Gold Award in Adventure Travel: Of Desert Nomads and Whales

By James Dorsey

From the back of a camel the Sahara seemed endless; an infinite sea of low rolling dunes baked by a swirling sun that would be at home in a Van Gogh painting.

For one month I had been immersed in Berber Tuareg culture, traveling through Mali, as one of the famed blue men, on the trans-Saharan caravan routes they had operated for over 2000 years. We carried no maps, GPS, or satellite phones, navigating only by landmarks, intuition, and the inbred sense of direction that is part of nomadic DNA.

They were fierce desert warriors, straight out of central casting, lords of the desert; the bane of any bandits who crossed their path, and they had allowed me to enter their world.

Tuaregs are called the “Blue men” usually because of the indigo robes and turbans, (called a tagelmoust) they wear, but the real reason stems from the fact that they use the ink of sea urchins to create this luminous color, and after time it permeates the pores of their skin, rendering them permanently blue. They range across several countries in North Africa, and call the desert by a different name in each place. Sahara is a term used only by westerners.

When a friend put me in touch with a Tuareg nobleman who lived near Timbuktu, he was taken aback by my request to live and travel among them, but readily agreed, as intrigued by me as I was by him. How would these nomadic Muslims, a unique sect of Islam in which only the men cover their faces, react to me, a white, western Christian, entering their world?

My thoughts immediately recalled the journey of Sir Richard Burton who disguised as a wandering beggar, became the first white outsider to enter Mecca as a pilgrim in 1852. Had he been discovered, he would have forfeited his life. While I had no illusions of my trip being anywhere near as dangerous as that of Sir Richard, it was still pushing the envelope a bit. I am after all, an infidel.

My Tuareg contact, Halis, was tall and dignified with an air of self-confidence that preceded him. His blue robes were trimmed with gold, denoting his standing within the Tuareg hierarchy, and he wore the silver medallion around his neck which the Berbers refer to as their passport, a talisman that wards off evil while announcing the travelers’ native village. His word put me at ease regarding my acceptance or rejection by his fellow tribesmen, informing me they would consider my attire to be a compliment.

His cousin, Mahmoud, would drive us into the desert where we would meet our mounts, and I found him to be a friendly but somewhat feral man whose scarred face betrayed a hard life. In the days ahead I learned that Mahmoud slept with one eye open and his knife half drawn at the hint of any intrusion, deciding that in the desert, these were admirable qualities. In their combined company I felt secure because when a Tuareg gives his word, he will die for it. We drove from Timbuktu to the crumbling former foreign legion outpost of Arawan, about 100 miles north, now a watering stop for caravans hauling salt from the northern mines near Tademmi, south to Timbuktu. Stepping out of the Land Rover in my blue robes, I was welcomed by a young Tuareg who simply walked over to me and with a slight bow, handed me the reign to a camel.

That evening I sat around a small fire, wrapped in blue and surrounded by desert warriors, eating seared goat and rice with our fingers in a scene unchanged since the time of Christ. Except for Halis, they spoke their native Tamasheq and a few spoke French while I spoke neither and did not care. They were men of few words and I needed none. I had entered a society I had thought closed to me and was absorbed in the moment.

The following morning we left by camel to complete a wide arcing circle of the southern Sahara, visiting numerous nomad camps along the way. By the end of the first day my camel had already bitten me on the leg and showered me with urine, but I learned quickly how to control him and was soon mounting and dismounting as though born to it. At each new nomad camp I was immediately served sweet tea as custom demands, and taken to see the head man, and always treated as a Tuareg without reservation.

I expected at all times to be inundated with questions about the outside world, especially about the United States, but realized these people live such an isolated existence that their world and curiosity extended no further than the immediate needs of the day. Where I came from and who I was did not matter. The words America and airplane had no meaning for them. I was just an outsider from many days’ ride away, but now I was now one of the tribe, helping with daily chores, tending to camels, and listening to ancient tales around the occasional evening camp fire. Rolled in my robes, I slept the sleep of the dead under the desert stars.

The contrast with my own society was overwhelming. While those of us who live in the west spend most of our waking hours in front of one sort of electronic screen or another, these people found joy in the tiniest, most intimate moments, particularly in relating funny stories or retelling oral histories. It is a simple life, free of stress and full of laughter, a daily search for the spiritual and a way of life unchanged in two thousand years. By the end of the second day, I was already questioning my own material values.

Though they were primarily Muslims, they had no reservations about having this Christian infidel in their midst. To them I was just another traveler, and the law of the desert required them to offer me hospitality which they did freely. I found this to be more Christian than many who simply professed the faith without applying right action.

It struck me that I never saw any of them openly praying as I had expected, and when I finally got the nerve to approach the subject with Halis, he patted his heart and said “God lives within here. I pray all day long.” When I told him that was my own approach to religion, he just smiled lightly and said, “I know.”

On our final day, the three of us were approaching the outskirts of Timbuktu, Halis looking every inch the Tuareg nobleman on his amber colored camel, myself in the middle, and Mahmoud; hand on his dagger hilt, scanning for trouble.

I spotted a man standing on a wall, spotlessly dressed head to toe as an ad for REI. The two cameras around his neck identified him as a tourist, and he was raising his long lens directly towards us. Without thinking I held up my hand and called loudly, “Cadou! Cadou!” meaning, “Give me money if you want my photograph.” It was common enough among poor local people to ask for a few coins in such a situation, but why I did it so reflexively I just cannot say, other than I was caught up in the moment.

Halis immediately picked up on what I was doing and began to laugh softly under his tagelmoust.

The startled photographer jumped off the wall, fumbling through his pockets, then shyly approached me with a coin. I made a great show of examining it, holding it up to the light, and even biting it as I had seen in a movie long ago. Finally tucking it into the folds of my robe, I stood tall in the saddle, striking my best warrior pose and said, “OK, take photo!” The man clicked away as the three of us rode past him, with Halis no longer able to control his laughter and even Mahmoud giggling under his breath.

That poor gentleman who thought he had just taken a National Geographic photo of a lord of the desert will never know he had just shot a middle-aged white guy from Los Angeles.

The three of us arrived at my hotel, laughing so hard that tears now streaked Halis’ face. We parted ways with plans to re-unite that evening for a farewell dinner, my thank you for such an amazing journey, and I spent most of the afternoon thinking of a proper tip to give Halis and Mahmoud, realizing they most likely would prefer receiving a goat instead of money, when a truly original idea struck me.

I was carrying a portable hard drive full of photos of whales I had taken on a previous trip to Mexico. I doubted either of these desert nomads who lived in a land-locked country had ever seen the ocean let along a whale, so when they arrived I plugged my hard drive into the tiny 12 inch black and white television and there in a Timbuktu hotel, proceeded to show them dozens of whale photos.

These two hardened warriors, with daggers stuck in their waist bands, sat cross legged on my bed, giggling like small children at recess, yelling at each new image, pointing at the screen, and poking each other with unabashed glee. They bounced up and down and I was overjoyed at their unexpected exuberance. They were particularly taken with the shots of 40 ton whales breaching, and asked how could they do this?

With nothing to compare this to they called them big fish, and when they asked how large they really were, I recalled that we had crossed the Niger river together and had seen hippopotamus; I added that the whales were many times larger, but am not sure they believed me.

They stared in open mouthed amazement, not only at the photos of whales, but equally at the fact that I could put such pictures on an electronic screen. For these men who mixed Islam with superstition, desert myth, and ancient ceremony, what I was giving them was tantamount to magic.

We were having such a great time that when we finished, the local restaurants were closed but it did not matter. We all embraced with oaths of eternal friendship and I watched as they walked off into the humid night, chattering like jaybirds until becoming silhouettes against the mud city.

I went to my bed smiling, grateful for the surreal worlds we had introduced each other to, and felt it was a great exchange.


James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer with extensive travels in 44 countries. Most of his journeys are far off the beaten path to record indigenous cultures. His first book is entitled “Tears, Fear and Adventure.” His second book, “Dancing with Dinosaurs” is scheduled for a 2013 release. He is a frequent contributor to the The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Perceptive Travel, and Wavelength magazine. He has had features in BBC Wildlife, Natural History, Wend, Sea Kayaker, Ocean, and International Living magazines. His work has appeared in the TravelersTales book series, plus Wild Moments, The Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, and L.A. Weekly newspapers. He is a five time SOLAS category award winner for “Best Travel Writing” Published in Canada, England, Japan, China, Dubai, Uganda, Nigeria,and Ethiopia. He is a regular contributor to the inflight magazines of Air Uganda, Air Nigeria, and Seychelles Airlines. His photos have been used by the National Wildlife Federation, Ocean Conservancy, International Cetacean Society, California Gray Whale Coalition, and the International Whaling Commission. His photos were twice chosen as Kodak Internationals “Photo of the Day.” He has appeared on National Public Radio’s “Weekend America” is a Fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.
WEBSITE: www.jamesdorsey.com

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