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Across the Sahara Desert on Kinetic Honda scooter. Chapter 11

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Borne: 3rd and 4th January 1992.

We reached Borne slightly before dark on 3rd January 1992. Borne was just one large mud hut, around which many cars were parked. This mud hut served as the exit point of Algeria. It was a sort of an office-cum-residence of the border officials. I am not sure if they stayed here overnight or went back to InGuezzam every night. I am not even sure if there was any water in Borne. All around was just sand and desert. There were a few tents probably put up by travelers, but there were no buildings except this hut. This was early January, the coldest period of the year in the northern hemisphere.

There was also an Army colored open Jeep with a machine gun mounted on it parked next to the hut, a symbolic Algerian govt. presence. That the Jeep was only symbolic, not effective, we found out the next day.

The rule here, as we found out was that all travelers had to lodge their passports and papers in this mud hut before 10 a.m. in the morning. Passports would be returned at 5 p.m. in the evening. There was no progress we could make here today. Our exit process would begin only tomorrow.

We parked a short distance from the mud hut to settle for the night and mingled around.

Food and water was available on sale. Women carrying the severed head of a cow in a pan on a coal fired stove on their heads were drifting among the crowd. If you wanted to eat, they would bring down the stove and pan from their head, cut a thin slice of meat from the cow throat, roast it or fry it (they had some oil) in the pan and hand it to you on a newspaper sheet. I did not eat any. The others decided to give it a try. They decided to buy one slice and divide it among themselves.

The vendor cut the slice into pieces and gave it to them on an old newspaper. “How can you eat beef?” I said to my companions. “We are Hindu. Cow is our mother”.

“Sure” one of them answered with a wink, “but this is not Indian cow. This is Algerian cow. It is their mother, not ours. So it does not matter”.

We had canned food with us as well as water.

The number and quality of vehicles at Borne could have put any Indian parking lot to shame at that time 20 years ago. Except for Maruti, no other foreign model had yet made its debut in India. It was 1991 and liberalization had not yet begun in India. There were only four brands in India at that time: Hindustan Ambassador, Premier Padmini, Standard Herald, and Maruti.

Here in the middle of the desert the majority of cars were Benz and Pugueot and a wide smattering of Toyotas, Nissans and other European and Japanese brands. I don’t remember seeing any bikes, except our KiHos, which attracted a lot of curiosity and the subject of discussion, if and when we met English speaking people.

We slept the night: four of us in the tent and two in the GD240. The night passed. There was no provision or concept of morning tea or coffee. We had to make do with just plain water.

Morning abulations consisted of walking a respectable distance from the cluster, unzipping your trousers, and squat and do your job. Hop aside a foot or two after each delivery. When the job was done, hop away from your shit, take clean sand and wipe your ass with sand. Washing our ass with water as we were used to at home, was an unaffordable luxury. And stoopid as we were, we didn’t carry any tissue paper either. So sand was the only choice. After all, the Tuaregs were doing this for a thousand years before us!

 At 10:00 a.m. on 4th January 1992 (my birthday – I completed 45) we stood in line and deposited our passports in the mud hut office. There was nothing to do till 5 p.m. A day wasted. But then we had also wasted a day when we had crossed over from Morocco to Algeria many days ago. And that was in a civilized, trafficked region, not the middle of the desert.

We mingled around. Met travelers headed south, same as us. Met others going north, from where we had come. We exchanged desert news about sandstorms, water, Tuaregs.

Everybody who spoke English was a first time traveler and could tell us only about where they had been. So we were more interested in travelers going north, since they had come from the south where we were headed.

Around 15:00 (3.p.m.) we saw a sight that left us breathless as well as scared the shit out of us. We saw a line of more than a hundred camels coming from the south. They were ridden by Tuaregs. Each Tuareg was wearing two bullet carrying cross-belts across his chest, and an AK47 slung over his shoulder. Each Tuareg camel rider had another camel behind him loaded with supplies.

The Tuaregs ignored everything in sight and went on as if we did not exist. In fact, apart from us Indian KiHo gang, there were maybe 50 -70 other people and vehicles. Everybody in Borne just stood or sat wherever he or she was and gaped at them. The Tuaregs did not stop or try to make any sort of contact with the people at Borne. Tauregs disdain civilization. They have no use for it.

Everybody kept looking after them till they were out of sight. It was almost two hours since I first sighted them coming from the south till they were out of sight on the northern horizon.

By now it was 17:00 (5.p.m.), time to get our stamped passports back. We trooped into the mud house and lined up.

As the six of us passed the counter 0ne-by-0ne, thru my interpreter I asked one officer: “We saw more than 60 Tuaregs who passed by in the last two hours. They came from the south and went north. What about their passports?”

“Eh? Passports?” he replied, “They are Tuareg. They don’t believe in passports”.

“Then why are you checking and stamping our passports?” I asked.

“You came here because you wanted our stamp. We didn’t force you to come. You could just as well drive past like those Tuaregs. We wouldn’t stop you”, he replied.

“Eh?” I said, “Are they from Algeria or from Niger? Which country citizen are they?”

“Look, you stoopid Hindu” he told my Indian Muslim interpreter, “You said there were more than sixty Tuareg. How many are WE?”

“Four”, I said. There were four uniformed officers in that mud hut.

“You think four of us having revolvers can ask 60 Tuareg having AK47 for their passport? They are Tuareg. They have no nationality. They can be from wherever the desert is: Algeria, Niger, Mali, Libya, Chad, Morocco, Sudan, even Egypt, wherever. Borders mean nothing to Tuaregs.

“But just outside this mud hut there is a Jeep with a machine gun mounted, what about that?” I said.

“We have never used it. We cannot use it. There are no bullets. It is just a symbol. We are here for just two weeks on a ‘Punishment Posting’. The Jeep with the gun is to assure travelers like you that this is Algeria. We are Algerian, they are Tuareg.”

Today in 2013, I understand that the Tuaregs of the Sahara are like the Tribals of Bastar in Chhattisgadh state of India. It is their land. They have a right to live on it as they wish. In India it is a clash between the industrial class and the tribal class. It is about ‘so-called’ development. It is about ‘so-called’ economics. The clash between the Bedouins and the Tuaregs is different. It is NOT about development or economics, because in this great desert there can be no development. It is a clash of civilizations: Algerian versus Tuareg. Both Muslim, but cannot see eye-to-eye.

In the desert, borders are notional, even irrelevant, and as the officer at the mud hut had told us: even stamping our passports was optional.

We collected our passports and returned to where our GD240 Jeep and KiHos were parked. There was nothing to do but sleep the night out like we had done yesterday.

We had to start at daybreak, cover the 20 odd km of soft sand, reach Assamakka and lodge our passports at 10:00 a.m. to enter Republic of Niger.

At daybreak on 5th January 1992 we were up and away. The KiHos were technically sound and performing. No problem at all. But the sand was too soft. Even the GD240 Jeep was getting stuck because it had to go slow. It could go faster, but it could not leave the KiHos behind. It was our support vehicle. Without the Jeep this trip would not have been possible.

0ne thing I had learnt when I made the Tamanghrassset check point to InGuezzam trip with the kidnappers on 31st December 1991, was that the faster you go the lesser you get stuck and can keep up your speed. But this was my experience in the back seat of a four-wheeled car.

The KiHos were a totally different ball game. The sand was so soft that we just could not ride the scooters and had to walk with the scooters, engine running and wheels turning, which in the soft sand was extremely tiring. We had to stop every 20 feet to catch our breath. There were occasions when we had to actually lift up the scooters, carry them some distance till the sand offered some firmness. Two of us would hold the ends of the front and rear mudguards and the other two would give support to the middle from the sides. This was not only extremely tiring it was also quite painful for the palms. We wore gloves to protect our palms from cuts, but the gloves got torn.

 

We even considered letting our GD240 Jeep go ahead and lodge our passports at Assamakka, but decided against it. What if one of the scooters developed a problem? What about water – which was in Jerry Cans in our Jeep? The thought of being even an hour away from water was more painful and terrifying than being away from your beloved forever!

In the event it took us the whole day of 5th January 1992 to cover the 20 km, and could not lodge our passports at the Assamakka border post for entering Republic of Niger. We camped a short distance away from the mud hut that served as the check post cum residence of border officials.

On the morning of 6th January 1992 we lodged our passports at Assamakka and waited the whole day as we had done at Borne. The weather, atmosphere and ambience at Assamakka, was exactly the same as at Borne.

We got our passports back in the evening and camped the night at Assamakka as we had at Borne.

We set out from Assamakka on the morning of 7th January 1992. We were headed for Arlit, 230 km southeast.

You are here: Autobiography Across the Sahara Desert on Kinetic Honda scooter. Chapter 11

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