Frail Dream of Timbuktu


Africa

After a few more miles of alternately pushing and riding Evans, I came to a track leading off in the direction of the river. I had no great hope of finding a camping place beside the water, as the map showed there to be extensive marshlands around it at this point. But I didn't even catch a glimpse of it, because the next village I came to was even more off-putting than the last. Several horrible decomposing corpses of dogs and donkeys lay on the waste ground around its perimeter, and fly-infested children in filthy rags peered out from the decaying squalid cabins. It was all more than I could cope with in my present state, and I turned around and fled back to the road.

I waited for darkness to fall, so that no hidden watcher would see where I pitched camp. Then, by the light of the stars, I made off across some harvested maize fields where a few isolated acacia trees stood blackly against the midnight blue sky. These trees offer welcome shade to cattle and goats whose hooves help to keep the earth beneath them clear of the tough burrs and thorns that grow everywhere, making it so difficult to find any place to sit and rest in these parts. I chose a tree at a suitable distance from the road, scraped a space clear of droppings and debris with my boot, and, blessing the ease of erecting my little shelter, I was soon sitting in its entrance, sipping a restorative whisky, while the stove purred quietly under the kettle. Replacing the quantities of body fluid I had lost was my first priority. Even though I was careful to drink at frequent intervals, in the two short days since leaving Niamey I had become somewhat dehydrated, and it was this, I decided, coupled with the unrelenting hard work and the tough conditions that was making me feel so unwell. With the extremely low humidity, the heat and the drying wind it was almost impossible not to dehydrate, for I sweated constantly, though without being aware of it as the moisture dried instantly on my skin.

I had Earl Grey tea first with slices of lime in it, and it was delicious. The fish soup which followed was not so good, but I got it down by concentrating on the lovely sliver of the new moon rising among the bright stars. But even with this ploy, I wasn't able to eat anything, except the slices of lime that had been in the tea. I sacrificed enough water to clean my teeth and to wet a flannel to remove some of the salt from my skin, which seemed only slightly less urgent than drinking. I remembered that Moslems, when far from water and needing to perform their ablutions before prayers, use sand instead, and I thought I might try that another time. My clothes too felt stiff with sweat, and when I got them off I discovered to my surprise that my body was covered with mosquito bites, the result of sitting outside after dark the previous night. It was strange that I had not felt them biting, but West African mosquitoes are small and subtle, though virulent for all that, and it was the malaria they carry that had killed off most of the early Niger explorers and traders. I took anti-malaria tablets daily, but the best prevention was to avoid getting bitten. Now that I had discovered the bites and rubbed them over with a flannel, they began to itch like mad.

In spite of my extreme fatigue I did not sleep well. There were so many noises - animals in the distance, traffic on the road (one vehicle every hour) bits of detritus falling from the tree onto the taut nylon, and the little tin in which I carried petrol for the stove making sharp cracking sounds as the temperature dropped. More worrying were the unidentified rustles and creaks that I couldn't put a name to, and it was these which kept me wakeful, so that morning came as a relief.

Dawn was particularly beautiful, with flights of white egrets passing overhead, their undersides catching the rays of a sun not yet risen above the horizon, so that they seemed like fabulous birds of gold against the pale blue sky. I made coffee and ate some bread with a processed cheese wedge and a few dried apricots, but I still didn't really want food, and had to force it down.

From the moment I set out I was plagued by a raging thirst that dominated all my thoughts. I kept one pint of water for emergencies and not to drink it required a good deal of willpower. No villages appeared, and the road surface was, if anything, even worse than the previous day. Only very short stretches were rideable, and I was becoming exhausted simply from getting off and on the bicycle constantly, so that sometimes it seemed less effort just to keep pushing when I could have ridden. Ten miles took me nearly three hours. I kept going by telling myself that the road must improve soon, and by thinking about the fleshpots of Ayorou.

The first people I saw were a black family whose car was halted under a tree with the bonnet up, the man busy beneath it. They gave me two litres of water from their hundred-litre tank, and I drank it all in one go. A couple of Italians who were full of the euphoria of a recent desert crossing pulled up in their jeep a little later, and came straight over with their water bottle without waiting to be asked. They gave me the unwelcome information that the road grew steadily worse all the way to Gao. At this I acknowledged defeat, and hailed the first vehicle going in my direction. It was a pick-up, with two burly black men and a heavily made-up black woman inside, who I realised later were probably under the influence of drugs. The thuggish driver took off at breakneck speed, bouncing and thudding sickeningly into the potholes, slewing through the deep drifts of sand, and generally showing off to the danger of us all. The other two affected nonchalance at the lunatic progress. They kept up a game of uncapping bottles of mineral water, offering them to me, and then withdrawing them if I reached out to take one. I was too angry to be frightened, and told them I would pay them nothing at all if my bicycle was damaged by the driver's stupidity. He slowed down a little at that, but they all kept up a heavy banter on the subject of `Les Blancs timides'. I was only grateful that Ayorou was so close.

After this unattractive trio, even the hordes of Ayorou boys descending with their shouts of `Donne moi un cadeau' were a welcome relief. One of them came and hung onto the saddle, announcing proudly that his name was Ibrahim (there seemed to be few males in this part of Africa, where the tide of Islam has swept through so thoroughly, who are not called either Ibrahim, or Mohammed, or some variation of the two). I told him I didn't need a guide, and certainly not one who demanded cadeaux, at which Ibrahim said virtuously `Je ne demande pas un cadeau Madame. J'escorte vous à l'hôtel', which quite restored my faith in the intrinsic goodness of small boys.

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This extract is from 'Frail Dream of Timbuktu' a Mountain House paperback

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