22-Jan-2007 -- I could go anywhere, anywhere at all, but I don't want to.
Instead I'm wandering aimlessly around the darkened guesthouse, listless with a sort of traveler's malaise. I'm in an amazing place, on the edge of a sand sea in a small town in the east of Morocco, but I don't care. Just outside the front door, the full moon shines on the huge orange dunes. It's a truly magnificent sight, but that doesn't matter to me anymore.
I have discovered that I am a tourist. I am a market. My guidebook promised me exotic lands and I ignored the inherent contradiction of thousands of backpackers tramping through untouched lands. And I hated the camel trek. Actually, the camels were cool, but no one actually rides them anymore. The locals have cars now. I would have got just as much exploration done had I stayed home and gone to an amusement park.
I feel like everything I've seen so far is fake in a way I can't quite articulate.
Oh, some things are real enough. The men really do wear turbans and djellabas and drink a lot of tea. The mosques are real. The desert is real. But every restaurant in this tiny town is for the tourists, and every invitation to tea turns out to be nothing more than a chance to sell me jewelry or knick-knacks.
I want something else. I need to find another way to see the world, but I don't even know what that would be.
There's a big Michelin map of Morocco on the wall. I stand in my pajamas and stare at it for a long time. The huge southern half of the country is mostly blank space, the Sahara Occidental. There are only a few roads and a few towns there, but they aren't in the guidebook.
Screw it. I'm going off the map. There may not be anything there, but I'm going anyway. I'm going to claw my way into a situation that wasn't sold to me.
I need an actual destination. Unfortunately, I can't begin moving without one.
Well. I do have a GPS.
The Earth is subdivided into a grid of 360 degrees of longitude and 180 degrees of latitude, and these lines intersect at 12,000 or so places on the land surface of the Earth. The Degree Confluence Project invites anyone who's interested to choose an unvisited Confluence, trek out to it, and take pictures North/South/East/West from that spot. That's it. Eventually we'll have a grid of panoramas that cover the whole world, spaced about 100 km apart, and on the internet for all to see.
This is all somewhat pointless, but strangely enough, it's real exploration. The project has been running for several years now and only about a third of the Confluences have been visited.
And so I find myself in an internet café, typing in www.confluence.org. Clicking on the link for Morocco, I discover that there are 44 Confluences in country, 19 of which are unvisited. I study each one in turn, cross-referencing it with the maps in my guidebook and Google satellite images of the terrain.
There's a reason those 19 are left. They're all in the middle of the mountains somewhere, 20 or 30 kilometers from the nearest down. No go: I don't have any experience at all with serious mountain hiking. Besides, it's winter now and doubtless really, really cold up there.
Of course, there is that one unmapped Confluence in the southern desert. A satellite image shows it to be about 20 km from the coast road, on the edge of what looks like a broad river valley. I don't have topography data, but it doesn't look like a mountain range. And that part of the country isn't even mentioned in the "trekking” section of my guidebook. Perfect.
28 degrees North, 12 degrees West. A point of no importance in the middle of nowhere. That's my destination.
A long time ago, I stood in a train station in Europe, with a pack on my back and a Eurail pass in my hand. I was in Vienna, I think. I don't recall the city exactly, but I remember the station well, vaulted marble ceilings and golden sunlight streaming in through the huge windows. There on the far wall was the departure board, showing nothing more than the names of European cities: Geneva, Berlin, Venice, Barcelona, Rome. I stood on the marble floor for a long time and studied those names. These cities weren't really places to me yet, but something more like childhood myths. It was at that precise instant I realized that I could go anywhere.
Later, I discovered airplanes. A few years ago I bought a big map of the world and laid it out on my bedroom floor. In a fit of glee, I closed my eyes and stabbed at it. My finger landed on a tiny group of islands in the Pacific, and I believe I actually giggled. I could go there, I thought. Just buy a ticket and go.
Now I have traveled further and longer than most people ever will, and still I feel like an amateur, because I've really never been anywhere that I didn't already have guesthouse listings for. I feel like I've just been taking in the roadside attractions on the interstate, staying at the chain motels. Every place is starting to feel slightly the same.
The problem, I have finally realized, is that I have been living someone else's adventure. The guidebook is insidious. It promised me freedom, and perhaps at one point it was what I needed, a safety net, a reassuring weight on my shoulders. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, I forgot the questions that motivated me to pick up that book to begin with. The easy path became the only path, as it always does, and I lost something.
I hope to find it again on the road to 28N 12W.
It does not matter what I actually discover there. The only thing that matters is, I'm free again. I could go anywhere.
Without a guidebook, I need other sources of information. From looking at the big Michelin map I can see that the town nearest to the Confluence is a tiny place called Sidi Akhfennir. And just as I wanted, it's not mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Of course, that means I have no idea how to get there, or where to stay. To find my way, I will have to ask. I will be forced to talk to people. This is exciting. It is also difficult, because I do not speak any Arabic and my French is very poor.
Then I'll have to find a guide. Since Sidi Akhfennir lacks a tourist industry – or so I hope – the guides will no longer come to me, but someone there must know the terrain. The original inhabitants of pre-Arab Morocco, the Berber tribes, were nomads. They still live pretty much everywhere, probably in mud-brick houses very much like the one I paid to see on my camel ride. I bet someone in Akhfennir has family in a hut up that valley, and I bet they'll happily take me in that direction, perhaps for a modest fee. Again, this sorting out something unlisted, talking to people, taking risks.
Then I'll have to hike 20 km or so there, take some photographs, and hike back. I'm guessing it will be a day out and a day back, which will make it the longest hike I've ever been on, and by far the most remote.
Which leads me to the map. To plan my hike I need a high-resolution topographic map of the area. In this age of Google you'd think that you could just walk into a bookstore and buy a map of wherever you wanted, but that's not true. Besides, I'm in Morocco, and they don't have enormous well-stocked super bookstores with lattes here.
The Lonely Planet is useful. It told me that the Hotel Ali in Marrakesh stocks topo maps for trekkers, so I took the next bus out. To say that Marrakech is a tourist town is an understatement, but I am forced to admit that I am in need of tourist services. So I saunter into the marble lobby of the Hotel Ali, for once just letting myself be the rich white man that I am, and inquire after maps.
They do not have the map that I need. They only have maps of the popular trekking routes in the Atlas Mountains. This is frustrating, and a good sign: I did want to do something different.
Sitting in a café in the bustling Ville Nouveau, hiding from the men on the street who want to hustle me into their spice and carpet shops in the medina, I consider my dilemma. There's a government cartographic office in Rabat, but that's a long way away. Perhaps there's a local office with maps. That means tangling with foreign bureaucracy without the benefit of a shared language.
Over the course of a long hot day, I play a game of smiles and gestures versus suits and ties.
The man at the big tourist office directs me to the municipal government buildings. I get lost. I ask for directions and no one understands me. I discover a regional hydrographic office instead, and convince the security guard to let me in. "Sahara Occidental, Sahara Occidental,” I tell the man with the suit, but they only do the area surrounding Marrakech. I flash my most energetic smile and drag the poor clerk out to the street where I make him point me to the planning office, physically point me in the right direction, because I can't understand his French instructions.
I find my way to planning office. They stare at me funny. I'm encouraged. "Je veux une carte topographique,” is all I can manage to say, first to the guard, then to the secretary, then to the very proper-looking woman on the fourth floor. She points to a big topo map of Marrakech on the wall. No, I say, with a shake of my head. I smile at people until an unlucky man with a tie leads me up another floor, then back through a warren of offices, past filing cabinets, and big trays of architectural plans. Our walk continues with photocopy machines, bored secretaries, and more men in beige suits. Finally we arrive in the corner office of a man who clearly feels I'm wasting his time. He sports the high-status grey suit. I explain my problem as best I can. He says no immediately and looks back down to his work, waiting for me to leave. I smile and ask if he knows where I can get such a map. He says no again and ignores me. It turns out that my smile doesn't work when no one's looking. I try again with different wording in my terrible French. I give him my absolute brightest face, he gives me his best pained look, and it's a stalemate. He can't make me leave, but I can't make him help.
Foreign Bureaucracy one, Ineloquent Traveler zero. Exhausted and sweaty, I walk across the street into a McDonalds. At least there I'll know what the hell I'm doing. The décor is industrial bland and the food is crappy, just like home. I am the antithesis of an explorer. I can't function without a map, and I can't get the map.
Just for kicks, I step into an internet café and start typing things like "topographic map Morocco” into Google.
I was wrong. You can get a topo map of anywhere in the world. At least two different web sites will sell them to you. It turns out that both the Americans and the Russians completed detailed topographic surveys of all of Africa during the 1970s, including the disputed Western Sahara. Odd, but a necessity of the cold war I suppose.
From the big legend I determine that I am in need of map H-28-36. I enter my shipping address, Poste Restante. I select the fastest and most expensive priority shipping, and provide my credit card number. This map is going to set me back over $100, but I feel it's worth it, a small price to pay for my adventure. I hit submit.
They're out of stock.
Ah, but the other supplier has digital downloads. For the princely sum of $30, I am able to download a 1:200,000 scale Russian topographic map of the area containing both Sidi Akhfennir and the Confluence. Ten minutes later, I walk out of the café with a 30 megabyte TIFF of map H-28-36 and a stupid grin. How the hell did people do anything before the internet?
Back in my hotel room in Marrakech, I peruse my Russian map. My Russian topographic map. I like saying that, and it's an amazing map, covered in indecipherable numerals and heavy Cyrillic legends. Any adventure which requires a Russian topo map must be a good one. I'm having one of those moments where I think I must be amazingly cool. Maybe I actually am. Everyone else in Morocco is eating tajine, haggling for carpets, or buying camel treks, and I'm alone in my room poring over a Russian topo map. I'm certainly amusing myself now, if nothing else.
In under a minute I am able to determine that there are no mountains between the coast and the Confluence. The spacing of the contours indicates that the terrain is mostly flat, rising to maximum marked elevation of 196 meters above sea level along the route to the Confluence. It's completely walkable in a dead-straight line. I won't even need a guide, which disappoints me faintly. I was looking forward to being forced to ask.
I've moved down the coast to Mirleft, and Sidi Ahkfennir, confluence town, is now only four hundred kilometers away. However, there is no direct bus service, and no one to explain to me how this is supposed to work. Even if I could find a printed schedule, I couldn't read it.
Nonetheless, I am going to attempt to make it to Ahkfennir in one day.
I begin at 7:00 a.m. by taking what I strongly suspect will be my last good hot shower for a long time. By 8:00 I'm out on the street corner where the man yells "Tiznit! Tiznit! Tiznit!” all day long. Usually I avoid him, because, damnit, I enjoy walking down the street without being yelled at. But today I look him right in the eye with a steadfast glare and say – yes, I want to go to Tiznit. They have long distance busses there.
Damn that shower. The grand taxis depart when they reach their full complement of six passengers, and I've just missed the previous cab. I lose valuable time as we sit for a whole hour in the warming day. It's going to be a scorcher. Finally the car is full, and we make it to Tiznit, 50 kilometers over a good paved road.
Indeed, Tiznit has a bus station. Several, actually, all in different places, of course. I drag my heavy pack all over town, just to discover that every last southward bus is booked full for the day. Damn. Sleeping in Tiznit will not do. I would definitely lose style points for that. It's now noon, and very hot. I am sweaty and stranded.
Options. Perhaps there are taxis to Goulmime, a major town about halfway to my destination. I have no idea what's there, but it would get me the hell out of Tiznit. It's all about keeping moving. Actually, I could really use a cold drink. But onward. I begin approaching strangers and inquiring about transportation to Goulmime. I goes like this. Me: Est-ce qu'il y a un taxi à Goulmime? Them: Oui, blah blah blah blah in rapid French that I can't understand. Some people give up when they realize I'm faking the language, but eventually someone helps me out, tells me where the Goulmime taxi stand is. Again, we wait for passengers.
The first world is many things, including a lot more comfortable. Four in the back seat, two in the front passenger seat: that's how a grand taxi works. I get a break in that the people in the back seat are all relatively narrow individuals. Plus I have a window, and the road's in good condition. I am able to immerse myself in a book for four hours to forget my cramps, and – praise Allah! – when we arrive I discover that the Goulmime taxi stand is right next to the Goulmime bus station. How uncharacteristically efficient. I do have to climb over a wall between the two, but still.
Immediately I am accosted by men shouting the names of places, the lively Moroccan equivalent of that steadfast departure board. La`ayoune! Agadir! Tan-Tan! No, no, and no. Sidi Ahkfennir, I say, and they mostly look at me blankly, except for one little guy who nods vigorously and pulls me by the arm into his shabby agency, a crumbly yellow room in the cinderblock row of ticket windows. He tells me he has just the bus for me.
When will it depart? I want to know. He pauses for a moment and says twenty minutes. Wait – did he pause to figure out how to say that in French, or to decide whether he wanted to exaggerate his punctuality? I hate to think that way, but it's happened before. Just for insurance purposes, I wander over to another agency to ask them if they also have a bus, but the first man starts asking me where I'm going, trying to lead me back. Eventually, I give up and just sit where he tells me to sit. They've worn me down again, dragged me back to the path of least resistance. Besides, I haven't been able to get a straight answer from anyone else, and I can't read the posted schedules because they're in Arabic.
I wonder if the Moroccans suspect that all foreigners are idiots. Don't laugh. They never get to observe us in our native habitat. They've probably never witnessed a Westerner being clever.
Score! The bus arrives in twenty minutes, just as promised. I ask the driver if he knows Sidi Akhfennir. This is a coy tactic to get him to stop there, since I certainly won't recognize the town myself. I've seen people jump off in the middle of nowhere while the bus barely comes to a halt, and today I have to be one of those people. Yes, I do my own stunts. If I get it wrong I'll end up in Tarfaya, 200 kilometers past my destination. Alright, so it's not exactly death-defying, but riding has never been so exciting.
For the last thirty minutes I watch my GPS, comparing it to my map. I'm trying to mark the spot on the road that's closest to the Confluence, the point where I'll have to start hiking. But suddenly the bus slows, and someone yells at me from up front. We have arrived at Sidi Akhfennir, which is five kilometers away from where the map says it is. It take this as my first sign that the map is not the terrain.
As the bus pulls away I find that I am standing in front of gas station on the outskirts of a tiny Moroccan town at sunset. The word "HOTEL” is painted on a building in the distance. That solves that problem – and I'm almost disappointed. Really, I'm exhilarated. I am, for the very first time, somewhere that is not mentioned in any guidebook. I heft my pack and begin walking.
There was electricity last night, but not this morning. I did not charge my GPS when I had the chance. This makes me feel stupid.
A quick walk through the town confirms that there's no power anywhere. I should have known better. In the developing world, blackouts are common. Or, I may be in a place where there is electricity only in the evenings – last night I thought perhaps I heard the distant chug of a big diesel generator. All I can do is hope. There is, however, cell-phone service here. I can see the station on a low hillside just out of town. It's surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and powered by a huge array of solar cells. I'm jealous of the electricity.
Sidi Ahkfennir is very small. It straddles the paved highway, the sole North-South road through the Western Sahara, with the sea on one side and the rocky plain of the desert on the other. I can walk the length of the entire village in five minutes. It feels like a truck stop, which it is. In my travels I've stepped off of many busses to grab a meal at a roadside restaurant in just this sort of tiny dusty village. Those towns always felt like such forlorn little places to me, and I always caught myself thinking: why would anyone live here?
And now here I am. I wander off the highway through the dirt streets of the town, and discover the small Berber fishing village that Ahkfennir once was. The newer houses are cinder-block with only tiny little windows, which helps to shield the inhabitants from the summer desert sun. The older houses are mudbrick, with mud roofs supported by wooden beams and thatch. Most dwellings sit within a courtyard of tall walls, the standard Arab plan. In more prosperous towns I have seen the tops of date palms protruding over the walls of opulent residences, but no one can afford that here. From the roof of my two-story hotel, the tallest building in town, I can see that most of the yards are just dirt, crisscrossed with lines of drying laundry, a pile of junk or garbage in the corner, and often an animal pen. There's trash everywhere in the yards and on the streets, and in a broad ring of desert around the town; no one thinks twice about dropping a plastic water bottle wherever they are.
Goats and sheep roam the back streets freely. Dark-skinned women in bright robes wash laundry in buckets on their stoops or shuffle their children down the road. The women usually don't reply when I say hello, and often walk in the other direction. On the other hand, the men are very friendly. They tend to congregate in the small shops and cafes and seem eager to engage in whatever conversation is possible. I discover very quickly that while every European road-tipper stops in Ahkfennir for lunch, I am the only foreigner staying in town.
No one tries to sell me anything more elaborate than a meal. It's refreshing.
I spend the day preparing, collecting together the things I need to bring to the Confluence. I buy some nuts, bread, a couple cans of tuna, and a half kilo of the delicious mandarins that are in season. I return to my room in the late afternoon to pack. Food, GPS, sleeping bag. An extra blanket stolen from the hotel for warmth. Layers of clothing for the hot day and the cold night. Camera. Spare camera battery and memory cards. Flashlight. Knife. Four 1.5 liter bottles of water, the heaviest item in my pack by far. Gore-Tex hiking boots, polyester thermal underwear. Spoon. Sunblock, toothbrush, sunglasses. Is this adventure really that complicated?
I eat dinner at one of the little restaurants. The menu is limited to lamb and onion tajine or local fish, which unfortunately is deep-fried whole. I go for the greasy tajine, the zillionth tajine I've eaten in Morocco. As I'm eating, the power comes on. Hallelujah.
Everything is ready now. The star-chart on my PDA says that the sun will rise at 7:03 a.m. I set my alarm for 6:00, whereupon I will walk alone into the uninhabited desert of a foreign country.
Is this dangerous? I don't think so. I don't know. I asked the proprietor of the restaurant if there were dangerous animals in the desert. "Oh yes,” he told me. "Snakes, scorpions. But you must be careful of the smugglers. Many drug smugglers in the Sahara.” And he told me not to go because of the smugglers. Why do so many people spend so much energy trying to convince me that life is dangerous?
Even so, I send the following text message to a friend back home:
Heading into the desert tomorrow morning, staying overnight. From this little town of Sidi Ahkfennir it's a straight hike of 11 km heading 155 degrees to 28N 12W. Not dangerous, could be done entirely without water, should be back by 20:00 GMT Tuesday latest. However – in the event: call small hotel here at +212 61 21 19 83. They speak French and have a Land Rover.
Is this dangerous? Probably not. I don't know. Exploration is not risk-taking. Everybody takes risks, and known risks can be managed. Exploration is doing something where you just don't know what to expect.
The morning is cold and dark, the GPS is charged, and I step out of the hotel before the town wakes. There's no one to say goodbye to, and I'm pleased. Really, I just don't want anyone to tell me not to go.
I march. I walk across the desert into the south under the dark blue sky which holds just a few stars against the encroaching light. All is still, except for a few sleepy goats in the dirt streets. In two minutes I pass the last mud house and I am outside the town. It feels good to move my body, to feel the crunch of the dirt underneath my German hiking boots, to breathe the cold air.
The terrain here is mostly flat, just as my Russian map said it would be. In the distance the ground rises in a jagged shelf up to a higher plain, on which is located the Confluence. The line of cliffs is not that steep or high, and I'm sure I can find a way up. I wander over shallow hills covered with scrub grass, across rocky depressions where my boots sink into the crumbling mud, and through low dunes. To be honest, I was hoping for sand. I always pictured the Sahara as erg, rolling sand dunes, but the majority is in fact hamada, the type of rocky plain that I am now heading across. Still, the landscape is beautiful and I enjoy the rhythm of my steps.
Every so often I pull the GPS out of my pocket and watch the digits click down toward zero. I learn that I'm walking at five or six kilometers per hour, much faster than the two or three I'd planned for. At this rate I'll be at the Confluence before noon.
The sun comes burning over the horizon just as I reach the foothills. I tromp on, now less than a kilometer from the huge escarpment, carefully treading through and between the shallow valleys which must fill with startling rivers whenever the land is surprised by rain. The dirt under my feet is yellow-brown and crumbly, almost rotten. I imagine the whole plain turning to mud.
Hmm. The escarpment is rather steep now that I'm at the base of it.
Nothing for it. I choose the shallowest ascending ridge I can see and begin scrabbling up the slope. At first I'm standing up, leaning forward heavily. The sun climbs higher. I begin to sweat. Now I'm on all fours, balancing against the crumbling dirt with my hands. The weight of the pack on my back makes it difficult to look up, and I stop trying. Just climb. Never mind how far you've already come. You have to get to the top anyway. I'm getting tired.
The slope terminates in a vertical cliff three meters high. I'm now perched on the top of a steep rubble slope, sitting with my boots dug into the sand to prevent myself from sliding down on my ass. If I'm careful with my balance, I have my hands free. The upper plain is just above my head, invisible. Between it and me is a small vertical wall of sand and rubble and flaking laminar rock that comes apart in sheets. The cliff would not be at all hard to climb were it not completely rotten. Whenever I pull experimentally on a likely handhold, as often as not the rock tears itself loose from the crumbling cliff and tumbles down the slope below me, trailing a small landslide.
This wasn't on my Russian map.
It's clear that I'm not going to be able to climb the tiny cliff with my pack on. I gingerly remove it, shifting my weight very gradually lest my boots slip on the debris underfoot. Suddenly I feel much freer, more balanced, almost agile. By keeping three limbs steady at all times and carefully testing each hand- or foot-hold before transferring my weight, I will be able to climb the cliff. Without my pack.
A rope would be good here. I don't have one. I feel like an amateur. Actually, I am an amateur.
I'll have to lug the pack up the cliff alongside me in stages, resting it on a series of narrow rock shelves. I twist myself up to the first ledge, wedge my feet and one arm into the best handholds I can find, and carefully lean down towards my pack just two feet below my perch. The gravel beneath my boots makes ominous noises as my weight shifts. I grab the handle of my pack, start pulling, try to keep my body as close to the cliff as possible. The pack begins to move. I apply more force. If my handhold disintegrates I will have to let go off the pack and it will tumble down the slope. But the dirt holds, and I manage to haul the pack up onto my little ledge, setting it down carefully, feeling its weight transfer to the loose ground, feeling friction and gravity take over, willing it to stick. When I let go, it stays.
In ten minutes of careful exertion I have managed to gain two feet of altitude.
Next ledge, above and slightly to the left. This time, I'll need both hands. Twist carefully in my tiny cliff grotto. Raise my right leg to a new foothold and test it for stability. As I transfer my weight, I can feel the rock give ever so slightly. Shit. Try another, slightly more awkward support. It holds. Shift weight, pull myself up by two hands and one leg to a higher position. The ledge I want for my left leg holds. My hands are free now, and I can reach sideways and down for my pack. It needs to move from waist level to just above my head. I grab it with both hands and begin to lift. It's heavy. The rock groans. My left foot starts to slip. Shit! This won't work! I hurry dangerously to put the pack back down just as my foothold disintegrates completely.
Falling, I grab for the cliff instinctively with my free hand, and thank God that the big rock I find there holds me.
Everything is still, but not safe.
I'm holding onto the cliff face with one hand and one leg, my other leg dangling uselessly where a foothold used to be. The other hand is still holding the pack, which is back on its ledge but will slide if I let go. If I'm not extremely careful now, either the pack or myself will fall.
This is stupid. This is dangerous. I really could tumble down the slope. It probably wouldn't kill me, but I bet it would hurt an awful lot.
There's got to be a better way. It's not yet nine a.m. and I'm two hundred meters above the coastal plain, clinging to the side of a cliff. Breathe. Relax. Think. I have time. It's beautiful up here. I can see ocean waves glinting in the morning sunlight, five kilometers away.
Why am I doing this again?
My problem is that the pack is too heavy. Holding it, I cannot keep my center of gravity near enough to the cliff.
Okay, so lighten the pack. Again, I have one free hand. Working carefully, I open the top zipper. Crouching, extending, trying not to disturb the precarious stability of the heavy bag, I dig for the three big bottles of water near the bottom. The upper plain is barely a meter above my head, and the clear bottles arc beautifully in the sunshine as I throw them over. One. Two. Three. My pack is now 4.5 kilograms lighter. What else? Sleeping bag. Mandarins. Up and over. My night-time jacket goes too. Thankfully there's no wind to complicate my throws. Brown t-shirt, which flies into the air and just barely misses sticking to the edge. It falls right in front of my face and I resist the urge to grab for it. It tumbles twenty feet down the rubble slope.
Shit. I like that shirt. Should I leave it?
Climb down carefully, testing each hand and foothold.
Climb up just as carefully.
I've now been at the top of the escarpment for over an hour. So much for making the Confluence by noon.
I throw the shirt over again. It stays up this time. I zip the pack closed and find my footholds again. The pack is much lighter now. As I lift I can see the force diagrams behind my eyes, the lines of weight and torque and support. My center of mass stays between my feet as I slowly heft the bulky bag above my head.
The bottom of the bag passes the next ledge and I set it down, begin to transfer the weight to the rock. With a final gentle push, the pack is now resting next to my head, on a tiny outcrop perhaps a foot below the top of the cliff.
I have only myself to worry about now. Careful. Plenty of time. Test each point of support before transferring your weight. When I pull up with my arms my eyes rise above the cliff top for the first time and I see the plain. The sudden sun dazzles me. With a final heave I collapse on top of the flat ground, panting and covered in dirt where I've hugged the cliff with my body.
My. There sure is a lot of crap up here. Looks like someone emptied their pack onto the ground next to the edge.
It is now ten in the morning. Sitting on top of the escarpment, a respectful distance from the edge, I decide that I've earned an early lunch.
The desert hold surprises after all. Mixed in with the dirt are the halves of little grooved bivalves no bigger than my fingernail, and the occasional cone like the horn of a unicorn. But my favorites are the white circular spirals, about the size of a quarter, which shine incongruously against the tan soil. I know that the Sahara used to be at the bottom of the sea, but like everything else learnt firsthand it surprises me to find such direct evidence. The plants are mostly sparse clumps of dry grasses and a type of compact cactus which grows tightly packed in a wide mound. I pass many little holes burrowed into the ground by animals I do not see, and often hear the chirping of some sort of small black bird which hides in the grasses and flutters away at my approach.
I see all this in passing, like something outside the window of a moving train, for nothing is on my mind save the Confluence. 28 North 12 West. This silly little adventure has taken on a life of its own. I have fought for it, braved confusing busses and risked not having a place to stay, and tasted real danger in climbing that cliff. I'm ready to make my tiny little mark on history by adding a miniscule amount to the world's knowledge of itself. Twenty-eight twelve, twenty-eight twelve. My photographs of the middle of nowhere in the Moroccan desert will surely be archived on the internet for a thousand years. It's a tiny contribution, but it's actually a contribution, a real exploration of a desolate place where no one goes –
There is a herd of goats ahead. And there's the shepherd. Someone lives here.
My first instinct is to avoid them. I'm so close to my goal. This might be their land, and I don't want anyone to tell me I can't be here.
Across the great open space of the plain, we can see each-other coming for miles. There's two of them, and they watch me as I march across the plain. I watch them too. They wave. I wave back, then turn away and continue walking. I look at their goats, placidly grazing on the scattered grass. The shepherds are walking too, now more or less towards me. I'm walking faster. We're going to miss each other by a large distance.
I've forgotten why I'm here.
I stop, turn towards the pair, and wait. At a walking pace, their approach takes a long time. I suddenly understand why the greetings in desert cultures are so involved, so long and formal. With so few people living in such vast spaces, every meeting is a major event that one can see coming a very long way off.
"Salam alaikum,” I finally call when they are within shouting range.
"Salam alaikum,” they call back.
The shepherd who has approached me is a young boy of perhaps fourteen. He wears a brown djellaba, jeans, and worn plastic flip-flops. We stare at each other for a long moment, contemplating one-another silently from different worlds.
I ask him, in bad French, if he lives near here. He says he does. He asks me, in bad French, where I'm going. I tell him I'm walking in the desert and he nods. I don't know if that means he approves of my journey or if he thinks I'm nuts to be out on the plain without a reason.
We continue to stare at one another. There is nothing more we can say. I've finally managed to run into someone who hasn't the slightest concern for tourism, and I find that I have absolutely no idea what to do. He's out feeding his goats, and I'm standing in the middle of the desert with bottled water in my backpack and Gore-tex hiking boots on my feet, navigating by satellite to a point of absolutely no significance. I suddenly feel very foolish..
There is a whole world of knowledge and experience inside this boy, but I've just discovered that it is entirely inaccessible to me.
I do the only thing I can do. I smile broadly, wish him well in all the languages I know, shake his hand, and turn and walk away. In the empty sunlight, he could watch me leaving for many minutes.
Onward, twenty-eight twelve. The Russian topo map is accurate, plotting my course over the gentle hills and ridges. The sun is higher in the sky now, nearing noon. The winter wind is cold but the sunlight is very hot, confusing my body's sense of temperature. I'm starting to tire, but still I march in the same steady rhythm of long strides, five kilometers an hour over the dirt, watching the digits count down. I'm in a shallow valley now. It is crossed by what appears to be a faint set of broad tracks. A piste, they call this. A desert road. It neatly bisects the valley, reminding me again that I'm not really that far from civilization. But the piste quickly falls behind as I continue to walk. There's a final ridge ahead. I mount it and see more plain.
I switch from compass to GPS for the final stretch. 220 meters, bearing 160. Now 100 meters. There's absolutely nothing remarkable about where I am. 50 meters. I can actually see the confluence point now, or I could if there was any way for me to pick it out visually. 25 meters. Ten. Five. One. The digits click over to zero.
"Here” is a shallow slope of the same scrubland I've found everywhere else. The sun shines. The wind blows gently. I can see a couple buildings in the distance, which annoys me vaguely. Otherwise there is nothing at all special about this place. There is absolutely no reason to be here.
But that was the idea. Triumphantly, I set my pack down and retrieve my camera. Artfully placing the GPS on the ground next to a small cactus and a white spiral shell, I photograph my zeros. Then West, North, South, East, one shot in each direction.
It's very quiet.
I blink in the sunlight for a few minutes, feeling slightly lost.
Why are climaxes always so anticlimactic?
It's just after noon. There's really nothing at all here, and nothing at all to do. I brought along a book – St. Exupéry's luminous Wind, Sand, and Stars. I had intended to sit at my Confluence and read his beautiful descriptions of the desert, reveling in the words of a fellow adventurer. Now I find that I'm just tired. Exhausted, I spread the blanket on the ground and sleep.
When I wake up the light is long and yellow. The desert is a little prettier in the afternoon sun, a little less harsh and flat, with a few more shadows to give it texture. The wind blows gently, decidedly cool now. There is a chirping bird in the distance. It sounds close but I can't see it. There's still nothing here, but I am glad to witness it. Not many people do, I suppose, and that fact makes the moment undeniably mine.
Yet there is still that building in the distance, reminding me that someone actually lives out here. I must admit, I am annoyed at this. I had imagined my Confluence to be some sort of secret, magical, meaningless spot deep in the inhospitable desert. Instead I have found someone's home here.
Really, though, who lives here? And why? Perhaps I should ask them.
I have an hour and half of daylight left. The house or whatever it is looks be to at most two kilometers away, so I could easily get back before dark. This is not a trivial point: although I have a GPS, technology can fail. Stepping away from my little camp, I discover that it is completely invisible from no more than 100 meters away, lost in the visual noise of the cactus, grass, and rocks. In daylight I could probably get close enough with careful use of my compass, but at night I could never find my way home without the GPS. There is just time to visit the house before nightfall, if I hurry.
As I walk, I consider. These people are shepherds, most likely. Nomads, perhaps, real nomads, still living the way their ancestors lived in the desert for thousands of years. A small herd of goats and sheep that graze on the dry grasses, a tent to live in, a Koran, and a tea set. A simple, portable life. Although I do not envy these people, I have always wanted to meet them. If there are any real nomads left, they are the end of something that is disappearing from the world. The are the remnants of a myth.
And sure enough, the tan blot slowly resolves itself into a rectangular patchwork tent. Across the distance, still half a kilometer or more, I can see a figure in a dark orange robe walking slowly around his house. He looks in my direction, and sees that I am coming long before we are in shouting range. An unexpected guest, and I am looking forward to the solemn desert greeting. Now I can see his wife too, a woman in black ducking in and out of the home.
He stands and waits for me as I cross the last hundred meters.
"Salam alaikum,” I say to him.
"Salam alaikum,” he replies.
We finish the greeting solemnly, and I am conscious of a meeting of worlds. I hope that I did that right, that he has understood what I was really trying to say.
We stare at one another for a moment.
"Est-ce que tu veux prendre du thé?” he asks. He has already brewed a fresh pot. I thank him and he shows me into his home.
The tent is ten feet high at its central pole and twenty feet wide. It is constructed of large pieces of fabric in many pastel colors and patterns, old blankets perhaps, now tanned by the dust. The floor inside is covered with woven plastic mats. In one corner is a plastic shelf with cooking supplies and various other objects, in another corner lies a thin bedroll. There is a circle of cushions around a metal teapot resting in the hot coals of a clay brazier. That's it.
And so we drink tea in a tent in the end of an afternoon, this man and I, as must have happened so many times in so many centuries in this and other deserts. The man wears a black turban stylishly wrapped and has a kind, sun-worn face with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, graying. He asks me where I'm from. I ask him what he does here. He introduces his wife, a middle-aged woman whose darkly shadowed eyes shine from below a black veil. I tell him I'm just out walking. I tell him I love his desert.
"Bien,” he says solemnly, and for just a moment I feel like we've connected, like there's something important that we both understand.
He serves me bread, a large circular loaf about the diameter of a car tire. The bread is chewy and dense and delicious, better than any I've yet found in a Moroccan bakery. I am delighted that such an idealization should be true, that a family who lives in a tent in the desert is serving me such wonderful bread. I ask, as best I can, where it comes from: I see no oven, so they must get it from somewhere else. But when the woman finally understands my question, she laughs and fetches for me the sawed-off top of an oil drum. With the dough underneath and hot coals piled on the metal top, she bakes daily perfect wheels of bread.
He offers me another glass of tea, but the sun is setting and I explain that I must leave. He shakes my hand solemnly, then insists that I take with me the remaining semicircle of bread. I try to decline, but it is not possible in this culture of gift-giving. Incredible. Here I am with my GPS and my fancy boots – which my host has noticed and much admired – collectively probably worth more than the annual family income, and he's giving me his bread. It is moments like this that teach one humility.
Just before leaving, I ask if I can snap a picture. "Si tu veux,” I explain carefully. Only if you want. I want badly to record this man's face and his home and his world, but I cannot impinge upon his hospitality. Fortunately for me, he acquiesces. I have now a beautiful image of that kind face in the peach-colored afternoon, the only tangible token of an experience that had nothing to do with economics.
My GPS works flawlessly on the way back, and I arrive at my camp just at sunset.
Alone. Alone under the stars and the Islamic crescent moon. I never knew the desert got this cold at night. Even with my sleeping bag and the hotel blanket I am still wearing all of my clothes, my jacket, and my thermal underwear. I bet my nomad is sleeping in his djellaba. I hope he's warm. But he has a tent. I don't. My advantage, of course, is that I can look at the stars while I lie here, not really waiting for sleep. It's so seldom that I get to see the stars, a whole bountiful hemisphere of them all at once, all alone. For once, there are no lights on the horizon. Occasionally a plane passes overhead, but tonight it's just another star.
You can lose yourself up there. And I am lost. I know exactly where the satellites have sent me, but there is no significance to this place other than that which I have given it. But that's what I wanted, wasn't it? A journey to a meaningless destination. So now I'm here, and perhaps I have learned some things. I know some little things about, maybe, how to get around on busses when you don't speak the language. Where to find online topographic maps of Africa. And how to bake bread in the top of an oil drum. Strange, useless trivia.
No. I'm sure there are other lessons here. I know there must be but I can't see them yet, just as I didn't notice the patience that Asia had taught me until long after my homecoming to the frenetic West. So I know that pieces of who I used to be must be falling away from me, even now.
In the dark I can't see my GPS. I don't know that my boots are Gore-Tex. Stargazing, I could be anyone in any century. Yet I'll pick out different constellations than my nomad, I know. The Greeks chose horses, and crabs, and scales, and an archer, but what does a Berber see when he looks at the night sky?
There are no pictures in the stars, only in us
As we get older, it is ever more tempting to describe what we see only in the limited terms of what we've seen before. The person you now drink tea with went in a different direction a long time ago, and to reach him you have to backtrack to that point when you were both first learning the names of things. So: the Berber sees goats and tents and tea and Allah in the stars, but I can't find those patterns. My nomad's world is lost to me.
Except tonight. Tonight, I have decided to stop trying to make sense of things. There is no story, no narrative, no worldview. There are only the stars, this desert with shells in the ground, and a very cold wind. If I ignore the rustle of my nylon sleeping bag, I could be anyone at all. Not just anywhere, but anyone. A vastly greater freedom than that first moment in Vienna.
So I look at the desert night sky and see something incredible. There is indeed something here, this nowhere, this everywhere.
A long time ago, someone else felt it too. They called it Allah. I called it wonder. Both were names used by children, the first words of very long stories. No wonder we can't now understand one another.
It is dawn. The sun is just peeking up over the horizon, doing beautiful things to the clouds. They're posing for my camera, I'm quite sure, and I take one more compass-rose of photographs, then breakfast on the last of the desert bread.
That's it. Time to leave this place.
One last look.
There. March. That's all there is left to do. So I march. I am walking, and in twenty steps I have lost my former campsite among the undistinguished scrub. In two hundred more I have rounded the slight rise and the slope where I slept is gone. I'm back in the preceding valley, and I know where I'm going. This time I'm going to follow that track. The nomad said it heads to Ahkfennir, surely a longer trip than my direct run, but I bet the road doesn't have to climb down a disintegrating cliff. Besides, I'm not scared of civilization anymore. I've decided to let reality displace my myths. So when I reach the road, I follow it.
Letting reality displace the myth. That's what it's all about, isn't it? We say we want to travel, to see the world, but most of us really just want to make good on the promises of endless dunes and camel caravans, of tea and Arabian Nights. The reality is more about cell-phones, cramped taxis, and commerce. But why should we be disappointed? These are just the things we can see, the obvious, the surface. As a traveler I can look only at the rippled surface of that deep lake. All I can really learn is something about how much is hidden from me – but that's worth something.
Ah. The land just ended. The road simply stops, ten meters from the edge, in a low pile of stones like a levee. The ground just falls away after that. But I'm smarter this time. I walk along the edge, looking for a path. Sure enough, a small cairn marks the beginning of a steep trail which switchbacks down the slope. I can even manage it with my pack on. Onward then, a hazy half-hour descending through the fantastic shapes of the eroded escarpment, down, down, looking back only seldom to gauge the receding plain of the Confluence.
Then the final, lower plain, the last four kilometers. I'm returning to some sort of normalcy, the semi-routine of the experienced traveler. There will be restaurants and a shower, and as ever I will expend most of my time and attention dealing with the logistics of simply being in a completely foreign place. Tomorrow I'll leave Akhfennir, move on south to Dakhla. The details of my adventure will be quickly forgotten, I know. I can't tell if it will change me; if I am changed now, I don't have the perspective to see it.
No one greets me as I make the village. No one is at the café downstairs as I enter my hotel. In another minute, I am sitting on the bed in the room, looking vaguely out the window.
That's it. It's done.
Now that I can eat a hot meal or sleep in a clean bed any time I want, all the fatigue of my journey is gone. I am no longer tired or hungry, just empty. In the ordinariness of the room, my adventure feels like it never happened. I have the faint sensation of something luminous from the night before, but it's now more an absence than a presence.
I don't yet know what I've learned. I don't have a plan.
A slight breeze disturbs the curtains.
I could go anywhere.