Across the Sahara Desert

Berber Girls, 1988 Morocco, Atlas Mountains – 35mm film Across the Sahara Desert 1988

November 2, 1988
from Casablanca to Marrakesh to Asni, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Morning – I am sitting in a contented pose watching Casablanca come alive. By midday, I imagine there will be a cloud of exhaust over the city. I came on the sleeper car from Fez last night, which I enjoyed. I am “making up for lost time” as they say, and with my scheduled arrival to and departure from Marrakesh today, I should be completely on schedule. I realize that regardless, I will have to push if I am to be successful in achieving the remaining of my eight objectives within the allotted time: 1) To see Lisbon 10/28 (done), 2) To see Gibraltar 10/30 (done), 3) Fez 11/1 (done), 4) Casablanca 11/2 (done), 5) Marrakesh 11/2 (today), 6) Climb Mt. Toubkal 7) see Tamanrasset area, 8) Cross Sahara. But of these, the one by far that is most important is the last.

I think I will enjoy Mt. Toubkal. Mountain climbing has never failed to be well worth the effort. I will also enjoy having put behind me the last detractions from my real objective and to feel the momentum of pursuit of an objective without feeling fettered. I know it seems like a lot of moving around but it is justifiable on a few counts:

No 1. Even a few hours in a place can result in a lifetime of memories and be a base upon which to build more complete knowledge. You find that you become more attuned to news or facts about a place once up you have been there.

No 2. It may be the only chance I have in my lifetime to visit such places.

No 3. It satisfies a longstanding curiosity.

12:05pm Waiting for the train to Marrakesh…

1:35pm on the Marrakesh Express – I am thinking maybe I should go straight to Asni to begin climbing Mt. Toubkal tomorrow.

5:15pm on bus to Asni from Marrakesh – I could not even hope to hold a candle to the beauty of these (Berber) people! I ate a two bowls of soup here in the bus station. I ate out of a ceramic bowl with a hand-fashioned wooden spoon. I could see how these people get so full of life and purity – you can just see it in their faces. It makes me think that our food is so bland. For all of its fanciness, it’s lacking in nutrients, all of it affected by one process or the next. The food here is grown purely and eaten straightaway. The beauty of it is that food gets better by becoming simpler, not by becoming more complicated and requiring additional processes. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the direction you are heading), life similarly becomes better not by acquiring additional possessions and requiring additional processes, but by becoming simpler.

I am sitting in the front of the bus and the people – three ladies, a passenger on the engine cover and the driver – are laughing. My heart tells me they are so pure. There is no mental sickness here, no anxiety – there is a lust for life.

Off we set to Asni. As for me, I’m off to Imlil tomorrow to climb Mt. Toubkal. I am being carried into a fascinating world. I can feel it. This is what I am crying out for inside when I tell people that travel is so exciting. I love the thought of getting into the mountains on my feet. There is no formula to having a good time traveling. It just happens. It can happen by being suddenly surrounded with people you find yourself admiring so much that you want to emulate their behavior. Instantly, the barriers – the notions of progress, the benchmarks of civilization – drop, and you cannot focus your mind away from the central – in fact, only – issue, which is the quality of life. And there is no escape from the fact that you cannot justify the “quality” of your life by your latest achievements, how much you have earned or saved, what your possession count is or even how popular you are. It is hard to face the nagging doubt that the quality of your life is not all it should be, but for me it is there in front of me all the time. Even though I am aware of this nagging dissatisfaction, I am unsure how to cure it. Then all of a sudden, my life becomes magic. There is an unknown quantity ahead. There is beauty. Knowledge – not false, but real – is there to be gained.

People with pure minds from pure living exude a catching innocence. People with golden hearts – they are the cure for woe and loneliness, for stress.

I suppose I have a certain fascination with the mountains. There is a mystery in them and none more so than what lies ahead of me. I am thinking that maybe I will not even return to Marrakesh, but head to the hills and spend days going to Figuig. There is nothing to stop me. The biggest fears I have had to overcome regarding traveling are:

Not following the pack –

Am I wasting my time?

Is this behavior irresponsible?

Loneliness – the harder the fight, the sweeter the victory. Remember that when you are struggling.

10:15pm Asni, Morocco

I have not even written about Fez yet. During my writing this morning I met a man who told me that in the “old days” (not too long ago) that – not in only Fez, but other cities as well – foreigners were forbidden to enter and that everyone had to be inside the city walls by 5 o’clock or by the end of the day and thereafter they would shut the huge doors. There were guards at the gates.

Today has been, as usual, a long day. It began waking up in my sleeping car, arriving in Casablanca. I caught the “Marrakesh Express” at noon and watched the flat countryside roll by and turn into red-hued earth. In Marrakesh I had a taxi bring me to the center of the old town, where snake charmers and touts, drummers, cobras, adders and spectators created a fanfare.

I got to the transport area. To my good fortune, there was a bus departing to Asni. I had my soup. We set off. In the bus, a woman sang & let out a shrill scream. People clapped their hands. One woman with sunglasses on (even though it was dark) and a gold tooth showed us all how she could push her pelvis in sexual gestures – we all laughed. Arriving in Asni, I had delicious lentil soup, bought beef and had it cooked and drank many mint teas. I talked with a German man who had spent four weeks in the Atlas area. He described Erfoud, where there were 300-foot dunes of pure sand, thousands of date palms shimmering in the desert and an annual date festival (which he missed by two days). He described the Gorge of Todgha (65 meters wide & hundreds high), which he said was fantastic.

Tonight I am sleeping in a “hostel.” It’s sort of a weird place because there are no innkeepers, just many rooms and many beds. There is electricity. There is an English couple in the next room.

There is more to this day than I can describe.

November 3, 1988
Asni, Morocco

I am having Berber porridge this morning for breakfast. I have rediscovered something about myself and that is that I feel a lot happier with a warm belly.

It is decision-making time. I have planned to climb Mt. Toubkal but I think I won’t make it because there is snow far below the top and the weather is not good & looks unpredictable. There are clouds in the High Atlas, no doubt some rain or snow, and here – over 10,000 feet – we have a light breeze, some clouds and some drizzle. Even if I had proper equipment I might not make it because of the weather & the probability of not being able to find a guide who was experienced enough and dedicated enough to show me the way.

Alternatively I could hike on the lower ground, which might prove more rewarding.

7:59pm – I am here in a Berber village. Today has been one of the most awesome days I have had in years. The valleys & mountains here are amongst the most picturesque places I have ever seen, if not the most picturesque.

What is so beautiful is the contrast between the white peaks, the brown-red earth, the cascading gorges falling to earth villages and green terraces. I cannot ever recall seeing land like this except in photos I saw of the Pakistani Himalayas, where it was on an even larger scale – where you could look across a fantastic gorge & see an earth-colored village looking as small as an ant. Here it is not on that scale, but it is just as beautiful.

Berber Mother Spinning Wool, 1988 Morocco, Atlas Mountains

The architecture is different here than I have even seen, though on first glance one might equate it with other mountain culture architectures (the Andes, the Himalayas). Here, buildings are very rectangular. The windows are painted blue, blue & white, green, etc. The main comparative difference must be in the altitude. These mountains are not so high. I get more of a feeling of mildness than I would in the Andes or Himalayas because the environment is not so harsh. Would I be going too far to say that it’s Shangri-La? When I get home (if I am so lucky), I would like to have a room in my house as cozy as the one I am in right now. It would be a great place to make love!

Berber Wedding, 1988 Morocco – 35mm film Across the Sahara Desert 1988

In 1988, I traveled across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. In Morocco, I made an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, the highest peak in North Africa (4,167 meters). Then I went across the Sahara Desert in Algeria, riding on top of sacks of dates in the back of a large truck without a roof. From the border with Niger, I hitched a ride to Agadez.

November 4, 1988
Toubkal refuge, below the summit

The way I feel is incredible! I must emphasize a total lack of anxiety, a contentment, a feeling of well-being, relaxed, confident for the future, a joy of life, with myself, with my strengths & weaknesses. I will attribute this to many factors: 1) A lot of exercise (and it is towards an end goal) 2) Beautiful mountain scenery (nay, exquisite) 3) An absence of cars & modern contraptions 4) Eating a great amount of couscous and other vegetables and bread, and drinking a great deal of mint tea 5) Pleasant company in my guide & his family (as opposed to other times when even though I can be feeling great, someone around me begins to bring me down) 6) New surroundings and events to keep my mind stimulated and keep me busy writing, taking photographs, recording events (such as the Berber Wedding last night!) and even get me thinking of songs, which I haven’t had the inspiration for in quite a few years 7) A feeling that after all my trouble & expense to get here, that I have “discovered” for myself one of the most beautiful spots on earth – as close to Shangri-La as exists- and that the internal struggles I have had concerning justification for coming here have taken flight and been replaced by feelings of satisfaction 8) Having time – inspiration is essential for this – to think constructively and to write and take photographs (and also having good subjects, which is also essential) and 9) The fact that I am pursuing what I set out to do.

In summary, for future reference… 1. Lots of exercise 2. Beautiful and inspiring surroundings 3. Peaceful atmosphere 4. Eating a great deal of vegetables & grains 5. Drinking a great deal of mint tea with sugar 6. Pleasant company 7. New (stimulating) surroundings 8. Free time (also lack the of the necessity to do menial chores such as preparing food, etc.) and I add 9. Feelings of success (and/or attempts at success).

When reading back on this in the future, I ask myself to accept that at this moment, I really feel like I would like to feel. I feel inspired. I am having constructing waves of thought.

After my experiences in Morocco, I entered into Algeria. To my surprise, there was a bus that went from Tamanrasset to Ghardaia, an oasis in southern Algeria. From there, I had difficulty finding transportation. I ended up hitching a ride on the back of a truck hauling dates to a location near the Algeria-Niger border.

Riding on the Top of a Truck Hauling Dates to Niger, 1988 Algeria, Sahara Desert South of Ghardaia

The Truck Gets Stuck in the Sand, 1988 Algeria, Sahara Desert South of Ghardaia Sometimes the truck got stuck. Then they would bring out the metal racks. They wedged them under the tires to free the vehicle.

The Muslims on the truck cooked unleavened bread in the sand.

Cooking Bread in the Sand – One Algeria, Sahara Desert south of Ghardaia First, a fire was built. Then sand was put on top of it. The dough was spread out into a flat mass and placed on the sand.

Cooking Bread in the Sand – Two Algeria, Sahara Desert south of Ghardaia Then hot sand and the fire was placed on top of the dough. In this way, a sort of oven was created, thus cooking the bread. Once cooked, it was removed.

Cooking Bread in the Sand – Three Algeria, Sahara Desert south of Ghardaia The sand was washed off with water.

Cooking Bread In The Sand – Four Algeria, Sahara Desert south of Ghardaia Then the bread was broken up and put into a pot with tomatoes and other vegetables. The result was a sort of tomato stew. It was filling and delicious.

In Beroutane – A Rock Figure in the Sahara, 1988 Algeria – 35 mm film Across the Sahara Desert 1988

The photo above was taken in the Sahara Desert between Ghardaia, Algeria and the border with Niger. The Muslims told me the name of this place was In Beroutane. I was surprised to see such a formation in the middle of nowhere. I can find no mention of it on the Internet.

I completed the balance of the 2000-kilometer journey from Ghardaia, Algeria to Agadez, Niger by hitching a ride with a few French guys that were crossing the desert in order to sell the used cars they’d bought in Europe. The price they could fetch in Niger was multiples of what they’d bought them for.

Cars Being Brought from Europe to Niger for Sale, 1988 Niger, some point between the Algerian border and Agadez

We traveled on the “piste,” camping along the way. Their objective was to sell the cars in Agadez. My objective was to travel from Agadez to Niamey in Niger.

When we arrived in Agadez, the Frenchmen bargained with the locals to sell the cars they’d driven from Europe. I took photos of Touaregs in the street.

Touareg Woman, 1988 Niger, Agadez

Touareg Man, 1988 Niger, Agadez

From Agadez, I traveled to Niamey in Niger, then home.