We are deep in the desert. We left our car some way back and now we are toiling forwards on foot. We have no water left. It’s about 40˚C and the air roils and shimmers with oily heat. Menna raises a shaking finger to point out some mirage on the horizon, but it is already too late for Matilda. She lets out a long gasping moan, drops to her knees, then collapses dead to the floor.
“I think your death rattle should be louder.” Says Arthur, “Like gargling and choking at the same time. Let me try.”
After we have practiced our desert deaths, we climb pyramids and race down their faces, bounding, falling, rolling, sliding, filling our pockets and pants and ears with sand. We take perspective shots of Matilda holding tiny people. We carefully dig up the bones of a dead snake like paleontologists unearthing a ichthyosaur. We climb the highest dunes and stare philosophically out at swirling sand vistas.
There’s something primeval as we look out on the dunescape, no evidence of civilisation in any direction. We talk about nomadic people – Bedouins, Aborigines, Touaregs, Berbers, Tusken Raiders – and imagine their harsh existence. A slight frisson of fear grips us all. We are deep in the desert and we have no water left. Something could easily go wrong: the car might not start; Arthur might break a leg; I might have to stagger back to civilisation with the snake-bitten corpses of my family draped over my shoulders.
It is films that have shaped our perception of the desert. We have all cried at that bit in English Patient when he leaves her in the cave and treks off for help across the sands. Those nightmares I got after watching Frank Herbert’s Dune are still buried somewhere deep in my cerebellum. Arthur remembers droids wandering in that endless desert of Tattoine, carrying Leia’s hologram onwards to Luke.
“How did we get into this mess” C3PO whines, “We seem to be made to suffer”.
The car does start. It’s like a furnace inside though and we nearly pass out before the air-con kicks in. We still have no water left but it’s ok, we’ll top up in the next town. It’s only ten klicks away. First we must navigate this worn sandy B-road though that winds around the edge of the desert. It’s tough driving – the sort I was born for: slaloming the pot holes, swerving drifts, hitting the sand bank with my back wheels to skid the car pleasingly around that tight corner; off-roading round ridges of sun-buckled asphalt. I judge my limits by the colour of Menna’s knuckles as she grips her roof handle. Faster! Find the apex! BRAKE!
A dune has swallowed the road. It is of a size that will not be summited by our fake SUV that shamefully doesn’t actually have true 4×4. Can we go around? I watched Laurence of Arabia when I was a kid, I found it long and boring but what stuck with me is the immensity of that desert landscape. Once you were in it, it went on forever.
We leave the car and scout on foot. We test the firmness of the terrain. All around us are ridges, folds and valleys of soft fine sand that sink underfoot and probably hide the rusted skeletons of a whole junkyard of sunken vehicles. A small patch of tarmac re-emerges on the far side of the dune but it leads only to the foot of another sand mountain, and after that all traces of road disappear. The highway has been entirely reclaimed by the desert.
It appears we have no option but to retrace our steps for a good 30km and then take the long road northwards around the desert. It will add three hours onto our journey, which was already due to take up most of the day. Our mouths are dry and it’s annoying that we have no water.
But what is this? A saloon car in the distance, pulling off the highway, taking a direct line into the heart of the desert. Madness lies ahead! We roar forwards, flashing headlines, waving, honking. The desert traveller stops and slowly reverses. A creased hardboiled type emerges from the driver’s door, all burnt skin and wild hair. Shadowy faces peer out of the darkened rear windows. We talk.
‘We are lost. The road disappears. We cannot go on! Is there another way to Natal?’ I say in Spanish.
The response comes in fast, elliptic, take-no-prisoners Portuguese. It is entirely incomprehensible. His hands move with his words though and I try to read their story instead: ‘There is a path,’ they seem to say, ‘It is long and dangerous. Listen carefully. You must go somewhere over there, then curve at this point here. Make sure not to take the wrong fork when you see this. Go on for a long way until you come to that. And then you will be safe my friend. God speed.’
Then he climbs back in his car and zooms off into the desert.
‘Obrigado!’ we shout. We wave, then we turn to each other and have a hurried conference. A decision is made. We leap back into the car and set off at full speed on the tail of our newfound friend. We have no idea where he is going, but we know that we don’t want to lose him. He is a local Bedouin, a man of the desert, and he alone can navigate these shifting sands. We, on the other hand, have no water and if we get lost here we will certainly die.
For an hour or more we wind our way deeper and deeper into the desert. We follow a winding path between sand drifts, just firm enough to support our vehicle but with no room for error. Our wheels spin at times when we stray too wide on a curve and sink into soft sand. We have to stop and rev in order to make it over ridges. Conversation dries up inside the car. We are all fixed on the guide vehicle, floating somewhere ahead, a ghost in the shimmering heat.
In the Good the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood is a prisoner dying of thirst, dragged deep into the scorching sands by an outlaw with a pink parasol. His cracked face is like a desert landscape in itself as he slowly dries out with every step. And here we are, hitched to a white sedan, lines of thirst starting to etch themselves on our faces too, as we are driven deeper, deeper into the desert.
We see skulls half buried in the sand. We have no water. We neither know the way forwards nor nor the way back. Onwards we go, following strangers down invisible roads, our destination unknown, our time running out. Small players in some grand sweeping epic.
Where do we go, we who wonder this Wasteland in search of our better selves?Mad Max