‘We tried to find the two people I saw. Then I couldn’t locate our camp in the dark. It’s impossible to keep directions here at night because it all looks the same” Andi choked. ‘It’s actually pretty easy’, I couldn’t resist saying. ‘How?’ I pointed over my shoulder to the North Star, unmistakeably emblazoned in the sky above us. ‘Kinda hard to make that out with my headlight on’, he replied to his defence. ‘That is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you mate’, I said, referring to our discussion about proper night vision earlier.
Then Andi repeated his story of how he had encountered the two strangers ‘spying’ on us. ‘Did you introduce us and offered them a place at our camp fire?’, I inquired. ‘Hell no’, came his puzzled reply, ‘I was totally shocked when they appeared in the dark, sitting there just five yards in front of me.’ I grinned: ‘So you flashed them with your headlamp, then turned away and went calling for backup?’ ‘They were so well hidden that I almost stepped on them. Not even a fire, just some glowing embers in a pot’, he explained. ‘Well that is how the Berbers keep the fire to brew their tea’. The method is as ingeniously as it is labour-saving. Nothing secretive about it’, I said. ‘But they were so close to our place’, Andi gesticulated.
‘Relax bro, this is not our place. It’s their place. It’s their backyard. These people and their forefathers live here since the time these cairns were built which you see everywhere. We only come here for three weeks and whirl up some dust, but those guys live here. It’s their country.’
‘Seriously’, I continued, ‘what would you do if one day you spot a group of strangers on your land? Imagine they drive around in circles all day, stop to pick up rocks, only to throw them out of the window again. Then they put up a camp, light a humungous fire, laugh and sing and do other silly things all night. Right. You’d probably take a friend and walk up there to see what all this is about. And because they are many and you don’t know if they’re friendly and because you are polite and you don’t want to crash into somebody else’s party in the middle of the night, you’d wait to the morning to say hello. And that’s very likely what your two friends out there were about to do. But what happens next? Before you can walk over to their camp in the morning in order to kindly ask what they are doing on your land, one of the strangers, a tall guy with acid-perforated trousers and with a funny lamp on his head, sneaks up on you, turns without a word and runs back to alert his friends. I tell you, if I had been them, I’d be pretty worried by now and would get away from these lunatics, the quicker the better.’
‘I hadn’t seen it that way …’, Andi thoughtfully replied. Seeing that he was not yet totally convinced I continued to explain that among the desert dwelling tribes of the Sahara it is considered impolite, and may even be understood as an act of rudeness and disrespect, to walk up to another camp after dusk. For this reason a new camp is usually pitched at a certain distance, often within sight, in order to show that one has nothing to hide, and that’s most likely how it was in our case.
It appeared that I was partly to blame for my friend’s fearful reaction to the sudden encounter. On the previous day, during our drive into the desert, I had briefed Andi about the known activities of terrorist groups that operated across the Moroccan borders in neighbouring countries. I also mentioned an infiltrating attempt of one of these cells that was fortunately forestalled by Moroccan armed forces, and in the process I advised my co driver to always keep his eyes open and to be alert in the desert. In this case he had followed my advice, and consequently taken the first two shepherds who came along for a local sleeper cell.