National Geographic : 1967 Nov
550 miles of desert. Nothing will mark the trail except, perhaps, the bones of camels. Before, while sailing on the asphalt, we had ample water, for a tank truck marched with us; now we must rely on the slightly saline water of desert wells. As we roll away southward, we follow a course indicated by important additions to the expedition: eight Reguibat guides. All had served in my desert commands of the past. Ahmed Zoum Zoum, their chief, is, in particu lar, my old and respected friend (page 701). They will ride to Nouakchott atop the Land-Rovers, field glasses in hand, and lead us by a sense of direction one can trust as much as a compass. At night by the campfires they will teach the skippers desert lore and the graceful tea ceremony of the Bedouin. We cross the Mauritanian border without knowing we do so. In days when the great powers of Europe were dividing the Sahara among themselves, diplomats drew this line on a conference table map. The nomads have never seen the map and go where they wish. Skirting the border of Spanish Sahara, we occasionally cross the firm but often cracked and bumpy bed of a dry lake. The largest, the Dayet el Aam of about 100 square miles, I remember from a 1958 patrol as filled with water upon which wild ducks rested! In the valley of the Oued el Hamra there have been rains the preceding autumn. In consequence, there is green grass, and to the rare feast have been driven huge herds of Reguibat camels. They are in prime condi tion. Their owners consider themselves wealthy beyond dreams. "I possess a she camel," boasts Zoum Zoum, "who on such magnificent pasturage would give three liters of milk a day." "And I own a cow," says Kortenoever, "that on Dutch pasture yields forty." The dum founded Zoum Zoum refuses to believe him. Blue Women Parade on Camels We come to a large Reguibat encampment where I am touched to learn that an old friend, Abba ould Dhrill, now a Mauritanian Government official, has arranged a recep tion. It begins with a most unusual spectacle, a camel parade of Blue Women riding on the great palanquins they use on marches. "They handle dromedaries better than you men," I tease Abba. "Perhaps you should not have let us see this." We are received as nomads receive impor tant guests, in a huge tent decorated with the most beautiful rugs and tapestries the tribe possesses. Another surprise: Baddou, a fa mous troubadour, whom I had not seen in some years, has come to sing for us. He has composed a ballad about us, but I do not tell the pilots. Instead I watch them suddenly sit upright upon hearing, in the midst of strange words, such familiar ones as "chars a voile," "le colonel du Boucher,"-I was a colonel at that time-and "Larry Pardey l'americain." The Saharan troubadour's art has rigid rules. Accompanying himself on a sort of lyre called a tidirit,the singer begins with a few hummed chords and, after that, a nasal song syncopated abruptly when the performer's Frantic patchwork with on-the-spot mate rials heals the havoc wrought by the Saha ra's regs and ergs-gravel-littered plains and clogging dunes. As one crewman fash ions a new seat, others capsize the craft to fix the undercarriage. To cure leaky Land Rover gas tanks, drivers resorted to a local remedy: They plugged holes with dates.