Bright and dark, the shades of yellow on the crumpled paper seemed to merge. Patches of ochre seeped into orange, beiges faded to black and contours meant to distinguish the varying terrain blurred. I had bought the map in London. Looking at it now, there must have been a mix up. I wondered who had originally drawn it, concluding that it must have been done many years ago, or that the cartographer had been drunk at the time. There were the usual suspiciously straight pistes, and a few villages that had long been in ruin. Most settlements were missing entirely.
A look of utmost gravity descended upon Suleyman’s worn features as he glanced at it. He stood up and cast it aside. ‘The map,’ he announced proudly, ‘is in my head.’
The elders began conferring and murmuring among themselves. Samir resumed his enigmatic expression. I was to think of the Sahara as a great lady, said Suleyman. Cunning was required to outwit her or she would bring death. If she was treated with respect, we might make it. If not, with her co-conspirator, the wind, she would turn in a flash, obliterating all trace of us. She had claimed many souls, the cursed, the damned. Hidden riches were buried beneath her surface, carried by the great caravans of the past that had faltered. Now they lay entombed forever. Occasionally she would give back one of her trophies, but only those things you wished she had kept.
We would be at the mercy of her elements – hot sand winds that lasted for days, mists that never cleared. A salt lake, whose marshy shorelines were lethal, could seize an unwary traveller, casting them into a deep, spongy abyss. Worse still were the treacherous pools of quicksand that lurked unseen on the surface. Even camels seeking springs or oases could be caught out.
If I survived all that, there were the scorpions, the jackals, the camel spiders with monstrous jaws and the horned vipers that would lurk by day beneath the surface of the desert, hunting by night for jerboas and lizards. Most deadly of all were the Kel Essuf spirits of the wild who would taunt and torment us.
A lengthy discussion ensued about which camels would be best suited for the trip and which to leave behind. Each would have to be at the top of their game, healthy and strong, not skinny and weak. We would have to think seriously about this matter.
We would go at a pace that was not too testing, walking rather than riding, since it was unwise when you were far from anywhere to be thrown off a camel. A daily coverage of approximately ten kilometres was snail’s pace by nomad standards. For me it was a marathon.
The constellations would guide us, those unknowable lights that helped every lost soul across the landscape of destiny. Only their tribe, the great Kel Rela, possessed this gift, like the migratory birds that effortlessly navigated the vast spaces, like the winds understood by their kin and his ancestors, a skill that was passed on from father to son, from grandfather to grandson.
Of course, everything was subject to variables. We would try ‘things’ first and test ‘things’ out. If ‘things’ looked good, we would go immediately. It all depended upon the weather, and upon me, it seemed, who were as unpredictable as the high winds that swept the great dunes and then pushed them without warning in the opposite direction. There were other ‘things’ as well that would need to be arranged, about which they were determined to remain silent.
‘She’s very independent,’ muttered Samir at last, and his father shook his head thoughtfully. He knew all about independent women. They could be as awkward as camels and needed just as firm handling.
As I glanced at my map this time, it showed another route: the one I should be taking to go home.