In 1964, sick of the infighting in the army and looking to a take a break, Ariel Sharon set off for the African bush. Traveling in an Austin Mini and in VW bug, he and a retired general crisscrossed Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, noting, according to his autobiography “Warrior” (written with David Chanoff), “the combination of elegance and savagery that seemed to co-exist in uneasy balance everywhere we looked.”
Both he and Avraham Yoffe, who headed the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, were lovers of wildlife. They reveled in the rhino fights they saw, the beauty of the flamingos congregated along Kenya’s Lake Nakuro, and the majesty with which a pride of lions sauntered over to a watering hole. But in the Danakil Desert, an area where Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti meet, populated with “primitive camel herders with a reputation for savagery,” Sharon, then still a colonel waiting for promotion to general rank, nearly lost his life in a most unpleasant way.
He and Yoffe, who insisted they take a boy from the local village as well as an Ethiopian driver, made their way along the line of the Awash River, headed for a place in which the river suddenly disappears and gives way to the sands, producing a string of hot springs.
The Danakil nomads, their “hair coiffed with a dressing of dried mud and manure,” carried weapons and, regrettably, had a tradition in which a bachelor, looking to marry, would give the girl of his choice an enemy’s testicles. She, in turn, would wear them as a trophy on her forehead. A British pilot, forced to land in the desert only a short while before Sharon’s visit, had been killed in just that way. And Sharon and Yoffe, lowering themselves into the warm sulfurous pools, listening to the distant chime of camel bells, had an uneasy feeling that they were being watched. “We floated in the buoyant water and took it all in, trying to register the scene and the experience and at the same time swearing softly at ourselves for having left the embassy in Addis Ababa without weapons,” Sharon wrote in “Warrior.”
After watching a herd of several hundred camels drink from one of the ponds that the subterranean river produced and admiring the half-naked shepherdesses, the men turned back toward civilization. Five minutes later, the car died.
Sharon, a farmer, was good with his hands. He checked the engine, took apart the carburetor, but couldn’t solve the problem. As he worked, he noted the Danakil warriors calmly circling the area, taking it all in. “In this kind of situation you have to show you are not afraid,” Sharon wrote. “So you have to look calm and strong. But not defiant. You can’t give any indication that maybe there is something in your car that you are ready to defend, something consequently that they might like to have.”
He did this as he picked apart the car, screwing and unscrewing, cleaning and inspecting until finally he found the culprit — an electrical part that he knew he could not fix.
Yoffe, they decided, would walk to the village for help while Sharon tried to improvise a solution. The driver got into the backseat of the car and assumed a fetal position.
“With Yoffe gone, I had no one to talk to. I cursed myself for being such a poor mechanic and I cursed myself doubly for having gotten into this impossibly stupid situation,” Sharon wrote. “Here I had been through all these deadly battles in my life, all over, in Jordan, Syria, Egypt. I had fought and been wounded, and all for the highest cause. And now I was going to lose my life for nothing. It was unbelievable.”
Of course, he had a plan: he would work till nightfall, he decided, and then he would take the driver and slip away. “I knew they would come at night,” he wrote.
At dusk, waiting for the right moment to slink off, he heard engines and jumped out onto the dirt track to hail what turned out to be a convoy of aid trucks. In English, a man inquired what he was doing in the desert and whether or not he had a weapon.
“How can you do something like this?” the man shouted, when he learned that Sharon’s partner was off alone in the desert, also unarmed. “It’s unbelievable! We will not find [him] alive! You cannot do these things.”
The aid workers, part of an antimalarial team working in the area, strapped the generals’ VW to the rear truck and headed off after Yoffe. They found him 25 minutes later, walking quickly toward the village. Yoffe said he had been kicking himself the whole time for leaving Sharon behind.
Sharon, who returned shortly afterward to Israel — laden with Masai spears and Danakil knives for his first-born son, Gur, and jewelry for his wife, Lily — wrote that he carried with him, too, “images and experiences of Africa that I would not soon forget.”