Confessions of a Travel Writerby Don Pinnock / 04.10.2013
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’. So 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 backwoods kid in the 1960s. What I’d realised, though, was that other cultures weren’t scary, they were fascinating.
A few years later, after the security police had hounded me out of Soweto and South Africa (for living on the wrong side of the tracks), I ended up in southern Morocco covering 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. William Burroughs was penning his obscure novels 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 Marrakech express. It was a cool place to be.
Out in the desert, though, a crazy war was going on between the Moroccan military and Taureg guerrillas called the Politsario over who owned that bit of the Sahara. I hitched a ride south with two crazy Frenchmen and, on the way, we camped on a vast beach at Essaouira where Jimmi 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.
Goulimine, 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 guerillas. 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 and through the hills, selecting a camp site 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 entirely in blue with a cloth covering his nose and mouth. There was a large, curved knife sheathed at his belt and in his hand was an Uzzi submachine gun. I nearly died of fright, but remembered the ways of the desert, placing my right hand on my heart and greeting 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, and the photographer in me wanted to capture him on film. I raised my camera and he whipped the Uzzi 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 Taureg 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 Politsario.
When we got back to Goulimine 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 back up the road towards Casablanca.
Back in Tangier I discovered what had happened. The night we slept beyond Goulimine, Politsario 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 Politsario: Blue 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 may explain why I became a travel writer.