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Helen Thomas: The Mystery of the Sahara

In 1965, I was driven across the Sahara by a woman whose real name I never learned. I’ve been trying to find her ever since.

I was working in Nigeria at the time and had lived in West Africa long enough by then to accept the idea that driving across the desert was a perfectly natural thing to do. In West Africa, even if you never see the actual Sahara, you are always conscious of its presence to the north. During the winter months, the desert asserts itself through the Harmatan winds kicking up dust storms and causing dry skin, hacking coughs and chills among the populace as well as vivid sunsets. But in any season, just to see a Hausa on the street is to feel the allure of the desert.

I learned about the Sahara through literature and history. The earliest foreigners had come to West Africa across the desert long before ships ever set Europeans on the southern shores, and I had read avidly the journals and accounts of all the early travelers. The Sahara has always acted as a conduit as well as a barrier, accommodating exchange but blocking conquest. Whereas Christianity had arrived dramatically by sea and by gun, Islam filtered silently across the desert by caravan, establishing itself through trade and intermarriage more than force of arms. The weight of the desert has always tugged against the power of the sea, and Nigeria, which fronts both, is to this day divided between ocean-borne and desert-borne influences. Much of the political tension in Nigeria can be traced to attempts to keep these opposing forces in some kind of equilibrium.

The idea of crossing the desert - the specific possibility - came to me in the Kingsway supermarket in Ibadan where, while shopping, I picked up a brochure advertising Sahara Tours. Having read so much about the Sahara, I was ready to experience the desert myself; it was time to live the literature.

At the address given on the brochure - for a Dr. E. A. Thomas - a woman opened the door a crack and quickly looked me up and down before inviting me into a simple, darkened flat. The woman turned out to be Dr. Thomas, the sole proprietor of Sahara Tours - owner, driver, guide, mechanic and medical doctor. Without apology, she made it clear she was in Nigeria only to collect enough passengers to pay for her return to the desert, the only place on earth she felt at home. Without fully realizing it, I had met a recluse, a refugee from civilization.

The specifics of the route she outlined meant little to me at that first meeting, but I was impressed that she spoke of the Sahara as a real place, not some metaphor or abstraction. She made the exotic seem familiar. She, too, was down to earth, tanned and weathered, shorts and sandals, cigarette and scotch. Not Doctor any longer but Helen. I signed up on the spot.

My notes help me reconstruct our route; Kano. Zinder. Agadez. En Guezzam. Tamanrasset. Adrar. Beni Abbas. Then Fez and finally Tangiers. Romantic places which Helen Thomas allowed me to experience. Assisted by my photographs, I can recall the changing landscape of the Sahara as it slowly unfolded around us. We saw very little of the classic rippled sand dunes that had previously been my image of the Sahara. Nor was the desert empty, as I had assumed. Instead, it was full of constantly changing variations in color and texture. Beneath the grand horizons, details stood out. Out of vastness, I discovered nuance.

We had a Land Rover with a cook/steward and two other passengers, but after a day, Helen sensed that I embraced the desert with enthusiasm while the others were merely enduring it. She moved me up to the front seat for the entire trip so I could photograph and we could talk. Both of us, Helen as driver and I as photographer, were attuned to the subtleties of the desert much as a sailor becomes alert to the changing mood of the sea. Helen knew the desert, and the people of the desert certainly knew her. Border crossings were warm reunions without formalities. Towns welcomed us. Helen knew all the best French restaurants in the Sahara - this I had never imagined - and traveling in the desert, I put on weight. One afternoon, a Tuareg camel-man rushed us as if to protect his territory. At first just a solitary dot on the horizon, the closer he galloped toward us as straight and insistent as a bullet, the more foreboding he looked. Dressed head to toe in the distinctive dark indigo, amulets, sword and rifle flying, he had recognized Helen and come to greet her. Of course. With her intervention, I photographed him, rode his camel, drank its delicious warm milk.

This and a kaleidoscope of other experiences I remember; Crimson sunsets with no shadows. Sleeping in the sand still warm from the day, without bugs or insects, a seine of stars overhead almost within reach. The dotted line of a camel caravan stretching across the horizon. Roast gazelle on a spit. January rains - the first in 213 years in the central desert - causing buildings, even whole towns, to slide into the earth whence they had come. A dozen people huddled together under a solitary tree waiting for transport. They had been there six days. The sudden shock of coming upon a French nuclear zone in the middle of the desert, with its Foreign Legion check post, paved roads, no stopping allowed, the sudden intrusion of dread upon reverie. Snow in the mountains over the Mediterranean and the souk of Fez where Helen helped me buy blankets for friends from a shopkeeper who served us sweet tea. Pigeon pie with its delicious sugary crust.

What my photographs don’t show but what I remember even more vividly than the Saharan landscape is Helen Thomas herself. As she drove, slowly she unfurled the story of her life. We discovered we were kindred spirits, and I was a good listener. My journey across the Sahara became the trace of Helen Thomas’ life.

Born in Indonesia of Dutch and Swedish parents, she was 52. At age 16, she had been sent to boarding school in Switzerland to be trained as a concert pianist. But she developed problems in her wrist and hands that required seven operations - to enable her to play professionally. Through the operations, however, she became more interested in medicine than music and enrolled in the Sorbonne in Paris to study medicine. She became a doctor, met and married a Frenchman. On their honeymoon in 1938, they drove a Model T Ford from Tangiers across the Sahara to Lagos, crossing 250 bridges south of Kano alone.

When World War Two came, she joined the French army as an ambulance driver. Her husband was killed in the war. She joined the Maquis and received the Crois de Guerre, one of the few civilians ever to receive it. She also worked for British Intelligence. She spoke seven languages. Because she looked and spoke German, she was sent behind enemy lines to Berlin. When the war ended, she had seen enough of cities and so-called civilization and appealed to the French Government to help her get away. In recognition of her service, the French created a post of Health Officer in the Sahara for her. She did research on disease and worked with the French Army to improve sanitary conditions in villages. She had lived in the desert ever since the war - 21 years.

She had driven one and a half million miles in the Sahara and learned every part of it. At one point, she had spent three months without seeing a single person but at the end of that time was only 1/4 mile off course. When she blew her horn, the villagers came over the dune just ahead to greet her.

Three times she won the driving competition held every five years by the French Army. Part One was a road race, the fastest time between two points. For Part Two, competitors were blindfolded and left in a remote place with a compass but no maps and told to find their way back. Part Three was to locate a broken-down vehicle and fix it. As a result of her victories, she was exempted from the restriction of convoy travel, free to travel anywhere in the desert, alone.

However, when Independence came in 1960, the French transferred control of the Sahara to a number of separate African states, and she could no longer travel the desert freely. She needed a visa for Nigeria in order to set up operations there, so she cabled a South African friend, “Will You Marry Me?” He cabled back, “Prepared. When?” They were married but never saw each other again. Hence, her name of Thomas.

* * *

Helen Thomas died of pneumonia within weeks of her return to Nigeria after our trip. Except for the return journey with passengers she collected in Tangiers, mine was her last trip in the desert.

I no longer feel the pull of the Sahara, but I am still captivated by Helen Thomas. I am hoping one day to find her - in order to learn who she really was. My attempts have led me to the places where I might intersect with her life, trying to verify her story and my memory. My task is made difficult because I do not know her name; I don’t know who I am looking for. “Thomas” was an appellation of convenience. I never learned her maiden name, nor do I know her French married name. I am searching for a ghost.

In Paris I went to the French Army records for the Sahara, hoping to find some account of the road races. But those records were in storage and inaccessible. I hired a researcher to check records of foreign students and women at the Sorbonne. She tells me there is no medical school at the Sorbonne. In Wydner Library at Harvard, I read everything I could find of recent vintage on the Sahara. I have checked the Internet and written scholars and other Sahara travelers. I have been to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to research South African Thomases. In 1999, I returned to Nigeria and was able to go to the hospital in Ibadan where expatriate death records are kept. By conning my way in, I was able to flip through the dusty files myself. No record. I went to the homes of long-time expatriates and historians to enquire if they had ever run across her.

No one knows the person I am looking for, since I can not tell them who she is. Those who might know her name are dying off. So, nothing yet, but I’m not finished. Maybe the French Army records will be unsealed and I can get back to Paris. And, there is still Switzerland, although I can’t be certain in which of the 32 Cantons she studied. Then there are records in Holland and Indonesia to go through., searching for a girl, a woman, a survivor.

Deserts are full of mirages, shimmering images that dissolve when one comes closer. Out of the Sahara for many years, I can still see Helen Thomas, and slowly I am moving closer to the reality, traveling in order to find her - whoever she may be - and to satisfy myself that what I thought I knew then, I did indeed know.