Maverick Life


The allure of unknown others

Yeo Khee for Unsplash

"I had stood on the threshold of an alien world and it felt whole and utterly alluring", says Don Pinnock as he remembers a trip that changed him forever.

In the small town where I grew up, Afrikaners were regarded as foreigners and Africans were hardly a blip on the radar screen. Anything un-English was unsettlingly ‘other’. When I went to work for a black newspaper (The World) my parents went through phases of fear, horror and distress. They certainly didn’t tell the neighbours.

More by accident than design, however, I discovered the warm heart of Soweto and moved into Dobsonville – a little strange for a white village youngster in the 1960s. What I’d realised, though, was that cultures other than my own weren’t scary, they were fascinating.

I was having a lot of fun attending soccer and boxing matches and blowing my mind on mbaqanga and marabi music which people on the other side of town had never heard of. White apartheid Johannesburg was – it seemed to me – dead boring.

A few years later, after the security police had hounded me out of Dobsonville and South Africa (by living in Soweto they figured I had to be a communist), I ended up in southern Morocco with a commission to cover the desert war for United Press.

I’d based myself in Tangier – a dreamy place back then – and was living in the wonder of my first utterly alien culture. There were also interesting foreigners around sipping mint tea in the souks. William Burroughs was penning The Wild Boys down the road; the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver passed through on his way to self-imposed exile in Algeria and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were singing about riding on the Marrakesh Express. Hashish was as plentiful as bread. It was a cool place to be.

Out in the desert, though, a vicious war was going on between the Moroccan military and Tuareg guerrillas called the Polisario, a liberation movement of the Sahrawi people fighting to end Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara.

Tuareg guerillas, part of the Polisario (Image WikiCommons)

The Polisario liberation movement (Image WikiCommons)

I hitched a ride south with two volatile gay Parisians in a beat-up Land Rover. On the way, we camped on the vast beach of Essaouira where Jimi Hendrix is reputed to have written the lines: “castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually”.

As we continued southwards, barren, rusted mountains appeared on our left with occasional ruddy hill forts skirted by rock-coloured villages. Paper-white goats picked among the low bushes, looking like holes through the rust.

Guelmim, when it appeared over the peach-coloured sand, was a frontier town on the borders of Spanish Sahara, a jumping-off point for Moroccan soldiers heading into the desert to fight the guerrillas. There were no tourists and the troops stared at us as we stopped in the square.

Feeling distinctly out of place, we decided to head east beyond the hills into the Sahara. It was the emptiest nowhere I’d ever been. There were no tracks and we zigzagged up a wadi  – a fossil river – and through the hills, selecting a campsite in the lee of a sandstone cliff.

Early the next morning, before sunrise, I grabbed my camera and walked out of camp and into the hills. As I rounded a ridge a camel stepped noiselessly across my path. Mounted on it was a man dressed in desert brown with a cloth covering his nose and mouth. There was a large, curved knife sheathed at his belt and in his hand was an Uzi submachine gun. I nearly died of fright, but remembering the ways of the desert, I placed my right hand on my heart and greeted him: “Salaam alaikum.”

Alaikum salaam,” he replied, staring at me with glittering eyes beneath his rolled turban. He said something in Arabic and I shrugged. I told him I was camping in the hills and, not understanding English, he shrugged. He looked absolutely magnificent in the early light, a being from another world. The photographer in me wanted to capture him on film. I raised my camera and he whipped the Uzi round, pointing it at my head. I braced myself for the shock of the blast.

The only thing I could think to do was hand him the camera. He took it, flipped it open with surprising skill for a wild desert Tuareg and ripped out the film, dropping it onto the sand. Then he handed back the camera, raised his hand in greeting and guided his camel down into the dunefield. I’d met the Polisario.

When we got back to Guelmim it was like an overturned beehive. Soldiers were cramming into troop carriers and captains were screaming instructions hysterically. They almost pushed us out of town and up the road towards Casablanca.

Back in Tangier, I discovered what had happened. The night we slept beyond Guelmim, Polisario guerrillas had penetrated the fort line, neutralising guards with their sharp blades. They’d then infiltrated the camp and silently cut the throats of more than 100 sleeping soldiers, vanishing into the night without trace. I also found out what the Moroccans called the Polisario: Desert Ghosts.

That trip changed me forever. I had stood on the threshold of an alien world and it felt whole and utterly alluring. I wanted more. It would prove to be the first step on the road to becoming a travel writer. DM/ML


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