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"There goes an Oriental slide-catcher," said Burmeister, as Hiroshi focused his camera on something indistinguishable to the rest of us. Takata pulled out a notebook and contributed some lines of beautiful Japanese script.
"Nothing is going to escape Hiroshi's lens," said Burmeister, "and Takata must be listing his slides: Grain of sand No. 1, Grain No. 2 and so forth. This trip will keep the Japanese think tank busy for years."
"The trouble is," said Evelyn Stein, "that every time I think I've found a nice, private rock to disappear behind, Hiroshi is taking pictures of it."
Darkness provided enough cover for getting out of our grimy clothes. Mike poured two inches of water into separate plastic basins, which we bore off" to wash first ourselves, then our intimate apparel. The nearest camel thornbush served as a clothesline. From atop the Land Rovers the crew unloaded the duffel bags and distributed folding cots. We chose our own sleeping sites, fanning out along the periphery of the parked vehicles, which always formed a square, bumper to tail, covered-wagon style. Hans, who hurtled out of his Land Rover the minute it stopped, always wound up with the most dung-free spot. Inside the square, Viv and Sheila, the cooks, lit the petrol stoves and got out the can openers, cranking open our evening fare.
What is this? Howard Johnson's has come to the desert? I wrote in my journal, having watched the crew set up tables and folding chairs in the sand, then string battery-run lights over the dining area. This was obviously a Lindblad touch, a bow to luxury, and the most disconcerting note of the trip. The crew ate together, separately, in a chaos of pots and pans and empty cans, jumping up to serve us, which created, intentionally or not, a master-slave relationship.
Suzanne, the ex-horse trainer, always refused soup, meat and salad, serving herself a small portion of tinned vegetables. She often refused food altogether, but everyone knew she had a secret cache of cheese and crackers in her sausage. One by one the group is coming down with the Tenere trots. Dr. John is dispensing Lomotil like confetti. He did not think pork a good idea tonight. Neither did I.
In Gao, a riverport town with a post office, word had come that two Minitrekkers, with another group in Timbuktu, had been placed under house arrest for photographing giraffe without a permit. They were awaiting the disposition of the "gendarmerie de girafe."
We were now traveling through the watered valley of the Niger, land of the tribe Peulh (pronounced Pearl), cattle breeders of the Sahara. Goats, horses, camels and cows with humps abounded, as well as a few giraffe. After the evening meal Wellard launched into his "cultural" lecture and tried to arouse interest in the group with little-known facts about the Sahara and its people "In Peulh fertility rites only the men dance, dressed and painted like women." Silence, except for the clinking of coffee cups. "More people die by drowning in the Sahara than for any other reason, washed away in, annual flash floods or by falling into wells." No response. "According to legend, there is a reason for the arrogance of the camel. The Koran lists 99 different names for Allah. Only the camel has been told the 100th. I've always thought that a rather charming story." Not a flicker. Wellard sighed and sat down, which was the cue for the group to rise and retire. Shortly, the crew followed, exhausted by the day's driving, serving and washing up. The sands of the Sahara might as well have been confined to an hourglass. Were it not for Burmeister, I think Dr. Wellard might pull a Laing and walk back to Timbuktu, preferring the perils of the desert to another evening with the group.
For all his clownishness, Burmeister was avidly interested in history and had an almost obsessive mania for collecting facts. He often had private sessions with the dispirited Dr. Wellard. Gareth was also beginning to be turned on by the trip. He had sold his T shirt and socks to buy another roll of film in Niamey.
At night the sky became a theater, lit up with shooting stars that darted out like chorus girls. Enter left, exit right. Warm in my sleeping bag, I stared up at the Plow overhead, then, waiting for the Southern Cross to appear, drifted off to sleep. Burmeister always boasted that he'd seen the Southern Cross.