Our team has a simple rhythm.
The photographers are the hearty story tellers. Brian, our scout, sometimes goes quiet for prolonged periods of time, listening to music that doesnt climax, as Maureen said yesterday. She herself sits at the back of the Cruiser, mostly being creepy and mothering us all. Once in a while she is to be caught napping, especially when she does her pink head gear and sun glasses to hide from my camera. Within a day into a 10-day mission, one learns everyone elses cues, eventually building up into what can only be called a team rhythm.
Even the sitting arrangement becomes one of those automated things. Brian rides shotgun but he suffers from a height problem. Apparently the makers of this land monster did not envision very tall people riding shotgun. The photographers sit in the row behind, with Kokan on the left and Allan on the right. Sometimes, Allan and Brian switch. Other times we carry a local scout, and positioning changes. In the row behind, I sit on the right, eating dust and trying to take photos of everyone dozing. On the small path between the seats are our supplies and layers upon layers of dust that have been collecting in the car as souvenirs of our journey. For this story to be told, I will have to be sitting at the front. Four screaming men will be sitting on the roof, screaming their heads off, at some point.
Heres how the open road beats strangers into flawless teamwork. It tempts them with natural and sometimes forced conversation, it hits them with pixels upon pixels of natures unadulterated beauty. It bathes them with beauty, and continuously roughs them with treacherous terrain. Once in a while, it tries to inspire them with the songs of the wind. If all that doesnt work, it ups its game.
The sun-caked clays of the Chalbi Desert make the endless surface look like it only needs to be peeled off to reveal its story. Its miles upon miles of symmetry and mud, one that threatens to swallow you with its heat. Unlike the parts that look like a normal desert, which is where this story eventually leads, the mirage in the horizon doesnt really look clean water. But as with everything else nature makes, there is something out there waiting to kill you.
This story begins fifteen minutes after first entering the Chalbi Desert. Allan, with his head out of the car like a pup, declares the scenery too plain for the two dashing women in the car as cast. So Njoro, our superhuman driver, does a U-turn somewhere and we head back, to the edge, and to one side of the desert that looks like a normal desert. Sand rules these parts, and creates sand dunes in such perfect symmetry they feel surreal. The patterns on the sand dunes are delicate flows of natures rhythm, as if they are the fickle whims of a childish natural force.
It is here, twenty minutes in, that we pitch camp and walk to the dunes to find the most picturesque one. Njoro walks off in the distance, contemplating on the Marsabit-bound 62-seater bus he once drove across these lands. He lights a cigarette, and then falls onto the sand. At some point he looks like a sacrifice to the sun god Ra, or a man the desert has claimed.
Halima and her friend make for a rather interesting cast. Halima is light skinned and stunning. She exudes a captivating mien, one that Allan hopes to capture in his shot. The wind abides, and dances her pink flowing dress diligently as she stands on a sand dune. Her friend is dark and more edgy, almost instinctively staring into the camera throughout. She has a two-month-old baby at home and would really rather get home as soon as possible. But this story is not about people getting everything they want. This story is about something else.
In the background, the sun sets abruptly, turning so fast from a fiery ball to a yellow one and finally, nothing. Njoro, done recharging his solar panels, gets impatient and demands we go. Allan and Kokan are not done though and the one thing about this entire mission is that the photographer gets everything they want to make the shot. So we wait. I walk to a dune to write my name on it so I can watch nature undo it. To remind me that the sands of time will eventually wipe my name off too, no matter how many stories I write to try and become immortal.
It is almost dark when we finally herd everyone back into the car. Njoro has panicked and gotten impatient so much at this point that he is finally calm. His arguments and attempts to cajole us into leaving, saying continuously that the sands of the Chalbi are not to be trusted, fall on rather deaf, tired ears. I am sitting between him and Julius, our local man, when we finally take off towards North Horr. Less than five minutes later, less than 70 meters later, we see what looks like just another rough patch. So we prepare our spines, clench our bottoms, and ready ourselves for a jump that is never to be.
We know we are trapped when we feel the Cruiser hit too soft a patch of sand with its right front wheel. Njoro quickly tries to reverse but the treachery of the sand, so beautiful and obedient less than thirty minutes before, has different ideas. You can hear the right back wheel quickly dig its own grave, almost literally, and see Njoros exasperated face as he brakes and exits to assess the damage. His prophecy is working at this point, and our disobedient selves are trapped in the desert at night.
The deserts sun has a consistently dangerous anger through the day. At night though, another force of nature takes over. The wind, already furious during the day, becomes something else when the dark sets in. It is furious and powerful, and carries sand with such speed that you feel like it is many tiny bullets being fired into the face. It doesnt help that it is a moonless night. Whatever is to be done now is to be done while fighting a blinding sand blizzard. The desert night has its own rules.
The first instinct when people get stuck is to try and get out of the mess as soon as possible. That instinct is often how people either end up getting away from natures treachery or dig themselves even deeper into the mess. That is where this story really starts, with Allan, now become a miner, falling to the ground below the cruiser and digging with his hands. The objective is to free the differential to give this beast a chance at getting out. He digs, and then the rest of us take shifts moving that sand away. We focus on the different wheels, not knowing that Chalbi is not even done with us. We carve a makeshift spade from a water bottle cut into two, and use the cool box cover too.
When we try to get out again, this time standing straight in the line of fire as the Cruiser throws sand into an already raging sand-filled wind, Chalbi tells us her story. She has trapped many men and women for entire nights, refusing to let them go home to their wives and husbands. She is the desert version of Mami Wota, from Uncle Bens Choice, who is beautiful and ridiculously sexy despite the dangers of loving her. She has claimed resilient men who thought themselves masters of nature. She has trapped cunning women who were sensei manipulators. Hers is to show who really rules the journey. With us, the idea is to cement the team building that has been growing since day one.
So she hits us with wave after wave of sand, testing the places where the concrete of this relationship doesnt look completely cured. She hits Allan and Kokan who, after we get spades and manpower brought in from Gas, the nearby town, with her dark humor and beauty. She hits Brian with stories of scorpions and desert hyenas, mostly fabrications by Halima, with our encouragement, to scare this gigantic man into going to survival mode. Chalbi threatens to swallow Maureen, now trapped in the dark deciding what would happen if it indeed became impossible to yank ourselves off the arms of this loving, clingy mistress.
Allan and Kokan, now covered in several layers of that infatuated dust, walk off to photograph the night sky. Several great shots will come from this misguided optimism, with the Milky Way looking like it has walked onto the catwalk. Brian survival mode, with extensive scenario calculation, drives him to sit on the drivers seat. The logic here, it seems, is that it is better to die in the drivers seat than to lie down in the sand, risking scorpions and whatever other creatures nature has evolved here, to look at how the night sky looks like an elaborate painting. In the background, a spade breaks.
The crew of young men who would save us digs and digs, and we keep trying to push and cajole this monster that has now met its match. The sand shifts but the Cruiser doesnt. Three more spades are shipped in from the town we have now turned into a supply point. None seems to be the right one Chalbi needs. She desires a sacrifice of some kind, something to convince her that this here is a team that is so well meshed it flows like water, molecules so integrated they seem to think alike. Someone walks off into the night, impatient and concerned about her toddler. She will back in a few minutes because the Chalbi at night is not to be played with. She will enjoy telling everyone, but really just Brian, that she has been chased by the desert hyenas. Sadistic.
It takes almost two hours to finally make some headway. With a mighty jerk to the front, Njoro frees it from Chalbis nauseating love. Our saviors choose to sit on the roof, with no concern for safety, and scream their heads off the entire way back to Gas. This story ends there, with Kokan telling the driver, on behalf of us all, to drive like he is alone in the car. He does, showing no concern for our already battered spines.