The foreigners didn’t realise I was there to keep them safe. I couldn’t communicate well with any of them: I have no English or Hungarian, my Arabic is poor and the bearded stranger understood no Berber. There were seven of them: the bearded stranger and his friend, plus a Muslim Hungarian doctor, and four of his nurses. We had stopped their Mazda open truck at the police post outside Ghadames and I was ordered to accompany them. They were going to be very close to the borders with Algeria and Tunisia – where there was lots of smuggling of goods, drugs and people. One hundred trucks full of Polisario guerillas had streamed through town the day before, returning to their battlefields after training in our deserts: they could now be anywhere and they are unpredictable. You absolutely must not cross the border, I told the foreigners, or you might be kidnapped, arrested or worse.
They stopped at a conical bump almost in the middle of nowhere. We call it Qasr el-Ghoul. There are some ruined walls, which they said were Roman; and from the top there’s a magnificent view of the nearby oasis. You look across several kilometres of Libyan territory and then, where the oasis starts, one village is in Algeria, the other in Tunisia. After this expedition they dropped me off at the post and went back to their hotel.
The next morning I was patrolling in the Toyota when I saw two parked cars, one of them a Mazda open truck. No sign of people; though this was a common area for tourists to come and look at sand dunes. The dunes are tall, their tops razor-sharp, outlined clearly against the deep blue sky and blowing up whiffs of dust as the wind skims the sand off the crest of each dune. The foreigners weren’t in sight and my heart sank.
Sand roses are solid crystal structures which form out of water and sand where temperatures constantly change, so are usually found in the dips between dunes where moisture might collect. The best ones, the ones foreigners like to collect, are found further away from the road. I eventually found all seven of them: in their search for sand-roses they had strayed more than a kilometre into Algeria.