May 3, 2007
A Lasting Memory Told by Charlie Engle
April 11, 2007
Runner Ray Zahab Answers Your Questions
April 10, 2007
A Look Back at the Final Days
March 27, 2007
February 21, 2007
Are We There Yet? Day 112, The Day After.
Expedition Co-Leader Donovan Webster's Blog:
January 19, 2007: Day 80
Libya Rolls out the Welcome Wagon on "The Marlboro Route"
December 24, 2006: Day 54
A Border on the Brink: Red Tape, Big Guns, and Back Doors.
December 12, 2006: Day 42
Out of the Mouths of Babes: "Aman Iman"—Water is Life.
November 25, 2006: Day 25
Crossing the Mali Border on "The Highway of Dead Animals"
November 13, 2006: Day 13
From Mosquitoes to Mutton Banquets: The Runners Hit Their Stride
May 3, 2007A Lasting Memory Told by Charlie Engle
I met the man in this photo in western Niger after we passed through a nomadic enclave. There were dozens of families living in the area. They lived primarily by raising livestock, goats, sheep, donkeys, and camels. This particular gentleman walked up to me with a big smile on his face and shook my hand. He then began to use his hands to make signs indicating that he was sick. At one point he held has hand over his chest and made a gesture like crushing a can. It was clear that he did not feel well. I called Dr. Peterson over to take a look. It only took Doc a brief moment to examine the man and determine that he was very likely suffering from congestive heart disease. There was nothing that could be done for him. Doc gave him some aspirin and did the best he could to encourage the man to be strong. I doubt very much that he is alive today. But I will not forget him.
April 11, 2007Runner Ray Zahab Answers Your Questions
Q: What was your main motivation and inspiration for this challenging venture? What made you decide to run across the Sahara, as opposed to other areas of the world?
A: I started my running career rather late in life...like 3 years ago! My first race was in the Yukon Arctic, after reading an article in an adventure magazine. It involved running 100 miles (161 kilometers) non-stop through treacherous winter conditions. Being Canadian I was used to the terrain and weather, but not the miles! I just started seriously running two months before this race and was in for a few surprises and lessons for sure. After completing (and blessed with winning!) the race, I decided to set my sights on the Sahara. I always was enamored by the Sahara and grew up on an Arabian horse farm—so why not check it out!
Over the next three years, I raced in the Sahara five times, and in other areas of the world, but the Sahara always felt like home—the people of the desert were amazing, the topography was incredible, and there was just so much to discover. When I returned from running a 333 kilometers (207 miles) non-stop race in Niger in 2004, I asked a buddy of mine—and later "Running the Sahara" partner, Charlie Engle—a question that I would live to see come true: "Do you think anybody has ever thought of running across the WHOLE Sahara ?!" He said he wasn't sure and would look into it. Next thing I know I was on a plane to Senegal...!
Q: How long have you been a runner? What kind of training is involved to prepare for such a journey?
A: Until January 2000 I was a pack-a-day smoker whose favorite hobby was drinking beer! I decided to change that—and a year or two later got into mountain bike racing and adventure racing. It really wasn't until I was in my chiropractor's office in December 2003 when I read about that crazy race in the Yukon that was to take place two months later. That was the start of my running career. Ten races later, around the world from Amazon to desert to arctic...the rest is history. Training to run close to 7500 kilometers (4,660 miles) across the Sahara is just about impossible. Really, adaptation is key. Not to say that I didn't run leading up to our expedition—but training 30-40 kilometers (19-25 miles) per day does not really prepare you for that kind of mileage. It's a race against the "body disintegration" clock. We got there and hoped and prayed our bodies would hold up. As I always say when speaking about my crazy adventures, "Ultra-running is 90 percent mental —and the other 10 percent is all in your head!!!" I had injuries—they were really rough —but I finished!
Q: What were your fears, if any, before starting this quest?
A: Truly, my biggest fear was not being able to finish. This gig was by far the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done. Period.
Q: What were some of the major difficulties, both physically and mentally, that you came across during these 111 days? Were there any times when you thought about giving up?
A: There were several times when I thought finishing was out of reach for me. The biggest mental hurdles were ones totally out of my control. I missed my wife so much in those first weeks that I thought I would die. Knowing she would visit and run with me in Cairo kept me focused, and was integral to my ability to finish. Another mental hurdle was the distance. Close your eyes. Imagine you are in the desert running between 70-80 kilometers (43-50 miles) per day—and you have done that for 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). Now open your eyes! You have woken up—and you still have 4,000 (2,485 miles) kilometers to go. Enough said. Physically, the toll was huge. I had two very serious physical complications out there: severe intestinal virus and tendonitis. I thought the tendonitis would be the end of me. But we got through together.
April 10, 2007A Look Back at the Final Days
The final days of the expedition were really tough. The three of us had run together for thousands of kilometers and the physical wear and tear on our bodies was becoming apparent—aches and pains, loss of appetite, exhaustion. We pushed ourselves to new limits...Even with all the physical and mental challenges, we were still able to humor each other, cheer each other on!
For me, I knew that my wife, Kathy, was to arrive once we crossed into Egypt; it was so important to have her there with me. I wanted her to share in the experience of running through the untouched desert towns that many people may never get the opportunity to see. I was also fortunate to have my brother and sister-in-law, my close friend and his girlfriend, and my brother-in-law, travel all the way from Canada to be with me in the last few days of the expedition. It was a huge boost to have them there smiling and cheering us on and offering their words of encouragement!
The last two days were probably the most difficult...We wanted to finish so badly we could almost taste the salty Red Sea! It was that drive from within that somehow made the nagging pain of my injuries disappear. I think we each learned a lot about our bodies, our minds, and human nature in general, over the 111 days it took to run more than 7,000 kilometer (4,350 miles) across the Sahara. We celebrated our dream of "Running the Sahara" on February 20, 2007 by placing our hands in the water of the Red Sea and touching fists together, which we had done to signify the end of each day as we ran across the whole desert.
Over the course of the expedition we experienced ups and downs, new cultures, new friends, new foods, and new landscapes. It reinforced the basic necessities of life: food and WATER. Many people we met along the expedition have to travel miles and miles to find clean drinking water. We are proud to be a part of the H2O Africa Foundation (www.h2oafrica.org) and we hope to make a difference in the lives of some of the very people we may have met along the way by supporting this foundation.
February 21, 2007Are We There Yet? Day 112, The Day After.
As soon as my hands were dry from dipping them in the Red Sea, I was pretty much ready to head to the hotel and get cleaned up. Considering that I had taken only two showers in 111 days, everyone within smelling distance was ready for me to have a shower too. An informal and completely unscientific poll of several strangers in my vicinity confirmed it. I smelled incredibly funky.
When we arrived at the hotel, we pulled up to the curb and piled out of our trucks. I was immediately self-conscious because we were in the midst of "normal" people that had come to Cairo for business or holiday. I had forgotten that they would be here. And apparently they knew nothing about us judging by the looks we got. It's not that people were horrified, just very puzzled by our appearance. For the first time in months, I took a moment to look at myself as others might be looking at me. I was filthy and smelly and I was limping terribly. My nose and ears were covered with scabs. My hair was scraggly and I had lost a tremendous amount of weight. All I wanted to do was get to my room, clean up, eat some decent food, and go to bed.
I managed to do all of these things in less than two hours. When I hit the sack I was more exhausted than I can ever remember being. I was also very satisfied and the realization that we were finished was slowly beginning to sink in. I almost drifted off to sleep but I kept hearing noises in the hallway outside. I got up to look but there was nothing there. Next I heard the people in the adjoining room. Then I heard an airplane and then I could hear the cars outside. I could hear everything around me. I felt like I had bionic hearing. I guess I had become so accustomed to the quiet of the Desert that I was hypersensitive to the "strange" noises around me. I lay in bed for hours before finally falling asleep.
When I awoke the next morning, I couldn't open my eyes. I was sure that someone had glued them shut during the night. It was about 10:30 in the morning and I was in a panic. I could not understand why it was so late in the morning and yet I wasn't running. My foggy brain finally drifted into focus and I started to laugh when I realized that there would be no running today. In fact, I laughed so hard that I got a massive cramp in both of my calves. Just a little reminder of the previous days.
As soon as my cramps went away, I heard my room phone ring. I answered it expecting to hear my mother's voice. Instead it was Anna from the Associated Press calling to congratulate me. She had interviewed me several days before and written a very thorough article about our journey across the Sahara. She had a few follow up questions and warned me that I should expect more calls and e-mails from other media outlets. I had no real idea what that meant but I thanked her for the heads up. What is a media outlet anyway?
Shortly thereafter, my phone started to ring and so did Lisa's (my girlfriend). It was CNN and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Fox News. There were calls from newspapers and magazines and radio stations from around the world. I was shocked by all of the attention. I had just spent 111 days straight in almost total isolation, feeling for the most part like I was alone and nobody but my mother was watching our progress. I could not have been more wrong.
I spent the next two days answering hundreds of questions and trying desperately to translate the emotions I was having into words so that others could understand what we had just been through. In truth, I just wanted to get some rest and go home to my children in North Carolina. But I needed to leave the Sahara feeling like the groundwork had been laid for the second phase of this expedition: H2O Africa. After all of our hard work, we had finally earned the right to talk about bringing clean water to Africa. So that is exactly what I did until the very minute that Lisa and I left for the Cairo airport.
I had looked forward to this moment for many months. I was going home. Now that the time to leave Egypt was upon me, I found it very difficult to actually go. What is wrong with me? I am not really sure why I hesitated, but I think it had to do with the powerful affection that I now felt for Africa and the people that I had met during my journey. I had poured the last two years of my life into this expedition and now it was over. I was sad and I worried that I might never get to return. Finally, I remembered that the whole point of running the Sahara was to experience the desert and its people and then take what I had learned back home so that I could share the experience with others. It was time to go.
January 19, 2007: Day 80Libya Rolls out the Welcome Wagon on "The Marlboro Route"
Greetings from Libya Everybody,
Well, after three weeks of pushing and nudging and ringing phones from Washington to Tripoli, "Running the Sahara" was finally able to enter southern Libya via its border crossing at Toumu, against the wind-scoured sand and rock of northern Niger. Whoa, it has been a struggle.
But I've gotten ahead of myself, here. Remember my last note, back on December 24 from Agadez? On that date, after being tacitly denied access to Libya, we were enduring the arrival of January's sand-driven gales and examining "Running the Sahara" Plan B options: cross through Chad and the Sudan to Egypt (Running Darfur!?!), or through Algeria and Tunisia to end our run at the Mediterranean.
As it happened, on that same day, we caught a break.
A successful SoCal businessman—and Libyan-born American—named Omar Turbi heard of our predicament and decided to help us out.
You may have heard of Omar. He's the guy journalists call when they want a rational, non-propagandized view of America-Libya relations, and you may have seen him quoted in the Big Deal newspapers or weighing in on CNN. Anyway, Omar enjoys warm relations with several Ministry Level officials in Tripoli and he went to work on our behalf, impressing upon Libyan powers how our crossing of Libya was not only important for us, but might be good for Libya's global image, as well.
It took some doing (Omar is too cool to tell me just how many strings he had to pull to get things turned our way), but within about 10 days, we'd been granted nominal access to enter Libya, and were to be met by an official from the Ministry of Media and Information.
Despite several days of sand blowing almost directly into the runners' faces as they pushed north in Niger, the "Running the Sahara" team arrived outside Toumu, Libya on January 13, but since the Ministry official wasn't on-site yet, we were turned away by a scowling, AK-47-toting border soldier. It was classic. There was a curt: "Come back tomorrow" and he turned on his heels and marched back to his border post.
So we did, and the following morning we were granted access inside. This second time, the same border guard fed us glasses of strong, sugary, piping hot tea as he took down our passport information. No guns were in evidence.
Ever since then, and contrary to propaganda believed by some Westerners, Libya (and the Libyans) has been nothing but friendly and accommodating. After gaining access to the country, we camped the first night in the border's customs area, but no officials asked to inspect our vehicles or their contents (despite the fact that "The Marlboro Route" we'd followed into Libya is famous for the smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol into the country; the second of these substances being illegal there). Instead, we shared snacks, tea, and meals with the Libyan officials, all with plenty of smiles. Throughout the afternoon and evening, in fact, both sides snapped lots of "handshake photos." It was great.
Next morning, like clockwork, the runners were off at 5 AM. The roads in Libya are fantastic: paved smooth and laid straight as a taut string across the graveled desert plains of the country's largely unpopulated south. For much of the first week, in fact, the guys had the road to themselves, running down the asphalt's center and logging remarkable distances, despite the fierce winds still blowing into their faces out of the northeast.
Three days inside Libya, we arrived at the oasis town of Al Quatrun where, lo and behold, I was met by a smiling Omar Turbi who had flown and been driven-in, and who had brought his 26-year-old son, Omar Jr., with him for a visit to the old family homeland. We spent the next days going over maps, fixing routes across the country, and making arrangements for being feted by the Libyan people and their government in the days and weeks to come. The night of January 18, in fact, we got to stay at a well-maintained old fortress, built a century ago by the Colonial Italians: it was peaceful, and it had hot-water showers! Spectacular.
I should also add that, at the fort, we were fed roasted chickens and rice: the first chicken we've had since Zebrabar and Senegal, as bird-flu scares and forced slaughters to prevent the disease have decimated poultry populations across much of North Africa. The chicken was perfectly cooked, though I should add, it had a second alluring quality that made it taste even better: it wasn't mutton or goat meat, which we've eaten most every day for the last 80 across this huge, demanding, beautiful, and often-difficult expanse of desert.
A few last items: Unlike the old days of November and early December, winter has finally arrived in the Sahara. The daylight each day is far shorter that it used to be, and—whoa!—the nights are cold. I like the cold nights since I sleep out under the stars (to watch shooting-stars), which are much more vivid in cold night skies. Three nights ago, when I woke up at 4 AM to start the day, the water in the plastic bottle I keep next to my bag as I sleep had a crust of ice on its surface.
Another thing: the runners, while still nailing their roughly 80 km a day (the equivalent of two marathons), have grown very tired. Charlie has a right leg-shin splint that seems painful with each step (and which Doc Peterson is treating with his whole bag of sports med tricks), and Ray and Kevin are both exhausted too. They're all so tired their voices are starting to go, and they sleep any time they're not running or eating. Still, they're doing it: starting the day in six layers of clothing, then peeling off the layers each morning as the sun begins to heat the desert. I ran with them this morning for about 15K, and despite all this hardship, they were in top-drawer spirits.
One last thing: Another plea—this time from Libya—for you to please contribute what you can to H20 Africa, the not-for-profit charity associated with "Running the Sahara." H2O Africa's goal is to help create sources of clean water across Africa (www.H2OAfrica.org).
As I write this at sunrise, all I see is graveled plains in every direction to the horizon. There's not a tree anywhere. (This made the star-gazing particularly nice last night, since I could see stars all the way to the Earth's edges. It was like being adrift in the universe...which, of course, we are.) The same hyper-aridity that makes it difficult for trees, and perfect for star-watching, renders it difficult for the region's few scattered Tuareg and Toubou tribal nomads to survive.
Anyway, as Libya was the only North African nation formerly under Italian colonization, I got thinking about water and the colonial languages still spoken in this part of the world. Did you know the word "rival" has its roots in Latin—from the word for river—and it derives from the fact people had to fight over water in this part of the world to survive, even back in Ancient Roman times?
That hasn't changed. In fact, for an enormous stripe of the population on Earth today, access to clean drinking water remains a life-threatening condition. According to the World Health Organization, 1.5 million people will die this year as a direct result of drinking unclean water. Add this to the World Bank's prediction that the next war in this region will likely be fought over the availability of water, and you can see that—while Latin may be a dead language—the Ancient Roman concept of "rivals" is, sadly, alive and well in these parts.
It seems to me, that it's not such a bad thing to be working—and running across the world's biggest desert—toward helping solve the water crisis.
Anyway, as always, thanks for reading along. We'll soon be into the home stretch, and Charlie, Kevin, and Ray will be about able to smell the Red Sea's salt air in the distance. That should make for some exciting times.
Until next time, all my best,
December 24, 2006: Day 54A Border on the Brink: Red Tape, Big Guns, and Back Doors.
And holiday greetings from Agadez, Niger on Day 54 of "Running the Sahara."
Agadez is a fantastic, low, sprawling city of mud-brick buildings. Its local sights include everything from trains of camels moving among the car traffic, to minarets standing above the rooftops against the blue sky, to little vest-pocket shops selling everything from single cigarettes, to cell phone SIM cards, and skewered beef grilled over glowing brazier coals.
Beyond these exotic sights, we're happy to be in Agadez for other reasons, too. A major one is that Agadez marks a sort of halfway point in our journey. Over the past month or so, our team has really become a model of efficiency, and all three runnersCharlie, Ray, and Kevinare doing exceedingly well; logging 50 KM before lunch without even much of an effort. It's amazing.
The guys are also pleased because yesterday saw the arrival of Charlie and Kevin's girlfriends, Lisa and Nicole, and Ray's wife, Kathy, from points international. Lisa flew in from North Carolina, Nicole from Taipei, and Kathy from Quebec. Of course, their baggage didn't exactly make the flight (having been hung up with more than 15,000 other bags at London's Heathrow due to awful fog there), but just seeing everyone together has really buoyed the guys' spirits.
And, honestly, the guys needed their spirits boosted yesterday, since we also experienced a major letdown.
Remember how I wrote in my last note that we were biding our time, knowing changes waited in the nearby future? Well, they arrived. The Libyan government has yet to approve the Running the Sahara application to travel across their country in our effort to reach the Red Sea in Egypt. This means we have no way to get between Niger and the Egyptian border.
I need to be fair here: This is not a complete surprise. We and our UNDP counterparts have been in discussions with Tripoli and the Libyan Embassy in Washington for almost seven months now, and during this time the Libyans have never said outright they would approve our application; although they also never said they would not approve it, either. So, as the departure time for Running the Sahara arrived, the Libyan permission was one of only two pieces in an already incredibly complex puzzle that we could not drop into place (the other was whether the runners could go so far without their feet, ankles, and knees giving out, and they've answered that with a resounding: "No Problem!")
Anyway, long to short, this leaves us literally with nowhere to go. Sure, we can head out into Niger's Tenere Desert (one of my favorite places on Earth, with its barren chains of seemingly endless dunes and beautiful night skies), but eventually, when we hit the Libyan border, we'll have to stop. Entering any country in this part of the world without a visa or approval is a "jailable offense" (in some countries, if they think you're spying, it's even an executable offense).
Still, we're doing everything we can to sway Tripoli to allow us entrance: from calling in favors with friends in the Libyan business sector to Matt Damon's flying from his "Bourne" shoot in London to take a meeting with the Libyan Embassy in Washington, DC. But, so far, we remain blocked and stymied.
In the meantime, we've also started to consider other routes across the Sahara (north to Algeria and Tunisia to finish at the Mediterranean, or east into Chad and the Sudan to the Red Sea). Such deviations are freighted with other problems; such as getting new visas in short order, seeing if our current insurance will continue should we deviate from our stated route, and with Chad and the Sudan the very real threat posed by things like landmines and unexplored ordinance, not to mention the Sudan's Darfur region which, if you haven't been reading the papers in the past 20 months, has its own dire internal conflict which might not welcome runners and a film crew into its midst.
Anyway, I wish I had better news, but if you're following along with us, we'll all just have to stay tuned together.
I'll write more when I have updates. Until then, please keep your fingers crossed for us, please consider making a tax-free donation to H20Africa to assist people in this region with more and better quality water, and please accept my best wishes for 2007.
All my best,
December 12, 2006: Day 42Out of the Mouths of Babes: "Aman Iman"—Water is Life.
Today, my correspondence issues from the sand-and-gravel desert, 250-some miles west of Bourem, along the Mali/Niger border. While the runners continue to log their daily two marathons-worth of roughly 80 kilometers—waking every morning at 4 AM to be on the road by 5—they've been battling illness a bit, with Ray and Kevin having recurring stomach problems that, in Ray's case, leave him light-headed and dizzy some afternoons.
Still, the guys are hanging tough, and enjoyed their short visit to the dusty city of Timbuktu (hot showers, ice cold drinks, and for one short night, a hotel bed!), where everybody bought souvenirs and gave lots of Running the Sahara sponsor T-shirts and ONE Campaign white bracelets to the locals.
Still, Timbuktu was a short stay and the next day (at 5 AM) we were off again, tracing the course of the Niger River's North shore toward the Niger border.
East of Timbuktu along the river, the landscape gets increasingly beautiful. Sand dunes have rolled down from the north—pushed by relentless, blow-drier winds—and the dunes run right to the edges of the wide river. It's gorgeous. The gold sand lies piled next to narrow, green riverbank rice fields and gardens farmed by locals who use the river for irrigation. It all feels very positive and successful, though also small-scale and human-powered. All that standing water does lead to clouds of evening mosquitoes though, so Doc Jeff Peterson pesters us all daily to take our Malarone, anti-malarial pills.
A week or so ago, the runners also had a nice 90-minute visit to a small local school where the kids were chanting Charlie's name, and the schoolmaster gave the runners a tour of his house to give them an idea of how people live day-to-day in this part of the Sahara.
One fun side note from the banks of the Niger River: Just outside the town of Temera one day last week we made lunch camp on the river and masseur Chuck Dale and I seized the opportunity to pull out our fishing rods to attempt a little hook-and-line census of the waterway. We waded into the chilly river; Chuck, an avid Arkansas fisherman, drifting power baits beneath a bobber, while I chose to sling some bass streamers with my fly rod. While I seemed to feel one fish strike, it was overwhelmingly, as Chuck said, "A case of why they call it 'fishing' instead of 'catching." Still, it was fun to wet a line, and both Chuck and I are committed to fishing our way across the Sahara, so we'll certainly try again as fishy-looking water presents itself.
Anyway, since the river and its road both took Southward turns at Bourem—with us leaving it to continue overland east into the road-less Sahara—we've now happily settled into the off-road life, our noses pointed toward the city of Agadez, Niger, 550-miles away.
Out here in the desert, footing can be more difficult: Some days it's like a choppy lake that's been frozen, and its water has been replaced by sand. Other days, the soft sand makes for tiring going. But we're still continuing strongly; pushing on and getting the job done. Visiting with local Tuareg-tribe nomads when we come upon them; sharing a little tea or water, and sometimes getting gifts of camel milk in return.
As someone (I think it was Charlie) said in camp the other day, this stretch of our trip feels a little analogous to the dog days of August in Major League baseball. Everyone is now bumping along, one day at a time, enjoying the experience and knowing very well that—before too long—things are going to grow far more interesting. At Agadez we'll be roughly halfway done with Running the Sahara, with the breathtaking, vegetation-free dune chains of Niger's Tenere desert in our immediate future, and Libya and Egypt waiting beyond. Sorry there's nothing too earth-shaking to report this time; we're mostly living with business as usual. But stay tuned, because I think things will soon start moving more quickly.
Before signing off I'll add that—now that we're away from the infrastructure implied by a road—the local nomads we're encountering are in enormous need of more sources of water; assistance you can help with by making a donation to H2O Africa.
Here's one example of how those donations might help: Yesterday, while breaking trail a few miles ahead of the runners, Mohamed and I met a 7-year-old boy who'd been left in the desert by himself to tend his family's herd of sheep, goats, and camels. His parents had been gone for two days, traveling south to collect water from the nearest well.
The boy was scared and hungry. It was heartbreaking. Mohamed and I sat with him in the afternoon's hot sun for awhile. He had camel milk to drink and a few bits of dried meat to eat, but those appeared to be his only forms of sustenance. We gave him a box of cookies, a few 1.5 liter bottles of water, and a plastic bag filled with fresh dates. We asked if his parents would be back soon. He said yes, in a few days. We asked if this happened often; he said yes, whenever they needed water.
I kept thinking the boy was the same age as a my own kids when they were second or third-graders, and yet—due to the demands of human survival in this, place, the world's largest desert—he'd been left alone with the responsibility of looking after his family's entire material wealth while his parents chased down enough water to ensure their next stretch of short-term future.
What struck me most was how hard it must be for people in this part of the world to get ahead in their personal affairs, when so much of their daily life is concentrated on merely surviving. It certainly re-prioritizes things.
In the local Tamachek language, the operative saying is "Aman Iman." It means "Water is life."
To the little boy, I felt like adding: "Dunia Thjsajath," which means "Sometimes, life is hard." I was about to speak when I realized the boy already knew this. In fact, just sitting there with him, the boy had taken me to school in the difficulties life can pitch at people sometimes. After another few minutes of sitting and chatting, Mohamed and I fired up the Land Cruiser and rolled a half-dozen miles further east across the desert before making camp for the night. As evening fell, though, thoughts of the lonely little boy and his situation clung to me, so I figured the best thing I could do was pass his story along.
The desert had provided yet another flinty, troubling, and horizon-enlarging learning experience. For me, the question that always follows is: What do I do with it?
I'll write more when we get to Agadez.
Until then, all my best,
November 25, 2006: Day 25Crossing the Mali Border on "The Highway of Dead Animals"
Greetings from the Mauritania/Mali border. And apologies for being so slow in getting this second note off to you, but things have remained distractingly active during the last few weeks of "Running the Sahara." We're now into the rhythm of our expedition, with the runners logging their 80 kilometer a day (or a little over the equivalent of two marathons), with 50 kilometer gained each morning between 5 AM and noon, and the remaining distances gathered afternoons and evenings following lunch in the shade.
When I last left you, we were several hundred miles along on the trip, in the dusty, mud-brick Mauritanian city of Kiffa, having joined the east-west course of the Trans-Mauritanian Highway. The Trans-Mauritanian proved a good means for us to cross the country: direct, flat, and efficient.
Still, the road presented a few problems.
First, there're the cars. As the sole artery to Mauritania's eastern provinces and the frontier city of Nema, 500-some miles to the east, the Trans-Mauritanian is a busy thoroughfare, with a constant stream of trucks and luxury sedans ripping along its surface at 80 to 100 miles an hour. This can be unnerving for a runner trying to share the pavement (aside from Charlie, Ray, and Kevin, all three of us on the support teamDr. Jeff Peterson, masseur Chuck Dale, and meare also running 10 to 15 kilometer daily with the team).
Anyway, aside from us running along a road also sometimes crowded by speeding vehicles, the Trans-Mauritanian's shoulders are also dotted every few miles by wells created by the Mauritanian government. Each of these wells has attracted nomads, who've semi-settled around the water sources and who, in turn, have brought their livestock to take advantage of the free water.
Let us view this situation in the plainest of terms: When you mix a busy east-west trans-national highway with thousands of nomadic herdsmen, you get some prodigious vehicle-into-livestock occurrences. Consequently, our team has started calling the road "The Highway of Dead Animals."
It's astonishing. Every mile or so, you come upon the stinking corpse of a dead donkey, goat, sheep, cow, dog, zebu, camel, or horse. As most of these animals are social, you often find two of them have been killed simultaneously by a vehicle, leaving them tangled together at the roadside. In rare places, the smashed and dented husks of cars line the road's shoulders as well: the windows shattered, the radiator and grillwork asymmetrically bashed all the way back to the dashboard. These are the aftermath of car-on-camel collisions, and it appears the cars and their passengers pay mightily. But make no mistake, the camels don't win in these exchanges, either, just because the car has been mortally damaged.
Anyway, beyond the carnage, the highway has offered us other glimpses into Mauritania. We've been stopping at wells and in roadside villages, talking with the locals, all of whom want better resourcesmore and better-quality water, more social servicesavailable to them.
Rural Mauritania's locals are very conscious of "collective resources" these days. Much of this stems from the fact that, recently, a lot of oil has been discovered on the sea bed just off the Mauritanian beach, prompting many to call this country "the next Kuwait," and leaving a nation of poor nomads all thinking they're about to get rich.
But behind this hope for national trickle-down wealth, the Mauritanians have something else on their mind, as well. The first-ever local and national elections took place last Sunday, on November 19. Mauritania has been a largely totalitarian, Islamist state since gaining its freedom from colonial French rule in 1960. In August of 2006, the country's 9th coup since colonial freedom took place, andafter stabilizing powerthe overthrowing junta called for national general elections.
Taken together, the promise of self-governance and the potential to gain collective wealth through national extraction programs has left Mauritania's people in something like a frenzy of hopefulness. In each little town there are voter centers, complete with banners and loudspeakers blaring speeches and music, with staffers waving you in for tea, political propaganda, and possibly a little dancing to the loudspeaker music.
It all looks excessively buoyant on the surface, but there's something else going on: a tribalism we haven't experienced before. In the pre-election days, the population seemed fairly evenly divided between the pro-Democracy, status-quo openness of the establishment Red party, and the optimistic force of the opposition Green party, which-feeling its new vitality-took an edgier, more aggressive stance that left the runners harassed along the roadside several times by Green party forces. This has manifested itself in nothing too threatening, just some shouting from Green party trucks, and the purposefully rude showing of the bottoms of feet from the same vehicles (the ultimate Arab insult), plusin one casethe slapping of Charlie Engle's arm as a Green party truck moved past, followed by someone throwing a bone (a bone!) at the runners from inside the truck.
In the end, the opposition Green Party took a slim majority of the national legislative and local political seats, and the Mauritanian people seem thrilled. Even with the light unpleasantness, it's pretty cool to watch ground-floor Democracy in action and everyone engaged. Seeing all the Mauritanians voting and crowding the village streets last Sunday, election day, was really uplifting. None of the shops in towns were open, even the national borders were closed. The country of Mauritania was having an election, andfor that dayeverything else stopped.
News of the Green party victory came on Thursday, November 23, which also happened to be the American celebration of Thanksgiving. While all of the Americans in our crew wished we were with family, we pressed on as best we could, logging our miles. For dinner, chef Mohamed Abubacar even made us a Sahara-appropriate Thanksgiving feast: tomato and basil salad, grilled mutton ribs and shanks, with tons of small and perfectly crisped fries. I kicked in two bottles from my small traveling cache of Haut-Medocand a good time was had by all.
Sadly, the celebration was muted by tough some news masseur Chuck Dale got from home. He'd been excited to call back to Arkansasto catch up with his family on Thanksgivingbut had instead learned that his favorite uncle, Kenny Roberds, who was like a second father to him, had died unexpectedly the previous Monday. At dinner, Chuck talked a bit about the affable-sounding and brave guy who was his uncle.
Kenny Roberds was in the Army when a vehicle accident rendered him paraplegic. Rather than take this changed physical condition passively, however, he continued to assault life. He became among the first paraplegic private aircraft pilots in Arkansas; then learned to fly helicopters. A dedicated bass and crappie fisherman, he and Chuck went out several times a week in Kenny's 18-foot pontoon boat, which Kenny piloted and could roll onto by himself...that is, after he'd parked his own car in the marina's lot. He was 46.
By 9 AM Saturday morning, we'd finally made the frontier city of Nema where, somewhat amazingly, the highway's pavement simply ended in front of the police and passport-control station. Beyond it lay 150 miles of cinder multi-track road, that eventually devolved into a dry, powdery-dirt and silt two-track leading to the little town of Bassikounou and to the border, which the runners passed about 9 AM on November 26.
Oh, just one other thing before signing off: On November 24, Ray Zahad (the Canadian runner) was stricken by a terrible bout of virus or food poisoning. While his inability to run due to profound illness halted our progress in the early morning, he was given medication and two liters of inter-venous fluid by Dr. Jeff...and he rallied by about 10:45 AM, allowing the runners to gain better than 50 kilometer over the day. It was a horrendously hard day for Ray, but he came through it bravely and magnificently. Don't tell me these guys don't have the desire to cross this whole desert: I saw it in every step of Ray's trip on the 26th.
Well, that's it for now. I'd like to encourage everyone who might be enjoying these notes to consider donating to AfricaH2O: the North African people need more clean water. As it is, every nomad's animals get first shot at every drop of water that comes out of the Sahara's stingy earth, meaning human hygiene suffers first. Many of these people are as sick to their stomachs every few weeks, just as Ray was two days ago for just one morning. Taken incrementally and long term, that kind of existence takes an enormous human toll.
November 13, 2006: Day 13From Mosquitoes to Mutton Banquets: The Runners Hit Their Stride
Welcome, one and all, to Day 13 of "Running the Sahara." This morning, we are in the city of Kiffa, Mauritania, and I'm taking advantage of an Internet cafe to jot this off to you.
Sorry to have not written sooner, but things have been a bit, uh, hectic. There have been slow border crossings conducted at sundown along the swampy, Senegal River no-man's-land at Diama, located between Senegal and Mauritania (where billions of mosquitoes tapped our collective blood); plus midnight showdowns with everything from angry female warthogs to confused and pissed-off scorpions toin the case of masseur Chuck Dale and mea huge sand crab that woke us up at 2 AM by crawling between our mosquito nets and over or past our heads; a really odd, rattling experience. The other night, while resting comfortably in his tent, Kevin Lin was nipped by the tiniest of yellow bugs...which made his whole hand go numb for a few minutes. Needless to say, there's been something new every hour or two, and, still, we're having one heck of a time.
When there hasn't been some form of wildlife to contend with, the runners have been battling the season's unusually late heat and sun-torched pavement. One afternoon recently at 4 PM, the temperature was still 104 in the shade and nearly 125 in the sun...with other days recently not being much cooler. Still, the runners have been managing to knock out first 50 kilometer a day and now 70 kilometer a day. We're now up every morning at 4 AM, and, after coffee and a little breakfast, off at 5 AM: by noon, we've put big hunks of road or two-track behind. Then we rest for a few hours, and, once the heat breaks, about 4 to 5 PM, we hit it again for another 20 or 30 kilometer.
Acclimitisation for the runners took the predicted 10 frustrating days, but after a few days of cramps from dehydration (ably attended to by Doc Jeff Peterson and Chuck Dale), we're now fighting fit, feeling good, and see nothing but improving prospects and potential kilometers/day for the team. Pretty darned cool, really. It feels good just to be knocking down big sections of map every few days.
Also, at the Mauritanian towns of Maghta Lagher and Aschram, we also stopped by and visited several UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) projects, which did everything from impound rainwater that would otherwise escape (lifting the water table for area human and livestock wells) to de-silting closed irrigation canals, to stopping dune encroachment on cultivational areas through the planting of trees to stabilize the sand. All together, these projects have helped nearly 1,000 families to improve the quality of their lives, contribute to the larger society in terms of selling goods and animals, and improve their futures...and all for about $150 a family. It's amazing what a bit of well directed funding can do. Thanks also to Mr. Samba Thaim, Mauritanian coordinator for the UNDP, who not only hosted us at these projects...but also feted us not once (but twice!) with goat and mutton banquets, the first taking place in a Berber-style tent where runner Charlie Engle was also given a camel ride in grand style. Fantastic.
Well, that's about it for now. Gotta catch up with Charlie, Kevin, and Ray, who should be at about the 35 kilometer mark already for this morning.
For any of you reading this and wanting to contribute, please donate what you can per kilometer or mile, it'll go toward helping these folks with their huge problem of getting enough daily water for themselves and their livestock. You'd be surprised how much more economically effective a person can be if he/she doesn't have to spend two or three hours each day just gathering enough water to survive.
Thanks and all my best,
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