Day 63: The Ténéré Desert
For the cameleers, the day follows a timeless, preordained pattern. Prayer, then breakfast cooked over a fire of sticks and branches, then the thick woollen blankets, under which they sleep at night (they don't have tents), are rolled up, secured with twine and laid beside each camel. The camels are brought to their knees and loaded up. Guide ropes are reinserted in mouths stained yellowy-green from cud-chewing, and they are brought to their feet. This provokes a tumult of braying and grunting. I wish I knew what they were saying, for it sounds important to them. Is it passionate protest or is it merely an assertion of team spirit at the start of a new day? Is it 'how many more times do I have to tell you, I'm not a beast of burden, right', or is it 'Good morning everyone. Another scorcher by the looks of things'?
Ekawik doesn't speak to me at all. In fact, he doesn't seem the slightest bit interested in making friends with me, despite my sycophantic patting of his flanks and complimentary remarks about the two silver good luck charms hanging from a chain around his neck.
He does, however, honk savagely when asked to carry me. This doesn't help, as I've never felt very comfortable on a ship of the desert. Once perched on Ekawik's hump, I feel about as steady as I would on a surfboard. I've also been provided with a lethal, though aesthetically pleasing, ceremonial saddle with high, spiky prongs and pommels back and front. I may look like some visiting potentate when I'm up there, but when it comes to dismounting, I find it impossible to get my leg over, as it were, and I have to be dragged from the saddle like someone being pulled from a car wreck. Much giggling from the cameleers.
The rhythm of the journey is set by the camels. Normally, they would be on the move at four in the morning, walking for fourteen or fifteen hours a day with two breaks, at midday and late afternoon. Omar tells me that when he's on the road he only has three or four hours' sleep a night.
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