Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Great Thirst. Part One

My childhood was overshadowed by my parents' threat of deportation to Timbuktu should my behaviour fail to live up to their expectations.  Of course I had no idea what or where Timbuktu was, other than a vague notion that it might be some sort of far away concentration camp for naughty children who arrived in crates from all over England.  As it happens though I didn't find myself there until I was twenty seven and I arrived in a four ton Bedford truck rather than a crate, although I suspect that the crate option would have been more comfortable.  Myself and about a dozen others from all over the world were participating in an overland adventure holiday - a tough 4 week drive from Lome to to Tunis.

It was mid-May, the hottest time of the year in Mali.  We had reached Mopti and our aim was to drive to Timbuktu, following the Niger River but it was a race against time as the rains were due and if they broke we could find ourselves trapped on the floodplain by the rising river.  We left Mopti in a dust storm.  A hot, abrasive wind whipped up the dead,  powdery earth and threw it in our faces.  The sky turned dirty brown and the glowering sun became a dull orange ball.  Still the heat was unrelenting .  Fifty five degrees centigrade and humid with it.  Just as unrelenting was the dust.  It was everywhere.  In our food, our mouths, our underwear, our cameras.  We reached a point in the river where a ferry operated.  Normally the Niger at this point measures a mile from bank to bank, but now it had shrunk to a couple of hundred yards wide and was as brown and sluggish as molten chocolate.  Twenty minutes later the ferry deposited us and our truck safely on the far bank, although the high sides of the vehicle had acted as a sail and pushed us many yards downstream where it was much more difficult to disembark in the soft sand.  An hour of pushing, shoving, cursing and man-handling our heavy steel sand mats and we were on our way once more at quite a good speed, trailing a huge plume of dust.

We stopped for lunch but in such heat it was impossible to raise an appetite.  Thomas - a young Japanese and myself dug a fire pit to boil water for tea and we all slumped to the ground and guzzled litres of the stuff.  No matter how much we drank we wanted more.  The sweat evaporated from our skin the moment it emerged from our pores, leaving it perfectly dry despite our exertions.  The plain spread out around us as far as the eye could see and was featureless save for a few stunted thorn trees and sandy hillocks.  The only sound as we sat and drank our tea was the cracking of the truck's canvas covering as it flapped savagely in the wind.

Later that afternoon we reached a Peul fishing village.  The low mud dwellings blended perfectly with the landscape so that we didn't see them until the last minute.  Dozens of children, some naked, some dressed in tattered clothes swarmed from the village and we had to stop for fear of running them down as they surrounded the vehicle.  Thomas and Siggy - a young gaunt German woman leapt down to greet the children who initially were frightened and stood back, their stomachs swollen by malnutrition and their mouths set in gleaming white grins.  Soon they overcame their fear and Thomas was dragged away by the hand to see the village by twenty or thirty children.  Siggy was lifted shoulder high and placed on an emaciated donkey which was then bullied into trotting around in circles while the children whooped and cheered.

An elderly, tall, spindly man with white hair and sagging black skin which seemed too big for him pushed his way through the children and approached the truck.  He spoke to David - our driver who was still sitting behind the wheel.  "Bonjour. Ca va?" He said, addressing us all.  His legs were so thin it seemed they could snap under his meagre weight at any moment.  In French he told David that he was a rich man with many cattle and that his village needed nothing except medicine.  All we had had was aspirin and gastro-stop, neither of which would make much of an impression against river-blindness, bilharzia and malaria.  Nevertheless we gave him all we could spare.  He thanked us, turned on his heel and marched with great dignity back to the village.

Ten minutes later Thomas reappeared, still surrounded by children.  They released him and he clambered up into the truck and as we slowly pulled away the children started to run alongside, faster and faster as we picked up speed.  I was astonished by their stamina considering how badly undernourished they were.  But then I couldn't watch as they ran and stumbled dangerously close to our wheels.  finally, one by one they fell back and stood waving and shouting until we were out of sight.

We drove on under an alien orange sky for the rest of the afternoon.  At dusk we set up camp on higher ground under a large baobab tree.  The wind had dropped a little but it was still a struggle to erect the tents and some of us didn't bother, choosing to scoop a hollow in the sand in which to lay our sleeping bags.  Let the scorpions come.  We didn't care, we were too hot and tired and nightfall brought little relief from the heat .  Dinner was the same as it had been for the last five days - vegetable and pasta stew.  There was no meat, and nowhere to keep it cool if we had it.  So we sat around the camp fire, pecking unenthusiastically at our food and swallowing litres of tea.  Tomorrow if all went well we would be in Timbuktu by sunset and there were rumours of a hotel with air conditioning.            

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