I once saw a bumper sticker in America that said: To travel hopefully is better than to arrive. That is not true in a desert. In a desert, this philosophy could lead you to die hopefully, stranded without water amongst the vast dunes. It’s a meaningless bumper sticker. It is always better to arrive.
I am thinking about this as we spend hour after hour in a hot, dusty car, sand blowing in our faces. Our AC hasn’t worked in years, and I need air even if that air carries a large proportion of sand per square inch.
The Sahara is a large place sparsely populated. There are few paved roads, and the most interesting places seem to be off of them. That’s ok—Tim has been there before, once, 3 years ago. He is pretty sure that we should bump over these rocks rather than those rocks. And so it is that, instead of reaching Matmatta the first night, it is sunset by the time we have climbed the plateau just behind Moudjiria, a town tucked in between a vast plain of dunes and some forbidding black plateaus. We reach a flat sandy area and turn off the road, set up our tent, send the kids out to look for firewood. That is a beautiful thing about driving through Mauritania. You don’t have to ask permission. You don’t have to pay money. You don’t have to stay in crummy little motels where the maids don’t clean under the beds. All you need to find is some soft sand and big enough bushes so that you can be a little bit subtle.
Our first night passed uneventfully. We got a new tent a couple of weeks ago—one without a skylight—and it’s so pretty and new and already ripping in a few places on the first layer. That’s some quality handicraft work.
Everyone slept in it except Ilsa and her best friend Bethany, who whispered and giggled the night away in our old backpacking tent. In the morning, we had breakfast and set off hopefully again. We were still on the paved road at this point. Soon, we were cruising our way down an enormous sand dune. Below us was the biggest oasis I’ve ever seen. There’s a town in it, and fields, and trees, and animals—it has everything, including a “graaj” for “tayatos” (that’s garage for Toyotas to you and me; transliterated into French from the Arabic script by some bright young scholar) This place is called N’Beka. (There will a quiz on all these names later so pay attention) Halfway through the town, we turn off the paved road and follow some tracks up the side of a dune. We wind along for a long way, along the edge of an enormous expanse of black rock. Up on the rock, which rises gradually up to the sky, are circular…things…made of smaller rocks. These, Tim informs us over the walkie-talkies (we are high tech people!), are ancient granaries, 1000s of years old, made back when there was grain in these parts. I dunno. I mean, apparently he read it in Rough Guide or Lonely Planet or something like that, but they don’t look like granaries to me. Why would the granaries be on the rocks? We stop and the kids clamber all over one. Elliot finds an actual grain in it. Maybe it is a granary after all. These are educational times.
Children clambering all over ancient “granary,” no doubt destroying it in the process. Don’t worry—there are lots more, and this one has been filled in already.
By now, the “road” is well marked but rather difficult. We bump over huge rocks. At a fork, Tim goes right, down a steep grade, looking rather like a commercial for Land Cruisers as his vehicle is poised for a split second, rear-end-only visible. We follow him down and land in the soft sand of a riverbed. These are nice things to drive along except when you get stuck, which we do. It takes about an hour to dig us out. Some local shepherd boys come along and help push. Tim gets down the sand ladders off the top of his car. We get unstuck and triumphantly drive to a patch of harder sand, but now Helms are stuck, then Johnsons (I can’t remember if it is clear to you all that 3 families went on this trip; each in their own vehicle, kids split up so everyone can ride with his or her “best” friend). Finally, the other 2 drive off and we begin to follow in 3rd place but—oh no!!—we dig in again, and are stuck.
An inhabitant of a nearby tiny village appears to ask for medicine. When the nearest pharmacy is at least an hour’s walk away and not well-stocked, you take what you can get when you can get it. He tells us his 2 year-old has a fever. I dig though both the toilet bag and the 1st-Aid Kit looking for Children’s Tylenol, left over from when my own kids were smaller, but they are all old enough now for one adult-size tablet so no luck.. These requests for medicine are common, and Tim and Debbie are smart enough to travel with eye ointment, stomach medicine, and other useful items.
The best thing about the second time getting stuck, according to Elliot, is that Daddy told he and Benjamin (both 11) to push, and then when the car started to move, to leap onto the running board and hold on TIGHT! They do this and love it, clinging to the car frame through the open windows as we careen down the wadi (wadi is the Arabic term for river bed) until we reach a place where it is safe to stop again. You can see that they are picturing themselves as sort of young Indiana Jones’s.
We reach the end of the wadi, where it runs into black rocks, and stop the cars. “We’re here,” Tim announces to Todd, who looks disbelieving. “You’re kidding, right?” he says. It’s true it doesn’t look much, although there is a lovely bit of shade to spread a mat under, and eat our late lunch. But no, over those rocks, just a short walk away, are the croc pools. This is Matmatta, and it only took us until 3 p.m. the second day to reach the place we’d thought we arrive at by 7 p.m. the first day. Perhaps we weren’t hopeful enough.
We eat our lunch to the accompaniment of a teenaged goatherd, who sits just off to the side and stares at us, unblinking, non-stop. We mostly ignore it. We can’t offer him our pasta salad, as we have cleverly put salami in it making it harem (forbidden) for Muslims. We give him some fruit and water, which he accepts, but really what he wants to do is just stare at us, like we were some sort of private television show come to life for his enjoyment and mystification. Finally, after about an hour, he leaves.
We clean up lunch and then we’re off to see the crocodiles! We clamber over huge rocks to a deep blue pond, its still waters reflecting a large sandstone cliff on the other side. It’s beautiful. It looks scary because we are thinking of behemoths in the depths. There are no signs of them though, just cow tracks in the deep mud at the edge. And we think, “WHO would bring their COWS to drink here?”
Donn announces this is not the croc pool (although I’m still too nervous to go swimming in it; what if he’s wrong? I figure you could bleed to death quickly out here), so we go on as far as we can go, past weird little perfectly-round holes, up to the edge.
3 little boys posing in one of the holes, which proved irresistible. The front two are Abel and Elliot; in the back is Erik.
The edge is a cliff about 100 feet above a milky-brown lake. This is where the crocodiles are. It is peaceful, quiet except for the wind whipping our hair and the cries of the doves on the lower ledges. We arrange ourselves—7 children and 4 adults (Karen isn’t feeling well and Donn is photographing elsewhere), on the very edge. At least, the children arrange themselves on the very edge. I sit well back and begin my Imitation of My Mother: “Abel! Sit still!” “Elliot please tell me there is something below you before the water.” “Ilsa! Sit still!” “Ilsa, if you can’t sit still—Ilsa! Sit down!” The children, unawares, fidget and get up and change places and trip over each other’s feet and reach waaay over to get at a water bottle and do all these other things that have me on edge (metaphorically). Why can’t they just SIT STILL? I’m uncomfortably aware that this is, in twin-parlance, a “die-fall.” In other words, if you fall, you die. Below are either big rocks or crocodile-infested waters, and no way down to rescue them. I don’t relax until the children, one by one, get bored and wander back to safety.
We spot the crocodiles far below, sunning themselves on a sort of beach. They are mammoth and, seen through the binoculars, menacing, about 2 meters long, thick striped tails and mean eyes. We see two, plus some disturbances in the murky water, but locals tell us later that there are 10. Debbie says that researchers have found these local crocodiles are Nile crocodiles, the same as those found in Egypt. Probably some ancient Romans had them as pets, they got too big, and so they flushed them down the ancient aqueduct system and they ended up here. That’s my theory, anyway—you can come up with something else if you want.
The light is dying; we head back to camp. The girls have built an enormous bonfire, full of crackly thornbush that flares straight up into the black night, burning quickly and fiercely. That’s the night that Erik spots something in the sand—he calls it a white spider and describes it as big as a crab, sort of clear-coloured. We know what that means—a scorpion, and the most venomous kind, translucent. I personally am scared stiff of scorpions and it takes me a while to relax. That night, as I lay me down to sleep with my head just two inches off the sand, I think about it a bit, and pray a bit too. I sleep like a rock (or, like my Japanese house guest tells me, like a dead person) and in the morning we find it, dead, under Debbie’s sleeping mat. It’s not a scorpion, but it is really freaky looking, and has big pinchers, and it’s huge—big as Ilsa’s fist. Could’ve been nasty, but it wasn’t.
Still with me? This is the end of Day Two; more later. Also, in case you couldn’t tell, these aren’t Donn’s photos. Guess there’s only one photographer in the family.