A CAMEL CALLED JIMI HENDRIX
The narrow, twisting road carves through the canyons. Straightening after the corner, I gun the throttle, the Honda Africa Twin propelling me into the white glare, the shattered rocks and crumbling earth passing in a blur. This land is deserted, any living creature stunned by the heat. I haven’t clapped eyes on a soul for hours when two motorcyclists appear round the next bend, their bikes blocking the route. I squeeze the front brake, easing down the gears.
One of the riders grasps a map between outstretched arms, a couple of shepherd boys craning their necks for a better view of it. His colleague turns in lazy circles, drawing on a cigarette. I pull up beside them and cut the engine. They are both from Germany, our lack of each others language meaning we exchange only simple pleasantries. Their names are Klaus and Steiner, they say, as I run an eye over both their bikes. The two BMWs brim with panniers, bags and all manner of spare tyres and equipment. For a moment I wonder if a van might have better served their purpose.
“Gorge du Todra?” Klaus questions, the map crackling quite uselessly in his hands.
I study his face, burnt puce by the sun, the skin already flaking. “It’s this way,” I say, raising my hand.
It seems I point ahead a little too confidently, for they snatch at the chance to follow the clever Englander. Dismissing the shepherd boys, they scoop their helmets from the handlebars and strap them on. Though remounting is not so straightforward, in view of the many obstacles they’ve chosen to bring with them. Quite a lot of hopping is involved. When one of them catches the heel of his boot in the fleece draped over the seat, he has to begin all over again. Finally, with engines thumping, we exchange nods, engage first gear and our convoy gets underway.
Not much later and dusk is upon us. This road is never ending and I’m beginning to fret how my memory of this route may have failed me.
An hour later and the beam of my headlights cut through the darkness. We should definitely have reached the Todra Gorge. I’m dog tired after twelves hours in the saddle.
The tarmac road peters out and lights glimmer up ahead. As the dust rises thickly from the wheels two characters perched on a rock beside the track emerge out of the gloom. There are many rocks all around us; in fact, many more rocks than lights. I flip open the helmet’s visor, suspecting the ‘clever Englander’ is about to eat a large slice of humble pie, for somewhere back along the road I’ve missed the turning for the Todra Gorge. The dust is thick in my nose as I pull out the map and peel it open. The Germans dismount behind me and both take a moment to smoke a cigarette, head torches beaming from their foreheads, so that in all this dust, cigarette smoke and confusion they appear like two steam-powered locomotives that have slipped the rails.
The collection of lights in the near distance represent the settlement of Rich; there is no place there for us to stay, the two characters watching us from the rocks tell us. We take their advice and head for Er Richidia. It’s a further sixty kilometres riding that I really don’t need.
On the approach to Er Rachidia my bike coughs twice and finally stalls. By now I’m out of fuel and I let it coast to a halt at the roundabout. Dropping it on the side-stand, I unlash the five litre container. While emptying the contents into the tank, a youth comes to stand beside me, ash from his cigarette tumbling perilously close to the fuel. His name is Mohamed, he tells me and I ask him if he knows where we might find a campsite.
“Why don’t you stay here?’ he asks, pointing to a thick hedge adjacent to the roundabout.
“We want a proper campsite,” I tell him.
“It’s way out of town,’ he says. “But my uncle has a hotel.”
A hotel. I give him a long hard look as I weigh up this gem of information. “D’you speak German?” I ask.
“Then go and tell those two.”
After consulting with my two companions Mohamed hops aboard, juggling various bits of luggage to make room for himself. Yeehaa!, he calls over my shoulder and soon we lose ourselves down the backstreets of Er Richidia, eventually arriving at a line of dilapidated buildings. The uncle’s hotel is simply appalling. The bed is a soiled mattress pushed against the wall. The walls are smeared with dirt. I know the toilet is at the end of the corridor because the stench is already crawling all over me.
Back outside and a drunk is shouting at us like a mad man, quite beyond conciliation. This town is starting to jangle my nerves. We tell Mohamed to take us to another hotel and all of us get back on the bikes. His search leads to a narrow, seedy-looking street, a veritable ‘Mugger’s Alley’. Sand lies thickly on the ground - all the better for soaking up the blood, I muse darkly. I’m now very glad of the Germans’ company. We stick the bikes in a lock-up and prey they’ll still be there in the morning.
It’s 22.00 hrs by the time Mohamed directs us to a restaurant he knows. The town is now deserted and so is the restaurant. Klaus has dressed for dinner in a fresh T-shirt and stiff leather trousers laced with thong up the outside leg. He creaks like a rusty hinge as we tread the streets. He could be a figure of fun, except a wood-handled dagger pokes from the right boot.
In the restaurant the waiter places a communal dish of cooked vegetables in the centre of the table and, between spoonfuls of couscous, we take turns chasing the small, rubbery carcass through a greasy brown sauce. I ask what it is?
“It’s a chicken,” Mohamed replies.
Steiner scoffs at our host’s assertion, repeating the same word over and over, until even Mohamed shakes his head. The German tugs an electronic language translator from his pocket, stabs the keys and thrusts the screen in front of me. SPARROW, it reads in big, red letters.
“Nah, it’s not that small,” I say. I want to tell him it’s a starling, but fear that by the time I’ve finished typing the word they’ll have eaten it all.
Mohamed turns out to be the local entrepreneur. He’s waited all evening for this moment and now that he has our undivided attention he unfurls his wares: beer, wine, cigarettes, fine women, a spliff of marijuana - anything we might desire can be ours. He even has a camel. It’s called Jimi, he announces with a flourish - Jimi the camel - named after the rock musician, Jimi Hendrix. Jigging on his chair, he thrashes the chords of a make-believe guitar crying, “Jimi … oooh, Jimi the camel … how he flies across the dunes.”
The Germans gawp at him, bewildered by this latest exchange.
“Was ist ein … Jimi-camel?” they demand. After a vigorous exchange on the electronic translator the legs on Klaus’ chair screech as he shoves it backwards.
“ Tomorrow, Ve go mit moto,” he rumbles, sounding much like his bike on tick-over. “No Kamel.”
Mohamed barely draws breath, '“Aah! but the desert without a GPS is much too dangerous,” he announces. The latest GPS device can be ours by morning.
I notice Klaus’ hand hovering close to the knife in his boot.
“Kein GPS!” he growls. By now his face has attained the familiar patchwork of loose skin and glowing scabs. “Ich habe einen Kompass!”
“Time for bed,” I announce.
Back in the hotel, I lay out and unzip the sleeping bag, considering it safer than unleashing what might be lurking between the grey sheets. I take a leaf from Klaus’ book by keeping my Winchester hunting knife within arms reach. When I lie down my stomach rumbles with hunger.
The next morning we recover our bikes from the lock-up and re-pack our gear. Children gather to watch the strange men pressing buttons on a small plastic box and gesticulating. By now we’ve learnt to hasten our conversations by employing hand signals and very short words. Klaus and Steiner are heading for Erg Chebbi and then along the Algerian border, where there is said to be a large military presence. Relations between Morocco and Algeria are presently not so good. I hope they know what they’re doing. I tell them to keep an eye out for Jimi the camel, expressing myself by mimicking a camel crossing the dunes because, quite frankly, it’s much simpler than typing it. The children giggle at my antics.
“Jimi the camel,” Klaus mumbles, shaking his head. He holds out is right hand, taking a bearing with his compass while glowering at the sun.
When I roar off on the Africa Twin, I leave the two Germans as I found them the day before. Klaus has his map taut between his hands, sweat beading his forehead, whilst his friend wanders in ever decreasing circles, a half-smoked cigarette drooping from his lips.