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Hotel Campement, Timbuktu
Hans returned just before supper, which was set up at long tables in the courtyard. He will not discuss his camel ride. He had asked me earlier which end goes down first. The front end, I told him. Burmeister thinks the camel may have pulled a switch.
Timbuktu is a village of mud huts and has changed little in the past 150 years, said Dr. Wellard, who took us on a walking tour. No European knew what lay south of the Sahara until 1826, when a Scotsman, Major Alexander Gordon Laing, decided to find the "fabled city" as it had been described in scattered reports. Laing set off on foot from Tripoli, progressed into unfriendly Hoggar country and across the frightful Tanezrouft Desert, where he was attacked by his own Tuareg escort. "His survival," said Dr. Wellard, as we stood before the house where he lived, "was due to the poor quality of Tuareg weapons, and his own willpower." Laing described his wounds in a letter to his father-in-law: "All fractures, from which most of the bone has come away. One cut on my left cheek, which fractured the jawbone and has divided the ear, a very unsightly wound; one over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe." It took Laing over a year to reach Timbuktu, where he stayed for a little more than a month. His last letter, on being ordered to leave, had an ominous message: "I regret to say the road is a vile one." He was never to travel it, for word had gone out to "destroy the infidel," and Laing was murdered a night or so later. Fortunately, travelers are no longer dispatched by the locals. The courtyard, around which our Moorish-style hotel was built, even boasted a flower bed, bordered by empty beer bottles stuck head down in the sand.
Florence has lost her hat. Burmeister said, "The manager will sell it back to her just before we leave." In the meantime, we have met the Minitrekkers.
Lindblad had contracted with London-based Minitrek Travels Ltd. for six Land Rovers and a truck. The British crew, or "campmasters," as they called themselves, included 34-year-old Mike Foster, leader of the expedition, four drivers, two driver-mechanics and two female cooks.
"From here on in, we're in British territory," said Burmeister, "and I don't know which will impress them most, my Harvard blazer or my athletic sweater from Holy Cross." Expedition equipment was being doled out in the courtyard of the hotel: sleeping bags, pillows, boxes of tissue called Babysoft, canteens and flashlights. We now each possessed three flashlights, but Africa is not called the Dark Continent for nothing. Mike made a speech about what we could expect from his crew and the Land Rovers. "Your drivers have all been here before and will be happy to answer questions, but please don't ask dumb questions if you see them cursing and sweating through a bad stretch of sand. Up at daybreak, please. Use a minimum of water and don't set your lunch plates on the wings [fenders] or boots [trunks] of the vehicles." Dr. John made a speech about lime-flavored salt tablets and invited us to show him whatever pills we might have brought along. Florence, who is married to a surgeon, had a sackful of samples. George was invited to demonstrate how to get into a sleeping bag and to say a few words. He said, "Once we leave Timbuktu, we'll really be in the desert."
Evelyn Stein spoke up. "Out on the desert, where do we uh—I mean...."
"Every evening we shall set up a loo tent," replied Mike quickly.
"Last year it blew away," said George.
After the meeting the manager announced that for our final dinner at the Hotel Campement we would be served roast sheep. There was no doubt that it was sheep, for it was still whole, having lost only its wool, and was sizzling on a skewer as it was lugged out by three waiters wrapped in tribal robes. The idea was to tear off hunks and eat them.