Echoes of Songs

19 – 23 March 2014
Chingiuetti to Ouadane

His voice isn’t a pretty one; it’s rough, dry, and has only a limited range before it breaks. Neither is he a particularly talented singer; he’s off-pitch much of the time (and not in the desired quarter-tones of Arab music either), and changes between high and low notes are never smooth. Still, it’s an evocative sound; full of soul, and with a sparseness that perfectly matches the desert around us. The pale pink light at the horizon announces another day; he just finished his morning prayers. Now he’s singing verses from the Quran, while making tea on the camp fire that drives away the morning chill. This morning is the same as countless desert mornings experienced by his father before him, and his grandfather before that. His name is Salima, and he’s from a centuries-old line of Moorish goat herders. Sometimes he makes some extra money guiding tourists on his camels. That’s why we’re sharing breakfast in the middle of the Sahara desert this morning. We’re going abit further than the typical 3 day, 2 night tourist loop; we’re doing a 5 day, 100 kilometer trek from Chinguetti to Ouadane, another ancient caravan town.

Breakfast consists of leftovers from yesterday evening, and tea. Tea is extremely serious business in this part of the world. Every herder, no
matter how poor, has a little tea pot and at least 2 glasses with him. Fire is made on some branches from a dead tree. Once the fire is reduced to smoldering embers, the tea pot – about the size of a big mug – is filled with black tea leaves and some precious water. When the water is boiling, a handful of sugar is added to the tea, stopping just short of turning the whole thing into tea syrup. Then, tea is poured into one of the little glasses (about the size of a shot glass), from a considerable height. The glass is then emptied into the tea pot again. This process is repeated over and over again, until the tea becomes frothy and foamy. Then, as many glasses as are needed or available are brought out, and each glass is filled with tea. The second to last step is to carefully empty the glasses into the tea pot again, leaving the foam at the bottom of the glasses. Finally, the tea is poured into the glasses, with an extra thick layer of foam on top. Apparently, all the pouring back and forth also brings more oxygen into the tea itself, increasing its sweetness (not that that’s really necessary, with the equivalent of about 6 sugar cubes per tea cup, but alas). Each person gets three rounds of tea (with the small size of the glasses, that’s about one Western cup’s worth), which are to be finished quickly and with a lot of slurping. And that’s it; the tea ceremony is over, and whatever else is happening in the world can continue.

In our case, that means packing our belongings onto our two faithful camels. I don’t know if they have names; I call them Curly and Straight, because of the hair on top of their heads. One of them – usually Straight – carries the water and a saddle for me (although I don’t use it often); the saddle is made from wood and leather, and resembles a bucket with a raised part between my legs; there’s a sheep skin on top of it to make it more comfortable. The local way to ride a camel is to rest your feet on the animal’s neck. The other camel carries my backpack, and Salima’s gear. Camels have a reputation of being grumpy, unpleasant animals. Curly and Straight, however, are the sweetest animals you could wish for. They protest a bit when we’re packing them, but other than that, they’re incredibly easygoing. They don’t show any nastiness towards Salima or me, and whenever I walk next to them and have to move in their direction to avoid some object, they make a polite sidestep to accommodate me. I think Salima has trained them well. He’s also very gentle with them. They have a ring in their nose with a rope attached to it, but in 5 days, I never see Salima pulling the rope; he just drapes it over his shoulder, and the camels follow him. The second camel’s rope is attached to the first camel’s harness in a way that it slips loose if the distance between them becomes too great. From time to time, the rear-most camel will take a different course around some object, causing the rope to slip loose. Instead of running away and enjoying its newfound freedom, the camel will just stand in place, waiting for Salima to look around and come get it.

The first part of our route from Chinguetti to Ouadane consists of a Wadi, or dried-up river bed. When the rainy season kicks in, from June through September, there will usually be a couple of showers reaching this part of the desert. When that happens, water washes down from the Adrar mountains and forms a temporary wide river, flowing Northeast past Chinguetti and into Erg Ouarane, a 120 by 60 kilometer dune field. The riverbed consists of shallow sand dunes, and is well over a kilometer wide; on both sides, it’s flanked by much higher sand dunes. It remains a bit more vegetated than the surrounding desert throughout the year; near Chinguetti, there’re still quite some trees, and the occasional little oasis. Also, there’re little bushes of grass every couple of meters. It’s nasty grass; long and with very sharp points that pierce my trousers and make my legs bleed. The camels love it though, which is why this Wadi is used as a travel route throughout the year (that, and the shallowness of the dunes; sensible desert travelers avoid those epic, beautiful, empty dune fields at all cost).

Right now it’s the dry season, and all the goatherds of the region also converge on the Wadi to allow their animals to feed on the remaining bits of grass. In the rainy season, if it rains, there’s grass throughout the desert; the goatherds will then move out of the Wadi and into those grass fields, because the ground there is much richer in minerals, and so is the grass. The first day, we regularly see the typical white tent of the nomadic herders somewhere in the landscape. We also come across a couple of herds of goats; during the day, they range freely, eating whatever they can find. At night the goatherd and his family bring the goats back to the tent and guard them from the jackals that live around here. The goatherds also have camels, but they only use them as pack animals, when they’re moving the goatherd – and thus their belongings – to another area. Whenever the herd stays in place for a while, the camels are free to roam the area, so we regularly spot unattended camels (don’t ask me how the goatherd retrieves them when the time comes to move on; even when they’re hobbled, they can move quite some distance!). From time to time, we spot a female with a baby; baby camels are quite possibly the cutest things on four legs. All woolly and awkward on their tall legs, and with huge eyes, they make me want to scream ‘it’s so fluffy I’m gonna die!!’…

Half an hour after sunrise, Salima and I are fed, and the camels are packed, so we start walking while it’s still somewhat cool. When we woke up at 7 o’ clock, just before sunrise, it was only 7 degrees Celsius; with only sand and rocks on the ground, no plant cover, and no clouds, the desert nights can become really quite cold. The first night, I sleep – or rather, I’m very cold and very uncomfortable – on just a thin woolen blanket and a thin sleeping bag. The following nights, I sleep on a thin air mattress, which is considerably more comfortable and slightly less cold. Impressively, Salima sleeps on the blanket night after night; I’m not sure he even feels the cold anymore, having lived in the desert his whole life. As soon as the sun comes up though, the temperatures rise rapidly; by 8 o’ clock, it’s already around 20 degrees, and around 10, the temperature approaches 30 degrees; it’s quickly becoming too hot to continue walking. The camels could go on, but even for them, they would “only” be able to go a day or 4 without water, as opposed to 8 days when it’s colder. The awe-inspiring caravans that used to be the main form of transcontinental trade, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of camels, usually only made their journey during the winter; leaving in November and returning in February, to avoid the incredible heat that’s building from March onwards. Around 11 o’clock, we start looking for a suitable place to rest.

Tree means shadow
Shadow means animals
Animals means poop
Poop means flies
I hate flies
But then again…
Tree means shadow…

As soon as we stop walking, the hundreds of flies that have been using us as public transport start swarming around us, landing on every piece of skin they can find, driving me crazy. Thankfully I have my turban wrapped around my head and neck, and I’m wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants, so only my hands are exposed. Salima hardly seems to notice the flies (he’s also wearing a turban), but the camels sure do; they’re especially annoyed when the flies land near their eyes or noses, and they blow their noses constantly in an effort to drive the flies away.
Our noon break is usually underneath a tree somewhere; we spend some time sweeping away thorny branches and dried-out animal droppings, lay down our blanket, and start a fire. The camels are hobbled, but otherwise
free to roam the area and eat whatever they can find. Then, it’s time for tea again, and some food. After that, we take a nap of two or three hours, only waking up to move along with the shadow of the tree; there’s nothing much else to do. Around 3 in the afternoon, Salima collects the camels, which have been wandering around the area, eating grass, feeling just fine in the blistering heat.

Salima and I don’t talk much; not only do we both speak limited French, but also the desert is just not a place that stimulates much conversation; it’s a place where few words are necessary. I’m happy to be alone with my thoughts most of the time, absorbing the landscape and the experience. The second day, we don’t meet anyone else; we just see two goatherds sitting on a sand dune in the distance, and that’s it. The dunes become flatter and the landscape drier. There’re fewer goats and camels around, but the desert is by no means lifeless. At night, donkeys can be heard; their sad calls carry for many kilometers in the desert. When the wind isn’t blowing, the night is so silent that I can hear beetles walking in the sand from a meter away. The most distinctive are black-and-white beetles the size of my thumb, but there’s an incredible array of insects walking and flying around. Black lizards, up to half a meter long, are relaxing on top of rocks, soaking up the sunlight. There’re also birds; bee eaters and vultures are the most distinctive ones, but there’s quite a lot of variety. Of course, no desert is complete without snakes and scorpions; I only see snake tracks in the sand, but when picking up a bag one morning, I discover that I’ve been sleeping with a scorpion only centimeters away from my face! Once, I see a desert fox, quite close by. Its huge ears, pale fur and skinny build are perfect adaptations to the climate, but it doesn’t hang around long enough for me to really admire it; even in this empty landscape and just a few meters away, it manages to hide from us within a fraction of a second, and try as I might, I can’t find it again. Jackals are the fear of each goatherd; I see their tracks a couple of times, but don’t hear or see the animals themselves. Judging by the tracks that are clearly visible in the fine sand, there must be mice as well, along with some predator following them around; it might be a desert fox, or a sand cat (I wish I knew more about animal tracks; I’m sure it could lead to fascinating insights).

At the end of the second day, we approach a mountain ridge, which appears to form the end of the Wadi. Suddenly, there’re a bit more trees again, but also bigger sand dunes. On the first night, we could see the horizon light up when a single car drove around in Chinguetti, more than 20 kilometers away; that’s how little light pollution there is over here. Now, we’re far enough away from anywhere to be in complete darkness. There’s also no longer any cell phone signal; we’re truly off the grid. On the morning of the third day, we run into Chris (if I remember his name correctly); he’s a French-speaking Canadian who got so fascinated by the Moorish culture and nomadic existence that he moved to Mauritania. He bought two camels and had a sort of apprenticeship with Salima, to learn everything there is to know about travelling the desert with camels. He’s now based in Chinguetti, and makes 40-day excursions in all directions, on foot, with his camels. I’d love to hear some of his stories, but he’s almost at the end of one of his excursions, and is heading in the opposite direction from us, towards Chinguetti. Salima greets his friend, and for a couple of minutes, they exchange information about the state of the vegetation and the water wells in each direction; then we each move our separate way.

As we get closer to the ridge we’d seen yesterday, the sand dunes get higher, and there’s no vegetation left. The camels have a hard time walking in the soft sand; normally they’re stoic and keep a confident thread no matter what, but especially downhill, they clearly don’t feel comfortable in the sand. Thankfully it’s only a short way to the ridge, which turns out to consist of large black and purple rocks. The wind has deposited enough sand against them to allow us to climb up; however, on the other side, we’re greeted by a much bigger dune field. The only relief is the sight of an oasis in between the dunes.

Around noon, we reach the oasis of Tanouchert. Being surrounded by palms and acacia trees in the middle of the exhausting sand dunes is a great joy. Almost every building here is made of palm leaves. The place is silent; everyone’s inside, taking shelter from the blazing sun. There’s no electricity here and of course no phone signal, but two houses have a solar panel and a large antenna; it’s for watching TV, and there’s an area around each antenna where large groups of people can sit. No matter how remote (and how amateurish the Mauritanian TV channel), people are still craving their evening entertainment. We walk around a bit, and find two men building a new house. The frame is made of acacia wood; they’re currently working on the roof, made of palm leaves. Judging by the other buildings in here, there’re two flavours possible for the walls: palm leaves, or oil drum metal. Salima takes me to Tanouchert’s only store. It’s a typical common supplies store, as can be found all over the country; a square cement building with cupboards full of products lining the walls, and the owner sitting on a carpet on the ground. It’s Friday afternoon, and the men are waiting for the Friday prayer; some ten men have gathered in the little building.

We’re invited for tea, meat and bread, while the men gossip away. Each time a new person comes in, all the men in the group get three cups of crazily sugared tea; it doesn’t take long for me to become light-headed due to the sugar rush. This tea must also be the reason that many Mauritanians, from as young as thirty years old, have some of the most horrifying teeth you could possibly imagine. The adhan announces prayer time, and all the men go to the mosque; I’m left behind in the store, with the task of guarding the meat from the cat. Guarding it from the flies doesn’t seem to be a priority, as it’s been lying on a tray, exposed to the air and the insects, ever since I came in, and nobody is bothered by it (except me). Once the men come back, they fry the meat – some camel meat, some goat meat, and a camel liver – and put it on a large plate with freshly cooked rice. The men take a piece of meat (with their right hand only ofcourse – left is used for wiping your butt!), and wrap it inside a ball of steaming hot rice, and eat it without leaving a single crumb of rice on their hand. I can’t even hold the rice for any length of time due to the heat, let alone form a smooth ball of it with only one hand. To the men’s amusement, my hand is soon covered in sticky rice residue. Both meats are quite good, but the camel liver is truly disgusting; it’s hard, glassy, has an awful texture, and an awful taste.

Once the time comes to move on, a man decides to walk with us. It turns out he’s a teacher at a school for nomad’s children, that’s located about 10 kilometers from Tanouchert, and halfway between Chinguetti and Ouadane. When the parents are out in the field, the kids can get some education there. The teacher is dressed in his boubou; the typical oversized, billowing blue tunic with gold-coloured embroidery that’s really more of a town garment than something for the desert, where you risk getting it stuck on some thorny plant or tree. Most men out here, including Salima, wear a simple white cotton tunic, with blue trousers held up by a long leather belt, of which both ends are left to dangle to about ankle height for a reason that escapes me. Still, watching the teacher’s boubou billow in the desert wind is an unforgettable sight. We leave the dune field and reach a plain where Hamada (flat ground covered with a thin layer of sand, with rocks every couple of meters) and Reg (flat ground where clay holds tiny little pebbles and sand in place, with no layer of sand or bigger rocks on top of that) alternate multiple times.

For the first three days, I ride a camel for about an hour after our lunch break, because it’s still so hot. It’s not a particularly exciting activity; since I don’t know how to steer the camel, I’m just a passenger with an elevated point of view. Also, riding a camel turns out to be not entirely risk-free. To get off the camel, it needs to kneel down on the ground. On the third day, as I disembark, Straight suddenly decides to stand up. Camels stand up very quickly and with lots of movement; I’m lifted up into the air, while hurriedly trying to jump to the ground. As a result, I fall down from quite a height, and smash my face into the rear of Salima’s skull. Thankfully both he and I are fine, but if I had been wounded, it would’ve been difficult. If Salima had been injured, we’d be in Big Trouble; for at least 3 days out of 5, we don’t have any cell phone signal, so I couldn’t call anyone for help. Even when you know how to steer the camels, which I don’t, it’d take at least 2 days to reach the nearest town with a doctor, let alone a hospital. After that experience, the potential dangers of trekking through the desert are more clear to me than ever. I decide to not take the risk of riding a camel again, and just walk the rest of the way; I already found walking a more satisfying experience anyway.

Every once in a while, Salima bursts into a song again. Some are typical work songs as encouragement to the camels, when they’re on difficult ground or when they’re lagging behind; others are seemingly spontaneous little songs, perhaps triggered by certain places in the landscape, or by certain thoughts. I’m sure he must be thinking about his wife and kids, staying with his father and the goats near Chinguetti while he’s away for seven or eight days (five to get me to Ouadane, and two or three to get back, as he can ride the camels on the return journey).

On the morning of the fourth day, we are passed at some distance by a green 4×4, that honks at us. Other than that, we see no other people all day. At the end of the morning, we reach a plateau, and on top of it is a spectacularly empty part of the desert. The ground is all hard sand or Reg (the clay with little rocks embedded), and there’s nothing growing on it; no grass, no bushes, no trees, as far as the eye can see – apart from one solitary, tiny acacia. We continue walking longer than usual to get off this oven plate and find a tree to shelter under, on the other side of the plateau. From there, it’s mostly Hammada, with sharp rocks making life difficult for the camels as well as for us. There are some alternating patches of sand and Reg, and there’s some grass growing here and there, but it’s a bleak, difficult terrain. It’s completely unsuited for even proper 4x4s, but apparently there’s just enough for goats to survive; we come across two bleating lambs, that seem to think it’s a good idea to follow us. They have lost their herd, and I feel sorry for them; if they don’t find their herd before nightfall, they’ll surely be eaten by a jackal. Salima, however, picks them up, walks back a bit, and throws them away (they’re good at landing on their feet, thankfully). The lambs don’t give up, and keep following us, until Salima scares them away by throwing rocks at them. I’m puzzled at his apparent cruelty, until he indicates that it’s better for the lambs to die in the wilderness than for him to take them; they’re someone else’s goats, and taking them, or even allowing them to follow us, would be theft. In this land, where life is already difficult enough, theft is unacceptable; it can be the spark that ignites a tribal war. I find Mauritanians in general to be very conflict-averse people, perhaps because if things do get heated, they can get out of hand very quickly. So, we leave the lambs behind, and continue walking.

As the afternoon comes to an end and the sun is about half an hour from setting, we search for a place to camp. An ideal place has some shelter from the wind (which always blows from the Northeast), and an acacia tree nearby. Often, Salima has already collected dead branches from trees we passed on the way; cutting up live trees for firewood is a major waste in a place with so little vegetation (and doesn’t make for the best firewood, although trees here are much drier than in rainy Europe). The reason for camping near an acacia tree is that the camels absolutely love the tiny little beans they hold; they’ll completely ignore the thousands of long, sharp thorns, and practically stick their heads into the trees so that they can eat every last one of the beans. When they pull the beans off the branches, the whole tree shakes, and the thorns swing violently in every direction; it’s a miracle that their eyes never get pierced. Apart from some minor scratches on their lips, they seem to come out just fine though – and with a belly full of acacia beans.  Meanwhile, Salima and I lay down our blanket (we don’t use a tent; the starry sky is our roof) and start a fire. Salima does his evening prayers as the sun goes down, and we start to prepare dinner.

Desert travelers’ food is… well… pragmatic. It’s meant to last forever without spoiling, and to be filling. Tasty it is not, nor particularly nutritious. The first lunch is rice with tuna, carrot, potato and onions, with a side dish of peanuts and biscuity things. The first night, I’m pleased to see that Salima makes bread; while singing another song, he kneads a ball of dough from flour and water, with perhaps some salt or oil. Without letting it rise, he puts the dough in a shallow hole in the sand, and covers it with smoldering embers (as you might’ve guessed, this is the time for making tea as well). Thirty minutes later, the bread is baked. Perhaps predictably, it’s not bread as you and I know it; it’s extremely dense, the structure is more crystal than bread, and there’s no taste whatsoever. Salima breaks it into little pieces which he boils into a porridge, with some carrots, potato and onion, and a spice mix that oddly seems to float on top of the blandness of the rest of the dish, instead of livening it up. The side dish is peanuts with biscuity things. The whole thing is incredibly heavy, not very nutritious and spectacularly bland – as much as the full day of walking has made me hungry, I can’t bring myself to eat a full plate of it. The next morning, breakfast is leftover bread – in all its crystalline glory – with peanuts and biscuity things. Lunch is peas with carrots, potato and onion, with peanuts and biscuity things. The next dinner is rice with carrots, potato and onion, with peanuts and biscuity things, and so on. As I said, desert traveler’s food is… pragmatic…

After sunset, when the moon isn’t up yet, the views of the milky way are spectacular. Later, when the moon rises, it lights up the desert enough to see around us and even go for a little stroll. The moon and the wind are the only signs that we are still on planet Earth. The wind is both the cause and the result of the desert: as moist hot air rises over the equator, it rises so quickly that it reaches extreme heights. The cold up there makes the air lose all its moisture and sink down in a wide band parallel to the equator. The bone-dry wind parches the land into a desert; the lack of vegetation, in turn, means that nothing is standing in the wind’s way. During daylight hours, the wind blows constantly, making my teeth grit with sand and drying out my skin, causing the inside of my thighs to develop rashes, making the more than 20 kilometers per day a challenge. At night, the wind sometimes dies down, making it so quiet that you can hear the blood in your ears; when it keeps blowing, the sand in my face makes me crawl deep inside my sleeping bag. Out in the moonlight, Salima is saying his final prayer of the day, before we go to sleep.

On the fifth and final day, the landscape doesn’t change much from the fourth; Hammada all around us. In the distance, we can see the Adrar mountains rise. The plateau we’ve been walking on for over a day slowly starts to slope down to the foot of the mountains, and finally, we’re about to reach our destination. I see the oasis of Ouadane long before I see the village above it; the houses are all made from the same stone as the mountainside that Ouadane is built upon, so it blends in incredibly well. Five days of walking in the desert has been tougher than I imagined it would be, mentally and physically; still, I’m not anxious for our trek to be over. Once we get to Ouadane, Salima and I will drink three final cups of tea together, and I’ll thank Salima warmly as we’ll say our goodbyes. He, Curly and Straight will head back into the desert, to the world where he, and – perhaps – generations after him, belong.

Having almost reached our destination, Salima sings again. These are my favourite moments of our five days together, but I never tell him that; I want his songs to be just for himself, his camels, his god and his desert, echoing the songs of his forefathers.

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