Out there in the desert you knew you were in trouble when you started to listen to the beat of your own heart. I had nothing to do to occupy myself and began to consider my body as a ticking time-bomb. I procured a medical dictionary which fuelled my hypochondria and spent many hours perusing the list of potentially disastrous diseases, conditions, syndromes and malignities that I might contract. Eventually I went across the sandy compound to visit Doc. Hand, a tall white-haired man with a thin distinguished face and a remote deadpan air. He examined me thoroughly, listening carefully to my chest with his stethoscope and after his check-up he slowly and thoughtfully put his things away and, still without a word, he sat down beside me on the couch. He began to speak (or rather reminisce) in a considering tone:
– You know, I have been working in these god-forsaken camps in deserts, jungles or tundra for nearly thirty years so you can imagine how much I have earned and put away; I have a big fat bank account in Switzerland which is getting compound interest every year … but I would give at least half of I have ever earned … (and he paused, gravely and I was dry-mouthed with worry and suspense) … to possess a heart like yours! What you do have is a touch of anxiety which is not uncommon with under-employed people like yourself. (He was a bit of a comedian, was the Doc).
Let me just mention some of the fauna that lived in and around the camp and station. There were the jackals that one could see at times loping along on the perimeter. These dog/wolves in their desert camouflage used to hunt in packs, silent and predatory. The one and only time that I went jogging in the cool of the evening along the buried line to the first marker, four or five of these creatures gave me the scare of my life. After leaving the compound I settled into a sort of shambling jog along the track already regretting my undertaking, my only consolation being that there was no one to witness the ridiculous spectacle of a rather uncoordinated young man scurrying along the piste, exporting the habit of an under-exercised and flabby urban society to this spare, lean hard place; no one, that is, except for the silent jackals who were accompanying me from a distance. As I approached the brightly-painted marker, which was set into a little cairn of small rocks, it seemed to me that they were getting closer and bolder. I increased my pace and finally reached the marker, panting and dripping with sweat. The pack stopped also about twenty metres away and milled around indecisively. Although a confirmed coward, I gathered some rocks from the cairn with a beating heart and in desperation I decided to sell my life dearly. The stand-off lasted for about six minutes before those curs swung their noses away and slunk off into the sudden desert dusk.
Then there were various bugs, cockroaches, black sand-beetles, lizards, poisonous snakes and scorpions.
The cockroach and I were old acquaintances from the north. I had a theory that cockroaches were essentially urban creatures, specializing in hotel bedrooms. Certainly the largest cockroach that I had ever seen before in my life was in a hotel room in Constantine. This über-roach was marching insouciantly along the edge of a wall. I gave it a long steady blast of spray, the sort of blast that would wipe out an average ant-colony, but it only served to slow the creature down; this was no time to be squeamish so I stunned it with an empty beer bottle and then squashed it under the heel of my boot and put it outside the door to be collected with the rest of the rubbish.
I personally never caught a glimpse of the small deadly desert adders but I’d come across their delicate tracks in the sand, side-winding up the face of a dune. Lizards would nest under our cabins in the shade as would scorpions.
(To be continued)