The kindness of a stranger helps Charlie Walker push on through the final leg of his round-the-world cycling adventure
Snorting with disbelief at my own stubbornness, I silence the alarm and sit up. It is night. My bedroom is vast and without ceiling. It is a home to some, but not to me. The wind that has blasted out of the north for many thousands of years has completed its nightly ritual of weakening to a stiff breeze. I had foregone a tent as the dust and sand have a way of getting in. With no tent, it piles up beside me and then simply blows past.
I scrape a triangle of processed cheese over a dry, stiff chunk of bread and force it down my throat with frugal sips of water. Except for the eternal shhhhh of the wind, it is quiet now and I allow myself a few minutes of lying back to stargaze. There probably isn't a cloud or an electric light for 100 miles and it would be easy to stay and stare. But I can't. I pack up and march my cumbersome bicycle across the sand to the road. Before mounting I check the time. It's nearly 1am.
The wind feels stronger once I start riding into it. With the moon over my shirtless shoulder I start to slowly chase my shadow. The pace is frustrating but the solitude is appreciated when my mind is set to it with enough determination. The surrounding landscape is a morass of eerie shapes, all sculpted linearly in a north-south direction by the wind.
It is 8am now and has been light for a couple of hours. The heat is rising and the wind has reared up. The east is no longer a glorious, shifting transfusion of rich reds and deep oranges. In the place of this dancing lightshow remains the pale, sun-yellowed hue of a bleached desert horizon.
My legs are complaining, but I force them to complete the last of the 60 miles I asked of them. For several hours now the regular, whitewashed kilometre stones have glided by, ghostlike and floating in the gloom. Thankfully, the dark rendered them unreadable to my straining eyes so they couldn't tease me with their slow countdown to zero, to the Mediterranean.
The bicycle computer ticks over the set target, so I dismount and wheel gratefully over the stony ground to a large rock. I slump down, sheltered from the wind, and scrape plastic cheese over stale bread. I eat it. Falling back, I sleep until the afternoon heat wakes me. The wind comes from the north and the sun from the south so I must choose which I prefer to be plagued by. The sun sets, the land cools and I sleep again.
Snorting with disbelief at my own stubbornness, I silence the alarm and sit up. It is night...
I repeated this routine for two weeks. There were occasional anomalies and distractions, but not as many as I needed at the time. A village or petrol station roughly every 250 miles allowed me to replenish supplies. Now and then I spotted military tents and would ask for water. The soldiers were tasked with catching smugglers along the bleak Atlantic coastline that I was loosely tracing.
There are few people in the disputed Western Sahara territory. Larger than the UK, it is only home to half a million people. Morocco currently administers the phosphate-rich region, but the indigenous nomadic Saharawis made their claim after Spanish withdrawal in 1975. For the last 40 years the disgruntled, largely-camel herding Saharawis have continued a guerrilla insurgency that has left the area peppered with up to 500,000 land mines. I never slept far from the tested safety of the road.
One morning, I approached a concrete building with weather-worn walls. Dogs burst aggressively from the gate but a man appeared and waved me over. Ashraf spoke a little French and invited me into the cool building. He told me his job was to drive his digger down a 20-mile stretch of road every day and prevent the sand dunes from encroaching on the tarmac.
He was lonely but relatively well-paid. I studied his face while he spoke. A nasty knife slash ran from above his right eye to the left corner of his mouth. Deep red scar tissue seemed to seep from it. He looked drawn but happy to be speaking. He set me up on a cheap rug with some cushions and a carton of milk. I slept through the day and the night before breakfasting with him the following morning. He took me into his hermitage near to breaking point and sent me off re-invigorated.
I pedalled slowly into the wind throughout that day and didn't mind so much.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who has just finished a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.