Allen stops the truck amidst a billowing cloud of red dust. In Australia we call it; bull dust. Fine like talcum powder and it gets in everywhere; in the truck, in your clothes and in your ears, nose and mouth.
It’s hot, intensely hot, unbelievably hot, 43C-45C and has been for weeks. Night time in the back of the truck is like sleeping in a slippery lather of salty body fluids, never cooling down below 35C; and people tell me, “Ah, but this is not hot yet, it is February. Next month it will be 50C.”
So here we are stopped at another border in North Africa, this time, we are coming out of Senegal and trying to get into Mali. It is a harsh, hot, dusty dry environment. Allen says he will go and take the last of the ‘paper trail’ documents into the tiny mud brick building a hundred metres away to allow us to drive over the border. I decide to wait in the truck and watch the activity at this border crossing.
There are the usual huts where women cook on outside fires, in huge pots. Leaning over and stirring or carrying goods on their heads with babies strapped to their backs with a large swath of beautiful colorful fabric. They are always incredibly joyful as they call to each other in their daily toil with beautiful white teeth flashing.
Across the dusty track from their huts there are men, tall and straight, some bare to the waist, their black bodies glistening, faces and clothes smeared with red dust mixed with sweat. They beat the tyres off huge truck rims, with massive hammers. The sound of rubber and metal on metal clangs loudly through the dusty air. There is a constant rhythm happening when two of the men swing the gigantic mallets over their heads. Clang, clang…..like amplified church bells.
I ponder on how easy my life in Australia is; as I observe the world around me in this remote part of Africa.
Allen seems to be taking a very long time and all I can do is sit and watch and wait and swig on the hot water which is in my bottle.Occasionally a person walks past and calls to me, “Bonjour Madame.” “Bonjour” I call back.
Exhaustion sits heavy in my body, on my mind and in my spirit. I feel emotionally drained and as the sweat trickles down, every crevice of my body and seeps into my clothes; I tell myself, ‘it is another life experience, Rensina.’
I know that I have chosen a life filled with very challenging experiences and in this ‘place’ that I sit, in the front of the truck with these familiar feelings; I realise, I have sat before.
I have dwelled in this feeling of extreme tiredness; many times in the past ten years of overland travelling. Many many times. But within these challenges have been the most treasured and mind blowing memories, I could ever wish for. I am alive.
On this trip, I have been travelling since I left Carmila, Queensland in December, 2017. I began this journey in Morocco, where I delivered my first Womens Sanitary Pad workshop in Marrakesh.
Starting at Amal Centre for Women with the trainees, I was also able to run a few workshops for the women staff in some other local schools. They were a great success and a good beginning to what was to be, a year in Africa.
From Marrakesh, I hopped on a train north to Casablanca where Allen and I had arranged to meet up at the Nigerian Embassy. He had driven the truck from Bulgaria.
After acquiring our visas we travelled south through Morocco, into Western Sahara, where the desert meets the wild Atlantic coastline. We discovered that all four Russian tyres on the truck had split right down to the fabric. So we were held up there for three weeks waiting for more tyres to be trucked from Bulgaria, six countries and many thousand kilometres away. Things don’t happen very quickly in very remote places.
So we tucked the ‘limping’ truck into a place which was as sheltered as we could find from the constant fierce wind, and slept with the constant roar of crashing waves coming from the nearby coastline of that incredible expanse of ocean; the Atlantic.
We met some fabulous folks in Dahkla. Some travelling Germans and Russians and then we met Freya and Colin (Welsh and Scottish) who came to Dakhla for three days….thirteen years ago and never left. They have created an amazing food garden in the mineral rich sands, fed by artesian water.
When we eventually leave with replaced tyres we travel through the eery, dusty barren landscape surrounding the Mauritanian border. Then we traverse the edge of one of the earths most spectacular and beautiful deserts; the golden Sahara.
Travelling south west, we drive through a thousand stunning landscapes, a land sculptured by the elements of wind and sun dotted with massive boab trees which dwarfed the Gaz truck.
We cut through a corner of Senegal to reach the Mali border.So here we are. An hour goes by and I wonder why the huge delay. But I am resigned to have to wait. I know from travelling through a hundred borders in the past ten years that it can take all day….or longer. And is usually accompanied by many semi automatic machine gun toting men in uniforms.
Eventually Allen returns to the truck to inform me that the officer in the mud building will not stamp our papers as he wants money. Surprise surprise.
“He seems to be drunk or something,” Allen says. “He is lounging in his chair, his words are slurring and he has both feet up on his desk. I don’t know whats wrong with him. But the man wants money because he says that we have arrived in the wrong hours.”
“Here we go again,” I am thinking. I decide to go in with Allen to see the man and try to establish what is going on. Allen drives the truck into the dusty grounds and parks nearby the building. We go in together. Inside the small office the man is indeed slumped in his chair with his feet on the desk. He points to a piece of paper which have office hours written on it and tells us we are here after hours so we must pay a fee.
The man is not of sound mind as we are still in fact here within the office hours. There is a stand off for a good thirty minutes; the only sound or movement being a slow swaying overhead fan. Occasionally I shake my head, say ‘NO’ adamantly and point to the time on the clock and the hours written on the paper. I will not be extorted for money by this bloke!
But there is something else not quite right about him. I sense that he may be delirious and he looks a bit flushed which is still visible through his very dark brown skin. He is in a particularly bad state.Suddenly a thought occurs to me and I ask him, “Are you sick?” He looks at me through slitted eyes for a good thirty seconds before he responds by slowly nodding his head.
“Yes,” he says.
I realise by watching him that he has a fever.He points to his head and up and down his arms and he is telling me, by his anguished expression that he is in pain. “You have medsin?” he asks me. “I am not a doctor”I tell him.
I suddenly feel enormous compassion for this man and it takes me no time to decide that I will get something which may help him from the truck. I make a dose of Sodium Chlorite (which kills most ‘bugs’) and also get some strong 600mg Nurofen.
Going back inside, I hand him the draught I have made and he downs it in one gulp with no question. Such is his despair…..and trust.I give him two tablets and indicate one now then sleep, one tomorrow.
He nods slowly.; says ‘Merci’, stamps our truck paper and as he slumps into his chair, he lethargically waves us away. “You can go.” And so we do, past the women cooking, past the men bashing the tyres and onwards ; into Mali.
An entire ‘story’ can change when we open to compassion and understanding.
Rensina Van Den Heuvel leads trips to Mongolia, Morocco and other places. She loves going overland – traveling in a way that you are part of the world you are going through. As this story indicates, it is not without it’s risk, but also enables sometimes a rich engagement with those around you. Read more