The White City of Zerzura
The starter whined and died again. Gordon jumped out and kicked the front tyre, rattling the raised bonnet. He flung a stone at the door of the four-by-four, and was pleased to see a shiny patch appear among the rusty chips. In this endless desert, there was plenty of black shale and he practised target skills on the vehicle, for half an hour. Surveying the damage, he smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. Westward lay the barren yellow hills, south of Baharia Oasis with their black caps of ironstone, and the sun was already tumbling towards them, through a red sky. In thirty minutes, it would be as dark as the inside of a Berber tent and then the cold would come. Below zero, cold contracted the naked rocks as swiftly as daytime sun expanded them, shattering them into pieces.
His only shelter was this heap of metal; his bedding was a change of light gear and a thin jacket. Momentarily he wished that one of his girlfriends was with him, with the huge case of sweatshirts, so essential for their holidays. He snorted. He was better off without greedy females. All they wanted was sex and the good life, and gossip with their girlie friends about his prowess in both fields. He, meanwhile, worked tough assignments, currently supervising drilling on an offshore rig in the Red Sea. That was real, that was work requiring brawn, mental agility, and fair dealing among the varied nationalities.
The last was his speciality, but it earned him little praise from fellow expats. While they boasted beerily about days off in the Cairo fleshpots, Gordon marched round the rig's helipad inventing challenges for himself. When he started this tour of the Western Desert, the owner of the cheap car-hire service in Baharia Oasis warned him.
'Do not go off-roading, sir. You are needing a proper guide out there, for losing is very easy. Keep to the desert road - there is only the one road - and you will soon come to Farafra Oasis. But do not stop there; it is very small.'
'I know, I know,' he had replied impatiently to the fool. 'I shall continue to Dakhla.'
'Oasis Hotel is the best in all Dakhla, sir. Ask for the brother of Ahmet of Baharia and . . .'
However, he revved up the vehicle and roared away south, on the rough tarmac road, bouncing over humps and furrows, where it had oozed in the roasting sun. Now it was hot evening, but he was shivering. He lit a fag, but the taste sickened him and he threw it impatiently towards the four-by-four, realising too late that the bonnet was still open. He leapt away as flames swept across the vehicle, and the heat singed his clothes and hair. The stench made him retch. God! That was a bloody silly thing to do. He felt his back pocket, for the reassurance of his credit cards. Cost him, but he'd plenty to repay Ahmet.
There was an unpleasant fluttering in his chest. Heart attack? Dad died young of a dicky heart, and that sort of thing runs in families. He started to sweat, but a stabbing in his gut filled him with relief: merely gippy tum. A bowel spasm took him unaware and he squatted to relieve himself, cursing himself that his medical kit was destroyed. Hunkered down he felt a slight unease. There weren't any tracks anywhere in this damn wasteland. Even his own were invisible across the miles of shale, filthy as a British slagheap. This damnable country with its endless poverty and vast deserts, a continual begging-bowl held out to wealthier nations. When he got back to civilisation this time, nothing would induce him to return. He cursed his stupid desire for challenge and adventure, as his stomach heaved again.
Then he pulled himself together. Take a grip, Gordon! I off-roaded to the east, so the road lies towards the sunset. Then the last arc of the sun slipped behind the hills. If he set off now, he'd get really lost. He made a shallow depression among the shale and endured an endless night, broken by stomach gripes and sickness. The paling of the stars and the first grey lightening of the night sky wakened unusual feelings of gratitude in him. The ineffable mystery of desert dawn: sunworshippers singing to the golden disc suddenly became comprehensible. Then, as the sun's disk rose, unwelcome reality returned. No water!
He couldn't trek across this desert without it. He looked towards the distant road: no sight or sound of traffic. Yesterday he had passed only two vehicles, and he'd been pleased, yes, pleased to be on the open road, on his own. Today a bird of prey soared on the rising thermals, watching, waiting. Yesterday he'd driven past a desiccated camel corpse. Sprawled in the shale, its rib cage was still covered with parchment skin, which had: shaded beetles, fly maggots, rats, carrion birds and foxes, as they feasted. He pushed the memory aside. He'd been in tight corners before and survived. He was sick again, retching up thin green slime. A stab of head pain made him wince: dehydration!
Still clutching his stomach, he looked up and saw heat-haze already shimmering across the desert floor. Or was that something moving? He waved and shouted at the mirage, and miraculously it transformed itself into a real camel and rider, swaying slowly towards him. The rider was droning a tuneless Berber song, doubtless the usual themes of men's virility and women's breasts. The camel's broad flat feet padded firmly over the uneven ground: left side then right side, rolling and pitching like a ship at sea. The rider gave a quiet command and his animal rocked forwards, backwards and forwards again as it sank to the ground.
He swung his leg over the pommel: faded jeans showing briefly under his long beige robe. Loosely wound around his head was a striped strip of material; its ends hanging down his back. He had the thin straggly beard of youth and sun-darkened skin: the weathered creases already deep. Thoughtfully, he wandered round the burnt-out vehicle, avoiding Gordon's excretions impassively.
'How?' he asked. At least the fellow knew some English.
'Flat battery.' Then, embarrassed, 'Mistake with fag.'
The Berber nodded. 'Belonging Ahmet of Baharia?'
Gordon nodded. 'I shall pay.' 'Of course.'
The Arab was slight, almost frail, and shorter than Gordon by half a foot but when he stared at Gordon with his protruding eyes, sweat started to run down the Englishman's back. Suddenly he was a thin eight-year old again, behind the bike sheds, in the alien territory that belonged only to school bullies.
'You go to Farafra?' asked the Arab.
'No decent hotel there. To Dakhla.'
Gordon could not control his trembling. The young man took a leather water carrier from his saddle. 'Drink. You dehydrate from sickness.'
As Gordon hesitated, he added, 'It is pure. I have added chlorine.'
Gordon swilled the liquid round his mouth before swallowing a few drops. It was still cool from the night's chilling and he felt greatly refreshed.
'Come,' beckoned the Arab, holding the camel's head for Gordon to mount.
'I'm not riding that bloody thing!' he spluttered.
The Arab waited courteously. Gordon, realising his legs were really very unsteady, approached the animal warily, in case a gob of spit was aimed accurately at him, from the cleft upper lip. The Arab supported him as the camel lurched to its feet. Gordon grabbed the pommel, his legs dangling either side of the furry hump. He had never ridden so much as a beach donkey before; it looked a very long way to the ground and was bloody uncomfortable. The Arab led his camel deeper into the desert, and Gordon's fears gushed-up, dark and powerful, from hidden depths.
Warnings of terrorists and bandits were posted round his oilrig. Malicious groups who hated western money, western influence. The Beloved of Allah were the worst, living a nomad existence which crossed country borders, and impossible to control by the Egyptian army. Their password was a Berber song of love, their preferred method of assassination, a quick knife to the ribs. But such fears were utterly outweighed by the queasiness caused by the camel's rolling gait, forcing him to concentrate all his energies into not puking down its neck. Soon he was too exhausted to care about anything but clinging on, as the animal plodded onwards and the Arab droned his everlasting monotonous songs.
At last, the young man made his camel kneel again.
'Down please,' he ordered.
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