Every Man is, in fact, “an Island”


I was in the middle of the Utah desert when six co-ordinated terrorist attacks rocked the streets of Paris, expunging the life from the bodies of 129 people. In my desert world, wandering through my Kingdom of Rocks and Sand, I knew nothing of the World Outside. I had disconnected and unplugged – finding solipsism in my solitude.


The Canyonlands of Utah. No jihadists in this desert…

I emerged from the desert to news of the attacks – live updates on the BBC; terrorist profiles on Le Mondegood analysis, bad analysis and everything in between from internet news sources, everywhere. Aside from the initial shock which came with reconnecting with the horrors taking place outside my little bubble, I also couldn’t help but think that my very existence, the life I’d been living for the past three weeks – rock climbing in the Utah desert – was empty, selfish, maybe even abhorrent, given what was happening elsewhere in our burning Global-Village.

But then, when I read the news shorts about what other people were doing in the rest of the world – beheading journalists, dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, stigmatizing minorities based on their religious preferences – I realized that really, what I was doing – living a life of my own selfish choosing in a beautiful place – wasn’t so bad after all. I wasn’t hurting anybody was I?



Arches National Park. No jihadists here either…

One of my desert climbing partners, Dan, was an Infantry Recon soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. Dan had spent 27 months of his four year stint in the US Army deployed to Iraq, fighting a hopeless war in the service of a misguided political philosophy. 19 of the 300 men he deployed with never returned home. His brothers-in-arms were practically decimated.

So, craving a better life, Dan had finished his military service, and like me, had decided to withdraw from the World Outside, retreating to an island of relative isolation (Durango, Colorado) in order to pursue a lifestyle which, though perhaps more selfish than the selfless servitude of military life, would never require him to pick up a weapon and put a bullet between somebody’s eyes.


Dan in his natural habitat.

Indeed, I thought to myself, as I read over what a New York billionaire was suggesting we Westerners do to solve the problems of the Middle East, maybe our outlook going into the future ought to be a little bit more isolationist. Maybe, instead of focusing our attentions outward – by busying ourselves with projecting force and influence into places where we’re not wanted (under the guise of selfless humanitarianism or “spreading democracy”) – we ought to become a little bit more inwardly-focussed, a little bit more selfish. We need to change the way we engage with the rest of the world, I would argue.


We should have listened to this guy…

The Global-Village in which we now live affords us great opportunities for economic interdependence, expanded networks of trade, innovation through the sharing of information, and diplomatic engagement to tackle tough issues like climate change. But the Global-Village also presents a series of complex and dangerous threats to our way of life. It shortens distances between Us and Others, bringing us closer into contact with those who would do us harm. It creates electronic pathways for dangerous ideas to flood our idea-scapes, radicalizing our youth with info-bites from foreign wars.

In an era where the UN, NATO and R2P blend into practically-synonymous acronyms representing the same ideas, we have told ourselves that our liberal humanitarianism bequeaths us with a responsibility to protect the downtrodden in other parts of the world – invading and occupying countries in order to free them, destroying villages in order to save them. Our paternalistic obsession with effecting “positive change” in linguistically- and culturally-distinct parts of the world, I would argue, is doing little to secure the safety and dignity of oppressed peoples in the Third World and even less to secure our own safety.

Now, it may just be that what is needed to destroy ISIS once and for all is a good bombing campaign targeting Al-Baghdadi’s stronghold in Raqqa, but for the most part what I can take away from this foreign and domestic crisis that is all things ISIS, is that the Western world should return to a position of political isolationism.

Here we might learn from the mountain republic of Switzerland, whose greatest military humiliation (unlike our repeated humiliations in Vietnam Afghanistan and Iraq) in recent years has been the fashion choices of its soldiers in the Vatican. Or here too, we might learn from the North Sentinelese, an island-people adrift in the Andaman Sea who, rather than worrying about where ISIS is going to strike next haven’t even heard of ISIS because they live in hermetically-sealed isolation, having had almost no contact with the outside world. The Swiss and the Sentinelese share two things in common – they are largely insulated against negative developments in the World Outside (ie: they are isolated) and they profit economically from their neutrality (ie: they are selfish) – the Swiss through their banks and the Sentinelese through their safe and secure hordes of coconuts.

Therefore, I advocate, rather than continuing on a tangent of selflessness and interventionism (as has been the trend during the last twenty years), we the people of the West might profer from a new outlook of selfishness and isolationism.


This Sentinelese guy knows how to deal with intruders. Source: survival international.org

With all these case studies in mind I propose a substantive retreat from the Global-Village in order to create a hypothetical island-village on a new Island – the Island formerly known as the West. This hypothetical Island would be our Island and ours only – a new polity whose primary political ideals are isolationism and selfishness.

Social harmony is created and sustained on the Island by agreeing on a series of basic principles on which everybody can and must agree if they are to live on the Island. These principles should not be religious or cultural, since there are already many different religions and cultures which make up our Island’s demography. Naturally however, since the Island in question is being created in “the West”, these basic principles should be “Western principles”. Some of these principles might include the assumption that democracy is the best way to govern the Island; or that, fundamentally, people have a series of basic liberties which enable them to lead the life of their own choosing, in the manner which they deem fit and in a way which does no harm to others. “We on the Island like freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of worship” – et cetera, et cetera.

In addition to these agreed-upon principles there are barriers which will inhibit and even prevent entry to Others who would come to the Island from the World Outside. An island, by definition, is not easily accessible to outsiders. There is an ocean which separates the Island from the World Outside. Island-dwellers, therefore, live (at risk of being seen to inappropriately quote from A Few Good Men) in a world with barriers. And these barriers are good for those who dwell on the Island.

There are naturally-occurring, geographic barriers (the oceans) which provide an immediate barricade against external aggression. And there are human barriers – sea mines and battlefield blockades and walls with soldiers on them – which provide another layer of defence in-depth. On some level, the Islanders must be prepared to defend their Island and to defend their way of life. And they should do so. When the crazies board their little jihad-boats and cross the seas to do harm to our little Island, the Islanders must stand ready to blow their boats out of the water.


The author surveilling shipping lanes on a reconnaissance patrol with one of the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units. Intruders not welcome.

Creating this Island is not the same as creating Utopia. Utopia is Fantasy and the Island will be Real (at least, hypothetically real anyway). The Island will still have its problems. Christian Islanders will have to get along with Muslim Islanders. Brown people will have to get along with white. For the good of the Island.

In addition to the isolation we will make for ourselves, we Islanders will be a selfish people. We will cease to concern ourselves with liberating the un-liberated. De oppresso liber be damned – I’ve got some barramundi fishing to doWe will cease dropping cluster-bombs so that others may revel in the virtues of democracy. We will be selfish.


Kill eels, not Arabs.

In retreating from the woes of what is happening beyond our Island, the West will have achieved two great successes – 1.) dodge culpability for negative developments in the World Outside (eg: the rise of ISIS in post-Saddam Iraq); and 2.) be better prepared to defend ourselves against external aggression due to the reductions in cost (both in blood and treasure) from not engaging in foreign wars.

All islands have limited real estate and fixed finite resources. This means that everybody cannot come to the Island. As any Sentinelese will probably tell you – there are only enough coconuts for so many. This unfortunate (perhaps even “inconvenient”) truth means that not everybody can come to the Island. Australia’s national anthem: “for those who come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share”, may need to be revised.

But here of course, we arrive at the difficult question regarding what to do about refugees who come to the Island. What do we do about those miserly  refugees from Syria?

Refugees from the World Outside will want to come to our Island. This is natural. Inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to drink coconut water and dance with our beauties on our white, sandy beaches? Should we help these asylum-seekers? And if we did wouldn’t this go against our lofty principles of Islander selfishness?

Here, I would argue, Islanders can both take in refugees and still remain true to our selfish ideals.

Firstly, altruism, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily the antithesis of selfishness. People give money to feel-good charities so they can post the pictures of their sponsor-child on Facebook and accumulate “likes” from their friends. Priests give blessings to the elderly so they can get into Heaven. We can still do good things for our own selfish reasons. And we should. Because it helps everybody and hurts no one. And this is one of the Island’s chief principles.

In addition to this, there are other benefits to accepting a few people from the outside. Accepting some outsiders onto the Island will prevent us from suffering the ills of what anthropologists call “endogamy” – marrying within (and only within) the tribe. A society without immigrants just like a gene pool without new genes, will stagnate. Societies need new ideas, new inventions and new foods if they are to survive – Japanese robotics, Ethiopian intuitive road safety, Middle Eastern cuisine – the Island will benefit from all these fresh and new things. And we will need migrants to bring all these ideas, inventions and new foods to our doorstep.

So yes, inhabitants of the Island should accept refugees provided that these refugees can agree to abide by the principles of Island living. Let those who would do harm to our Island, leave the Island and let us still vet everybody who would come to the Island… For the good of the Island.

Thus, we arrive at the chief point of this piece. Retreating politically from developments in the World Outside is not the same as not having a foreign policy. Just as the Swiss gladly take foreign rich people’s money and the North Sentinelese stripped an Indian anthropologist naked and took his glasses, we can still have a give-and-take relationship with the World Outside – but we can do so from the isolation of our Island.

Perhaps the most pleasant consequence of dispensing with our old “selflessness” in favour of selfish isolationism will be the end of the liberal interventionism for which the current crisis in Iraq and the ISIS-pocalypse in Syria can partly be traced.

John Bolton may be right that a new state for Arab Sunnis is exactly what the Middle-East needs (although his designation of “Sunni-Stan” proves that he can’t differentiate between the languages of Central Asia and the Arabic-speaking Middle East), but it is not for us to say.

Others (including myself), have perhaps made similar blunders in their policy suggestions – confusing things which are happening overseas with things which might effect us. In a recent Washington Post article, Liz Sly has made a valiant effort to determine whether or not “it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East?” The answer is of course “yes” it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East. That place went down the toilet a long time ago. Ultimately however, Sly’s question is the wrong one to ask. The real question is: “should the West try to solve the problems of the Middle East?” or “was the West ever capable of solving the problems of the Middle East in the first place?” The answers to both of these questions is “no”. Since we can’t do anything for the Middle East I would argue that we shouldn’t bother trying in future. Thus, the Island.

It may indeed be that ISIS has become too big to ignore. Intensified military action may be required to destroy, finally, the little jihad-island ISIS has created for itself in Raqqa. We might need to drone Baghdadi’s death cult into oblivion before retreating into our little shell. You can call it pre-emptive isolationism. But after this war is over, after ISIS is defeated – it may be an Island mentality which will prevent us from inadvertently creating another ISIS – the ISIS of the future.


Russian tanks line the beaches of Soqotra – an isolated island adrift in the ocean between Yemen and Somalia


The island of Soqotra is home to an Arabic-speaking Bedouin people, hundreds of endemic species and a peace which is endemic in the region.


A Stroll through Squamish (#MyMeru)

One must imagine Sisyphus happy – Albert Camus

Everest climbing and anthropology are united to the extent that they are both pretty useless – Mike Thompson, mountaineer/anthropologist

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

Climbing (n.): “A ritualised performative act, driven by individual free will and centred around the ascent of mountains and/or rocks and rock faces, which serves no immediately apparent function other than self-validation and the Sisyphean pursuit of ‘fun’ (and/or suffering).”

That’s about as good a definition of climbing as my anthropological training can produce. Depending on who you ask, climbing might also be a ritualised example of “deep play” where the only immediate benefit to the climber is the visceral proof of his or her consciousness (this, according to Steve House who had Mishima’s “cut the apple and reveal the core” metaphor in mind here).

“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.  Some rotten day in wintry New Zealand a few years ago.

The key point to note here, is that yes, climbing is a meaningless pursuit (and yes, this is true even despite the best efforts of these American-Filipino auxiliaries who thought that climbing the city walls of Manila could be militarily useful). Climbing has neither function nor currency and thus resists any true anthropological explanation (at least within a structural-functionalist mode of attention). But on one fine September morning, the apparent uselessness of it all had done nothing to prevent us from wanting to play the game anyway.

Of course, climbing is not merely a single homogeneous game but a multiplicity of thematically linked games taking place in different kinds of terrain (boulders, crags, frozen waterfalls, granite big walls, snowy mountains) and using different rulebooks (boltless? O2-less? sleeping-bag-less? ropeless? trouserless?). Today, the game we had chosen to play was a game involving not just a single ascent of a single peak but rather an “enchaînement” of multiple peaks conducted according to the rules and parameters of what Lito Tejada Flores called “the super-alpine game”, albeit in a significantly more people-friendly environment than that of “the real mountains”.

The goal we had set ourselves was meaningless. The timeframe, arbitrary. We wanted to climb all of Squamish’s great rock faces in a single day. Shannon Falls, The Papoose, The Malamute, The Chief and The Squaw – all in one push, linking them together on foot. (Actually we had wanted to include the Smoke Bluffs as well but 19 hours in we got lazy). I like link-ups and traverses. Scaling granite big-walls seems like it might even be useful when you use climbing as a means of travel – as a way of getting from point A to point B… A par cours (à la David Belle and the French urban free-running crowd).

Of course, in hindsight, the funnest part of our day was scoffing fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries from Maggs 99 (the best Mexican cantina in North America) at midnight in the Apron parking lot, but we’d told ourselves at the start of the day that such an endeavour might be fun.

As more than one mountaineer has put it (and generally this comes from the kind of mountaineer who refers to himself as an “alpinist”… à les alpinistes de l’Haute-Savoie qui grimpent “léger expresse”) – it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.

So with this essay by Jon Krakauer about futility and entropy in the back of my mind and this essay by Mark Twight about drive and energy goading me on, I went climbing with my friend Andrew, even if it was all just a bit of useless fun. And we climbed all the great rock faces of Squamish over the course of a single day and afterwards, with our egos temporarily slaked, we retired to our vans.

So here’s a photo-essay of our 19 hour stroll around town.

1. Shannon Falls (Coastal Salish: “Kookx-um”)

The day began in the van. It was dark outside. 4am dark.

Ellie was still asleep so I fired up the jet-engine stove and russelled around noisily in the dark. I ate some oatmeal. Apple and cinnamon flavoured. When I opened the door and rolled out of bed, Andrew was there with his head torch (North Americans call these objects “headlamps”) on his head and his harness around his hips. We ran to the base of Shannon Falls. The running wouldn’t last.

We looked up at the route. It was soaking. Glistening wet in the light thrown out by the shipyard across the Sound. Who’d have thought that Shannon Falls was a big seep?

Shannon Falls is sacred in Native cosmology as the place where Xwechtaal, the hero-founder of the Squamish nation, slayed the two-headed creator serpent, Sinulhkay. Legend has it that in order to acquire the powers required to defeat Sinulhkay, he first had to bathe in the sacred waters of the falls. A couple of lessons to take away from that one, the most obvious being that if we were going to do our little link-up it seemed logical that we’d have to do some waterfall-bathing. The route goes at 5.7. Pretty cutting edge – more so in the wet. Skyward bound, we slip-slid and grovelled into the dark.


Andrew’s head torch was out of battery by pitch three. I pontificated about preparation. We ran back to the car to get new lithiums and jogged onto the next cliff-face.

2. The Papoose (The Baby)

We hit the base of the Papoose and started up the first pitches, ascending into a racing dawn. The early morning sky was pale and grey. The cliff was pleasantly dry.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

Just as the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif are imagined by the Fulani as the five members of a man’s family, the granitic monoliths looming above Howe Sound are personified accordingly. “Papoose” means “baby”; the Malamute, the trusty dog; the Stawamus Chief, the head of the family and the “Squaw” (now known as Slhanay), his wife, sits cracked and cackling on his left side, looming over the meth-dens and trailer-parks (and rather nice, cookie-cut estates) of Valleycliffe.

The Papoose is a round batholith of glacier-polished granite – baby bum smooth. There is some quote-unquote “real” climbing on the Papoose. I climbed a crack. It was fun.

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Andrew takes it to the top.

Andrew takes it to the top.

3. The Malamute (The Doggy)

We topped out, went back to sea level, ran along the highway and filled our water bottles up at the Chief carpark. Then we sauntered across the bridge and down the side of the Malamute, hungry for the next leg of our skyline stroll. We hit the railway.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.


Andrew led the first pitch on our way to the top. Lay-backing on wet rock. Mint conditions.



I got the second half of the Malamute.

I got the second half of the Malamute.

4. The Chief (“Siam Smanit”)… Big Daddy

We continued onwards and up the Chief – Big Daddy – the second biggest granite monolith in North America. Second comes right after first. Squamish legend says that the Chief was once a longhouse which, at a time of great flooding was transformed by two magical brothers into a refuge for the Squamish people. The Chief is Canada’s very own Ark. Pretty cool, really. Wondering where the Transformer Brothers had been two weeks ago when my van had been leaking like a sieve in a rainstorm, I climbed on.

The lower half of the Apron took us twenty minutes. We’d both climbed the route before. We started up the second half on a route that neither of us knew. It took us two hours. Easy slabs. Much wondering. Mostly run-out. Forgettable. We got lost a few times.


Yellow cam in a hollow flake. No more protection on the pitch. Bomb-squad.

We carried on up the Squamish Buttress. I snaked the sharp end for the crux pitch. I huffed and puffed. I sent. The Buttress was the first big route I’d done in Squamish so what better way to herald in the end of the climbing season than with a re-send of my first route up the Chief?

Top of the Squamish Buttress

Top of the Squamish Buttress

From the top of the First Peak, I gazed over the Coastal Range, spying out the jet black knife-point of the Black Tusk off in the distance. It’s a nice little peak. I’d hiked it with my girlfriend earlier in the season. The Black Tusk is known as “T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7eh” in Coastal Salish (but really, who can pronounce that?) meaning “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. Finding itself in plum position in the heart of the Garibaldi wilderness, it remains one of the more inspiring pieces of choss I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Artful contemplation...

Artful contemplation overlooking Squamish… #MYMERU


Ellie getting to know the meaning of the word “scree” on the Black Tusk, earlier in the summer.


Another panorama from the Black Tusk

5. The Squaw (Slhanay). 

We descended from the First Peak and looped round the back toward the Squaw. We weren’t running anymore. We traced along the base of the Second and Third Peak and around the Cirque of the Uncrackables Wall.

We decided against including the Cobra Crack into our link-up

We decided against including the Cobra Crack (5.14b) into our link-up

We arrived at the col between the Chief and the Squaw just as the sun was setting behind the Tantalus Range. The view was decent.

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Squaw was given its name by the first Western settlers – beer-swilling types who came to town with lumber on their minds and the displacement of others in their hearts. I guess they thought that the big granitic dome next to the Chief, rather resembled a devious wench chained to her master’s left-hand side. “Bit sexist,” the council later decided, so with the McKinley/Denali debate in mind, they picked a new First Nations name – “Slhanay”… which still ended up meaning the same thing – “woman”. Regardless, everyone still calls the Squaw, the Squaw.

Anyway, the final pitches up the Squaw were horrific – and not because the climbing was hard but because our bodies were wasted. She proved to be a bitch indeed. By the end, we were cruxing out on 5.7 lay-backing. Alex Honnold eat your heart out.

Tonight there was a lunar eclipse but the red moon was shielded from view by the looming walls to which we had chained ourselves. We still had a bit to go at around 10 o’clock. I was starting to feel less like Sisyphus and more like Tityos – the Greek giant who was chained to a rock to have his liver feasted on by a pair of vultures – big-wall climbers can probably relate. Down in town, our friends were watching us from Mag’s – two little pin-pricks of light, doddling up a rock in the dark.

We topped out, cheered some, wondered why we had just done what we had done and headed back down to the road, running the last few kilometres along the Mamquam FSR to the car. Ellie was waiting there with fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries and a large Coke to wash it all down. Then I went to bed.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

The next day I posted a short excerpt about our climb on social media and then I wrote this blog post about it. And as the comments flowed in, I saw that #Meru and #TheNorthFace was still trending on “InstaTweetMyFaceGram” and people were hashtagging their adventures everywhere, all the time. As per usual. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps – despite all the theories about “deep play” and “Type III fun” – if perhaps climbing does have a “function” after all.

Cultural capital” (see Pierre Bourdieu). But that’s another blog post.


Mother of the Wind

We are homo sapiens – the tool users. We earn the name by developing tools to increase our leverage on the world around us, and with this increased technological leverage comes a growing sense of power. This position of advantage which protects us from wild nature we call Civilization. Our security increases as we apply more leverage, but along with it we notice a growing isolation from the earth. We crowd into cities which shut out the rhythms of the planet – daybreak, high tide, wispy cirrus high overhead yelling storm tomorrow, moonrise, Orion going south for the winter. Perceptions dull and we come to accept a blunting of feeling in the shadow of security. Drunk with power, I find that I am out of my senses. I, tool man, long for the immediacy of contact to brighten my senses again, to bring me nearer the world once more; in security I have forgotten how to dance.” – Yvon Chouinard, “Climbing Ice

Everything is quiet in my little glass box as it rises through the clouds. The rain has subsided. Only the mist – thick and grey – remains, clinging to the green hillsides. The leaves of the Douglas firs shiver, renewed and alive. I know the air outside is cold and wet but inside the gondola cart, the air is warm and dry. I am comfortable as I ferry a cartload of French fries from the base to the summit lodge.


The day grows older and the clouds begin to part, the first rays of sunlight piercing through the white. I return to the base again with a new shopping list. When I arrive back at the summit later in the afternoon there is a horde of tourists lined up in the cafeteria hall. They file along the bain-marie with the relentlessness of a factory assembly line. The cooks in their black uniforms pile mac and cheese, burgers, pork ribs and poutine onto freshly-wiped plastic trays. The horde moves on. They reach the till, they swipe their cards and with their trays overflowing, they move out onto the observation deck – a grazing ground with a view.

After eating, the iPhones and SLRs come out. Buttons are pressed, shutters flicker, high-powered lenses click into place. Here, as anywhere, it is not the view itself but the photo of the view which is important. It is not what the eyes have seen but what the wide-angle lens has captured. The panoramas, the selfies.  The view is what you pay for. The scene becomes pixels, memories reduced to data. Instagram snaps, Facebook profile pics – they’re all here waiting for you. Ride the gondola. Eat some food. Take some photos. Make some garbage.

Another busload arrives at the base and a conga-line of packed glass carts arrives at the summit. The daily cultural tour begins – a representative of the local First Nations arrives. With a crowd thronging around her, she gesticulates wildly at various points of interest. She’s wearing a feather in her hair. Designer sunglasses – made in Italy. North Face jacket – made in Vietnam.

“Natural medicines were sourced from plants in the woods around us,” she says. “The Squamish people never had need of a drug store.”

She points up at Skypilot, the rocky peak watching over the Shannan valley. She begins talking about it. Bare of snow and ice to keep it glued it together, Skypilot is crumbling beneath itself. The glacier which feeds Shannan creek is almost gone. Last winter was the driest on record. The falls have become a trickle. At the height of summer, the gondola was taking water from Shannan creek. An emergency agreement with First Nations and BC Parks. The toilets must keep flushing. The kitchen faucets must keep running. The customer does not like to go without.


Now the cultural tour is over. There are no more pictures left to take. What reason is there to linger? The horde begins to thin. No one takes the walking trail back to the base. That’s what the gondola is for.

Remaining at the summit, on the back end of the assembly line, I pile garbage onto a cart, prepping the detritus for downloading.

I board a glass cabin of my own. The doors close behind me. Everything is quiet again on the way back down. Below, the contours and colours of the landscape – the forested hills, the bulges of granitic mountaintops, the wide flat expanse of the Sound and the distant glaciers of the Coastal Range – meld one into the other: shades of green, of grey, of blue, of whitest white. To me, on the other side of the glass, the view may as well be a postcard – a messy watercolour of jumbled hues and shades. There is no texture, no depth of field, no ignition of the senses – just a scene.


I look to my right. It is the white of the mountains that arrests my attention more than any of the other colours. the far-off, the cold, the uninhabited. Inside my box, I feel a disconnect between me and the world outside. I am aware that a seaborne breeze is blowing hard against the cabin but I do not feel it cold and fresh and salty on my skin. I see the colours but I do not feel myself amongst them. I observe but I am not apart of.

High on the Chief, a day later, I slide my hand into a crack in the granite and flex my palm and thumb. My hand jams into place and I climb higher, hanging off skin and bone. I reach a small ledge. Two ring bolts and two hangers await me, affixed to the wall. I did not place these anchor bolts but I clip myself to them, trusting them implicitly, and belay my friends towards me. As I pull in the slack, I take in the granite walls around me, rising up on either side. I hear the rumbling of a truck in the distance and look over at the mine site across the way. The sound of exploding rock in the quarry. A copper mine. Sometimes I’ve wondered if the green deposits in the Sound are glacial or man-made.

Rowdy car horns are sounding on the highway below. A traffic jam has built up on the road back to Vancouver. A tugboat chugs down the fjord, dragging a bundle of wooden logs, bobbing side-by-side, through the water. Kitesurfers wallow about in the shallow water either side of the spit. A busy scene.

Squamish. An old logging town. An old mining town. An outdoors town. I hear the shouts of climbers elsewhere on the walls of the Chief. I pull in more slack and my friends climb higher towards me. Here I am, hanging from a pair of bolts that I did not place, climbing a granite big-wall with just four abseils between me and a supermarket. Somewhere below, a long-line helicopter waits dormant on a helipad – a search and rescue team always on standby. I am insured against calamity.

My friends arrive at the belay and we climb on, navigating the complex ridgeline of the Angel’s Crest – climbing toward the second summit. A gust of wind rustles through my hair as I traverse the razor-backed knife’s edge of the Acrophobes tower. I feel comfortable in my sticky rubber shoes and I remove one hand from the rock. I look down at the town again.

The Acrophobes, The Angel's Crest.

The Acrophobes, The Angel’s Crest.

Squamish. Skwxwú7mesh, in the Native tongue. When said aloud, it seems more a whisper than word. Whispered with the sighing of the wind through the spruce trees. Whispered by the last glimmer of the sun as it sets behind the Tantalus Range. Whispered by the waters of the Sound as they change from green to blue and from blue to ultramarine in the evening. It sounds old – primordial. Squamish. “The Mother of the wind”.

There was not always bolts on the Chief. There was not always the hustle and bustle of the town below. In earlier times, Squamish warriors would scale the low-angle faces of the Chief in barefeet and full battle garb to harden their minds and bodies. What must the fjord have looked like in those days? Before the copper mine? Before the pulp mill? before the golden arches next to Highway 99? Before the gondola? Before Man? What must this place have looked like?

The author high on the Chief (Photo: Pete Harris)

(Photo: Pete Harris)

Standing at the base of the Chief, in the climber’s campground, I look up at a prominent line of basalt – the Black Dyke – which snakes its way from sea level to summit. Squamish legend tells of a mythical serpent – Say-Noth-Ka – who, fleeing the might of a Native hero, slithered up the walls of the Chief, leaving this glistening path of geologic slime in its wake. Say-Noth-Ka fled across the landscape, carving out mountains and valleys and runnels for rivers and waterfalls. After hiding in the pools at the base of Shannan Falls, the warrior finally tracked Say-Noth-Ka down and slew the beast. Shannan Falls thus became a sacred site for the Squamish people. Today, with the glaciers bare and the rivers dry, the falls are reduced to a trickle. A line of bolts goes the whole way up the Black Dyke.

Down from the wall and back at work, I sit in my little glass cabin, moving French fries, once again, up through the mist. Working in logistics means keeping the summit fridge stocked. I arrive at the top. The crowds are thronging as usual – a camera lens between iris and panorama. There is the sound of French fries in the deep fryer, the chink of glasses at the bar, the rachet and jingle of the cash register as another North Face jacket goes into a shopping bag. The customer, his pockets a little lighter, his stomach a little fuller, steps outside into the mist. He rips the jacket from the shopping bag and pulls the new jacket around his shoulders. He struggles with the sleeves but then zips it up tight to the neck. The shopping bag and receipt goes straight into the garbage…

Eager are we to armour ourselves against Nature. So eager, in fact, that our armour has become inescapable. It has smothered us. It is only by breaking free from this armour, by leaving Civilisation behind us on the trail of the known and the comfortable, and by exposing ourselves, our whole selves, to Nature and her rawness, that the worth of Man can truly be found.

On the gondola ride back down, I gaze up at the mountains – Garibaldi and Atwell and the Coastal Range beyond – hanging white and wild and mighty. The Mother is calling me to be with her children amongst the tops.

At the Rubble Creek trailhead, I slide an ice axe into the straps of my backpack. I watch the sun rise over the Douglas Firs, and with my gear stripped down to the bare essentials – the minimum I need to survive – I shoulder my pack and walk into the wild.


We are all to blame for the foreign fighters phenomenon

On Wednesday morning, I woke up to an email from an ABC producer asking me to write an article about Reece Harding, a 23-year-old Australian killed in Syria on Tuesday. Reece, who I’d never met before, died after stepping on a landmine while fighting with the Kurds. The basic news was this – last week Reece Harding was alive. Now he is dead. And now, a newscaster was asking me to write about it and get a piece out there while his death was still topical.

It wasn’t a random coincidence that I was being asked to chime in on Reece’s death. In February, an obituary I’d written for a friend of mine killed in similar circumstances in Syria had been met with an overwhelming audience response and now the newscaster was coming back for more. This time I was being asked to focus on the role which social media plays in recruiting young Australians to fight in Syria, focusing in particular on the Lions of Rojava Facebook page which is targeting young Australian males to go and fight with the Kurds. I had been given a headline and a deadline and was being asked to contribute to the media cycle as it grinds the blood and bones of a horrible reality into info-bites for people to digest.

Even though writing this piece about “the latest Australian to die in Syria” seemed to take the “human” out of human interest story, I agreed to it. But as I sat in the warmth of the early morning sunlight thinking about why a living breathing young Australian had gone to Syria to fight with a Kurdish militia in the fight against ISIS, I realized that in contributing to the global media obsession with Syria, ISIS and “the foreign fighter phenomenon” it was quite possible that I was part of the problem. Why did Reece go, I asked myself? There were plenty of brutal conflicts in the world where innocent people were suffering. Why were foreign fighters flocking to Syria and not the Central African Republic (CAR), for example?

In January, on a bus transiting from Northern Mali into Mauritania I sat next to a refugee from CAR who had seen members of his own family raped and cannibalized by militants. His sister-in-law literally had her heart ripped out and eaten by them. So why had atrocities faced by civilians in CAR failed to generate an influx of foreign fighters? Where were the internet jihadists defending CARs oppressed Muslims? Where were the Westerners to fight the jihadists? The reason why there aren’t any foreign fighters in CAR is because CAR doesn’t receive the media coverage that Syria does and so the conflict remains a local one. A forgotten conflict.

As such, the reason that foreign fighters are flocking to Syria in unprecedented numbers is because the media, mirroring a trend in the public’s thinking, has developed an obsession with Syria – in particular ISIS’ activities in Syria. Manipulating the media and hijacking the global information-space to generate attention is a core part of the strategy of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Indeed, if we look at jihadist primary sources like “The Management of Savagery”, a strategy document published online in 2004, a major theme of jihadist violence is to leverage the brutality of the action (be it a terrorist attack or a live beheading on video) for propaganda value in order to lure enemies like the United States into long, drawn-out wars which will ultimately generate backlash from the global Muslim population. You can’t claim that “Crusaders” are attacking Muslims in Iraq and Syria unless they actually are, follows the logic. As far as ISIS is concerned, the reason they create slick, English-language execution videos featuring the live immolation of prisoners of war is because they want to create clickbait for their activities which feeds their recruitment.

ISIS is manipulating us and the global information-space for actual realtime gain on the battlefield, and as such the global media is no longer “just” an observer of human conflict – it is an active participant in human conflict. Like the bratty toddler showing his mother the china teapot he just broke, the Islamic State desperately wants the media to pay attention every time it locks people in cages and drowns them in a swimming pool.

Similarly, Kurdish militia groups, in their search for volunteers are now taking to the internet. The “Lions of Rojava” Facebook page is one of these online recruiting groups, actively manipulating young Australian men into leaving their homes to travel to a place they really know nothing about other than what they’ve seen on the news.

It would be easy for me to spend 2000 words hating on The Lions of Rojava Facebook page for encouraging a friend of mine to fight and die, for possibly no reason, in a foreign country. But blaming the Lions of Rojava Facebook page for the foreign fighter phenomenon is kind of like saying that people only join the Australian military because of what they read on the Defence Force Recruiting website.

The truth is social media like the broader process of globalization of which it is a part, is neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply is. That is to say, the existence of social media is now a fact. As such it is also a fact that in the Information Age we are going to hear about atrocities in places like Syria and CAR almost in realtime. Some atrocities will generate attention. Some atrocities won’t. And it’s also a fact that young men will respond to those atrocities that do manage to generate attention. These responses will be quick and sudden, seemingly random – the quickening of young men to arms.

Without the constant media attention surrounding ISIS’ atrocities in Syria, Reece Harding and Ash Johnston would never have even known about the Lions of Rojava Facebook page. So how can we possibly lay all the blame on one recruiting tool when in some ways all newscasters are equally responsible for constantly reminding young Australians what ISIS is doing. Similarly, it’s unfair and too easy to attack “the media” for doing its job. The job of those in the media is to report the news. We need the media to cover wartime atrocities like those being committed by ISIS. And it’s also difficult to suggest that these atrocities should be ignored or downplayed.

But instead of being simply a passive broadcasting platform maybe our public conversation needs to put context to ISIS’ atrocities – explaining why ISIS filmed James Foley’s execution rather than just focusing on the headlines. Why did ISIS film it? Because they want to manipulate us into watching it.

Last month in the New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi, one of the best reporters covering the global spread of militant jihadism, published a piece about how a female American Sunday school teacher became a convert to the ISIS cult over Twitter. Before James Foley’s videotaped execution this woman had never heard of ISIS, much as many have never even heard of the war in the Central African Republic. But after the initial shock of the media reports, she developed a strange curiosity with ISIS. Who were this group? Why were they doing this? This led her to Twitter and to long conversations with internet jihadists who, after months of continued online manipulation managed to convince her to become an “ISIS bride” in Syria.

It is of course easy to blame the online jihadists for manipulating this woman. These are not only intellectually-lacking but also dangerous people. But what drove the Sunday school teacher to Tweet the #ISfanboys in the first place? The explosion of everything ISIS into the global public conversation, that’s what.

No one is suggesting we return to a state of ignorance as a now globally-informed public. More than one hundred years after the Armenian Genocide occurred, the mass slaughter of the Armenian community in Anatolia is barely recognised. Atrocities need to be known about and talked about – if only to prevent a repeat of history.

But instead of giving ISIS a platform every time they do something evil, and instead of letting events without context flood the minds of our youth perhaps our public conversation should focus not so much on the latest thing that ISIS has done (that is, headline journalism) but instead be an exchange of ideas about what we are going to do about ISIS. Indeed, what are we going to do about ISIS? Because evidently, young people like Ash Johnston and Reece Harding weren’t happy with what was being done and instead made a mistake that cost them their lives.

We need to reclaim control of the conversation about Syria, if only to prevent our young people from travelling there to join the fight – on either side. For my part in preventing young people from travelling to a foreign warzone to die for no reason, I’ll share the story of the small box of possessions which the mother of my great-grand-uncle received after he died in World War One. In the box was a small bible, a few hand-written letters and a type set letter from the Canadian army saying that he was killed by a grenade. That is all that remains in this world of my father’s grandfather’s brother. If you ask most people today what World War One was all about (apart from vague aspersions about empire and arms races) they probably can’t tell you much except for that a lot of people died.

At an impressionable age, my Dad considered travelling to Nicaragua and joining the Sandanistas as a foreign fighter. Driven by the “idiocy of youth” as he described it to me. He’s sure that if he went he wouldn’t have survived. But in and amongst this planned adventure in militarism, it was the image of that box of my great-grand-uncle’s possessions that stopped him from becoming one of Lenin’s “useful idiots”. Instead, he decided to unplug from that horrible theoretical world of Nicaragua of which he really knew nothing and travelled to Greece where he met my mother.

The political argument against individuals going to Syria to fight ISIS on their own terms, regardless of the Australian government’s current policy to arm and train the Kurds, is obvious. An individual taking up arms in a foreign war zone undermines the state’s ability to maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of force – a principle upon which our society is built and a part of the social contract which is signed by every Australian everytime we go to the polls to decide on a new government. We give the government of the day the right to declare war on our behalf. And that is how it should be. It’s also worth mentioning that the latest Facebook campaign on the Lions of Rojava page is strongly anti-Turkey, a country which Australia has good diplomatic relations with.

So what could I add about Reece that I didn’t already cover with Ash or that hasn’t already been covered by countless other news corporations hungrily throwing baited headlines into the online pond as they fish for clicks? We have a rough idea from the comments made by Reece and his family what seemed to drive him – an abhorrence for ISIS’ garish sadism and a desire to do something about it. But the way he responded to ISIS’ horror was probably an emotional and perhaps not a logical response.

Many young men of my generation have a lot of soul-searching, and perhaps rethinking to do and, if you ask me, media broadcasters need to consider whether the future of “news” should be about headline creation and raptorial marketing in tragedy or whether it should be about providing meaningful context to global events – not just observation but explanation.

From what I can see, the current understanding of the Syrian conflict has been hijacked by ISIS’s corpse-spattered message – and we have given fools like Jihadi John exactly what they have been crying out for – attention.

I don’t know how to stop foreign fighters going to Syria apart from simply highlighting to would-be foreign fighters that by going there you are becoming one of those “useful idiots” – for either side. I don’t have all the answers. All I can think about is how sad it is that I only know Reece Harding’s name because of the way in which he died.

Hajj Al-Sahara – A Ride on The Iron Ore Train of Zouerat

Some train journeys take place in rolling green countryside. Some trains have air-conditioning and some trains have snack carts. Some trains have seats and benches and bathrooms with toilets that flush. Some trains are smooth and fast and sterile, like space shuttles moving between orbital stations. The train I was on was nothing like that. I was in the middle of Mauritania on top of a freight train bucket cart piled high with iron ore.

Supine and covered in fine black dust, I gaze up at the night sky. Like every night I’d spent in the Sahara it is black and it is forever and it is filled with uncountable stars. My glimpse of purity is unimpeded by the contours of a landscape. The desert is dark and flat and silent and the train is long and noisy and dusty.

Encased, mummy-like, in my thin, discount-bin sleeping bag, I close my eyes. A gust of wind blows along the train, whipping spindrift off the iron mounds and I am blanketed in dust. I can taste the faintly ferrous texture of mineral grit between my teeth. No, I wasn’t travelling first class across the French countryside. But I was travelling for free. There are a lot of superlatives that can be said about the iron ore train of Zouerat. The longest train in the world on the longest railway in West Africa. The least clean train in the world. The cheapest train ride in the world. But with dust blowing in my face and the endless night above me and the empty desert all around me and the wheels of the carriage rattling and sparking beneath me, only one superlative comes to mind – this has to be the most adventurous train ride in the world.


I arrive in Choum, a railroad outpost at the heart of the Mauritanian desert, in the tray of a pickup truck. I’ve been travelling through the desert for almost a month now and a deep fatigue, a primal exhaustion the likes of which I’ve never experienced has begun to set in. In the last few weeks I’d slowly made my way across the Sahara by foot, by hoof and by wheel. On the horrendous bus rides between African capitals, I had been privy to more ear-splittingly loud African gangsta rap than I cared to remember. I haven’t showered in two weeks and I haven’t seen a Western toilet in six. My clothes are torn and filthy – the sleeves of my once-blue shirt are brown and the legs of my hiking pants are little more than an array of threads without patches.

The driver, a wiry Berber man in a tan-brown turban unloads my baggage and shakes my hand. He knows very little French and the Arabic (called “Hassaniya” here) he speaks is different to any of the Arabic I recognise. I look around at the tiny town – little more than an unpaved, sandy plaza girded by a few cuboid middens. I spy a railway track and the carapace of a decommissioned train carriage. Beyond that, there is only desert. Interesting spot. I look back at the driver and point at the ground.


He nods. “Choum.”

I shake his hand again and watch as he sidles back into the truck, revs the engine and speeds off across the sand. He’s in fifth gear by the time he’s spanned the railway track, and that is the last I see of him.

I return to my surroundings. Bienvenue à Choum. I’d read somewhere that Choum was the stepping off point for “the most adventurous train ride on Earth” and since riding in one of the iron-ore carriages was supposed to be free, it seemed like a logical way to cross the Western Sahara on a shoestring budget.

I walk across the dusty square to a small mudbrick building where everybody seems to be congregating. The word “restaurant” is written in Arabic on a placard out the front. A bowl of rice with a sloshing of brown sauce awaits me within. I hazard an attempt at speaking in my high-register Arabic to see if anybody knows what time the train will be coming. Just as English is the result of a tryst between the Germanic tongues and The Romance, Hassaniya is not so much a dialect of Arabic as it is a conglomerate of many Saharan languages with some loan words thrown in by the descendants of Mohammed. Being a linguistic universe away from the formal Arabic I learned in the classroom, I wonder if I’m the equivalent of a new arrival to a Western country trying out Shakespearean prose in the queue for a bus ticket.

Everybody seems to have a different opinion about the arrival time of the train. I take an average. If I’m at the train station before five o’clock I should be on time. But where do I board? Everybody seems to have a different answer for that too. I’d read somewhere that the train, depending on how much iron ore it is carrying can be up to three kilometres long, so I don’t want to ruin my chance at getting a free ride to Nouadhibou by waiting in the wrong place.

Presently, after a short game of mimes where I’m playing the part of a failed Arabic linguist, an old man comes along and speaks to me in what seems like perfect Parisian French. I learn that the tiny shelter-like structure which serves as the train station is three kilometres east of town and up-track, just “au-delà des arbres”… “beyond the trees”.

I shoulder my bags and begin walking down the railway tracks to the little building in the distance. I pass a small hut where a gendarme sits with his Kalashnikov in his lap, smoking reds. Behind him, his friend is asleep on a small cot. He asks for my passport and I hand him a photocopy. He nods and I continue on my way. I can’t help but notice there are no radio antennae exuding from their little outpost, unlike the others I’d seen. I suppose their commanders in Nouakchott weren’t very interested in what was happening in Choum.

As a country built by the descendants of Bedouin who had wandered in from as far as Arabia, Mauritania today resembles not so much a “state” but a “confederacy” – a group of tribes who got together for the sole purpose of agreeing on a name for the desert in which they dwelt. On paper there is a small country called Mauritania in Northwest Africa. But in the real world, though the government had recently made the notable decision to become the last on earth to abolish slavery, Mauritania is anything but a centrally-governed country.

Ruling from Nouakchott, a city which in itself has been described as an exercise in “capital-building nomad style”, the government seems to have very little actual interest in what is happening in the desert. The police, the military and the gendarmerie had all formed their own little mini-tribes out here. They formed just another clan in the confederacy – the Ouled Militaire.

Despite this, in piecing together just the bare essentials of a state, Mauritania had succeeded in its search for peace – an island of security compared to the Nietzchean tragedy playing out elsewhere in the Sahara.

A Typical Gendarmerie Outpost in Mauritania

A Typical Gendarmerie Outpost in Mauritania

I arrive at the little shelter where I meet Saidou, Alioune and Moustapha – three Reguibat fellows from the Adrar on their way to Nouadhibou by the Atlantic. In the late-afternoon shade, they sit around brewing sweet yellow tea (the traditional way, over coals) as they hum to Phil Collins swooning from the speakers of an MP3 player. The coals are glowing red as the song reaches its crescendo.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” Monsieur Collins is singing. Drumbeat. The pot boils. Tea’s ready.

I am invited to sit with them and they pour me a glass and we chat in French about our favourite music. It seems that the lads are fans of the classic sounds of Francis Cabrel and Rod Stewart. And Phil Collins is their favourite.

The Railway

The Railway “Station”

Everywhere across the Sahara, I am met by these fusions of two worlds – the Western with the Islamic; the Old with the New; traditional society with encroaching modernity. I’ve met goatherds with smartphones; tribesmen who’ve visited Paris; imams in Real Madrid jerseys. The anthropologist Ines Kohl writes that the Tuareg often refer to their Toyota pickup trucks as “alam n japon” – “Japanese camel”. This 80s-pop-rock-themed nomadic tea party is just another snapshot of the truly global village that is the Sahara.

Indeed, it is in the very existence of tea here, that we can see globalisation at work throughout Mauritania’s history. In the 15th century, tea came from China in the cargo holds of the Portuguese fleet. The mint came from Morocco and the sugar from Senegal. The objects of the tea-making ritual – the tiny glasses, the teapot, the pyx in which the sugar is kept are all venerated and are all foreign. Everything about mint tea, a centrepiece of Mauritanian society, is imported. But all the same it has been indigenized, such that the Mauritanians have made tea and its cultural meaning their own.

A cloud of dust appears on the horizon, followed by the serpentine form of a diesel-powered train. It approaches quickly and the lads reach for their smartphones to snap a few pictures. The conductor is hanging half out the window as he rolls past, heralded by the hiss of pistons and the screech of scrap-iron. The bucket carts trail behind, slag-heap upon slag-heap. The train shows no sign of slowing. I shoulder my bags as the carriages roll by. Hundreds of them. In the time it takes to see the back of the train I could have savoured another glass of tea.

Finally, with the sun dropping lower in the sky, the train comes to a stop, all three kilometres of it. People start running, frantically shouldering big sacs of food aid and scrabbling for prime position in the passenger carriage. The passenger carriage – where the luxury traveller can scrabble for a bench – costs about $9 but we’re travelling for free.

The train arrives in Choum

The train arrives in Choum

Arrival in Choum-3 Arrival in Choum-2

I’d read of travelling in the ore cars that they were dusty “on the way into the interior” and “impossibly dusty on top of the ore heading to the coast”. As we sprinted along the tracks looking for a vacant cart, the shapes of soot-clad riders were profiled against the sky, kings of their castles, staking claim to their own little black mound.

We find a free cart and clamber aboard. The train begins to move and we carve out foxholes for ourselves amongst the ore. We pass a chain of sun-baked mountains on our left. Shrouded by dust coughed up from the parched earth, the sun appears not as an orb but as an expanse of brilliant light. Sunset happens in hues of orange and white, hovering over the mountains for a moment, before sliding below the horizon, leaving behind the purple night. Moustapha, headphones-on-turban, lights up a cigarette.

Bound for the Atlantic!

Bound for the Atlantic!

Mustapha smoking reds

Mustapha smoking reds

Sunset from a bucket cart

Sunset from a bucket cart

With the going down of the sun, Saidou and Alioune unroll a little prayer rug, and, sharing half each, they inch in close to conduct their maghrib (evening) prayers. I look to my left towards the mountains where the sun disappeared. Soused now in the cool darkness, the earth and its inhabitants, have finally found reprieve from the burning heat of day. I give thanks for this as I reach for my water bottle. The intonations in Saidou and Alioune’s prayer give thanks for this too.

Of course, Islam cannot be thought of in isolation to the stark and inhospitable desert from which it sprang. Indeed, as the geographer William Norton reminds us Mecca itself was once but a lone, alkaline well amongst barren mountains. Even in the pages of the Qur’an we see not only an image of Mohammed the Prophet but also of Mohammed the Bedouin – the mirage as the faith of the unbelievers; the rain as a reward for Submission to His Will and thirst as His Reckoning. And finally, there is Allah himself, seated on the throne of the universe as the cameleer at the head of his caravan. The essence of the desert is travel because to linger in one place for too long is to die. Thus, the essence of Islam is also that of travel – a religion for the eternal pilgrim, ever on the road, ever on his hajj to Mecca.

At some point near midnight, we pass by the lights of a rail-side resthouse. A pair of bleary-eyed Mauritanians board the bucket cart behind us and dig out their sleeping spaces beneath the light of a lantern. The A-carriage is changed, and the train, with a new engine and driver ploughs on. Wearing all my clothes and with my face tightly wrapped in an indigo turban, I roll over and shiver in the nighttime chill. Beneath a layer of black silt, I sleep very little.

Dawn breaks in colours of pink and I emerge from my foxhole. I take a #selfie, and, after reviewing it, realise that I am covered head to toe in black soot.

#Selfie #Mauritania

#Selfie #Mauritania

Saidou and Mustapha after a dusty night

Saidou and Mustapha after a dusty night

The train veers left and passes between two tall sand dunes and then, with neither pomp nor warning, the ocean reveals itself before us – my first view of the Atlantic. I feel like Xenophon emerging from the deserts of Persia, gazing upon salvation in the blue beyond.

Thalassa, thalassa. The sea, the sea. It was Xenophon who said that right? I’m sure it wasn’t Phil Collins.

Later, on the shores of the Cap de Beguin, I gaze out at a graveyard for abandoned ships, hundreds of them dragged up on the beach. From the different makes and sizes, the ships had been sailed from all around the world to be disposed of in the nautical grey area that is Mauritania. Their rusty hulls are illuminated by the early morning light, shades of russet brown against the white sand. I wonder what this beach would have looked like in an age before fraudulent insurance claims. I look across the bay as the sandcastle wall of a crumbling cliff falls into the sea. This was the end point of my desert journey. My own little hajj. My hajj al-Sahara.

The train turns south towards Nouadhibou

The train turns south towards Nouadhibou

The essence of the desert is travel

The essence of the desert is travel

For your own Hajj Al-Sahara on the iron ore train:

Train Information: The iron ore train runs from the mines at Zouerat to Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s Atlantic coast and stops in Choum where all desert travellers should get on and off.

Getting There: From Atar, after you’ve been on your camel ride through the Adrar desert, reserve a spot in a vehicle travelling to Choum (minibuses and 4WDs are available. From experience, don’t travel in the tray).

Departure Times: For west-bound travellers heading to the coast, the train leaves Zouerat at noon and stops in Choum at about 5pm. For those on their way into the desert, the train leaves Nouadhibou at around 2pm for a journey of around 12 hours.

Onward Travel: Onward connections to Atar and Chinguetti are available in Choum’s main plaza. From any of the local garages in Nouadhibou you can take a bush taxi across the Moroccan border to Dakhla.

Seating Arrangements: A bench in the passenger carriage is UM2500 (about US$9). “Berths” are also available for UM3000. Or, you can ride in the ore carriage for free!  

The Problem with Modern Lawrences of Arabia

I recently sat through a documentary film called Point and Shoot about the Libyan Civil War. In it we are introduced to Matthew Van Dyke, an American guy who fell in love with the celebrity of Lawrence of Arabia so much that he leaves his mother and girlfriend behind to go and fight with the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi.

As an American fighting with the Libyan resistance, he decides that his role in the war is so important that it should be painstakingly documented so he can be lionised later. Throughout the entire film he is not observed speaking a single sentence of Arabic but he documents his experience as if it is a #LawrenceofArabia story of war. When filming himself stood-to behind a wall of sandbags he spends more time looking at the camera than facing out waiting for targets. He recounts that he no longer wanted to “just observe” but “to shape the events around him”. He donned a pair of wrap-around sunglasses like a Hollywood action hero and wore a keffiyeh like an Arab tribesman. He wanted to be a fighter.

In a novel about the Caucasus War, Leo Tolstoy describes a young Russian officer who, in a bid to look like a Chechen, dresses local but fails completely. “Anyone would have known him for a Russian and not a Tartar brave,” writes Tolstoy. “It was the thing – but not the real thing.”

Matthew Van Dyke, who cites Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones as two of his major influences, is the thing but not the thing itself.

Worse yet, although he demanded after the resignations of all those who criticised his participation in a war that wasn’t his, the Libya he left behind is not a post-Gaddafi utopia like he imagined it would be. It is a violent, fractious nightmare best described as a real-life Fuseli painting.

Matthew Van Dyke is now in Syria and giving interviews to Fox News about how he has “covertly” begun training an Assyrian Christian militia group collectively referred to as the “Nineveh Plain Protection Units”. In short, he is continuing with his #LawrenceofArabia life.

For all new arrivals to the Syrian conflict, regardless of whichever side you have chosen to fight on, you are likely to take up arms alongside someone like this.

Like anyone who has read about how integral TE Lawrence was in turning the tide of World War One, I have to admit that at times I have been romanced by his celebrity. Lone white guy. Oppressed people. Great travel story. Ticks all the boxes doesn’t it?

But never once have I thought that going to Syria and fighting in the war would be an effective use of my time and energies.

I spent six years in the military in various infantry roles. I spent seven years studying Middle Eastern politics. I studied the Arabic language in Syria before the Arab Spring and have almost filled two passports with the stamps of various Islamic countries. I have read the Quran from cover to cover (in English, because though I’ve studied Arabic since 2008, Quranic Arabic is really old-skool and so I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Islam is all about). Despite this, with all this specialised knowledge, I am not even remotely qualified to be fighting for any of the revolutionary groups in Syria. I am barely even qualified to be commenting on what is happening in Syria since I haven’t been there since the war began.

One of the friends with whom I studied in Syria, who now speaks Arabic almost flawlessly (compared to my lumbering White Man Arabic at least) lived in Jordan for a year working with Syrian refugees on a daily basis. With all of his in-depth knowledge he’s not even sure that the Free Syrian Army was ever real or if it was just a bunch of high-ranking officers sitting across the border in Turkey smoking cigarettes and fielding media enquiries. Indeed, the FSA’s actual existence is a legitimate subject of debate.

Syria right now is a contemporary manifestation of what France in the Dark Ages looked like before Charlemagne started kicking heads. There is now a literal alphabet soup of militias running around committing all sorts of nastiness. Without question, ISIS is the most brutal of these.

Let me paint a picture for you of two likely scenarios which await you if you choose to take up arms in Syria.

Scenario 1: You have chosen to fight with the Free Syrian Army. You have chosen the FSA as your militia-of-choice because a.) you have read that they are one of the groups engaged in a battle against the Islamic State. You meet an Arab guy in the Turkish city of Batman. He says he is Syrian and that he can get you to an FSA stronghold near Aleppo. You drive across the border clandestinely near Jarablus. You speak only the basic Arabic you picked up from a crash online course. You can’t read the street signs. On the floor of the vehicle is a book with the following title: “معالم في الطريق“. You are unable to glean that this is a book written by a man named Sayyid Qutb and as such alarm bells do not begin ringing. When your friend/driver stops at militia-manned checkpoints he speaks in Arabic to the other fighters. Because you can’t tell the difference between the various dialects of Arabic you fail to notice that he is pronouncing the “j” sound like a “g”. This man is not from Syria. He is from Egypt. He is a foreign fighter with ISIS. You are being driven to Raqqa and you are about to appear in the next of Jihadi John’s horrific videos

Scenario 2: You have chosen to fight with ISIS. Somehow, you make it past customs in your Western country and reach the heart of “The Caliphate” in Raqqa. You discover that rather than being the lead element in a global war against the West on behalf of the oppressed ummah, ISIS is actually little more than a local actor in a bloody civil war whose main victims are Muslims. The ranks are rife with in-fighting and bickering. The only people with prior training are the Chechen veterans and they have formed their own groups because they don’t trust the other soldiers of the Caliphate not to accidentally shoot them in the back.

You used to smoke back home in Sydney. You can’t anymore. You liked listening to rap music. You can’t anymore. You realise that murdering people who do not share your faith is against the tenets of Islam. You decide you want to go home. You can’t anymore. The Australian government will throw you in prison. You realise you might never see your mother again.

But you need to get out of Syria. You try to leave without telling anyone but you are discovered by the ISIS high command and then executed by a child and the video is broadcast on the internet.

Frankly, if you go to Syria, and you die fighting for one or other of these groups, it is quite possible that you have wasted the most precious thing you had – your life. Even if you have died on the battlefield, you have more than likely died in an attack on a strategically-insignificant town in rural Syria as a small part of a minor offensive which constitutes only an auxiliary component of a large-scale campaign. Your military training or “protection from Allah” has not made you a “force multiplier”. You are cannon fodder.

Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, whose main triumph lay not in his military prowess, but in identifying that only Feisal had the political acumen to lead a successful revolt (as opposed to his brothers or cousins or tribal allies), your presence in Kurdistan or Assyria or “The Caliphate” has probably achieved nothing.

Many of ISIS’ recruits have read more about bomb-making and jihad than they have about zakat or the finer points of Islamic jurisprudence. Jake Bilardi, an eighteen-year-old boy from Craigieburn, went to Syria to join ISIS having learnt everything he knew about Islam through the prism of the War on Terror. Bilardi blew himself up at a checkpoint near Ramadi. He has been profiled as a “school shooter” personality, but above the rest, his main problem was that he joined ISIS knowing only what he was fighting “against”.

In his own words he knew he hated “democracy” but wasn’t sure what should replace it. This is precisely the problem. Everybody in the Middle-East, both foreigners and locals knows what they are fighting against.

The murderous thugs fighting with ISIS are fighting against the kuffar. The Kurds are fighting against the murderous thugs.

A young British Royal Marine Commando recently travelled to Syria and joined a Kurdish militia. He, like many Western soldiers, was so appalled by ISIS’ atrocities that he couldn’t hardly wait for the British government to make a declaration of war. So he booked a flight to Turkey on a three-day leave block and put his military training to use. A week ago, he died in Syria.

He died fighting with a Kurdish militia against ISIS. To repeat, he knew what he was fighting against. But what was he fighting for? Kurdish nationalism? The creation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq? Or the creation of a Kurdish state in Iraq and “Rojava”? Or the creation of a Kurdish state which encompasses all the ethnically-Kurdish areas in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran?

I have personally written about how Australia should be militarily involved in a campaign against ISIS. But though at times I am frustrated by how slow state actors are to respond to atrocities I appreciate that there is a reason for the argument that the state should have the monopoly over the use of force. And that is that individuals, by themselves, often make bad decisions. Bureaucracy can be slow and inefficient, yes. But generally when states go to war it is usually decided by a group of people and not by an individual, acting on a whim or reducing a complex situation to a series of simple moralisms. This creates a safety net to prevent individuals from acting rashly. And it produces good results.

Take the United States’ involvement in recent action in Sinjar, for example. An Assyrian Christian** population, surrounded on a mountaintop, was about to be massacred by ISIS. The Kurds stepped in to help and with assistance from a series of bombing runs from the United States Air Force, they opened a corridor to Sinjar and evacuated the civilians. Crucially, the Kurds opened their corridor without the assistance of white guys in their ranks. The Kurds knew the area, spoke the language and they got the job done. What they didn’t have was planes. And so the US – after much bureaucratic deliberation – offered theirs.

This was an example of “the utility of force” – when the application of violence ceases to be an intrinsically foolhardy endeavour and becomes an effective measure yielding positive results – lives were saved.

Contrast this with the possible consequences of Matt Van Dyke’s individual decision to begin training a Christian militia in Syria. Has Matt Van Dyke heard of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre? Probably not. Here’s what happened. In Lebanon, in the 80s, a Christian militia called the Phalanges were given external support to search and destroy members of the PLO, the terror group*** du jour. Instead these champions of Christendom went through a Beirut neighbourhood and massacred thousands of civilians. We can all agree that the Assyrian Christians of Syria are facing an existential threat from ISIS but believe me, another religiously-motivated militia is the last thing the Middle East needs.

The whole Dark Age militia bullshit – currently being championed by Matthew Van Dyke, an individual – is not going to improve the situation in the Middle East. Careful, measured and rational action (involving both military and civilian efforts) directed by state actors is the key to peace.

Author’s Note:

** I stand happily corrected. Those saved in the Sinjar offensive belonged to the Yazidi ethnic/religious group.

*** I originally wrote “Islamist terror group” instead of just “terror group” here which serves only to highlight that we young men, and I least of all, have no idea what all these different groups are fighting for.

Hajj Al-Sahara – Prison

The door was a rectangle of solid ironwork and it bore a big, heavy lock. I suppose alot of doors to prison cells look like this. The lock itself was a rusty crossbar. Most locks are designed to keep people out. This one was designed to keep me in.

The peephole at headheight was covered by another bar of metal, bolted in place. It didn’t seem like it was designed to open, so I figured no one would be checking in to see how I was doing. By the time I got to the point of madly shouting out for attention the guards would be long past the point of ignoring me.

On the wall adjacent, stretching roof-to-floor, “MNLA” had been graffitied in big, black, block letters. The passing braggadocio of a since-vanquished victor.

As he unlatched the lock and motioned me through the open doorway, the guard, thin and hungry-looking, said nothing. I asked him how long I’d be confined for. No response. How long would it be before I was able to see someone from the embassy. Nothing.

I stepped past him.The room on the other side of the threshold was colder than the room behind me. Bare. There was nothing in there. No basin, no mattress, no prison library brimming with the well-thumbed pages of Penguin classics. I mean, I wasn’t expecting a copy of a Dostoyevsky novel, but I figured they might have a Qur’an or something in there.

The room was a four-walled cell with a thin film of red dust coating the once-white tiled floor. An adjoining “douche” sported not a shower but a squat toilet, the shit-hole sealed over by a plank of wood. I had nothing with me. No belt, no shoes, no book to read – not even a filthy mattress to sleep on. At once the freedom of the traveller on the road had been replaced by the inertia of the prisoner, my liberty reduced to the circular pacings of my three-by-three room. A choice between sulking in the corner of my bare-floored cell and looking out on the world from the ledge of the iron-barred window.

I was suddenly aware of an inherent falsehood in the old cliché “when one door closes another one opens”. There were no magically-opening doors awaiting me in here. No biblical Paradise. The man ushering me through the doorway was too ugly to be an angel. And even if he was some kind of desert mala’ikah then where was the garden full of houris?

Armstrong-like, with just a few short steps I had made the transition into a new and alien world. With it my horizons had been infinitely broadened, delimited only by the boundaries of these four corners. I had made the transition from the World of the Free Man to the World of the Prisoner. And, in making the transition finite, it was less in the clanging shut of the door behind me but in the act of walking (of my own volition) into the cell that this realisation really hit me. The self-propulsion of my own legs had carried me into captivity. That’s irony I suppose.


In the days following my solo on the North Pillar I chat, natter and relax with the locals in Garmi. All of them have become close friends. There is Amadou, my trekking guide and water-boy. There is Sooleiman, my cook. There is Idrissa, Mohammed and Ibrahim. Then there are the endless hordes of children – boys and girls alike – begging for me to take their picture (see video).  They waft in and out of my small mud hut, rifling through my belongings. I count the hours in the shade with Sooleiman and Amadou, and at the base of the bed we brew sweet yellow tea.


Enjoying my first reprieve of shade and water. Noon after returning from my climb

Children in the village of Garmi

Children in the village of Garmi

I’ve spent a week in the massif now and though I wish I could stay longer I know that it will soon be time to go. I have two countries, a disputed region and the world’s largest desert to cross. I’m supposed to be in Casablanca in three weeks. It is late afternoon on New Year’s Day (my birthday) and by the time I return with Amadou from Kaga Tondo I know for sure that I am going to miss my deadline.

Sooleiman is ecstatic to have me. His meals are simple – “riz avec des condiments” – but he cooks with passion, sitting on his haunches in the corner of the room, fastidiously tending a fire lit from animal dung. Today, my birthday and the day of my return from the mountain, he has killed a chicken to go with the rice. With wide eyes, he watches me take a spoonful and place it in my mouth. He doesn’t hold his breath but his eagerness to please is uncomfortable. It has been three years since the last group of foreigners passed through Garmi.

“Before la crise,” he says. “Many climbers came here. But you are the first to climb for many years.” He pauses for a moment. “And we would like to erect something in your honour.”

I ponder this a moment, disturbed. Garmi is a fascinating place, but Sooleiman’s words show a darker truth of modern life in rural Africa. The growing embryo of “liberal development” mean Garmi now has a well, a school and hither-scattered signs listing all the things that USAID has given to the village.

The flocks of nomads from elsewhere graze what little grass grows near Garmi because development has given the villagers books and the French language and what need is there for tending to the flock when there is a whole “national economy” awaiting? Sooleiman’s dream is to run an “auberge” – a guesthouse for passing Western travellers treading lightly across West Africa. There are no Western travellers passing by Garmi anymore.

On the other side of the mountain, Daari (the start point of my village-to-village traverse of the massif), in the shadow of Kaga Tondo, lies in the shadow of inexorable development. There is no school. There is no French language. There is only the village. And life in the village. They do not prosper in the harsh Sahelian desert but they do not go hungry either.

The village of Garmi from the Kaga Pomori col

The village of Garmi from the Kaga Pomori col

As the urban core grows, like an “embryo of good”, the periphery is transformed. We are told that the meaning of “education” is “emancipation”. But with education, conversations of “daily subsistence” fall by the wayside and cash not goat’s milk becomes the currency of the day. After the djihadiste advance in 2012, Mali’s tourist economy collapsed. Sooleiman and Amadou left their village and sought out the fabulous wealth of mythical Bamako. They found nothing there but abject poverty. And now, back in Garmi with neither the promised riches nor the know-how to tend the flock they had waited for a white man to come along with fistfuls of tourist dollars and change things.

Plastic slippers donated by various aid group make for soccer boots in Garmi

Plastic slippers donated by various aid group make for soccer boots in Garmi

In orange - Gourou Abu Amadou (Amadou's father), chief of the village of Garmi

In orange – Gourou Abu Amadou (Amadou’s father), chief of the village of Garmi

In the way that he spoke to me, it seemed that Sooleiman saw me as a person who could drastically change his circumstances. I knew he was serious when he talked about erecting a statue – and it concerned me. It seemed that in some way or another, European colonialism’s parting gift to Africa was to leave behind a discourse that despite the ruinous civil war that would engulf the continent, personal contact with someone like me was the same as a ticket out.

Or as Amadou had put it: “quand nous voyons un blanc, c’est comme l’or.” “When we see a white, it’s like gold.”

To Amadou and Sooleiman, our relationship represented an opportunity for wealth, an opportunity for a visa maybe. In many ways, the reality of the global economy and the emancipatory discourse of development had created this relationship. “Development” engulfs, like a red dwarf, all bodies that orbit it, and once it implodes, those same bodies, transformed, are sucked down, down into the black hole that remains. The black hole at the core.

A week in the massif had left with me an overwhelming sense of the grim. But with only two days left, I set off with Amadou to scout out some more climbing possibilities. In the late afternoon, we sit on the rooftop of the encampement détruit in Daari, scoping lines, plotting a skyline traverse of the massif.

A trail of dust appears on the horizon. A black ute, printed with white letters bounces down the highway. It veers right off the road, trundles through the village and pulls up at the moraine wall below the base of Kaga Tondo. A man in a black, collared shirt and a woman step out, followed by a young boy and an older man in a white boubou.

Curious, we observe these newcomers, and then, identifying the man in the white boubou, Amadou tells me that he is the mayor of Hombori. The boubou belongs to Amadou and the mayor had stolen it from him. He recounts this tale as if it was normal to have your possessions taken from you by local officials.

The man in the black-collared shirt was the commander of the local gendarmerie, Amadou explained. No one seemed to know much about him except that he was a Bembera bus-in from Bamako.

The mayor approaches Amadou smiling. “I did not know you had a white here,” he says. He offers a hand and Amadou takes it. They begin speaking in rapid Fulani. The mayor scrutinises me as they speak. I wonder if there is a “guichet automatique” sign above my head and sit in silence on the rooftop.

The man in the black-collared shirt approaches Amadou. “C’est qui?” he demands, pointing a me.

“Un canadien.”

“Est-ce qu’il parle français?”

“Yes I speak French,” I intervene with a broad smile.

“Come here.” His tone is severe, officious.

I descend the creaky, mud-steps from the rooftop terrace and stand before him.

“Comment allez-vous monsieur?” he says to me. He emphasises the “vous”. Formal French.

“I’m alright thank you.”

“Je suis la commandante de la gendermarie nationale à Hombori,” he says to me. He introduces himself with the frank self-adulation of words on a business card.

Enchanté.” I smile. I offer my hand. He doesn’t shake it. I want this conversation to be over quickly.

“Do you have authorisation to be here?” he asks me.

I nod. I reach into my pocket for my passport and hand it to him with the visa page already open.

Like Wangel Debridu behind him, the commandant stands embossed by the setting sun, rays of light making fine particles of dust dance across his epaulets. Bureaucracy in silhouette, he flicks through the passport pages.

Wangel Debridu, encircled by light from the setting sun

Wangel Debridu

He looks at me. “You must come with me. You are here illegally,” he says simply.

I point him to the page with the Malian visa affixed, stamped by the border police at BKO-Sénou International Airport.

He shakes his head. “Je suis le chef de la poste à Hombori,” he reiterates in case I missed it the first time. All pfiefs demand obsequiences from time to time. He pulls a government-issued ID card from a tatty old wallet to underscore his point. “You will come with me to the post now. Where you will be charged and prosecuted.”

We are herded into the utility tray of his vehicle. Disturbed, I cast a look at Amadou. On the surface he seems unphased.

He shrugs. “Aller-retour,” he assures me. “We will go and then we will come back.”

A cowboy sunset hangs in the west behind the Hand of Fatima as we speed towards Hombori. Aggressive behind the wheel, the gendarme with the mayor, his wife, child and us in tow, hits every speed bump and pothole along the road.

Hombori is a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. At last light, as we approach the brigade post, a draft of wind blows red dust across the road. A duststorm gathers in the distance and the Wild West colours splashed across the sky are choked by a Martian smog.

The gendarmerie often show up to spoil people's day

The gendarmerie often show up to spoil people’s day

The Hand of Fatima massif backlit by the setting sun as we sped toward Hombori

The Hand of Fatima massif backlit by the setting sun as we sped toward Hombori

The commandant pulls up in front of the building, a small desert fort backing onto a plain of dessicated grasses and thorn trees. He leads me and Amadou inside and we follow him down a darkened corridor into an office marked “CB” (chef de la brigade).

He switches a light on in the office and we are sat down. He is God in Hombori, he explains to me. It is illegal for me to be here without him knowing. I humour him for a time, trying the age-old ego-stroking method of escape. He explains to me that the threat of kidnapping is so high that only he can guarantee my safety and that if I had come here on the first day in the area and paid for an armed military escort (the gendarmerie doubled as freelancers it seemed) than my presence would have been legally permissible. None of the soldiers manning dozens of road blocks on the way into Hombori had explained this to me as they checked my passport, of course.

“How much would the escort have cost me?” I asked the commandant.

“Six hundred Euros,” he said matter-of-factly.

“And since I didn’t request one you say I didn’t have your permission to be here?”


“And this is a crime?”

Presque un crime,” he said, emphasising the “almost” part. He was an important guy – the commandant of an African police force at a remote desert outpost. Holding an office like that, it would be too much to grapple with the ins and outs of silly things like “what did and didn’t constitute a crime”.

I asked him how I would be punished. Lady Justice had offered me two options. I could pay a sum he referred to as “la defence” or I would be put in prison.

“How much for la defence?”

“Six hundred Euros.” There was a certain congruity in the figures he was quoting me. I wondered what his kid wanted for Eid.

I didn’t have that kind of cash and the closest ATM was in Bamako where I certainly couldn’t go (lest I be able to fact-check the offence he alleged I had committed) so he told me I would be put in prison instead. But first, I would have to “confess”.

I am sat down in a four-walled room with a tiny square window looking out on the red beyond. A gendarme is seated opposite me. He is junior to the commandant, but older than him. My interrogator.

“Vous êtes un tourist?”


“Service militaire?”

“Non.” Not necessarily true but my response was a reflex and the question wasn’t relevant.

“Why are you here?”

“To climb the hand of Fatima.”

“Why are you in Mali without authorisation?”

“I have authorisation… I have a visa.”

“A visa does not give you permission to be in the country of Mali.”

I was confused now. A second man entered the room. He was to be my English translator for the confession statement I was about to make. I read French fine and of course, the English translator explained who he was in French. He said a few broken phrases in English to me about how I had committed a crime until we both silently acknowledged that his English was terrible and we switched back to French.

The first gendarme continued. “So you admit that you have done something wrong then?”

“I don’t think I understand,” I told him. “I have a visa. This is enough to be here in Mali. If you want to go to my country, Canada, all you need to do is apply for a visa from the embassy then you can visit Canada.”
“No,” the gendarme shook his head. “This is not how it works in Canada.”

“Have you been to Canada?”


“So then how would you know?”

He pondered on this for a moment considering how and if he might know the details of Canadian immigration procedures. Then, still impervious to my bullets of logic he deflected and began firing back his own hollow-points.

“You are a spy aren’t you?” he said. Deadpan. Frankly, you had to admire him for his bluntness.

“No. I am a student and a climber.”

“How can you prove to us that you are not a spy?” intervened the “English translator” in French.

In the Gun-Toting Gendarme’s Court of Hombori, it seemed, the onus of proof was on the suspect. More to the point, there was a bona fide miscarriage of logic going on around here. How could I prove that I wasn’t something which I was not? It was like disproving the existence of God. Logically, you can’t do it – because in order to prove that something isn’t (as in “God isn’t real”) you have to know everything that is.

I could show them my student ID cards or the remnants of my climbing equipment post-Kaga to show that I was both an anthropology post-grad and an expedition big-wall climber but would that be enough to prove that I wasn’t a spy? Even I couldn’t possibly know everything about myself. Who knows… I could be a whole number of things of which I was not aware – a doomed man hiding an insidious brain tumour; a child of adoption who was actually half-Mohawk; a deluded egotist masquerading as a traveller of the world.  To my knowledge however, I wasn’t in Mali spying for anybody.

It felt like a very philosophical question, one which I doubted they were capable of grappling with. So I showed them my student ID card and my membership card to the ANU Mountaineering Club and left it at that. The questions didn’t end there.

“You are a djihadiste aren’t you?” Was the next of the gendarme’s Sherlock Holmesian questions.


“Are you are here because you have been invited to fight in the djihad?”


I signed some statement, after correcting a few of the words he had written down as if they had come from my mouth.

The commandant burst into the room. “Maintenant,” he said. “Je vais te boucler.” He pulled a set of keys from the table. Being told that you are to be “bouclé” literally means you’re about to be “buckled and chained” which in a medieval or Alexandre Dumas novel kind-of-way seems a lot more severe then simply being “put in jail”.

“When will I be able to face la justice?” I ask, wondering if there was such thing as a magistrate around here.

Bientôt,” is his cryptic, creepy reply. They take my belt, my shoes and my wallet from me. I am led to my cell.

Now, bewildered and alone in my new-found accommodation, I pondered my predicament. I had come here driven by some soteriological fascination with the sandstone fingers of a rock massif called the Hand of Fatima. I had come here in search of the sanctity of space, desert sunsets and stark and empty skies. The freedom of the open air. I looked around at the irony I had found instead.

A pair of finches flitted in and out of the window grate. Just as I had been imprisoned below the crux pitch of the North Pillar looking up at the birds surfing the gusts of wind, I now watched these finches, moving between my depressing wold within and the free world without. For a bird, I mused, a prison is but a perch, and a cliff but a cradle. I empathised with the birdman of Alcatraz.

With my bare toes I swept a little sleeping space in the red dust and lay down on my back, hands behind my head. The ground was cold and hard against my shoulder-blades. Time passed and with it, the sure knowledge of Amadou’s promise that we would be let go today.

I turned onto my side, my spine curving awkwardly as I jostled at once with my head on my hands and then with my bony hip on the hard floor. I felt something pinch into my right side. I reach down and felt a coin, tucked into the small watch pocket that sits zipped and stitched into the main pocket of my trekking pants. A twenty riyal coin, minted in Sana’a. A circle of gold-coloured metal girded by a ring of silver. The tails side is the number twenty in Arabic numerals and the heads side is a Soqotri dragon’s blood tree. Just two weeks after leaving Soqotra, I suddenly felt an overwhelming nostalgia for it. The “why” was self-evident.

I had nothing to do so I flipped it, asking the coin questions as a child does of those magic 8 balls. Heads was “yes”. Tails was “no”.

“Will I get out of here tomorrow?” Tails.

Fuck. Alright let’s try that again but word it differently. “Here” must have been “Mali”? And I wouldn’t be leaving Mali for another week.

“Will I get out of prison tomorrow?” Tails.


“Will I get out of this cell by next week?” Tails.

I sighed. Alright let’s change things up a bit. Tails was “yes”. Heads was “no”.

“Will I ever get out of here?” Heads.

I’d had enough of flip-the-coin for now and I put it back in my pocket. The light went out and I was swathed in darkness. I rolled over and went to sleep.

I awoke, stomach down on the floor of my cell, and gazed out the window again. Dust filled the air – a thick and total cloud replacing the clear blue skies of yesterweeks with a drab and pale brown. The morning sun was a dull lightbulb, a sullen white circle suspended amidst the haze. With the dregs of some far-off harmattan choking the air, today would not have been a climbing day anyway but with no means to escape my earthly prison and no rays of warmth and light to brighten the morning, a sunless sense of the grim hung in the air.

I stood up again and moved over to the sill. I looked out. A nomad passed with his flock of goats, texting on his phone. Often, I had found something wholly frustrating in observing someone owning and using a mobile phone while one’s children wafted around fallow grazing grounds with swollen bellies (a tragic phenomenon worthy of a structure-versus-agency debate). But now this young nineteen year-old goatherd was my best friend.

I waved him over. Curious, at the pair of hands reaching through the metal grate he placed his cell phone in the pocket of his boubou and approached the window. “I will give you ten-thousand francs if you can call the Canadian embassy and tell them I am in here,” I said. He nodded and asked a few more questions. I gave him my details and he left.

A short time later, the commandant returns to my cell, berates me about “having spoken to Bamako” and then orders me to return with an armed escort to Garmi where I will pick up all my belongings and return to prison.

They place a pair of leg chains on me and I am led out to the ute. We return to Garmi, me, in my chains, giving the road directions to the driver. We collect my belongings and while the commandant spends a bit of time berating some of the villagers that were “harbouring me”, I snap a few photos, hide my camera and I am back in my cell and without any shoes or belt within the hour. Alone again. Alone and afraid.

In the back of the ute after collecting my bags

In the back of the ute after collecting my bags



The hours pass with no sign of clearing skies. The sun had gone. Dust blew across the yard. Wind scoured the dead earth. The ground under-gust seemed not to care. Submission. Giving up seemed inevitable here. Man is a social animal and alone in my cage I was neither social nor animal. I was a solitary life form without company. With every metre gained on Kaga Tondo I had felt myself leaving the world of Man but fingering the gossamer hem of a new state of consciousness. But here, in solitary confinement, though aware that I was still alive, beyond the confines of my mind I was aware only of a world outside of which I was no longer apart. I was a vegetable in suspended animation. Loneliness is a dark place to exist. Solitary confinement is torture.

By late afternoon, without any contact since our little ballad around the village, I hear the latch unlock. I stood up, walked over to the door and waited next to it, like a dog excited to see its owner. The door opened and I saw the hungry guard again, his head poking through the doorway. I tried to say something to him but he simply placed a bottle of water beside me and some food and then shut it again, saying nothing. I heard the latch lock again.

Alone once more, I looked down at my supper. There was nothing to go with the rice – just plain white grains, cooked into a mushy conglomerate with no sauce.

The sky darkened. The sun did not set because today the sun had never come. There were no lights in my cell tonight. I didn’t bother shouting out for an answer why – an answer would not be given. I roll over in the dust, and make another attempt at sleep. The desert night is a cold one and I shiver on the hard floor.

At ten p.m, the cell door swings open and the light from my headtorch shines through. I place my hand over my eyes as I adjust to the bright light shining in my face. The commandant has been going through my possessions it seems.

“What are you doing?” he says to me. “Don’t you want to leave?”

I stand up and follow him out the door, still shivering.

He sits me down in his office and explains to me what has happened. “The chief of the djihadiste rebels has called me,” he says. “I don’t know how he got my number but he has called me and asked about you.”

It was all becoming a bit surreal and farcical, like the first draft of a divine comedy that’s missing a few key pages. But then again… I’m sure that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, currently on the run from French special forces in the Algerian desert, had every reason to be on a mobile phone talking to a low-level police commander in Hombori.

“He asked if you were here,” he tells me.

I play along. “You didn’t tell him where I was did you?”

“No of course not,” he says. “But I called my superior and they informed me that we must get you out of here tonight, away from la zone d’urgence.”

I nod, feigning gratitude.

“You are to leave now, clandestinement,” he continues.

Another man enters the room – the same thin and hungry-looking guard that had led me to my cell the day previous. He is standing there in a big trench-coat, sunglasses-at-night, like some starved, schlock, Third World rendering of Morpheus from The Matrix.

The commandant introduces us. “This man will escort you back to Mopti. He will travel undercover with you and shoot anyone who tries to kidnap you.” He reaches for his desk drawer again and procures a pistol holster – the leather concealable kind worn by the protagonist of a detective show.

He hands it to Morpheus. An hour and a hundred Euros later (“for your food and lodgings”) the guard and I sit together on a bus headed back to Mopti. The commandant’s attempt at saving face in the midst of obvious pressure from above had been pathetic. But I had humoured him as a serf does his pfief and it had worked. I was out. The bus ride back to Bamako would be a long one, as it had been on the way out.

Half an hour later, as the bus passed by the massif, I peer out the window at Fatima and her hand for what I know will be the last time, the five fingers of rock a perfectly dark silhouette – blacker than the black sky. An alpenglow des ombres – what Herzog, gazing up at the nighttime skyline of the Gasherbrum range, called “der leuchtende berg” – the dark glow of the mountains.

Living up to the khamsa‘s reputation as protection against the evil eye, the Hand of Fatima had let me in, showed me her world, and then spared me from it. I’d survived the climb and a stint in prison and now I was off across the Sahara. When I left Mali, I heard that Amadou had been put in prison for not paying some bribe to the commandant to work as a tourist guide in the area. I have no way to contact him and so I have no idea if he is still in there. Voila, l’Afrique.

Amadou, above the access gully to the Hand of Fatima plateau

* Amadou, above the access gully to the Hand of Fatima plateau

The Hand of Fatima, throwing a protective blank of shadow over Daari

The Hand of Fatima, throwing a protective blank of shadow over Daari

The Hand of Fatima massif

The Hand of Fatima massif

Hajj Al-Sahara (Video)

Check this video I put together of a recent trip to Africa. Featuring my solo climb of the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo in the Hand of Fatima massif and my subsequent crossing of the Sahara by foot, camel, back of a 4WD ute and in the mineral carriage of an iron-ore train. More about the rest of the trip incoming. Stay tuned.

Hajj Al-Sahara – The Hand of Fatima

Sunburnt, thirsty and four pitches from the summit of Kaga Tondo, I look up at the blank wall above me and despair. I have been climbing for the better part of two days now, a cumulative total of one thousand metres of rope-soloing and jumaring in the burning heat of the Malian desert.
Even in the shade, the temperature is thirty-five degrees. Beyond on either side, the sun blasts the rock like sculptures in the kiln. My roasted nape is hot and blistered, the once-pink flesh transformed from medium-rare to a dark and well-done.
Without let, the climbing has been sustained and constant – dead vertical to overhanging – and now, just shy of the top, I wonder if I can really do this. I am four-hundred and fifty-metres up the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo, the index finger of the Hand of Fatima massif, the tallest standalone sandstone rock tower on the planet.
Perched upon “La Brèche“, a five-metre by two-metre platform between a free-standing gendarme and Kaga’s summit headwall, I am utterly spent and all alone. Maybe out of my depth.
The next pitch is the hardest pitch of the entire route. At 6a+ in the jargon of the French rating system it is not particularly difficult for me when climbing out of the car – but now, severely dehydrated with spasming muscles, it seems impossible.
The rock is sleek and mostly featureless – the good holds separated by sections of run-out traversing blankness. Nigh-on impossible to protect a fall save for a few tiny horizontal breaks and a single rusty piton, hammered in-situ. The crux of the pitch, the most difficult section, will bring me up eight metres above the ledge without a single piece of protection (enough to break my legs in a fall) and then left and out above the void. Nothing below me but a sickening drop – half a kilometre, uninterrupted to the ground.
After two days in the heat with the bare minimum in water, I am approaching the margins of control. My arms are spent. My brain is fried. Of the six litres I had started with, I’ve now only eight sips left. Eight sips. That’s it. Two sips per pitch to get me to the summit and the thirsty bivy that awaits. Nothing for the descent.
The descent… the descent.
Fully-committed now, I dream of that fucking descent. Down the West Face, accessible only by the summit. A summit that is reached by traversing across and up the blank headwall above me. Do or die.
 They call this pitch “La Voie Pujos“. Named for French mountain guide Alain Pujos – one of the massif’s early explorers. According to the history books, Pujos was a talented climber – among the best of his day. And yet. And yet, one sunny February day, after setting out to free-solo the shady North Face of Mt Hombori, Pujos reached the summit, sat down next to a rock and died. It was the dehydration that got him. He’d simply climbed himself dry.
I’d been stewing on this the past two days – the historical fact of Pujos’ untimely end filtering through the bottleneck every time I took a sip.
I look to my right at the other digits of Fatima’s hand – Wanderdu and Wangel Debridu, the stumpy middle fingers; and Suri Tondo, away and across the plateau, the broadest of the summits. Together with Kaga Tondo and Kaga Pomori (the slender thumb, out of view) they form a rock massif, which when silhouetted dark and brooding against the setting sun resembles the venerated icon known across North Africa as “La Main de Fatima”.
The Hand of Fatima with the setting sun behind

The Hand of Fatima with the setting sun behind

Looking up at the final headwall from La Breche

Looking up at the smooth final headwall of Kaga Tondo from La Breche

“You wanted this,” I mutter to myself, tongue dry, throat parched. It was true. I had wanted this. I’d wanted to be here so badly that I’d made two attempts in less than two years, packing a heavy bag full of ropes and climbing equipment and muling it solo halfway across the world. All that, just to get myself up a giant rock in the middle of Mali.

“You wanted this,” I mutter again.
I go through a quick inventory in my head. I’d finished my bag of dried mango yesterday afternoon and feasted on the can of sardines that Suleiman had packed me the night before. Saving the bread for my breakfast this morning had been a bad move. It was already stale – at least three days gone – at the time of purchase. Dry and floury, it had given me cottonmouth. A few bites were all I’d managed.
What I really needed though was water. Water, water, precious water. After these eight sips, there’d be nothing left. I look up again at the summit headwall. A trio of birds surf the air currents, suspended in nothingness. Suddenly a black swallow, wings tipped with flashes of fire-like orange dive-bombs through the breach above my head, skirting along the side of the cliff before disappearing around the corner. I think back to my first solo climbing experience, in a similar precarious position, halfway up one of the cliffs of Mount Arapiles.
The day is at full bloom and the yellow wheat fields of Wimmera shimmer on the horizon. I’ve spent the morning in the shade on Dunes Buttress, methodically working my way up the direct route. Tracing a path over a slab, beyond a little ledge and up towards the summit – seizing this beautiful line in my fingertips. There’s a recurrent theme in the route-log here – “Arab”, “Saracen”, “Lawrence”, “Dunes” – all the names whispering of sandy somethings in faraway desert-scapes. A fine place to be lost in geologic time.
On the third pitch, hanging from a web of metal contraptions, a breeze blows across my nape. I move away from the belay and, pulling over the lip of a little rooflet, I scan the rock above for a good hold. Where the eyes see little, I feel around with hand and fingers, leveraging my tactile sensors in the search for something positive. Still, I clutch at nothing so, pausing, I reassess and remind myself to enjoy the view.
A robin whizzes by. A rotund, little scarlet thing – bobbing up and down with each flutter of its wings. Like a breast-stroking fat man trying to stay afloat.
Below, the shapes of a few climbers on neighbouring buttresses. The familiar sounds of “on belay!” and “safe!”.
Here though, on this patch of rock, there is quiet. There’s no call-outs on a solo climb. No commands for more or less rope. No laughter. No sound. Only the climber, his rope, rack, the rock and an inner monologue – a monologue dithering between the fear of loneliness and the bliss of silent solitude. No miscommunication, only an error of judgement. No waiting for your second, only idling. No one else to blame – only the self. Everything is in my hands.
Thus, alone on Dunes Buttress, I pause for a second longer, feed a handful of slack through my belay device and reach out higher, higher, higher – piano-fingering at a distant hold. With tenuous approval, it accepts my grasp.
I ee-adjust my right foot now, swinging my heel high onto a tiny horizontal ledge. The rubber finds purchase and I rock my weight over. I climb. A few more metres and I emerge into the sunlight at a place called “the Oasis” – a heavily vegetated ledge two thirds of the way up. It hides a little cave amongst the debris of fallen spires, lush by comparison to the rest of the buttress. I set my belay and rappel down to retrieve my pack and gear.
As the sun reaches its zenith, it disappears behind the summit and my route is soused in shade. Jumaring back up to my belay, I pause for a muesli bar on the ledge, drinking in the near-eastern vibe up here. Luscious life hidden amongst red, sun-roasted rock. It could be an oasis in the Sinai, Palmyra, Azraq. I miss that part of the world.
I continue on, moving quickly now that the sun is gone, recharged by a muesli bar and a sip of water. I clamber over a roof and traverse right over a finicky corner crack.
A few moves later and I am standing beneath a bulge of smooth rock. The summit lies just beyond. My hand feels for a positive edge. I seize the hold and place a cam. A fall here would be long and unpleasant. The top is no place to die. I pause again, counterbalanced on one foot, one hand in the chalk bag, the other attached to the cliff. I crane my head, left and right – complete exposure, nothing but air all around me. For a moment, I smile. I realise that I am happy. Alive as never before.
Emerging into the sunlight, I look up into the cloudless sky. I’ve company. Two peregrine falcons flying wing-to-wing, silhouetted black against the burning orb. Everything seems perfect –  the summit, the sun, the birds, the final move. I stand on top and hoot a victory hoot, drinking in the experience. A rope-solo of Dunes Buttress. Nothing noteworthy at all, really. People go ropeless on this thing all the time. Still content, I pick my way down towards camp.
Two years of marking time. Calendars filled with study, work then travel. I find myself in Mali. Once again. This trip has been a long time coming – an allotted few weeks carved out in the gap between postgraduate research and moving to the other side of the world.
I drag my bags to the front gate of The Sleeping Camel in Bamako. The lobby is bustling. The usual kinds of foreigners one expects to find in a country in the midst of a civil war. A Swedish freelance journalist tapping away on her laptop. A pair of Dutch police officers seconded to the UN. A crew of British military de-mining contractors with not a word of French between them. Hordes of aid workers belonging to a whole menagerie of development agencies. A loud-mouthed African-American with mining interests in the Congo. Like a caricature, he walks around in a scarlet velvet jacket. A rogue’s gallery of expats-in-Africa stereotypes, this lobby.
Then, of course, in the corner courtyard of the compound, the slightly-insane German quintegenarian camped out beneath an army-issue groundsheet under a mango tree. He ports a long grey beard and a karakul. He’s ridden here by motorcycle from Munich, he says. On a journey “to find the kingdom of Heaven”
Next morning I check out, board my afternoon bus to Hombori and settle in for what is sure to be a long and bumpy ride through the night. We pass Douentza at first light and the distant shape of the Bandigara escarpment glows black against the changing sky. We have entered “la zone d’urgence” – what the Malian defense ministry has deemed “the dangerous north”.
I’d first visited Mali the previous June, six months after Islamist extremists in the dunescapes of the Sahara had taken half the country. They came from the north – black turbans, indigo veils, severe expressions, touting freshly-oiled Kalashnikovs looted from vaults of Gaddafi’s sprang-open armouries. From their refuge on the Algerian-Malian border they struck out across the desert, riding the wake of a nationalist uprising amongst disaffected Tuareg nomads. They hit Timbuktu, the age-old desert oasis once the centre of Islamic teaching, with rifle and whip. There, they set to the task of destroying the tombs of Sufi saints and thousands of medieval tomes.  Idolatry, they called it. Nothing the world hadn’t seen already from the denizens of jihad.
Gao, Hombori and Douentza. Three key towns on the road south were the next to fall. The ill-equipped Malian army was driven out. Tourists kidnapped, murdered. Adulterers stoned. The standard narrative when jihadists come to town. Needless to say, the foreign tourism industry was wiped out. In the towns they captured, the jihadists instituted a juridical order based on the strictest interpretation of sharia. The reduction of the north of Mali into a war-torn hellscape was instantaneous and total. Northern Mali had become yet another sunburnt Sahelian sore.
This sign captures the Timbuktu experience of recent. A sign warning travelling cameleers of the dangers of AIDs, the faces of the camel and rider were spray-painted over by the djihadistes during their reign over the town

This sign perfectly captured Timbuktu, 2013. A sign warning travelling cameleers of the dangers of AIDs, the faces of the camel and rider spray-painted over by the djihadistes during their reign over the town

A few months before my first tour of the country, the French had arrived to take the north back. Operation Serval had moved quickly, rolling toward Timbuktu with a rapid mechanical fury. One-by-one the towns at the edge of the desert were reclaimed. The occupying djihadistes fled and the Gallic offensive continued. Airborne assets in full swing, the French brought the fight hard and fast against the enemy, right to their desert sanctuary in the Adrar des Ifoghas – a complex natural labyrinth of canyons and sandstone bitter from which they had launched their war.
Then, like djinns at dusk, the jihadists had disappeared into the sands, packing up and shipping out almost as quickly as they had arrived. Onwards to Libya. To regroup. With the Islamists scattered, and the nationalist fury of the Tuareg temporarily restrained to a grumble, the French had done a decent job. Now, the harder task – winning the Long Peace – lay ahead.
 This was the hard part.
Since Serval, suicide bombings and roadside ambushes had become the mode du jour in all the former tourist hotspots. All across the north, gunfire could still be heard at night. Mali was anything but a safe country.
At the house of one or other of the European explorers who "discovered" Timbuktu.

2013 found me at the house of one or other of the European explorers who “discovered” Timbuktu.

But something was drawing me. Something big. The Hand of Fatima. Five sandstone rock towers, arranged like the fingers of a mighty hand, rising out of the desert. Two hundred kilometres from Timbuktu and a long way from anywhere else. It was like climbing in a different galaxy – extra-planetary wall climbing.
Since 2013, following my first trip to Mali, I could think of nothing else.
That trip had been an adventure in itself. A summer hike through the Dogon villages at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment had seen me go down with heatstroke in fifty-five degree heat.
Later, a visit to Timbuktu had culminated in a breakdown on the return journey. A waterless walk back to the next town. Sips of water-tasting-of-battery-acid siphoned from the engine.
A carte-carte on a border crossing from Burkina Faso into Mali.

A carte-carte on the border crossing from Burkina Faso into Mali.

A Fulani woman, clad in a hijab, publicly breastfeeds in the back of a carte-carte. Islam (and its rules of modesty) are very syncretic in West Africa.

A Fulani woman, clad in hijab, publicly breastfeeds in the back of a carte-carte. Islam (and its rules of modesty) is very syncretic in West Africa.

A typical hellish day during the Sahelian summer. The harmattan blowing from the south.

A typical hellish day during the Sahelian summer. The harmattan blowing from the south.

The view of the Dogon villages from high on the Bandiagara Escarpment. The previous inhabitants of the area - the Tellem Pygmy - built their domiciles high up in the cliffs crafting tiny doors and miniature windows as portholes looking over the rest of the world.

The view of the Dogon villages from high on the Bandiagara Escarpment. The previous inhabitants of the area – the Tellem Pygmy – built their quarters high up in the cliffs crafting tiny doors and miniature windows as portholes looking over the world.

A typical mud mosque at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment.

A typical mud mosque in Dogon Country at the base of the Bandiagara Escarpment.

All packed and ready for a failed expedition

All packed and ready for a failed expedition

A vehicle breakdown on my return from Tktu after some ethnographic fieldwork culminated in...

A vehicle breakdown on my return from Tktu after some ethnographic fieldwork. The breakdown culminated in…

... a long, long walk

… a long, long walk

This time though, leaving Bamako in the late afternoon to travel through the night, I was Hombori bound – on the road to my final destination, the Hand of Fatima massif. The sun rises slowly, a shy new dawn.
The bus stops in a small village near Boni and with the sun poking its nose above the horizon it is time for fejr prayers. Ahmed, the Malian soldier in the seat next to me shoulders his rifle and steps outside. Behind him, two brown-robed Fulani men, dressed in bone-white turbans. Conducting wudu, the ablution of washing, he touches the red earth with bare hands. Pensive, methodical, thorough – he cleanses his body with the dust. One of the enturbanned men leads the prayer and they line up, performing their raka’at, facing the rising sun.
The bus carries on into a clear desert morning – onwards through a scene ripped from a pictogram of the Old West. A clear day, a blue sky, citadels of red rock in contrast with the starkness of the plains. With every passing castle of rock, a dozen more appear on the horizon, the scrubland between each buttress teeming with desert life. A trio of camels, drifting across the road. A goatherd and his servres, moving between the thorntrees of a sparse, dry brousse.
And finally, growing out from a horizon of nothing – les Aiguilles de Garmi – the famed Hand of Fatima – a five-fingered escarpment of vertical sandstone. The summits reaching skywards, backlit by a blazing morning sun.
As the Hand comes closer, the contours of its rugged cliffs become clearer – palisades of rock formed from the compaction of millions of years of shifting sand. In the summer heat, the blasting harmattan, the waves of conquering armies and the ravages of recent war, the massif has remained aloft, uncaring, indifferent, a sentinel unto itself. A rocky hand raised, open-palmed. Fashioned by some geologic Lah.
Dost thou not then believe? he’s saying.
Wangel Debridu, flanked by Kaga and Wanderdu, encircled by an angelic halo of light

Wangel Debridu, flanked by Kaga and Wanderdu, encircled by an angelic halo of light

In all, the Hand of Fatima comprises four rock towers, with a fifth subsidiary rocktower Suri Tondo (Suri being a man’s name and tondo meaning “rock”), sometimes included as a fifth finger – a polydactylous pinkie on the far end of the plateau. After Suri, there is Wanderdu (“wheat” in Fulani), the ring-finger; Wangel Debridu (“the pregnant woman”) the middle finger; Kaga Tondo (“the grandfather rock”), the mighty index finger; and Kaga Pomori (“the grandmother rock”), the escarpment’s thumb.
In Fulani, the etymology summons the home and hearth of an ancient metamorphosed family – Suri the farmer, his wheat field, Suri’s pregnant wife, his father, the wisened Kaga and the grandmother, Pomori, wife of Kaga.
Throughout much of the Islamic World, the “open hand” is palpably culturally significant – sometimes referred to in Arabic as “the khamsa” (Arabic:  خمسة, literally meaning “five”, as in, “five fingers of the hand”). In North Africa in particular, especially Morocco, the “khamsa” has been co-opted into a popular palm-shaped amulet – an open hand inset with an eye – worn by pregnant women as protection against the evil eye.
The five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif. From left to right Kaga Pomori, Kaga Tondo, Wangel Debridu, Wanderdu and Suri Tondo

The five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif. From left to right Kaga Pomori, Kaga Tondo, Wangel Debridu, Wanderdu and Suri Tondo

The "khamsa" or Hand of Fatima

The “khamsa” or Hand of Fatima

Certainly, it seems, for the inhabitants of Garmi and Daari, the two villages spilling out from the base of the massif, the mountain has played the role of protector. The djihadistes never stopped there, I’m told as I leave the bus. The rocks were too intimidating and they never lingered long in the area.
As the bus takes off down the well-holed road, I am left alone with two and a half packs of gear. Two children emerge from a small shelter in the distance – a dome tent-like structure made from sticks. Fulani hut.
Children are always the first to notice changes in their environment, always the first to notice a newcomer, the first to greet an outsider.
They dance around me with happy smiles, laughing and nattering. I understand nothing. A woman emerges from the stick shelter, shouting after the children. Then, noticing me, the strange white man with more bags then he can carry, she pauses.
Even though she spies my ropes and knows me a climber, she looks confused. Why am I here? Now? With things the way they are in the rest of the country?
I’m extrapolating here of course, because without a common tongue, I understand nothing she says. Maybe she’s just wondering why I’m stood on her front porch.
Locals in the village of Daari chatter in Fulani, gathered outstide my stick-built tent

Locals in the village of Daari chatter in Fulani, gathered outstide my stick-built tent

Children are gathering in greater numbers now and in the distance I hear the sound of a moto, fanging down the highway. A thin man in an FC Barcelona jersey arrives. Messi jersey of course.
“Bon matin,” he says. “Ça va?”
At last! Someone who speaks French.
“Ça va bien maintenant,” I say, emphasis on the going-well-now part. “Tu parles français et ça me fait plaisir.”
He nods. “Oui, the people here in Daari,” he says. “They do not study at the school. But over there in Garmi-” he points to the shoulder of the massif, and a narrow rocky path leading off to the left of Kaga Tondo, the index finger. “-we all speak French.”
With meals and a village of French speakers less than a kilometre away, it doesn’t take much for Sooleiman to sell the idea. I should stay with him.
Sooleiman, le grand cuisinier

Sooleiman, le grand cuisinier

Curious kids in the village of Garmi

Curious kids in the village of Garmi

Children in Garmi pose for the camera

Children in Garmi pose for the camera

The next two days are used to scout the area, recceing the possibilities, stringing along Amadou, the son of the village chief of Garmi, as a walking guide around the massif.
On the second day, Amadou and I team up for an ascent of Mariage Traditionel (6a+), the classic line on Wanderdu, the stumpy ring finger of the massif.
As a boy, Amadou was taught the basics by Salvadore Campillo, a Spanish mountain guide who lived twenty years in Daari. The climbing with Amadou goes along well.
At the belay ledge of P2 Mariage Traditional (6a+), Wanderdu

At the belay ledge of P2 Mariage Traditionel (6a+), Wanderdu

Amadou stems his way to glory on the final crux pitch of MT

Amadou stems his way to glory on the final crux pitch of MT

Amadou on the Deuxieme Terrasse of Mariage Traditionel

Amadou on the Deuxieme Terrasse of Mariage Traditionel

After lunch and a long guzzle of water during the hottest part of the day we scout out the other possibilities. Foremost in my mind is the route that has become a two year obssession for me – the “obscure object of my desire”. The region’s most striking line.
Towering six-hundred-fifty metres above the Sahelian desert, the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo. A red sabre of perfect grès. A well-ledged yet flawless line following a series of gendarmes up the world’s tallest stand-alone sandstone rock tower. In the literature, both oral and written, it is known by many different names – “l’eperon nord”, “l’arête nord”, “la voie Pujos”, but the locals know it only as “La Grande Voie”.
In their guide to the greatest big wall climbs on Earth, well-known French climbing pair Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit say of the route – “une voie incontournable sur un sommet unique, sans contestation parmi les plus belles grandes voies longues et adventureuses de la planète”. Basically, it’s pretty fucking rad.
A climb of the North Pillar would bring me to the highest point of the massif, the descent requiring a traverse across the summit and a long chain of abseils down the west face. As we pass beneath Kaga, Amadou points out the fall-line. He’s never climbed the peak himself, but verbatim, he describes the specifics of each ledge and rap-station.
I walk away content with what I’ve learned. The reconnaissance, I’ve come to realise, is just as important as the climb’s execution.
As in war, where information transmitted from a forward observation post is critical for an army’s “intelligence preparation of the battlespace”, the penchant for scoping the lines and descents of a big wall with eye and spotting scope are what gave the great wall-climbers of yesteryear – Robbins, Bridwell, Ewbank, Chouinard – the chance to succeed on their own “impossibles”. The Salathé, the Sea of Dreams, the Muir, even the Totem Pole. All scaled from afar for their first time.
Now with a recce of the all the approaches under my belt, I know that a point-to-point traverse of the Hand of Fatima is also possible. Starting in Daari, following the North Pillar to the summit of Kaga Tondo and descending to Garmi. All as part of one great knowledge-seeking expression of movement.
The village-to-village traverse idea came from a common interest in both horizontal and vertical movement – moving from A to B via a beautiful mountain summit. Ever intrigued by human migration, the idea of linking population centres via an aesthetic mountain summit had always appealed. Kilian Jornet’s “run” from the Italian village of Courmayeur to the French town of Chamonix via Mt Blanc’s Innominata Ridge could be held up as the immortal standard for a point-to-point traverse of this kind.
My planned village-to-village traverse of the Hand of Fatima massif

My planned village-to-village traverse of the Hand of Fatima massif

Splitting the wheat grains in the village of Daari. "La Breche" can be seen between the final gendarme and the summit of Kaga Tondo.

Crushing the wheat grains in the village of Daari. The fine powder is sometimes mixed with sugar, water and goat’s milk to make a delicious thick health drink. In the distance, “La Breche” can be seen between the final gendarme and the summit of Kaga Tondo.

Kaga Tondo from Garmi

Kaga Tondo from Garmi

My grand traverse project would bring me from the old climbers’ camp in the village of Daari to my cosy abode in Garmi. There, shade, sleep, food and most importantly, water, would await.
Content with my reconnaissance, I put my camera away and trot off down the trail, ghosting Amadou on a circuitous track through the boulder-fields at the base of the mountain.
Walking back to Garmi in the dying sunlight, Amadou recounts to me the myths of the area. Unlike the stories told in other mountain ranges where I’d climbed, the Hand of Fatima seemed to have a rather confused mythological history.
Indeed, much like the history of the region itself, with its mixing of cultures and its syncretic brand of Islam, the story of the massif is an assembly of scattered tales – a tapestry woven from many threads.
One tale figures the massif as the hand of some primordial woman – an outcast who, as she lay dying in the desert, reached her hand towards the sky. The rest, they say, was consumed by shifting sands.
Another tale tells of an ex-cannonical pilgrimage by the Prophet Mohammed – who, in no short order, named the massif after the dainty hand of his favourite daughter.
Where the imagery of the hand is concerned, others contend, it was the French explorers, reminiscing on the khamsa amulets they had seen in Moroccan marketplaces, who were the progenitors of the name.
And finally, there is the myth of Suri and Fatima – the tale which seems closest to the original local story.
“Fatima was a young girl,” Amadou tells me. “She would hunt the animals of the escarpment with her father. When all the animals were hunted, Fatima and her sister began climbing the cliffs to take the eggs from birds’ nests. One day, she fell but catching her hand on a crasse in the rock, had it severed. When a wandering marabout asked where her hand was, her father, Suri replied, rather that it was there – the five fingers of rock dominating the skyline above the village.”
The glove fits, I muse, reflecting on that final story as I fall asleep that night.
Inquisitive kids in the village of Garmi

Inquisitive kids in the village of Garmi

Sooleiman's sister, Fatima

Sooleiman’s sister, Fatima

 At five a.m, I hear the rumble of Amadou’s moto. In the distance, beyond the mudbrick walls. Supine but with eyes open, I peek up at the gaps between the metal shutters. Beams of approaching headlights refracted across the room.
As a méhariste waking to the sound of approaching camels, I know that this, my transport away from safety, has arrived.
My bag already packed, I down half a litre of water, stuff an orange in my pocket and mount the moto behind Amadou. Together in the pre-dawn darkness, we take the pot-holed, bombed-out highway to the other side of the massif. Reach my starting point. The old climbers camp.
Kaga Tondo, profiled darkest black and in grisaille, towers above us. We pick our way up the boulders to the base of the éperon nord.
From Amadou, I relinquish three bottles of water – five-point-five litres sum total. I shake his hand and bid him farewell. The last person I will see for the next two days.
I charge up the opening pitches, leading, fixing, cleaning, jumaring, reaching the first terrace at daybreak. Check the watch. If I want to be off this thing in two days, I need to do every pitch in about an hour. I’m slower than that.
“Just flattening out the speed bumps. Just getting the system dialled again.”.

Climb another pitch, return to my bag and guzzle some water. The early morning sun burns hot and bright and I retire to a pocket of shade. Devour an orange. My mouth is already dry. Another long pitch leads me to the base of a chimney and I look at my watch again. I check the topo and confirm my position.

I’m moving too slow. This route is going to take me two and half, maybe three days, at least. I have five litres of water left in my pack – one-point-seven per day. A survivable ration. But barely.
I do the math again, hoping I’d been too pessimistic with my first set of calculations. The math is good, my figures right. Continuing the push is going to bring me to the edge of thirst.
I look at my watch again.
Looking at your watch isn’t going to make you climb faster!
Sunrise on Kaga Tondo

Sunrise on Kaga Tondo

Racing up the opening pitches

Racing up the opening pitches

Lovely view of the Sahelian plains from the first terrace

Lovely view of the Sahelian plains from the first terrace

Jumaring, Icarus-like, towards the burning sun

Jumaring, Icarus-like, into the burning sun

Back to the awaiting pitch. A loose, blocky, flaring, squeezy horror chimney. The kind of pitch that makes you happy you remembered your helmet. The kind of pitch you send your mate up on the sharp end to suss out the death-potential.
I’d heard the faintest whisperings from the villagers in Garmi that “la Grand Voie” had once been free-soloed. I couldn’t comprehend it. Most of these holds looked like they would rip at any minute. A vertical sand dune. Not unlike the choss you’d find on the  Dog Wall in the Blue Mountains. Pure misery. Though misery, I suppose, is what it’s all about. In the end.
I pull a few metres of slack and commit to the looseness.
Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. I’m through.
On two good ledges now, I spread my legs into a stem, suspended like a gymnast above the sickening void. Snap a photo, continue up to the belay.
Looking down at the horror chimney

Looking down at the horror chimney

A pitch or two later and I reach the base of the first gendarme. Typical for multi-pitch sandstone, the way up the North Pillar does not take a clear path up a series of corners and cracks, but wanders hither and thither across an arête of red rock, winding a way skyward like a snake coiled around a caduceus. Route finding and not the climbing, is the crux of this voie. Per Bodet and Petit.
The next pitch is a traverse. Then a series of roofs – one, two, three – to the ledge above. The French, on their topo, call the pitch the “traversée aérienne“. In elite French alpiniste speak: “terrifying shit for mere mortals”.
The Petit-Bodet topo I had with me.

The Petit-Bodet topo I had with me.

Departing my perch, I quest out onto the pillar’s exposed face, finding that indeed, this pitch involves some sketchy, terrifying shit. Uncomfortably long run-outs above questionable protection.
At the crux, on the lip of the third and final roof, I pause for a time, dilly-dallying to see if there’s an easier option. Difficult to tell.
Fuck it, there’s a good handhold higher up.
I commit to a “deadpoint”, throw for it, stick it, cut loose with both feet and continue climbing.
That felt pretty heroic.
I fix the rope and get ready to clean.
The sun lowers in the sky. It drops behind the massif, sousing the North Pillar in shade. The shadows of Fatima’s fingers creep across the desert plain below, the dark, nebulous digits slithering over Daari. Protection from the evil eye, watching over the village.
IMG_2173 IMG_2165
In the dying light I charge up some blank, black slabs. Making the most of the cooler hours. And my dwindling water supply.
Fixing two pitches, I return to bivouac on a broad and comfortable ledge. The ledge is encircled by a small stone corral. The work of unknown climbers-by.
The pitch before the bivouac ledge

The pitch before the bivouac ledge

Bivouac ledge selfie.

Bivouac ledge selfie.



Night falls. I procure a nut-tool from my harness. My spoon tonight. A tin of canned chicken is consumed. Then a can of sardines à l’huile argan. I learn that olive oil is not nearly as refreshing as a bottle of chilled water. A bivy ensues. I toss and turn, thirsting some.

The following morning I pack my bag, sip some water, and jumar into a racing dawn.
I run it out in the interests of speed. I reach a sloping ledge – la terrasse inclinée in Bodet and Petit’s topo – turn an exposed columne aérienne and am welcomed to the pillar’s upper third by a howling wind.
I look at my watch again, feeling a rising sense of urgency. The sun is high now and it will soon be on the descent, the route now totally swathed in shade. Below on the plains, the mighty shadow of Kaga Tondo lengthens over Daari. Same as yesterday, with its crescive forcefield.

I move. I thirst. I climb. Then, finally, from my perch in La brèche, I look up at the crux pitch and the final one hundred and fifty metres of the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo.



la brêche

La brèche

I despair, yes, but all too soon I am left with only my rope, my rack and a ticking clock. I commit to the traverse. Up the blank wall, crimp, crimp, smearing with my feet, the rubber on my shoes scraping desperately to find purchase on the smooth rock. My footwork is rubbish, like a stumbling drunk. I’m still attached though – somehow – and I reach a horizontal break, plug it with a wobbly cam, and continue questing out left.

A howling easterly blows across a smooth face and the heat of a setting sun nips on my red-raw neck. I reach the anchor. Carry out some “unorthodox” back cleaning for expediency’s sake and lower out into the void.
The crux pitch traversing left and up away from La Brêche

The crux pitch traversing left and up and away from La brèche

Getting high on the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo

Getting high on the North Pillar of Kaga Tondo

The next pitch is a hand-crack splitting the headwall, shadowy fingers lengthening across the plain beneath me. On autopilot now, the despairing gone, committed to the shadows. Handjam over handjam, feeling like Webb in the English Channel, swimming towards the summit, swimming towards victory. I am going to make it. I know it. The crux is way down below, a mere memory beneath my shoe rubber.

Darkness approaching. Swiftly.
I reach a large broad ledge, traverse right, stem up the final corner and fix the final pitch. I scramble up a pile of boulders, ripping the metal accoutrement from my harness and sprint to the summit bloc, eager to scope the sunset and descent before the dying of the light.
The shadow of the massif over Daari. The wall of the destroyed camp seen below.

The shadow of the massif over Daari. The wall of the destroyed camp seen below.

Summit snap

Summit of Kaga Tondo

Summit. And broadside, first rappel spotted.
I love the smell of aluminum in the evening. Smells like, survival.
The wind howls. The sleeping bag comes out. I feel the cold of a stark desert night. I thirst. Away and in the darkness of the plains, I see the diesel-powered fairy lights of the French military base. Directly below, the glowing red dot of a solitary campfire. Some nomad, who, like me, is up for another night out. Another waterless summit bivy – the second waterless bivy in as many weeks.
 It is New Year’s Eve.  11:59am. The clock strikes midnight. January 1st is my birthday. Somewhere on the other side of the world my girlfriend is probably cosied up in front of a movie and my mates are downing cold ones on the beach. My parents are having an early one. Not me.
“Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me… Fucking idiot”.
I roll over, miming sleep.
Sunrise. A tricolour sunrise. Red, white, and blue. The French flag to greet me this morning. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Away and down on the goudron, a truck rambles along, its gleaming headlights shining like a beacon of hope through the darkness. With this, the harbinger of the new day, I feel good – like I’m going to live. Even in my dehydrated state.
Papery skin and dry retinas. A thirsty bivouac.

Papery skin and dry retinas. A thirsty bivouac.


A tricolour sunrise. Red, white and blue. The headlight of a camion on the left.


Descending from the summit of Kaga Tondo

 I begin my descent, thirsting hard. It seems like days since my last drink.
“Keep going. Get down. Think about what you’re doing.”
I reach a notorious abseil station, a nasty crack littered with the rap tat from one of Salvadore Campillo’s abseil disasters. I clean up his mess but then encounter the same problem on the same pitch.
Stuck rope.
I can’t re-climb it so I cut my rope, using Salvadore’s rope in conjunction with what remains of my own. The next abseil doesn’t quite reach the next abseil station – I only have enough rope to get to a small stance above it. There aren’t many spots for another abseil anchor here – it’s a blank face. I could jumar back up but I need to get down. I need water. Desperately.
Fuck it.
I pull the rope and eyeball the ledge below me. It’s wide and broad with good run-outs either side even if I missed my mark.
“You’re not thinking about that are you.”
“You can make it…All those parkour videos you watched as a teenager, looking for things to do in your urban jungle…”
“No way. If this was a guide’s exam you’d have definitely failed.”
“It doesn’t matter… get down.”
I jump. I stick it. There was never really any doubt. But it was a stupid thing to do.
“This is some crazy shit..”
In my dehydrated state, my judgement is definitely skewed.
“Don’t do that again!”
  I need to keep moving. To keep making decisions. To keep doing. Water. All I want is water.
Looking towards Suri Tondo soused in the early morning light.

Looking towards Suri Tondo soused in the early morning light.

The first abseil to descend down the West Face

The first abseil on the descent down the West Face

Enter Amadou. He is waiting for me at the base of Kaga Tondo with a backpack full of water. The first person I’ve seen in two and a half days.
“La grande voie,” he says to me as he shakes my hand. I manage a smile, a gaunt and desiccated grin that pries itself from cracked, swollen lips and a red-gummed cottonmouth.

I mutter a few words about my epic descent. The stuck rope. The sketchy half-length abseils on marginal gear. The jump. Then, between spasms of dehydration, I unwrap the bag’s contents. The glee of a child unwrapping a birthday present.

Perchance, January the first is my birthday. As I look up at the headwall and the summit above, I am thankful for the gift.
The water, that is.

Soqotra – A Reconnaissance of Girhimitin

The morning after our return from Mashanig, Ben emerges from his tent with a swollen red foot, open sores soused in iodine solution – a garish scene. We spent most of the previous two days, adding nicks and cuts to our limbs and ankles, and with the granite flanks of the mountain’s north face a shady breeding ground for an array of plantlife, dirt and greenery had clogged our wounds.

Coming down off the mountain, I had made a point to wash vigorously in the stream by the campsite, thorough in my efforts to scour the dirt from the open wounds on my hands and feet. Ben it seems, despite the best efforts of his travel medical kit had missed a spot”.

After lunch and a few rounds of fire-boiled shai, Abu Maryam and I slip off into the thick foliage on a mission to explore the western approaches of Girhimitin – the shining wall of granite looming to the left over the campsite. A proud face of vertical rock, it is big, intimidating, awesome, embroidered by dragon blood trees at its shoulders with a circlet of cloud, a coronnade for the summit.

Girhimitin rises in the distance from a rest stop on the way into the Hajhir Mountains

Girhimitin rises in the distance from a rest stop on the way into the Hajhir Mountains

Abu Maryam boils tea and goat in camp

Abu Maryam boils tea and goat in camp


Abu Maryam in his mountain domain

Ahmed Abu Maryam is a goat herd. He has ten daughters and a wife in a tiny village on the other side of the range … honorific “Abu Maryam”(eldest daughter is Maryam) after the mother of the prophet Issa – “Mary” in English… he wears a blue furtah and a red-and-white keffiyeh – the pattern distinctly Jordanian. He is nimble and lean with a strong weathered face – dark and bearded in a repose which belies years of enduringh the harsh elements of the Hajhir mountains. We communicate in classical Arabic but where my linguistic ability reaches the limits of its complexity, his thick jabali  Soqotri begins and so often communication becomes jumbled, riddled with aphorisms and punctuated by befuddled smiles.

The day previous after sampling the leg shanks of one of his goats, I had asked if he knew of a way to get to the base of Girhimitin from camp. Descending from Mashanig I had looked west to see if the grassy meadows at the base of the west face could be reached on foot. Like some inviolable altoplain – Soqotras answer to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (of Tilman and Shipton fame) – the way looked difficult and treacherous – a thickly forested base surrounded on all sides by steep fluting peaks. The wadi flowing away from the mountains base also looked like it would be difficult to access. A negotiable boulder-stream up high, it was flanked by thick vegetation (the kind you might want to bring a machete for) and at its terminus, where it met with the main approach wadi for the Hajhir it dropped into a steep limestone cliff; riven by a small waterfall.

From the summit of Mashanig, the west face of Girhimitin looked like it would have to be a rappel-in, climb-out affair – abseil on a fixed rope from the col to the north which can then be used as a bail option if the granite folds of the mountain proved too much for a single push.  But as I discussed my thoughts on how to reach the mountain’s base, Abu Maryam is insistent.

“Fi tareeq! Fi tareeq! Bess neruh ala al-tareeq lil-hawanat wel-genem.” There is a road, he tells me. But it is an animal track, and we will be following in the footsteps of the herd. Indeed, the steep limestone cliffs, hide a narrow route, a thin goat track moving between the trees, which weaves its way up and onto a plinth of rock to follow the river-boulder moraine to the mountain’s base.

I don my sandals, wincing as my infected toe rubs against the  footstraps. He goes barefoot, as he Always goes, the soles of his feet a tough leather, gleaming grey and impenetrable as he boulder-hops the stream – the underfoot like the hide of a musk ox at the turnstile. He moves swiftly and surely through the trees, adamant that he knows the way, ducking beneath the low-hanging branches, weaving between the vines of coiled, impenetrable scrub. O

n the moraine he is light and fast, hopping delicately from rock to rock like a ballet dancer bouncing across a stage. As I lumber clumsily behind, ham-footedly picking my way through the loose scree I observe him, marvelling at his speed in this kind of terrain. Every mountaineer could learn a valuable lesson of moraine navigation from him – I turn rocks, he doesn‘t… and in watching, learning and mimicking, my body learns why. He stops from time to time spotting a root he knows well. He rips it from the ground, excitement writ across his face.

“Al-ud hina,” he says, pointing at with a long-nailed finger. “Good for cleaning the teeth.”

We continue on. Within a few minutes however, he has spotted something else – a root he knows well. He reaches for a stick and begins to dig. Within a minute he has uncovered a brown-white bulb.

“Seefid! Seefid!” he shouts. Soqotri potato. He rips it from the ground, splits it in half, swallowing his part whole and offering the rest. I chew thoughtfully. It is indeed a potato. The thought suddenly occurs to me that if Ben and I were lost up here for a month we would probably starve. It also occurs to me that he most certainly wouldn’t.

Abu Maryam locates a familiar root.

Abu Maryam locates a familiar root.

A sign to begin digging

A sign to begin digging


Seefid (Arabic:  سيفد). Soqotri potato

Seefid (Arabic: سيفد). Soqotri potato

In Ahmed Mohammed Abu Maryam I see all the traits of a traditional mountain culture that has survived the sweeping changes of the modern world. He walks barefoot – always – and moves faster over the stream-scattered boulders than I do even after years of moving over this sort of terrain as a climber and a soldier. He is a goatherd and lives a simple life, almost totally moneyless.

He asks for nothing as he guides me to the base of the mountain, and I know he will not accept it, perhaps be insulted, if I offer him something at the end. He drinks his tea, he does his salat, he sings his mountain songs, he tracks his goats across the granite hinterlands and thinks little (though not nothing) of what goes on in the world of below. But we would would be wrong think him a man from a lost past – a Noble Savage – a primitive in-portrait.

Indeed far from cut off completely, far from a man without a stake or an interest in modernity, Abu Maryam is an example of globalisation personified, a reminder that as the core of urban culture expands into the periphery, the mountains, the deserts and their peoples respond in kind. He wears a red keffiyeh in a style known from Jordan; he owns a mobile phone and he is deft with the camera when I ask him to take photos tourist snaps of me; he wears a cotton shirt, a gold watch made in China and talks of the Houthi iin Sanaa as if he tunes into Al-Jazeera 24. Indeed, as we flow up the wadi towards the base of Girhimitin I muse that just as this Soqotri goatherd moves from mountain pass to mountain pass, so moves culture – for culture is fluid not static.

Abu Maryam holds a root traditionally used by Soqotri Bedu for cleaning the teeth. He wears a cotton shirt, blue furtah, Jordanian keffiyeh, Chinese counterfeit watch

Abu Maryam holds a root traditionally used by Soqotri Bedu for cleaning the teeth. He wears a cotton shirt, blue furtah, Jordanian keffiyeh, Chinese counterfeit watch

Abu Maryam models Black Diamond's latest 200 lumen head torch.

Abu Maryam models Black Diamond’s latest 200 lumen head torch.

When the cliché emerges of “untouched culture” (indeed, I’ve read this cliché in the context of Soqotra) I am reminded that in Abu Maryam we see not only the survival of the past in the present but proof of the dynamism of human behaviour – to adapt, to shift, to respond to changes in the environment, in the world beyond – a true being of ecology. Culture is a behaviour and like all animal behaviours it coheres to the rules of biology. Man exchanges what does not fulfil a vital function and ingests what will fulfil the function best. Why send a messenger when a mobile phone will do? Why wear rags of olive-tree twine when the workings of an Indian sweat shop are cheaper and stronger? But then a mobile phone will not feed Maryam and his other nine daughters…. and cheap knock-off shoes from China will not grip and smear to a sloping granite slab the way a toughened leathery bare foot will do.

He drinks his goats milk and eats his seefid because a change in diet, even a turn to reliance on footwear would mean a requirement for money – sacrificing one’s autonomy, one’s autarky and a reliance of provisions from outside. It would mean dependence on a system which may not be so accomodating to a drift-in from the mountains. (I would later see this difference starkly illustrated in the Malian villages of Garmi and Daari some weeks later).And so life persists – as i it always has – with only the amount of change that makes living the same life the much easier.

We arrive on top of a wide granite plinth overlooking the boulder stream. Abu Maryam stops and turns and like a pair of wanderers from a Caspar Friedrich painting we gaze out over the hills and plains below, a view of Hadibo and the Indian Ocean in the distance. A stream of water spruces from a crevice above us forming a little pool in a bowl-like indent in the rock before the trickling to the edge and dropping off into the void.

Abu Maryam, taking note of this little trickle-eddy dammed into a little wash basin, looks at his watch, stops and turns to me. “Salat,” he says. It is time to pray. He conduts wudu, washing his hands, his mouth, his feet, his faxe, purifying his soul before the sacred rite. A muezzin unto himself atop his minaret of rock, he sings out the call to prayer, nasal, loud with the same vice that shouts to his goats and sings round the campfire. Then he performs his rakaát p- the sacred movements the standing, the heeding to his lah Lah, the bowinng, the kneeling and ultimately sajadeh – the culminion of hjis prayers – his forehead touches the bare granite – submission to God.

Sans titre

Ruku “Bowing” (Arabic: رُكوع‎). The second major position of Islamic prayer

Sujud "Prostration" (Arabic: سُجود‎). The culminating act of Islamic prepare in touching the forehead to the ground and submitting to God.

Sujud “Prostration” (Arabic: سُجود‎). The culminating act of Islamic prepare in touching the forehead to the ground and submitting to God.

Tashahhud (Arabic: تشهد‎). After submitting, the worshipper kneels, facing Mecca, and bears witness to his Creator

Tashahhud (Arabic: تشهد‎). After submitting, the worshipper kneels, facing Mecca, and bears witness to his Creator

We continue up the wadi and he asks me about my ascent a day previous of Mashanig – the highest point in Soqotra. He is curious about what we found up there, about the mysterious cairn and stories that the skull of a cow is still up there, wondering if we have seen sign of the mythical Nazouzeh.

He tells me a story of how Ali, one of the goatherds down in camp, had found himself halfway up the smaller Mashanig and unable to climb down. Ali had been chasing a goat, near the col beneath Mishifo, the bridge, and when they had fled up the sides of the smaller Mashanig he had given chase. He scrambled up the steep sides until the goats, realising they were being hunted, continued always to the summit, leaving him precariously hanging from the cliffside.

Here, he descended, leaving the goats for another day. I imagined Ali returning to Hadibo for his supper, before hiking back up the next day with an expedition-worth of supplies wrapped up in the folds of his amameh like a haversack. No goat, no food and no food would bring the goatherd back to town.

I ask Abu Maryam if he visited Hadibo, the main coastal town, very often. He shook his head citing problems between the goatherds of the mountains and the black piscatorial groups (technically of Somali descent) inhabiting the fish-rich seaside. “Fi qariyatee, ma shee – al-aswad,” he says. There were no black people in his village. “Until today, if I go to Hadibo there will be problems and I must return to the mountains”. This conflicting dynamic between peoples of the mountains and peoples of the plains (elsewhere I have described this as the dialectic between the core and periphery) is common across the Islamic world and I don’t doubt that some of his concerns are valid.

I ask him about his family. His wife, his ten daughters, and his eldest daughter, Maryam, from which he gets the honorific Abu Maryam (Arabic: أبو مريم) – “the father of Maryam”. She is a rather naughty child it seems. Remembering having read somewhere that fathers who are physically powerful or extra-macho like mountaineers or Special Forces soldiers often tend to have lots of daughters (perhaps for some hormonal reason), I tell him that perhaps he is very manly for only having daughters.

He responds that in Soqotri culture he is viewed as weak for having borne no sons, that others in his village think him far from strong. But I can tell he loves his children, and he tells me about his happiness when Maryam (Mary in English) was born.

“My mother‘s name is Mary,” I tell him. “The odds!”

“Mashallah,” he says. “How old is she?”

“Tabarak allah,” I intone. “Still young,” I say.

“And may she live many more years,” he says. “The secret to a long life is in the tea and the meat of a goat. And walking… lots of walking.”

Then he tells me about the special properties in the sap of the dragon’s blood tree – the mystical remedy which brought centuries of traders, merchants and medicine men to these fabled shores. The drqgon’s blood sap stops bleeding, he tells me. And is a wonderful remedy against female bleeding. With mortar and pestle he mixed up a solution for his wife to stop the post-natal bleeding after Maryam’s birth. He casts a hand towards the summit, at a pair of goats moving up the gentle north ridge. Goats eat the young saplings of the dragon’s blood trees, he tells me. But they stop once the umbrellaing of the tree begins.

“Maybe you will find the sapling of a dragon’s blood tree growing on the summit.”

Dragon's blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Aharia. Dragon’s blood tree.

With our thoughts turned skyward, we crouch together on a rock beneath the mighty face. Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”). In a previous age, so goes the story that Ali and Abu Maryam had told me in camp a few nights before, two warring tribes* waged battle in the plain between Hawari and what is now Hadibo. The story goes that a Bedouin shepherd scaled Girhimitin and launched a spear at an oncoming host of marauders from the south. The height of the mountain and the observation it provided made the volley from the summit a sure thing – a ”sure throw”.

The plain beneath Girhimitin with Hadibo, the town, and Hawari, the mountain we had earlier climbed, in the distance.

The plain beneath Girhimitin with Hadibo, the town, and Hawari, the mountain we had earlier climbed, in the distance.

The West Face, unlike the gentler summit approaches on the back side, was anything but a sure thing. Immediately, as I gazed up at it, I knew I would need three days and a portaledge to complete this route, even if Ben was in good health. Chatting with Abu Maryam, I point out a potential line up the face – not a direttissima – but a mind blowing line up the face no less. An offwidth crack and a foliage-clogged chimney on the left side of the mountain leading into a series of rooves then into the west face proper.

“Shoof al-kitab al-muftuh,” I say, pointing out the next section. I trace my finger up a proud granite corner, a dihedral, the shape of an open book – a Quran with a path writ to Jennat. “This is where we will do our climb,” I say to him… This is where we will write our words. “Bess hada al-tereeq khetr,” he replies. But this way is dangerous.

“La,” I shake my head. “Hatha al-tareeq mitl hadiyet min Allah.”  This route – its like a gift from God. I know he will appreciate the religious undertones. He nods knowingly.

Abu Maryam looks up at the West Face of Girhimitin

Abu Maryam looks up at the West Face of Girhimitin

The descent gully off to the right

The descent gully off to the right

The opening chimney and offwith at the base of the wall

The opening chimney and offwith at the base of the wall

A set of rooves and complex slabs bar access to the Quranic corner

A set of rooves and complex slabs bar access to the Quranic corner

The splitting corner topping out near the top of the South Ridge

The splitting corner topping out near the top of the South Ridge

The West Face of Girhimitin (~400m)

The West Face of Girhimitin (~400m)

We are not ready for the West Face of Girhimitin. This big wall will not be going down on this trip. We have no portaledge, no time and Bens foot resembles something I mightve read about in my grandfathers war diaries (he was a surgeon). But this is what the reconnaissance is for. For looking and for pondering. For dreaming and deliberating… Is it possible?

Finding the goat trails to the base of the approach wadi was the first step. Then, with Abu Maryam, I had penetrated the limestone cliff blocking access to it. Then, together, we had scoped the line, pondered the descent, considered the bail options, an itinerary and a time frame. This is the history of how mountains are climbed.

When Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman penetrated the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (being arguably the pairs finest exploratory achievement, summit or not) they laid the path for future climbs, future success on Nanda Devi. Tilman‘s return and lightweight first ascent. Will Unsoeld‘s ascent of the difficult north buttress. And finally the return to a pristine state with the Sanctuary declared an inviolable reserve by the Indian Government.

And so too with the West Face of Girhimitin. All that remained now was a strong team and a portaledge. Then it would be climbed. Then one day the same route would be free-climbed. Then, after that, some long-haired, loping Californian would come along and climb the thing without a rope…

On the way down we stop at a small shepherd‘s shelter and he asks me when I will climb the big wall we have just recced.

“Not on this trip,” I tell him. “My friend is sick and we need more supplies. When I return to Soqotra”.

He nods, getting up to move. “When you return I will show you the way again.”

Abu Maryam at a goatherd shelter near the entrance of the wadi

Abu Maryam at a goatherd shelter near the entrance of the wadi

One the way back, as he bounces down the moraine, he pauses, turns and looks back up the stream of boulders, piles of littered granite leading to the base of the West Face of Girhimitin. He mutters something to himself in Quranic Arabic and, curious, I ask him to repeat it slowly, word-for-word so I can translate.

He is quoting from hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet. “Inn al-jebal min al-hasa.” (Arabic: ان الجبال من الحصى)*

“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”

I ponder this for a moment, thinking about the meaning of this reconnaissance and of exploration – to build knowledge, to bring Man forward to new frontiers. This expedition was my first true expedition abroad and I had learnt a great many things – about logistics, about airline baggage policies, about the importance of time in the mountains, about weather, about bivies, about suffering and about the people of this remarkable island. I was growing, bit-by-bit as a climber.

“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”

So too like the climber, I muse. So too like the Man.

Abu Maryam spinning his stick

Abu Maryam spinning his stick


* = perhaps the two tribes were the Somali fishermen and the Arab goatherds, but this is conjecture

** = the whole quote in hadith reads: “Do not belittle the small things (e.g. small sins, little things in life) for is not a mountain made from small stones?” (Arabic: لا تحقرن صغيرا ان الجبال من الحصى )