“What are you doing alive?” – On the Road to Safsaf

Author  By Adam C. Hupé
 (Meteorite Magazine, February 2003)

My brother, Greg and I spent months preparing for expedition H5 or as our team dubbed it, “The Big Hot Desert Meteorite Hunt”. Our anticipation and expectations were running high as we left Seattle at 6:10 AM on October 24, 2002. This marked the beginning of a very event-filled trip that would take us far from civilization, as we had known it.

Travelling through New York, Casablanca and finally Marrakech, we had a lot of time to ponder what adventures lay ahead. Once in Marrakech, our freshly assembled team was complete. It consisted of my brother Greg; Bill, a journalist along to cover the expedition; our guide Aid; our translator Lahcen and myself.

In the airport parking lot we were shown our transportation, an old diesel Land Rover. It did not instill a sense of confidence with its missing seatbelts and broken gas gauge. We would later come to depend on it to get us out of the desert alive.

Terror in the turns

I missed the seatbelts as we started our trek through the Atlas Mountains. Aid was appointed driver and did a remarkable job of scaring the heck out of us.
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Expedition preparation, Aid (top of Land Rover), Lahcen (left) and a helper (right).
Expedition preparation, Aid (top), Lahcen (left) and a helper (right).
He drove the single-lane, hairpin-loaded road like a race car driver. This became our first test of courage. After three hours we were glad for a short break in Ouarzazate. On our way to Zagora, the road became the familiar twisted distraction as we stopped at a 700-meter crevasse so that Aid could point out the smashed ruins of a bus lying at the bottom. Knowing this would not be good for tourism, the Moroccan government tried to conceal the wreckage by covering it with rocks. It did make me feel somewhat better about not having a seatbelt at this point, because the chances of survival would not have been improved by wearing one.

Field of false dreams

Once in Zagora, Bill insisted we check out the reported CR2 strewn field. We looked it over and decided at once it must have been faked because something as obvious as CR2 meteorites could not go unnoticed for long with so many people living nearby. As we departed the area, we ran over some metallic trash that tore an eight-inch chunk out of a rear tire. I thought, “This is great, no seatbelts, no working gas gauge and now no spare tire!” The bald replacement would have to take us several hundred kilometers into the deep desert and away from the nearest help in the upcoming days.

That night we stayed in a mud-brick dwelling that Aid shared with his family. It had been more than 48 hours since we had slept so it was a welcome sight. I managed to get a few hours of sleep when the Muslim call-to-prayer at 5:00 AM awakened me. I tried to go back to sleep but every animal in the city was now awake and letting everybody know they were not happy about it.

After eating a fly-infested breakfast next to some livestock, we were able to look at some meteorites our Moroccan partners had secured ahead of time for us. Nothing really stood out at the time but lab results would tell a different story later. A few merchants stopped by with a couple of interesting stones. We used a chemical test that showed terrestrial carbonates in half of them - not a good sign. One dealer named Hussein showed us an iron that had been found nearby and offered to show us the site for some money. We could not resist and offered him a modest sum. We were now ready to head out and this would be the last time we would see a paved road for days.

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H5 expeditionary team hiking down a ridge after searching for meteorites around a suspect crater.
H5 expeditionary team hiking down a ridge after searching for meteorites around a suspect crater.
  Crisis at the crater

We met Hussein a couple of hours later at an agreed upon location. We followed his motorcycle, losing sight of him several times as he disappeared and reappeared behind dunes and washouts.When it became too rough for the motorcycle he joined us in the Land Rover and we four-wheeled further. He pointed to the top of a ridge and said that there was where we would find a crater. Bill the journalist asked, “Are we still in Morocco or is this Algeria?” Our guide's response was, “We are in Algeria!” Bill then asked, “Is it worth risking our lives to get coordinates for a meteorite find?” I said, “I don’t see anybody around so it should be safe.” We hiked up to the crest and, as promised, there was a circular formation on top. I do not think it was a crater; It looked
like an area the nomads had cleared while searching for the iron meteorites. We pulled out our magnets and had begun to search when Bill noticed dust being kicked up several kilometers away. He exclaimed that it was an Algerian vehicle approaching and scurried back down to safety. As it moved closer we realized it was a dust devil and we began to laugh as the perceived crisis came to an end. After searching for a while, we recorded the coordinates and left.

After several more hours of extreme driving, I managed to tear off the handle I was gripping which forced me to hold onto the back of the passenger seat to prevent my head from hitting the roof. This worked for a while, until the driving became more difficult.

As we headed still deeper into the desert, the last sign of civilization was a forbidding mud-brick establishment with a WWII airplane cargo door serving as an entrance. As it was getting dark, navigation became a concern. There was no longer a trail to follow, not even tire tracks, as we made our way through the dunes. At one point we miscalculated a dune and became trapped. After digging out and another hour of driving, I saw a stack of nomadic trade-route marker stones. I was impressed that Aid knew how to read these markers as he guided us to a military outpost used as a border gate. A chain blocked our way into the disputed zone. A few moments later a pair of military border guards approached our vehicle and asked for everybody's identification. A discussion in Arabic took place between Lahcen and the guards. Lahcen translated that they were going to let us through but with serious warnings to be careful. Our presence was documented and we were on our way.

“What are you doing alive?”

Extended driving brought us to another checkpoint which happened to be our destination, Safsaf. This encounter was not as friendly as the first. We could not ask our translator if the guards were Moroccan or Algerian because he was in deep discussion with one of the sentries. They motioned for our passports and looked them over with a
flashlight. I heard the tone of their voices getting tense and became alarmed. Lahcen interpreted that we did not have paperwork giving us permission to be there. We pointed to the imprints in our passports but they were too faint to be seen in the dark. Later they asked the journalist to step out of the vehicle. Lahcen rendered into English the following question directed to Bill, “What are you doing alive?” I was petrified with fear thinking they were Algerian militants. I found out later that he asked, “What are you doing in life?” meaning, “what is your occupation?” Lahcen returned a few moments later and told us we were fortunate this time because they were Moroccans and the villagers vouched that we were welcome.

Stewards of the stones

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Safsaf, a village that time forgot. Note the mud-brick dwellings and donkey cart tracks.
Safsaf, a village that time forgot. Note the mud-brick dwellings and donkey cart tracks.
We were lead to an earthen dwelling where the tribal elders greeted us. Lahcen told us that they wished us to feel comfortable and to make ourselves at home. Before I could relax, our hosts invited us to see the goat they had sacrificed in honor of our visit. Later, all kinds of skewered goat parts showed up for dinner during a communication session with the villagers. I managed to tear off palatable-sized chunks with my hands and consume these unidentifiable pieces so as not to insult the clan.

As the night progressed, the journalist bombarded the villagers with questions. Through his questioning we found out we were in the dwelling of Amou, the tribal chief, and that my brother, Greg, was the first outsider to have ever visited on expedition H4 in April of 2002.

Later, Greg pulled out the August 2002 edition of Meteorite Magazine and showed a picture he had taken the last time he was there. The picture was of a man making mint tea with a curious little girl peeking around the corner. Chief Amou recognized the girl as his daughter. The proud chieftain then showed the picture to the rest of the group who had gathered to see the images. The review went well as can be seen by the expression on chief Amou's face. He is the gentleman smiling on the far right in the image below, wearing the white Jallaba and shesh.

Moroccan friends from Safsaf enjoying the February 2003 issue of Meteorite Magazine.
Moroccan friends from Safsaf enjoying the February 2003 issue of Meteorite Magazine.

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Two vastly different cultures brought together by meteorites. Adam (left) and a Moroccan partner (right).
Two vastly different cultures brought together by meteorites. Adam (left) and a Moroccan partner (right).
  It was getting late and our contingent was exhausted so it became time to roll out the blankets and try to get some sleep. I elected to sleep in the courtyard because the sleeping chamber was full of tribe members. The rest of the H5 expeditionary group fell into a slumber immediately. Some of the villagers, including Chief Amou, were too excited to sleep and kept me company for another half-hour. I could not communicate directly so I just smiled and tried to express myself with hand gestures. As I was getting my sleeping area together I spotted my survival kit and thought it would be fun to share it with those present. I first brought out a glow stick and snapped it so they could see the light it made. I handed it to the chief who examined it to make sure it was safe for the rest of his tribe. They were all dazzled and entertained by it. As I was distributing items from the kit one of them became fascinated with a compass. I tried to show him that it always pointed north. Instead, he thought that it always pointed at him and I could tell this made him nervous. I gestured that the kit was a gift and left them to examine their newly acquired booty.

I went to sleep and was awakened three hours later by a pain on my right elbow. As I was getting my flashlight I noticed an eerie green glow moving about the compound. Apparently they were more entertained than I had originally thought by the glow stick. After turning on my light I saw that my arm was bleeding. I noticed a slight movement underneath the corner of my blanket so I lifted it and was appalled by the sight of a giant centipede, which I flung out into the darkness. My mind began to wander and all of the thoughts
of the day's events started to pour in. I felt a serious moral obligation not to influence this culture and decided to make their first impressions of Americans good ones.

The next morning the villagers brought out the much-anticipated meteorites they had been saving for Greg since his last visit. A large group of tribal elders was present to oversee the negotiations. It was standing room only as the stones were placed on a short table for our examination. Greg and I investigated the meteorites under a shaft of sunlight that beamed through a hole in the corridor-like room. We placed them in different piles depending on quality. It then became a ritual of moving stones back and forth between the piles. Hours later the chatter became louder. This concerned the reporter who thought they were angry about the way the deal was unfolding. Lahcen told him that it was just excitement about getting close to finalizing the deal and agreeing on a price.

The first round now complete, it was time to view the prized stones. This is when the achondrites appeared and another bargaining session ensued which ended in the successful acquisition of several rarities. After we were done with the villagers, the nomads were allowed to show us their finds. We made it a point to purchase all they had, regardless of quality, to show our respect for the true expert meteorite hunters. The elders demonstrated they were pleased with the transactions by presenting us with Stone Age spear points, fossils and beautiful mineral specimens as gifts.

Unrest in the Oasis

Later, Bill wanted to take pictures of this exotic location but was warned not to go anywhere without an escort. We were looking at yet more meteorites at another dwelling when Bill wandered off. We completed the transaction quickly and went hunting for him. Aid pointed out how close we were to an Algerian military post making us understand the need for escorts. If we had entered the village through the other route I hate to think what would have happened. The Moroccan and Algerian outposts are separated by a mere 1500 meters and lay on opposite sides of Safsaf, which is a major rest stop for nomads who spend their time mending tents, trading and watering their camels. You could easily miss this secret oasis because it is hidden in a canyon. Once in, you are lulled into a sense of complacency by its swaying palms, gardens and friendly people. This may be why Bill forgot the danger and meandered from the group. After searching awhile we spotted him on a hillside. He rejoined us and the problem was resolved.

We went back to chief Amou's residence to say goodbye. His tribe turned out to wish us a safe trip through the desert and made it apparent by the huge turnout that they were sorry to see us leave. Maybe it is a good thing they are protected from outside influences by their extreme location. I felt we were very fortunate to have witnessed this time-forgotten tribe and will forever remember their simplicity and kindness. We all waved farewell and were on our way.

Crossing the vast void

As we headed across the great void to Erfoud we made several stops at nomad's tents and had time to stretch out at a large sand bowl for 35 minutes. During this time I hunted for meteorites and found five very weathered meteoritic-looking magnetic rocks. I am not sure if they are meteorite fragments or strange earth stones. In any case, only a laboratory can make this distinction.

The fuel situation kept coming to mind because of the broken gauge so I asked Aid how much he thought we had left. He figured we had enough to travel two hours after sunset. Two hours went and we still were nowhere near
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The vast void, this is where civilization ends (the oasis of Tinghir) and the Sahara begins.
The vast void, this is where civilization ends (the oasis of Tinghir) and the Sahara begins.
any sign of civilized life. The remaining diesel was now a major concern and kept us asking when we would reach our destination. Aid finally replied that we somehow missed a marker. We tried a proposed shortcut and found ourselves up to the axles in sand. Lahcen and I pushed the rig to firmer ground where the tires caught hold and we slowly made our way up an impossible incline. Twenty minutes later I saw some light that turned out to be a campfire which a group of nomads were using to cook a meal. I spotted another light, then another, and I realized we were getting closer to civilization. We reached a dirt road that lead to a single lane paved road. It was nice to drive on pavement after being tossed around in the Land Rover for ten hours. I was amazed by the range these diesel rigs have on a single tank.

Delirious Dilemma

We made it to Rissani and found they had no accommodations so we pushed on to Erfoud where we found a place to get some rest. I was not feeling right when I lay down to relax. I was out for 40 minutes when I was awakened by a horrible nightmare that a murderer was pursuing us through the desert. I realized why I had the unsettling dream as waves of nausea overtook me. The bathroom became a familiar sight that night and part of the next day. Sleep is what I needed most, as I had only managed seven hours over the past five days.

The following morning I explained to the group how sick I felt. My brother Greg encouraged me to go look at meteorites anyway. After looking at a few dealers’ goods I was getting delirious. This became apparent after I showed little interest in what appeared to our group to be awesome finds. They decided it would be best to drop me off for some recovery. I do not recall the rest of that day. That evening I was feeling a little better and checked my temperature. It was two degrees lower than normal. This convinced me that the detestable centipede had poisoned me two nights before.

Tale of two teams

We later met up with Habibi, a well-known local who asked us to join him for dinner. He has a way of tracking down people and seems to know when an American is headed to Morocco before they show up. Several times in the past he had filled us in on other team’s activities. This time was no different as he shared with us that another team had heard of our expedition and beat us to Erfoud by three days. As his gracious wife was preparing dinner, Habibi filled us in on a few details. He informed us that the competitive team told the locals not to sell any stones to us because they would pay a higher price. We were told about a pile of stones that the other group left behind to be paid for later. We asked to see the stash believing the other team could not afford it and had no intention of purchasing it. We were promised we could see the cache the next morning.

Dinner was not spicy and was the best I had on the entire trip. It was the first food, including water and charcoal pills that I had been able to keep down in a long time. After having a very interesting conversation with our host I looked at my watch and decided it was time to turn in for the night.

The next morning we had guests waiting outside to show us the meteorites our competitors had secreted away. Some of the stones did not even look like meteorites, so I could not understand what all the fuss was about until one stone grabbed my attention with its interesting glassy translucent-green fusion crust. We purchased the single stone instantly and were on our way.

We retraced the previous day's route because Greg insisted that I look at the same meteorites that were shown while I was in my state of delirium. That noxious centipede almost cost me more than just some downtime because I could have missed out on some very exciting meteorites.

Swindled by a Swami?

We departed midday and moved onto our next destination, Ouarzazate. We arrived after dark and tried to settle in. Before long, Aid was on his cell phone setting up more deals. The most memorable dealings were with the second group of the night. A tough looking pair, who wore traditional Arabic garb, entered my brother's room with a heavy bag of assorted rocks. After hours of haggling we reached an impasse. Voices were raised and the negotiations came to a standstill. My brother felt they were asking too much and wanted to finish the deal so he came up with a
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Meteorites! Greg (left), Aid (middle) and Moroccan dealer to the right.
Meteorites! Greg (left), Aid (middle) and Moroccan dealer to the right.
  solution. He told the now angry duo that if he agreed on the total price they were asking for previously picked meteorites he should be able to pick a meteorite at random from the pile we were not interested in. I had noticed Greg eyeballing a particularly nice specimen from that pile earlier but kept my mouth shut. Greg looked the other way, covered his eyes with one hand, made some fake chanting noises while running his other hand over the pile and pretended to randomly grab the same stone. Everybody knew that the nicest meteorite had been plucked and the room became silent because it looked like the partners had been swindled. Bill, fearing that swords were going to be drawn, backed away from the now still group. After what seemed an eternity, I put my hand up to my face with one eye peeking through my
fingers and said, “Wow, what a Swami!” and then reenacted Greg's “magic” used to divine the best meteorite. Then the two aggressive individuals put their hands up to their faces imitating Greg in the same way and laughter poured out. They were impressed with Greg's strategy and were glad to finish the deal. I could tell Bill was relieved because he started asking questions again. We all shook hands and said, “shookaron”, which means, “thank you“ in Arabic. They started up with the Swami act again and another round of laughter broke out which ended the evening on a positive note.

We hurriedly looked at a few meteorites the next morning because Bill needed to be rushed to the airport. Four hours of furious driving back through the Atlas Mountains and we made it to the airport with minutes to spare. We said goodbye to Bill and continued on to downtown Marrakech. After checking in at a hotel we decided we deserved a little break and headed to the market.

Mayhem at the market

After parking in a questionable spot, we walked through the bustling crowd. There was an unbelievable assortment of shopkeepers, performers and services being offered. You could buy anything from sheep brains to having a tooth pulled for 50 Dirhams (about $5.00 US).

As I wandered through the market, a woman with a syringe came up to me and looked as if she was going to stab me with it. I did not understand what service she was offering and did not want to know so I quickly departed. I could not understand why Aid and Lahcen were holding their stomachs laughing. Lahcen finally blurted out that she was selling Henna tattoos.

A few moments later a performer stuck a cobra in my brother's face so that he could see that its fangs were real. He said we could take a picture of it striking a piece of sheepskin. We said ok, watched the unimpressive performance, paid him a nominal fee and tried to move on. Another performer, not to be outdone, approached us and said he could manage several cobras at once. He dragged out a bucket of snakes and had three of them under control when another escaped through the audience. It was amusing watching the spectators disperse as the crazed snake headed for freedom.

And finally another piece of mayhem showed up in the way of a small monkey. You could pay the vendor a few Dirhams and he would put the monkey on your shoulder for a photo opportunity. As we declined and were walking away I saw the monkey run up to a little boy while his mother was looking the other way. The monkey shook the poor little boy's head until he opened his mouth. The primate then reached in and stole the kid's gum and then ran back to its master. In the meantime the inattentive mother could not figure out why her precious youngster was screaming and crying.

This was the best Halloween (an American holiday celebrated on October 31st) I could remember but it was time to leave because we were being nickeled and dimed to death. We headed back to the hotel, packed our meteorites, organized our customs paperwork and managed a full night's sleep.

The following morning we found ourselves at the airport, having a heck of a time with security because of the weight of our luggage. An hour after showing them our passports, permits and paperwork they were convinced we were not terrorists trying to sneak a heavy bomb on board. The reason for this added security was because plastic explosives had been found aboard a plane operated by the same airline three weeks earlier.

The rest of the flights were without incident and upon arriving home, we started the process of sorting through the riches we had amassed during the journey. Was it worthwhile? Yes! The second half of, “The Big Hot Desert Meteorite Hunt”, has just begun in the lab where the meteoritic treasure will be either confirmed or denied. For me, the real treasures were the adventure and the people we met along the way.

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