North Africa. Hashish is sent in from the Rif Mountains in Morocco and opium from Afghanistan. The drugs are forwarded on in an intricate network to ‘poison’ the West and the cash used to buy guns and make bombs – the same weapons of violence that are used by terrorists all over the world. The Sahara is the perfect disguise.