Lost in the Sahara is an excerpt from a new book by Mike Bond that will be published next year. I fell in love with Mike’s novel, Saving Paradise so we’ve been in touch about all of the great adventures he has in store for this year. Enjoy the sneak peek!
Lost in the Sahara
by Mike Bond
FOR TWO DAYS he hitched across Algeria’s bleak Mouydir Mountains to the turnoff at the palm-studded oasis of Tit, just north of Tamanrasset. “The Timbuktu trail is gone,” an old Bedouin said. “The desert covered it.”
Mick bent closer, not understanding his harsh French. “Must be another way.”
“There is a track to Ti-n-Zaouâten. Sometimes a car goes there.”
Next afternoon a car did come, a rusty tan Peugeot 403 with no windshield, a chubby, cheery mining geologist named Fayeed who was driving ninety km southwest to the oasis at Silet. “But you’ll have another three hundred kilometers to the Timbuktu road,” Fayeed said. “If someone comes, gives you a ride . . . But if no one comes . . .”
Sun burning his neck, Mick glanced at the bleak huts of Tit. “I’ll wait. Or walk.”
“Three hundred kilometers? In this heat?”
On the Foreign Legion map the track from Silet turned southwest through desert, canyons and mountains. “It’s high there,” Mick said. “Perhaps it’ll be cooler.”
“Not in day. In night very cold.”
“Do many cars come?” Mick said.
“Sometimes as many as one or two a week. Many times none.”
Diligently the Peugeot clambered up the ragged hills, a mix of windblown gravel and jagged outcrops, great boulders strewn under gleaming cliffs. The wind through the empty windshield was superheated. The track narrowed to two tire marks with an abyss alongside, then snaked across a stony waste between bare black mountains. “You have water?” Fayeed said.
“Not enough. There is no water till the oasis of In-Tedeini, three hundred kilometers. But I have two more I can give you. That’s still not enough . . .”
Mick felt embarrassed by the offer. “No, you might need it.”
The track steepened toward a huge stony bowl in the cliffs. A fainter pair of ruts turned right. “Here I go north,” Fayeed said.
Mick felt a terrifying loneliness, wanted to stay with Fayeed. But then where would he go? “I’ll be fine.”
Fayeed gave a quick nod of good luck, crunched into second then rattled to a halt. “Watch out for vipers. At night sleep in the cliffs, for the sake of hyenas.”
Mick watched the Peugeot pick its way down the northern slope, its rusty roof sun-reddened, its rear window flashing like a diamond. It crawled over the downrolling dunes into the vast golden-red desert trailing a tiny kerchief of khaki dust, its shadow stretching far eastward as the sun set. He felt a moment’s exaltation to be alone in this vast emptiness.
Then he felt horribly bereft. The breeze down the cliffs had turned frigid. The desert had darkened, endless and cold to the edges of the earth.
“This is what you wanted to do,” he said aloud. “Don’t back out now. Don’t undercut yourself. This is a challenge you gave yourself, so go ahead and do it and shut up. You’ve done tougher things before.”
He wondered what those tougher things were, dismissed the thought, shouldered his pack and climbed the track to a rocky shelf twenty feet up the cliff. It tilted outward and he feared falling in his sleep, so brought up small boulders to line the edge and keep himself in. This is great, he told himself. This is what I wanted.
The hyenas came as Fayeed promised, their demented laughter echoing through the canyons, one panting at his scent below, yellow eyes glinting up in the starlight. The icy night ate through his thin sleeping bag, the jagged shelf impossible to sleep on. Rubbing himself to stay warm he waited for day.
At first light he studied the map, ate a chunk of bread and cheese and drank a little water. He scanned his back track; there was no sign of a car. The wise thing was to start up the trail rather than wait; if a car came fine, if not he could later backtrack to Silet. The steep rocky track snaked through jumbled shattered boulders and scats of windcut sand. Again he felt elation to be in this magnificent solitary place, and pride that he’d dared.
After sunrise the air turned searing hot. A flock of sparrows darted over the cliff; their song vanished down a raw deep canyon. He wanted more water but didn’t drink till midmorning when his throat was burning, then only a sip that evaporated in his mouth before he could swallow.
Higher up it grew cooler and windy. He sat on a cliff edge, liking this strange endless place where he was the only person. It reminded him of Skull Cave, being in a place where no human had ever been before.
He felt a warm connection to this immensity of rock and sand devoid of humans. But the wind burned his face; his lips were swelling and his tongue blocked his throat. He realized his first water canteen was empty. Should have brought more, he told himself. Maybe should’ve stayed in France.
The trail dropped into a cauldron of sun-shattered rocks over which a molten wind lisped anxiously. The fiery light seared his eyes but when he closed them he stumbled and fell, burning his hands on the rocks. Night fell like a stone; he found a perch high on the cliff but could not sleep for fear of falling. The air turned frigid, the stars pitiless and bright. No hyenas came.
Had to admit this was lonely. At dawn he took a sip of his second canteen and went on, knees weakening. He could turn back to Silet now but still had four liters so there was no reason. For what seemed hours he followed the trail across a blazing plateau, twice losing then finding it again. He sat down on a rock but it was too hot, tried the sand but that burned too.
He might die here. Didn’t seem likely. Just three hundred klicks. Barely two hundred miles – how many had he done today? He looked at his watch – twenty after four. How could that be? The sun was straight overhead, too fierce to look at.
The second hand wasn’t moving. He’d forgot to wind his watch. Now he wouldn’t know what time it was. How far had he come? He tried to remember yesterday’s hike. Maybe two hours. Ten km. Today he’d done at least four hours. Maybe thirty km total. Only twenty miles. Was it yesterday he’d started, or some other day?
He made himself think. Only two hundred seventy klicks to go. Hundred eighty miles. Back home he could do that in five days. But he was supposed to wait for something. What was it? Why wait, in this sun?
He pushed to his feet and followed the track toward tall black shimmering peaks. Ti-n-Zaouâten was beyond them the map said, but how could anything be so far? Maybe the map was wrong.
It was easier to walk after his rest; he felt tall and buoyant, light-footed. He raised his thumbs to his shoulder straps but they weren’t there.
He had no pack.
He’d left it when he’d stopped. How far was that? He should have a drink of water, clear his head. But the water was in his pack.
Going back he lost the track. Perhaps he’d already gone too far. He turned and went another way but could not find the pack, or where he’d stopped.
If he didn’t find the water soon he’d die. He stared up and down the windy desolate rocks but had not seen this place before. He’d rest a while then find the pack. When it was cooler. But here there was no shade. He peered over the cliff edge, vast desolation dancing below.
He backed away, imagined falling and smashing into the rocks so far down. He stumbled on something weird and fell backward into a cactus that stung and burned terribly. Before him lay the pack. He’d stumbled over it.
He snatched a water canteen. Empty. In another a little water sloshed in the bottom. He drained it, threw it away, looked around. Who’d stolen his water?
The third liter was full. He only drank a quarter wishing he’d taken the teacher’s extra two liters. So thirsty.
All afternoon he walked eastward through scorching canyons empty of all but wind. Hell, but he didn’t care, didn’t think, kept walking. That night in the infinite bitter desert under the vicious stars he felt a crazy loneliness, pure terror, seeing the eternal cold pit at the end of life, told himself it was just thirst, wondered if he was dying and why he didn’t care.
Someone had stolen his water, the last canteen empty, its rim burning his lip. For the hundredth time he spread the map on the searing earth, pushing a track along it with a dizzy finger, tried to see but the map kept shivering with heat, would not stay still.
How far had he come? Maybe another twenty. Twenty from what? There had been a place but he couldn’t remember. Maybe he should turn round, go back to where he’d started. Where was that? Who would come? He felt self-hatred that he’d done this to himself. Calm down, he told himself. Once you get scared you’re done for.
No place to hide from the sun. No matter how many times he opened them the canteens were empty. No matter how many times he looked back down the track no one came. Each breath burnt his throat, his lips cracked and bloody. Thirst pounding in his veins made him nauseous and afraid.
He’d killed himself, same as firing a bullet into his brain. When he hadn’t wanted to. Or had he? A fool to have squandered his life. Not giving himself time to think he shouldered the pack and moved on.
After an hour his last energy began to flag, legs trembling with thirst, the air a furnace. He climbed up a crest of sand and looked back; where he’d started this morning was a stone’s throw away. He sat for a moment, leaned back against the pack. His hand bumped a rock, caught fire. A hot spike drove through it, he writhed on the ground gripping his hand to his chest.
The pain roared up his arm. On the palm a red welt. On the rock a scorpion backed away, tail raised.
He thrashed in agony wanting to die, anything to stop this pain. After a while he stumbled to his feet, gasping through his swollen lips and tongue, his arm hanging. He couldn’t remember why he was here, why he was doing this, just that it had to be done.
By afternoon the heat grew truly unbearable. He tried not to breathe because it burned his lungs, walked with eyes closed to keep from baking them, tripped and fell.
Vague shapes beckoned through dancing light. Cool delicious water sparkled before him, turned to molten sand when he touched it. He got up and went on.
Finally the sun touched the peaks. The rocks and sand screamed with heat. His arm and shoulder ached horribly; the world spun queasily, his brain throbbed. He fell down beside a stone outcrop, pulled the map from his pack. The wind took it and he watched it go, a white bird soaring over the cliff. So this is it, he thought.
For an instant he was in the old family farm kitchen with everyone there. Food on the table, water, milk. “It’s okay, son,” Ma said.
Okay to die. The terror faded into a delightful peace. He lay on the hot sand waiting for death, surprised to not fear it. He’d come here to die, it was fate.
This brought a weird confidence. Maybe if he wasn’t afraid of death he wouldn’t do anything wrong, could find a way through the crack in time back to life.
Over his rattling breath came a strange singing. So this was death. The singing tailed off. Something called. Another answered. Then a huffing grunt. A boy in white and two men in white and three camels. Another mirage. Maybe angels. He tried to call, a whisper. The boy saw him, called the others. One of them pulled a rifle from a camel pack and came toward him.
His narrow face was blue, his hands blue, his long hair curly and black. His mouth was thin and sharp. Mick could not understand, answered in French at which the blue-faced man tossed his head angrily.
Again the blue-faced man spoke, a question, glanced behind Mick. His meaning was clear: you’re alone? And behind it a deeper meaning: We’ll kill you.
The blue-faced man called to the boy, who said something Mick could almost understand, realized it was French. The boy ran back to the camels, returned with a brown rock that Mick saw was not a rock but a canteen. “Who are you?” he said. “Where do you come from?”
In the cooling dusk they brought him more water, sour warm yoghurt and dates that stuck to his fingers. When it grew cold they built a fire of camel dung and placed him beside it. At dawn they made tea, mounted him on a camel with a goatskin over him to keep out the sun, and set out westward, their shadows rising and falling before them across the crimson dunes.
“Where are you going?” Mick said.
“Tamanrasset,” the boy answered. “In three days you will be there.” He nodded his chin at the old man. “He’s buying a new wife. He already has three that do him no good, but he has stolen a new young camel so he’ll trade it for a fourth.”
Three days later they turned south outside Tamanrasset and Mick walked into town alone. It had a grim forlorn air. It seemed unreal to have left here in Fayeed’s car barely a week before, to have nearly died, and now to return on foot a lifetime later. He wanted to kneel down on the sand and pray thanks but didn’t know to what. Maybe this was what Ben Younès meant by being reborn. Not only given back life but taught how to live better.
Light-headed and serene, he waited for a ride, drinking canteen after canteen of Tamanrasett’s bilious water. As in Skull Cave, in the hurricane on the Statendam and on the cliffs of Saint-Victoire, he’d challenged death and lived. But why do it?
Not all quests left you alive. The line between life and disaster was razor-thin, could be cut at any moment, with the tiniest mistake, the simplest illusion. As in Skull Cave he’d pushed the unknown too far, lucky to get out before it struck back.
“How was Timbuktu?” the old Bedouin said.
“Couldn’t get there.”
The old man spat. “I told you.”
Copyright © 2013 by Mike Bond.
Excerpted from an upcoming novel by Mike Bond (www.MikeBondBooks.com).
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