After three weeks on the trot - or, plod, rather - we are in the thriving metropolis of Ta Ta. Not actually IN, of course; with four camels and an enormous array of baggage, we tend to make camp about three kilometres from the town, and wander in for supplies, water, and other necessities (a shower, for example...).
There have been so many adventures since we left that I barely know where to start. The first few days were pretty gruelling, even though the distances we are covering are nothing compared to what we were previously managing. Mainly the problem for us was changing into the sparse protection of the nomad's sandals; they might be great in the sand, but on the uneven, rocky hammada, they played merry hell with our feet. Thankfully Madani - who is an absolute wonder - brought along some henna to toughen them up, and thus I spent a deliciously decadent afternoon having henna cake on my feet!
Within a very short time, we fell into a pleasantly easy routine. Wake just before the dawn, when Madani is brewing the tea and preparing bread, oil, honey and jam for breakfast; eat; pack the camels; walk until aout 11.00 am, when we stop for dates, biscuits, and nuts; then walk for another two hours or so, until we find a good camp with feed for the camels and a good place for the tent, and laze about for the afternoon over salad and copious amounts of M'Barak's tea. But it is in the evenings that the desert truly comes into it's own, and it is the nights I look forward to the most.
Madani cooks up something wonderful on the stove (I am assistant, but he is so good, I barely dare to rustle up anything for fear of it being heinously inferior) and we eat under the immense Saharan sky, in a silence so big and beautiful that there is nothing but peace all around. Many nights we are joined by other nomads camped nearby, who arrive and sit with us, eating and sharing what they have. Sometimes they have a herd of camels they are ferrying from one eating place to another, sometimes goats, sometimes just themselves and a donkey. But all greet us in the same courteous, ritual manner, and all are endlessly hospitable - even if they have nothing but the clothes they stand in.
We are usually a week or so between towns. After two or three days, M'Barak mixes up the dough for bread, when the stuff from the last village goes hard. If we are lucky there is a nomad camp nearby, where we take the dough and the women bake it in their oven. If not, we build a sand oven, and after an hour or so have piping hot loaves of delicious bread. I have learned how to make it, but - like Madani cooking tajine - M'Barak remains the master.
When we arrive in a town it is a bit of a culture shock. The first one, Foulme Zgite, was horrendously busy - it was market day. Buying supplies for us, feed for the camels, finding the well for the water, and negotiating with the local gendarmerie - who were convinced we were ferrying contraband across the Algerian border - was a little exhausting after the desert peace. In addition, it is the month of Ramadan. Normally our little band basically ignores this fact, as fasting whilst on a desert journey is nigh on impossible; but on entering a town it is easier to observe the fast, rather than risk the censure of all the starving populous. By the time Madani, Gary and I exited the last of the village, we were desperate for a drink, and began scoffing the lemonade just metres from the town, laughing like drains all the way. Ramadan is not high on the list of priorities for desert dwellers.
Given that we are close to the Algerian border, smuggling and the military is quite a problem; I have become very adept in dealing with local authorities, as questioning is a bit of a daily occurrence. But the truly hysterical thing, I found, was the products they consider contraband: there is the normal offender, cigarettes, but the premier problem is - milk powder. Yep. Not the seriously illegal other white powder more commonly a cause of concern in Europe or other Western countries; but good old, straightforward, feed-it-to-the-babies drinking milk powder. Dead serious offence around these parts. You have been warned.
The walking is often absolutely stunning. Crossing the dunes of Erg Chigaga, right at the start, was truly beautiful, and we had no trouble finding glorious camps. But the desert around here - before the dunes after Tan Tan - is more mountains and hamada than sand, and so often we are climbing rocky paths, to truly breathtaking peaks, and descending into deserted valleys.
After a long trek through the Hamada we arrived in this beautiful oasis, where we rested for a short time. The tiny white patch you can see is our tent. Looking forward with eager anticipation to a proper wash, I hastened down to where the river wound lazily amongst the palmeraie, and, after a quick glance around, got naked with the impressive alacrity of one who has not been properly doused for a week. Unfortunately, in the desert, where there is water there are - always - people. In this case, kids. Kids who rarely see a white person, let alone a white woman...naked. Fascinated does not begin to describe it. After a few exchanges I gave up, covered up, and invited them over for tea. The kids are so good natured, it is difficult to be cross with them - after all, if I found a bloke washing naked in my backyard, I'd probably perve a bit, too.
Actually, kids tend to feature quite a bit in our adventures; after a long day's march we found ourselves not far from the camp of another nomad family, and within seconds, my salad preparation had become something of the local attraction. The truly scary thing is this: all of these kids come from just two families. So, the odd cold night in the desert, then.
Whilst we were camped out at the oasis, Habib arrived in his customary manic fashion, hurtling over the hamada, horn blaring. He came to check that everything was okay with us, the camels, the guides, etc; and, god bless him, he brought Whiskey. And a fine time was had by all. This is a photo of him, taken before we left the hotel; he is a difficult man to make stand still.
M'Barak, our guide, is truly brilliant; I think I would follow him anywhere. A nomad his whole life, his sense of humour is irrepressible, his knowledge astounding, and his love of the life here, complete. Everyone we meet is either family or a friend of the family; or perhaps, just a friend he hasn't met yet. He makes wondrous tea, laughs like a hyena, and has an endless supply of names for me - I started off as Fatima, became Howla, then Toula. When I told him that "goddess" worked fine for me, he immediately adopted it - only when he said it, the word came out as "good arse". Gary got major giggles over this and M'Barak, delighted at the stir he had created, took great pride in wishing me "goodnight, good arse". When Madani finally explained the situation the following day, he was utterly mortified, and apologised over and over. I thought it was hysterical.
We speak in a queer melange of languages; La Langue Salade Morocaine, Madani christened it. Part Arabic, part Berber, mostly French, with a good dose of Australian swearing thrown in, I imagine that by Dakhla no-one else will understand a word. Still, it is a great way for me to learn Arabic, and it is coming along quickly.
Gary is content, playing with all his solar equipment to the bemused fascintion of Madani and M'Barak who both cannot quite believe the vast array of gadgets. They all bonded when they discovered that Gary could charge their mobile phones - the portable is a way of life for these guys.
After this stop we are back out into the hamada, although we are resting here for two days at least as there is good eating for the camels and we have a great camp beneath an enormous tree. I apologise for the lack of posts, but until we set ourselves up with a satellite connection (major money) I have to wait until we arrive in the towns, and not all of them have internet. It is also difficult to post long entries as the connection is painfully slow, so again, I hope you can hang in there.
For the reassurance of family and friends - we are both blissfully happy, healthy, and truly living the life of our choice, so please don't worry about borders, or guards, or other such problems!
I will write again soon. Cheers.