Nomads and evacuation plans

Somalia's semi-arid desert landscape in drought mode

My urban North American background wouldn't have enabled me to survive for long without help in this environment.

On the Horn of Africa I had the only map of the area–a Michelin road map, believe it or not–that showed no actual roads, but only trails. To this very day my faith in Michelin maps remains inviolate, particularly as their accuracy pertains to that part of the world.

Occasionally, in a book store I’ll pull out the most recent version of that old Michelin map, open it up and discover that the old routes haven’t changed any. They’re still marked as trails, and trails they were, heading mostly north and south and plied by camel caravans and nomads on foot migrating from point to point depending on the season, passing by our campsite, stopping only for water.

I remember one occasion, while waiting for Jean-Pierre Jacquard and the umbrella-boy to return to the idling helicopter. I was tapped on the shoulder by a solitary man. (I flew with my door removed.) To put it mildly, I was incredibly surprised. He was grinning, aware of my shock at seeing someone else in this quiet isolation.

The nomad made a sign that he wanted a drink, so I deplaned and got one of the water jugs out of the back. He rinsed his hands, and then I let him drink his fill. By then I had learned a few words of Swahili (the local language was Somali), but beyond that, we were unable to communicate verbally. He made the sign for a cigarette, so I gave him a couple. He smiled, nodded, and was off on his quest.

Here was a man, alone with only his walking stick and his kit, who had been traveling great distances on foot. Where he was from and where he was headed, I had no idea, but I knew instantly that he was a better man than I was. In his environment, I would be but mere fodder for the hyenas that thrived on the weak.

While it never came to fruition, we did have an evacuation plan to get us and the helicopters out of the country in the event the stability of the Somali government become a problem. The plan wasn’t elaborate.

Djibouti was a mere 700 kilometres (430 miles) northwest of our camp. The simple plan was to load up the back of the 500s with two drums of fuel, climb in, light up and head for the Gulf of Aden.

We never had reason to put the plan into action.

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