Driving across the Qattara Depression is a lot more pleasurable than it was in the latter half of the 1940s. Back then men killed each other and took each other as prisoners, sometimes in very great numbers. It was a place name often spoken next to those of Marsa Matruh and Tobruk — famous for both defeat and victory. That was a long time ago. There are still remnants of that era lying about such as slowly decaying vehicles above ground, and countless mines below. East to west the Qattara depression is about 400 km wide and far enough from any regularly trafficked road as to be dangerous. There is no water there. There are no plants there. There is salt, soil, sand and rocks baked hard by the relentless sun. Flip a rock over and see how the top is burnt black and the underside is sable. The sun transforms everything here — some faster than others.
It so happened that I came to know this place whilst traversing it from Bahariya to Siwa oasis. I had read about the Oracle of Ammon, who was consulted by Alexander the Great 2,300 years earlier. Many had been lost, seeking out the oracle in Siwa. But Alexander sent forth is two ravens who acted as his eyes and ears. They then returned and led Alexander and his cohort to the oasis where he would be proclaimed divine. Pharoe. I was determined to see the place, even if I was ravenless.
I was making the journey in a rather decrepit Russian-made Vaz 2121 jeep. I shared the interior of the jeep with a Japanese hairdresser I had only met the night before, (who was also travelling solo) the driver, his flatulent cousin, rusty cans, (some carrying water and some petrol) three bags of foodstuffs, an assortment of tools, and enough spare parts to construct about 73% of another Vaz 2121 just in case.
What looked like a road on the map was in fact a track in the dirt. There were lots of tracks here and there along the way but the most rutted was our road. In places it was sand, in others it was dirt, and in some places it was made up of shards of glass-sharp fragments of stone that shredded our tyres. Punctures were a common problem and progress was often slow with frequent stops. Our driver collected stones during our stops and then randomly threw them out the window as he drove. When asked why he did this, he said, ‘I heard there were live mines here and I want to see if I can trigger one.’ Reassuring.
At the start of the journey my Japanese fellow traveller and I chatted a lot. I related my desire to visit the site of the Oracle of Amun and the mud architecture of the Berbers. My Japanese friend replied that he was interested in the people, their style of dress, the nature of their cuisine and culture. We were two very different people from two very different culture but each curious to see through each other’s eyes.
On the morning of the second day we found ourselves traversing a long straight section and saw a checkpoint in the distance. It was a surreal scene — a rickety red and white beam across the road in the middle of a vast, flat landscape. It would have been easy enough to drive far off to the left or right of the checkpoint I suppose, but there was always that thought we might find a mine. Anyway, our driver had warned us of the possibility of encountering a manned checkpoint and to be prepared to give the guard some money. He now told us to hide our wallets, put some small banknotes in our front pockets and to sit on our passports.
As we pulled up to the barrier a small, slender man came out of a white-washed hut just to the left of the barrier. He looked about 18 years old and wore a baggy uniform of well worn and heavily soiled rough, green wool. He had a matching baseball type cap and no laces in his dusty boots. He looked as though we had just woke him up. From his shoulder was slung the most poorly maintained Kalashnikov rifle I had ever seen. What wasn’t rusted was filthy or improperly assembled. He looked like a man who wished he was anywhere but where he was. Most of all he looked like someone who wanted to be sleeping.
He spoke slowly to our driver who then produced his documents as did his cousin. We held up our passports as directed by our driver but did not hand them over. The guard then handed the papers back and then asked some questions. The driver asked us if we could give the guard some food. We handed him most of our remaining food as we were by then not terribly far from our destination. He took our offerings and nodded to us. He nodded at us but did not smile. He began speaking again to our driver and was becoming visibly more upset as he spoke. For a moment I thought he might cry. He then looked up into the face of our driver and stopped speaking.
Our driver turned towards us and said that the soldier had been at this post for just over a month. He was here with one other. The last vehicle they had seen was three weeks earlier and shortly after that his fellow guard disappeared while on his watch, leaving him alone with half the food and no radio. He had no idea when he would be relieved.
The guard began speaking again to our driver. There was a pause and we could tell that the conversation had changed in nature. Our driver looked nervous. The guard began fingering the trigger guard of his weapon.
‘Now he wants money,’ whispered our driver to us.
Without thinking I said loud enough for all to hear, that the weapon he carried was in no condition to be fired. And if his departed colleague had taken the radio he also probably took any ammunition they might have had as a precaution. If his threat was real he would have opened with that. The Japanese guy said, remind him that he has been a good man so far. He has been honourable and loyal. His family would be proud of him staying loyal to his post, and being hospitable to travellers.’
I thought that my travelling companion’s words were so much more useful than mine in defusing the situation. I could only see the weakness of the threat, and yet he could see the guard as essentially a frightened teenager who still wanted to be good in the eyes of his family.
The driver smiled at the young man and spoke a few words. The young man took a step or two back, his head drooped and he pivoted and walked to the barrier and raised it for us. As we drove through he saluted. We drove under the barrier and then stopped. Our driver turned to us and asked if we would like to donate some money to the young man. We both removed some banknotes from our pockets and gave them to him. He stepped out of the jeep and walked over to the guard and tucked the bills into his shirt pocket and patted him on the shoulder. I glanced at the driver’s seat and spotted a worn but well-maintained pistol sitting there.
Our driver returned and drove off, saying ‘you were both right.’
We sat in silence for the remaining couple of hours driving. I thought long and hard about what my travel buddy had said. I felt slightly ashamed that I had been more focused on the man’s weapon than I was his situation and character. And I was deeply impressed by our driver’s calm. He spoke calmly and respectfully but made sure the young man knew he was armed. And once we were through the barrier he found a way to help him without making him lose face. Strong and delicate.
Like so many other times before and to come, I realised that I had possessed an underlying feeling of self awareness, and empathy for those around me. It was a feeling I did not deserve. They say that confusion is the first step towards enlightenment and this was a moment where my assumptions were proven false, put me in a place of confusion and embarrassment by my lack of understanding. I was being schooled. But I was grateful to be just aware enough to realise what was going on.
This is an example of a situation where things I assumed about myself and others proved untrue. I looked down upon people for no good reason. But the experience began a period of reflection that is often required to allow change to enter. This was such a moment. Tell me one of your stories and what you learned. I’ll be back shortly to share what I began to learn from this experience…