Stress takes on its own momentum. In times of anxiety we are like children peeking through a hole in a fence, not catching the view in its entirety. Ignorance all too often misconstrued as naïvity is in reality denial.
Inevitably, there was even more to the trip than I had at first understood. Only now as we were about to leave did the other stories emerge – those of travellers getting lost, or running out of water who would die of thirst. They all ended up the same – either buried by sand or eaten by jackals. People knew exactly what happened because the victims wrote it down. There is a great deal of time to think in the desert when you are dying.
Passing a sign beside the track that led south, I felt strangely consoled that there were no roads where we were going. The weather-beaten words, in French and in English, spelt out for the benefit of European motorists the dangers of crossing the desert and advised them to take precautions.
Few appear to have heeded its warnings, and even in the heyday of tourism in the area, when the traffic wasn’t black-masked and gun-bearing, there were often tragedies.
Reading a book about the Sahara did not help matters. It was a small academic tome and, as it fell open, a light brown scorpion stared out, claws snatching. It said:
Scorpions can reach 5 to 8 cms in length and, despite their reputation, their sting is no more dangerous than the common bumblebee. The exception to this rule is the Saharan fat-tailed scorpion (androctonus australis), which is generally around 10 cms and is the most venomous in the world. Its sting causes paralysis, convulsions, heart attack or respiratory failure. These scorpions are common across the deserts of north Africa.
I turned over the page and read on:
Thirst is felt when the body has lost about half a per cent
of its weight from dehydration. With a two per cent drop
the stomach will no longer take the amount of fluid
needed. You feel tired, flushed and irritable. Beyond five
per cent the saliva glands pack up. There is dizziness,
blurred speaking, difficulty in breathing and the skin turns
blue. A ten per cent loss is the point of no return. After
three days without fluid the skin splits from dehydration.
A fever sets in, the saliva dries and the tongue swells until
you feel like choking before your throat closes, resulting in
gagging and disorientation. Walking becomes impossible.
That is the turning point, when your liver is failing and
the blood, now thick, cannot circulate. You begin seeing
things – a distant oasis, a deadly beast – but by then it is
already too late, your suffering only cut short because you
know you are about to pass out and, when you do, death
is inevitable. Your body will be discovered many years from
now, burnt to a crisp or, worse, a skeleton, all flesh
devoured by vultures.
It didn’t bode well.
I did not attempt to call my family. I was trying to protect them of course. Wondering if meditation could form a shield against anxiety, I sat beneath an acacia, around me the absence of life, the earth scorched as if by a gigantic blowlamp, the emptiness in my wake. There I adopted the deathlike passivity of an animal trying to remain unnoticed by its predators.