memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘Sahara desert’

The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.

THE SUN ROSE TO GREET US LIKE A DRAWN SWORD

Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were urinating only once a day – time for some salt pills!

The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minerals.These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked Jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.

THE SUN ROSE TO GREET US LIKE A DRAWN SWORD

Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were pissing only once a day – time for some salt pills! The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minirals.

These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

The Water Hole

One morning, just to vary things, I suggested that that the three of us go out to the centre of the compound in the full sun with our French-Impressionist straw-hats that the camp-boss had bought for us in the market on one of his weekly shopping trips to Biskra, to discuss the meaning of life and stuff while we waited for the plane from Algiers to arrive.

What Dan would do was to pass low over the camp and dip his wings as a signal of arrival before landing the little seven-seat Cessna at the landing strip which was about half a kilometre away. As he passed over we turned in his direction, took off our hats and bowed gravely.

Meanwhile someone would grab a jeep and speed out there in a cloud of sand to meet it. This time the plane carried, as well as the usual inter-office mail and equipment, my boss in company with a vice-president of the company and his wife. This VIP from America was making a tour of inspection of the stations in the company of his wife. Oops.

My boss took me to one side:

–          Tom, uh, what’s the status on the layoff of these, uh, nationals?

–          Well Walt, as you know, the local Labour Unions are digging in their heels a bit on this one; they’re insisting that ex-freedom fighters be the last to go …

–          Yah, well Tom, just try to convince them that as, uh, the Commissioning date is approaching, we’ll be needing fewer workers etc. etc…. meanwhile,  Tom, while I take Mr. Davis down to the station to meet with the Chief Site Engineer why don’t you take Mrs. Davis in the jeep and kinda show her around the place.

So there I was sitting in the jeep with this pleasant middle-aged matron, showing her around the place. The high-lights of the tour, the mess hall, the electricity generator and the warehouse took approximately 10 minutes to cover.

Then I had a brain-wave – why not show her the water-hole. About three hundred metres from the camp, the track dipped slightly to reveal a rectangular stone-lined pool of dark water in the shade of some small palm trees.

There had been water in that place since time immemorial, but when the company planned to construct a compressor-station in this location, one of the first things they did was to drill down deep into the sand to re-bore and enlarge the spring so that it could supply water for the station and the camp. In the fullness of time water was piped from the nearest town to supply the site and the houses of the future operators of the station after it was commissioned and handed over to SONATRACH.

Anyway we edged quietly forward and parked under the trees. What we had come to see was this: a large crowd of men were waiting, mostly in silence, for their turn to fill up at the water hole. Local Arabs from the surrounding villages were mixed with tribesmen from the Desert. A few villagers had old battered pickups, but most had their mules or camels. What most of them used for containers were the inner-tubes of old truck tires, cut in half, then tied at each end like huge black sausages and finally loaded across the backs of the hapless donkeys or the patient camels. We watched them in silence for five minutes; I glanced at her to see whether or not she was impressed – she was. Then out came one of the most inane questions that I had ever heard in my life:

Gee, Tom, whatever do these people do all day?

I struggled to conceal my irritation and replied:

they are sitting waiting patiently to fill up with water – that’s what they do all day. The big question is what are we doing here, watching them?

Dan the Man

STATION C – SAHARA – 1978

One evening in the bar a newcomer was lounging at a table, a bottle of vodka in front of him with three other hairy pipe-liners playing five-card stud poker. It was the Company pilot, Dan. He was an American in his early forties with a youthful face, prematurely white hair and cold eyes. He was a bit of a hard case and there was a rumour that he had flown helicopters in Vietnam; an old leather combat flying-jacket on the back of his chair testified to this. I knew why he was here: he’d brought a senior engineer down from Algiers and then in the morning he was flying down to Station A to collect another engineer to return to Algiers.

As it happened I needed to go down there myself and drifted diffidently across to the table (where I usually played myself) Tom, said one of H.P-Ls, do you know Dan and he said pull up a chair and let’s play cards. As a matter of fact is it OK if I hitch a ride with you down to A tomorrow? Sure, no sweat old sport. Then he proceeded to efficiently relieve us of our easily earned Dinard allowance.

The next morning we rode to out the air-strip where the little twin-prop aircraft had been tethered, guarded by a handful of nationals seated round their fire. Dan didn’t look so boyish in the cruel sunlight, (neither did I for that matter – eyes like piss-holes in the snow). The mechanic fiddled with the engines while Dan settled into his pilot’s seat. I was the only passenger and he waved me forward to the co-pilot’s place: ready to rock and roll, sport? He took a swig from his half-bottle of vodka and then, without even bothering to taxi, just took off and climbed to about five hundred feet before levelling out and taking another comfortable swig he passed the bottle over to me and, though it was only 10.00 in the morning, I also took a shot. I was getting a buzz off the experience; you know the scene in all those movies of the small plane flying over the desert, its shadow sliding beneath you? Well, I’ve actually done-that-been there-bought the T-shirt. Dan produced a ready-rolled smoke from his vest pocket, lit it and took a couple of hissing gulping drags before handing it over to me. The dope made him talkative. He told me of his time in the ‘Nam; he flew choppers during the Tet Offensive, ferrying in fresh meat and taking out dead meat to and from the combat-zone.

There was a caravan of loaded camels plodding along in their swaying majestic way beneath us … let’s go check out those rag-heads down there, said Dan, and he banked his wings and went into a shallow dive over them – the stately Berbers took no notice.

Next he offered me a half share in a worm-farm in his native Missouri. It’s a sound business, he urged, my uncle already has the half-field we would need. We throw in $500 each for start-up equipment (six large tin boxes with gauze lids, two dozen prime worms and a few lumps of cheese) and they just reproduce themselves in the dark; my uncle would harvest the worms once a month and sell them from his farm-shop. I reckon that in a year we could get a return on our investment, and then … (he carried on with his ramble) … I also drifted away in my thoughts as we flew over the sand. It came to me that in the olden days in the southern provinces of China people would do the following: they would take a small carved wooden box with a lid, throw in a dozen maggots and a lump of cheese, close the lid and then put it aside on a shelf and wait for about a week. Upon opening up the box there was a single giant maggot, the champion of champions – a great fat über-maggot measuring six inches long – cook’s delight. Hasten to the kitchen, slice it finely into little roundels, lightly fry in butter, season with salt, pepper and a touch of garlic, a sprig of parsley and voila ... caravans … caravanserai was a lodging on the silk road

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose portals are alternate Night and Day,                                                                            

 How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

 Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

We came down to earth at Station A with a bump – Station A, what a dump! It made Station C seem as though it was set in a Swiss valley. It was situated in a totally flat and featureless place and on that particular day a vicious little wind whipped up miniature twisters in the dusty compound.

Life in the Sahara

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).

WHERE AM I - PAINTING BY THOMAS MILNER

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)

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