Ten years ago no one with even a tentative grasp on reality and the wherewithal for a month's vacation would have thought of spending it traveling across the Sahara. Ten years ago tourists still thought going to
was a big deal. What probably killed London for the diehard tourist was David Frost jetting the Atlantic twice a week without even looking tired. Paris was amusing until it got surly. Spain acquired hippies. Portugal announced condominiums. In Russia guides follow you to the loo. The Himalayas are far out, but you have to walk, and Red China is just beginning to let us peer over the Great Wall. So why not try the Sahara for size, which is considerable, being three million square miles of true grit, or nearly one-third of the continent of Africa.
The representative from Lindblad Travel, Inc., who handled arrangements for its $3,050, 33-day Trans Sahara Expedition, was pleased to point out that this year's group was almost evenly divided, with nine women and seven men. That meant only two of the women would be up for grabs, though she didn't say so outright. "Sometimes men are afraid to sign up, for fear they'll wind up with a lot of ladies with blue hair," was how she put it. Lars-Eric Lindblad runs "luxury" tours to out-of-the-way places like the Antarctic and the Seychelles. He has a reputation for sparing no expense (it's your money), and by the time most tourists have lived long enough to accumulate the fare, the men may not have any hair at all, and the ladies are into Clairol's Silk and Silver.
According to the brochure, the Trans Sahara Expedition is one of Lindblad's more arduous trips, with his super-tourists traveling across 2,600 miles of Saharan kitty litter, from Timbuktu to Djanet, Algeria. "Although it is now possible to fly to a few isolated oases, it is only by driving, riding on camels and walking through the country that you can experience the true nature of the Sahara and its people," reads the brochure. "The nature of the Sahara imposes a degree of hardship, and members must be in good health and physically fit." Lars-Eric always makes the trip himself first, with one or two associates of his own choosing (aye, there's the rub), and if he comes back alive, off you go, with 15 or more traveling companions dealt out by a blind man spinning a roulette wheel, and equipped with a variety of items supplied by Lindblad that includes everything but a spoon with which to clean sand out of your ears. There was a brown canvas bag, or "sausage," that looked capacious enough to hold a camel and felt as if it did by the time you packed your cottons, drip-dries, the safari outfit from Abercrombie, the bush hat with mosquito netting attached, desert boots and sweaters and slacks for cold desert nights. There was also a flight bag, emblazoned with Lindblad Travel, Inc., in case you forget who got you into this, and it was packed with nail clippers, a hand brush, soap in a pink plastic container, a face cloth, a ballpoint pen, suntan oil and face cream, two flashlights and two waterproof bags. Waterproof bags in the desert? No, they were to keep sand out of your cameras, explained a letter that accompanied an airline ticket made out for Dakar, Bamako, Timbuktu and Algiers. That set the blood to racing.
A perusal of my journal tends to slow the pulse, however. The first entry is a case in point. It reads: En route to Dakar. Burmeister's cameline theory. That refers to group member Ray Burmeister, a 48-year-old real-estate operator who was missing when George Holton, our Lindblad tour escort, herded us together in the tourist lounge at JFK. Burmeister was finally located at the bar, where he apparently had spent most of the afternoon. "I am like the camel," he explained. "I fill my hump before I leave." Russ Lannan, a 59-year-old semiretired insurance executive from La Jolla, Calif., had also been emulating the camel, and on boarding the plane both disappeared unsteadily into the first-class section. "They better sober up before we get to the desert. Alcohol is dehydrating," observed George, whose taste runs to sweet wine and Kahlua. George did not look his 51 years, which is not a testament to sweet wine and Kahlua but to the active life he leads for Lindblad.
"On the Borderlands of Tibet trip," he said, "we went to photograph the Dalai Lama in India, and this old shrew who never did anything but complain spent two hours taking pictures of the wrong monk through her telephoto lens. When she got home and discovered her mistake, she wrote Lindblad a nasty letter about me. I once smuggled a pet monkey into Greece, which has no monkeys. When it died, I buried it on the Acropolis, and now I'm waiting for some archaeologist to dig it up, to see what he makes of the bones."
There was plenty of time on the plane for talking because the movie projector broke down five times, and the flight engineer, who came out of the cockpit to make repairs, gave up on it. George said he was born in a zoo in New Jersey, his father being the zookeeper. George said further that he was born near the chimpanzee cage. Before George reached puberty, the stewardess fixed the projector by jamming a beer can against the amplifier.
En route to Dakar
According to George's Lindblad list, which he momentarily left on the airplane seat, the total age of our group is 717 years. At the moment, the only thing that seems older is the Sahara itself, but on reflection.... Here the entry breaks off because George was on his way back to his seat and so was the list. He had visited briefly with Gareth Wood, the youngest tour member, a 21-year-old printer from Victoria, British Columbia. Gareth had borrowed the money for the trip, said George, and had with him the clothes on his back and two rolls of film. A professional photographer himself, George could think of no worse fate than traveling across the Sahara with only two rolls of film. Evelyn Stein, 69, a Californian who was sitting with 50-year-old Florence Brush from Clear Lake, Iowa, had launched into a long, involved story about a cat that died. Anna Antopol, a 55-year-old widow, born and bred in Brooklyn, wore her blonde hair Liza Minnelli-style. She wondered if she had anything to fear (or hope) from Arabs who "like blondes and might kidnap me right off the desert." Theo King, 60, and her 36-year-old daughter Pam were up in first class with Burmeister and Lannan. Pam had a bad leg, George confided, and would probably not be of much use in pushing the Land Rovers when they got stuck in the sand. Pat Grandy, 27, a computer programmer from San Francisco, was on her fourth Lindblad tour and had lost some weight since the New Guinea trip, but George thought she still was too heavy to push Land Rovers. This explains the next brief entry in my journal: This is probably not the time to tell George about your bursitis. The remainder of the group was to meet us in Dakar: Bernice Bridge, a 54-year-old postal clerk from Melbourne; Hiroshi Ikeda, 38, a free-lance photographer from Tokyo; Kiyoaki Takata, 40, a think-tank writer, also from Tokyo; Suzanne Van Geert, a 50-year-old former circus-horse trainer from Geneva; and a 59-year-old Dutch travel adviser named Hans Ver Hagen.