Egypt, New Year’s Eve 1983
Here in the desert I often felt at one with nature — when not engaged in the quarrels and bickering that increasingly took hold among the group, all day and often into the night. On this evening, I had made my excuses as soon as I could. I sat in front of my tent, smoked a pipe, chilled and contemplated the timeless feel of the desert.
It seemed unchanging. I will sure it will remain much the same after the final war of mankind has destroyed the planet. Every world leader, captain of industry or anyone who thinks he is important should be sent to the desert for a few months, preferably in solitude. Here they would feel part of the universe and if religious, they might feel the presence of God. I shifted uncomfortably; I was less than sure about matters of faith but it was no surprise that religion features greatly in the countries we are currently travelling in.
Such weighty thoughts do not make for sweet dreams, but I was tired enough to fall asleep almost at once after I had crept into my little womb-like tent.
Our lorry was giving us more and more grief. Once again, it started and stopped every few hundred meters. Siggi virtually disemboweled the engine before he finally found the cause of the problem: a piece of tape (I had an idea which) had been caught up in some part and blocked everything. We were on our way again, but our mood barely improved. The others were far ahead and we decided to push on until dark in an attempt to catch up with them. It was a race against time. We were now on a wide sandy plain, the lorry started to vibrate as soon as we picked up speed and we had to creep ahead at a snail’s pace. As the rapidly setting sun painted the clouds on the horizon a glowing red, we came across a dark stripe that stretched across the desert and wasn’t on any of our maps. Without a doubt it was a road!
We could not stay around here, even the glimmer of a cigarette could probably be seen in a ten-mile radius. To top it all, we had seen lights on the horizon. Who knows what they could be: an oasis, a border post, a research station, even a small airport — someone claimed to have seen two rows of blue lights. We felt our way ahead in the growing darkness and trundled past a hill that would have provided sufficient cove, which resulted in renewed bickering. We stopped for a short talk and agreed to drive on to the next hill. Although we were driving without lights, the noise of the engine seemed to be amplified in the darkness.
From the next hill, the lights were still visible. A part of our scouting group returned agitatedly and said they were certain we could be seen from the road: the team unloading the luggage were waving their torches about. In addition, the remainder of the scouting group had managed to get lost in the dark like stupid schoolkids and we had to signal them until they finally found their way back. I would not have been surprised if by now there was a whole convoy of military jeeps on the way to us, but at least the missing guys had returned in time to cook our supper. To my amazement, nothing happened.
To do justice to all the excitement, I did not erect my tent but slept fully clothed on top of the lorry, ready to go at a moment’s notice. The night was freezing cold and I resolved not to be such a drama queen in future. I was one of the last to wake up, at six the coffee had already gone, but it was half past seven before we managed to geat started.
We caught up with the others by ten and they said they could hear the noise of our engine for an hour before we came into view.
Breakfast was an almost lavish affair – because there had been no time to bake bread which we had to ration carfully, we started on our supply of emergency ships-bisquits of which we had more than enough. Shame that they taste like cardboard; but we were pleasantly surprised when Walter dug out a jar of Nutella from the depths of his backpack. As a teacher, he knew just the right moment for a morale boost.
We did not manage to cover much distance that day. By the second breakdown it was time for lunch and between the 4th and 5th, we decided to set up camp for the night. The lorry seemed to desert us and we had no idea why.
“Old age”, Peter had shrugged. He could talk, in all likelyhood he and the others were in the Sudan by now. Once again, we were on our own and now it seemed to be for good. We were stranded in a sea of sand with no idea exactly where we were. We should reach Selima Oasis in the Sudan either today or tomorrow. Reinhold talked about clean water, lush date palms, a lake in which it was possible to swim. I longed for a bath and to hose down the lorry complete with load and passengers.
The dirt was the worst. I was tired of stumbling around at 5 am in the darkness, falling over pots and pans encrusted with the congealed remains of the previous day’s soup and peeling off cutlery and crockery which were stuck to the table, among open buckets of jam, cartons of margerine and sausage all covered with a fine layer of sand. All this was just lazyness and it caused tensions every single day. Nobody liked tidying up. It was as if we were all drained of energy. You can imagine how much we longed for the oasis and a rest.
A quick stock-take showed that at least we had sufficient drinking water, but it paid to be careful. Siggi filled up the tank reckoning that running low on fuel was one reason for our frequent breakdowns. But he and Reinhold were puzzled at the rate the lorry guzzled fuel.
No oasis on the following day either.”Perhaps tomorrow morning” was the word. We also saw no sign of the convoy. Not today and not the following day.
A convoy is supposed to be only as fast as the slowest member. But this one had been faster and left us behind. We were alone in our sea of sand.
Although there was no vegetation, just flat, featureless plain with the odd pebble, the desert was alive. Long-legged insects scuttled across the sand, we spotted tracks made by lizards and small mammals, a scorpion might hide under the odd stone and once – we hardly believed our eyes- a small bird fluttered into our camp. Where would it find water here where there was nothing but sand all the way to the featureless horizon and cloudless sky? Was it lost, drifted away by a sand storm? Or was there water after all? I doubted it because the little bird was alone. We did not manage to catch it, but it stayed close to camp. We left a little water, no more than a short reprieve from the fierce sun in this shadow-less world. I wondered what happened to the poor thing.
The sand was criss-crossed with lorry tracks. In the evening, two lights blinked on the horizon.
We had been trundling steadily all day but only covered 25 km. The tank was empty once again. “It can’t be possible:” Reinhold grumbled: “Two hundred litres for 25 kilometres!” But it was possible, we had driven for hours, accelerator rammed to the floor, dragging the 18 ton lorry through the sand at a rate of 3 km/h. This terrain was too demanding for the heavy vehicle. Luckily it wasn’t a problem just yet, we had a thousand litres of fuel which should have lasted us until far into the Sudan and we had to be close to the oasis by now.
We siphoned the fuel through a hose from barrels stored at the back of the lorry, underneath our luggage. Diesel fumes had become a part of life. They penetrated our rucksacks and sleeping bags and the diet of those who had to suck up the fuel and occasionally sucked to deeply. Eventuallly, it supplemented our own diet after the food had been stored incorrectly in the dark. Even though we came across the odd diesel-flavoured potato, we praised Udo’s cooking. His complete lack of experience had been a bone of contention, especially by would-be-chefs such as Roland who overpowered any potential flavours with chilli powder (it almost, but not quite, worked on the diesel-potatoes). However, Udo emerged as a budding talent, ably assisted by Paul a former legionaire who had joined us in Asswan. At 72 he was the oldest member of our group, and a Frenchman. To round of a perfect dinner, Norbert our best cook, Uschi and I prepared a delicious custard with 14 eggs, milkpowder, caramelized sugar, cocoa powder (Norbert’s stash) and a good few shots of rum (Uschi’s stash).
There was no coffee the next morning because the cooker had packed up in the filth. While clearing up I unearthed half a tin of Sardines and Dieter offered me some of his muesli – it looked to be a good breakfast.
“Watch out, it isn’t completely disinfected yet”, Dieter said when he handed me the cup. What on Earth did he mean? True it tasted funny, perhaps he had mixed up the sugar with the garlic powder right next to it. I didn’t worry about it and wolfed down the food until I bit on something which felt like a rancid nut. By the time I realised it was a Chlorain tablet it was too late. It filled my mouth with such an overwhelming bitterness that I spat the thing out, ran over to the storage box and, fighting my writhing stomach, drank down a quarter bottle of Egyptian strawberry syrup straight. The bitter taste lingered.
Dieter is one of those people who read all about diseases suffered by travellers and take every possible precaution. It only goes to show that knowing bout these things makes you sicker. Of the eight of us who had eaten Fallafel at a street stall one evening when we couldn’t find any Western food, six complained about stomach pains. All but Udo and myself. Udo is a hardened traveller and I had only been sick after our very first meal in Cairo: corned beef and rice on the camping ground which I had cooked myself.
In the late afternoon we spotted two lorries in the distance but they took no notice of us. Either they were army and the drivers assumed we were military as well or they were smugglers. That night we camped near a dirt track where we saw the lights of several vehicles. We had extinguished all our lights and kept quiet until they had disappeared into the distance.
It was New Years Eve and we decided that we had to be in the Sudan by now. Shortly before midnight, Harold unloaded a big wooden box which had served as an auxilliary table but had not enticed further curiosity from anybody. Now he opened it and produced a range of amazing items.
“First,” he said: “I will bake us a cake.”
With practised hands he began his peparations. Of course — he was a chemistry teacher.
First of all he took the empty Nutella jar and stirred into it a range of mysterious chemicals. Then he bade us all to step back. Nothing happened.
“The reaction heat is insufficient,” he explained and placed the jar above the flame of a bunsen burner: “What should happen is that…” he did not finish as corrosive white fumes started to rise. A viscous black paste of sugar and sulphuric acid shot up and welled over the asbestos support, the tripod and the table. The cake had risen magnificently.
Under the light of a burning magnesium strip, Harald was already setting up his next concoction.
“I have no idea what this will do” – this was to be his catch-phrase for the evening: “It might blow up, then you’ll have to extinguish it!” Before I knew he had pressed a squeezy bottle of water into my hands: “Aim well and shoot straight!” With these words he held his lighter up to a mix of iron filings and potassium permanganate. I approached timidly, cowering behind him, the bottle trained onto the mix. Sparks started to fly, then the mix began to glow.
“Extinguish – now!” Harald cried. I began to have my suspicions. As soon as the first thin jet of water made contact there was a flash and a cloud of dark smoke began to rise with a soft hiss.
“More, more!” Harold shouted.
Bolder, I redoubled my effort. The lighthouse-effect had to be visible over at least 20 km.
Harald wasn’t through. The grand finale was a tin crammed with a cocktail of nearly all of the remaining chemicals. Harald carried it with kid’s gloves to a spot away from the camp and ran back. Just as we thought it was a damp squib and nothing would happen the thing burnt out in a big glowing ball, bellowing thick clouds of black smoke. When I looked the next morning the tin had disappeared.
We broke camp at mid-day and aimed for a hill, the start of a row of dunes, signifying the end of the Selima sandsheet which we had crossed over the last 3 or 4 days. A few of us clambered up the dune to look for signs of the oasis. Stones were scattered everywhere, covered in white bird shit and the regurgitated castings of raptors. How old could these traces be? Did they signify the proximity of the oasis? Or even of the Nile? Or had the birds long gone? We had seeen nothing in the sky.
In a small depression we discovered a couple of old fuel canisters filled with sand, corned-beef tins, a few ripped wooden boxes and a screw cut with a metal saw. It looked like others had encountered difficulties in this spot, albeit a while ago. The tracks from there led south and southeast.
On our return we found Harald, Walter and Annette hunched over maps which they had spread over one of the bird rocks, next to a compass. None looked any the wiser. It was clear that not only had we lost the convoy but also our position. To look for the oasis would be a waste of fuel which from now on was going to be a problem. We had to try to find the Nile.
At least the terrain had improved. Siggi had deflated the tyres as much as he dared and we were making better progress. We had also found another dirt track. Old barrels and poles served as way markers. Further east we found a mount of old trash and another marker pole from which a little red flag fluttered in the breeze and with a cardboard-sign attached. I asked Paul, who knew a little Arabic, what it meant. He could not quite make sense of it. It would appear that an oil-prospecting camp had been in the area not long ago. He picked up a yellowed Egyptian newspaper from the trash. One of the tins had “made in 1983″ stamped on it.
“The paper and tins seem to be Egyptean,” he mused.
“-And West German,” Dieter cut in, kicking another can with a German label. So – were we still in Egypt?
We exited the track sharply and drove due east.
During our mid-day rest, Walter found a snakeskin. We passed it around, took photographs and I kept a little piece as a marker for my diary. That snakeskin was not the only thing Walter would find.
A few hours later we stopped at a large hill covered with scattered black lava. The ascent looked taxing but I clambered up the steep slope like a mountain goat, my fingertips gripping crevices as I slipped on the stones, stretching even before I reached the summit, expecting to see the Nile. There was nothing as far as the eye could see. Not even a bird in the sky, just a few skeletons of birds among the stones. The horizon was masked by a chain of hills. Behind them lay our only hope, else we would be stranded in this vast lunar landscape. We were on our last tank of fuel. I envisaged us carrying on by foot, weighed down by heavy water containers. On the way down, Walter found the skull.
Back in camp we found part of the group hunched over the maps, clueless as usual. To sail safely across this particular sea, we would need finer instruments to navigate by. Regarding the compasses, we had several, each pointing at a slightly different bearing. One of them was mounted on top of the driver’s console — in a 13 ton steel lorry, another was currently held up over the ground which here was red with iron ore. In addition to this we quarreled about a possible deviation from the geographic north and if any, in which direction. We could not agree on a course. I suggested we follow the sun due east and went to pour a cup of coffee and grab a few potatoes from the pot before re-joining the debate.
“Tonight we’re going to perform a play”, Matt joked.
“The one where you played the cook?” Ulrike asked.
“Which one would that be?”
“Ah, there are these three men on a raft and one of them is going to be eaten.”
“Let’s cast Reinhold as number three” someone quipped.
“No, I suggest we send Reinhold ahead to find the way!”
“Yeah, up there on the hill are the remains of one such group leader!”
“How about easing the load of the truck”, Siggi proposed:” Driver exempt, the rest draw straws.”
“Short and sweet,” David affirmed:” Five men off!”
“I agree that the men should go first!” Ulrike said.
Proper gallows mood. I thought back a few nights ago when someone had asked Ulrike how much of the Sudan consisted of Sand.
“Save for the ‘u’,” she’d said: “All of it!”
We kept to the east as well as we could because that way we had to come across the Nile eventually. Before we set off again, Siggi poured all the petroleum from the lamps and kerosene from the cooker into the tank, thankfully the lorry ran on almost any type of fuel. Not far from the hill, we thought we saw water shimmering in a little depression. The sun was not yet high in the sky, it couldn’t be a mirage. We drove towards it, deeper into the desert, until the apparition dissolved in the shimmering air. Stupid.
Of course we turned straight back due east, but we were once again among dunes and drifting sand. We had passed the chain of hills behind which we had expected to find the Nile.
Before long we were stuck. Once again we managed to pull free and continued, the truck rattling with the strain. I thought we would have to abandon it and stagger east, driven by despair – while the Nile formed a bow, taking it further away from us.
The situation did not feel that threatening yet, we had not gone thirsty. I merely acknowledged with slight irritation that we would have to spend another night in the desert and concentrated on my book. Udo’s shout ripped through my reverie and the rattling of the lorry:
“Green! There is greenery! Water!”
We jumped up onto the seats. There, between the barren rocks, grew shrubs. Disbelieveng as if they might dissolve like the mirage before them, we stared fixedly ahead. Soon we saw a shimmering band between the twigs which grew stronger as we approached, grew into a river. We heard birds twittering, even grasshoppers chirping. Camel tracks and dung heaps were scattered in the sand leading to the river. The ground grew hard under dry grasses and stunted shrubs. Before the lorry had come to a stop, we jumped down and ran towards the water.