Don Wills explains why he keeps returning. Maybe this is the ultimate great escape many of us, at some level, hanker for?
framed picture hung on the living room wall in my family home. It depicted a half dozen camels being led along the crest of a sand dune in the Sahara desert. The onset of dusk bathed the scene in a bluey-green hue. I was enchanted by it. I could never work out if it was a painting, a grainy photograph, or a daguerreotype. Upon my mother’s death, the only part of her estate that I requested for myself was this picture.
I think it was this picture that instilled in me a life-long passion for deserts.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote:
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, something gleams…”
What’s so special about deserts, you might ask. I mean, they’re just sand, the occasional cactus, and more sand, aren’t they? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong about that.
They’re a world far removed from what you’ve ever experienced before. In the West, you always have a point of reference to orientate yourself. A distant hill, a clump of trees, even a lamppost is usually in your line of sight. Without these we’d be lost. But in a desert, those reference points just don’t exist.
Let me give you a couple of examples. If you close your eyes in the desert and turn around 360 degrees, when you reopen your eyes you can’t tell where the hell you are. Ooops, did I just turn 360 degrees, or was it 320 degrees, or perhaps 380? There’s nothing around to help you get your bearings.
One time I was visiting the Sahara with a small group. I peeled off from the others and walked to the top of a sand dune, then down a bit further to get the best camera angle. When I turned to go back to the truck, I was suddenly unsure of which direction to take. The wind had already erased my footprints. Oh, don’t tell me I’m lost! I’ve only been away from the group for less than a minute. I called out, but my shouts were instantly swallowed up by the all-pervading silence. I hadn’t taken a bottle full of water along with me. Of course I hadn’t. No-one had told me I was going to get so hopelessly disoriented in so short a space of time. Mum, help me! Pleeese! But of course, after a couple of false starts, I did find my way back, and my few moments of panic faded into ridiculousness.
Oases. Hollywood would have us believe they’re a small pool of muddy water and a couple of wind-bent palm trees. No doubt there are some like that, but they’re far from typical. Your average oasis is bigger, sometimes much bigger.
Erfoud oasis, popular with tourists as it’s on the very edge of the desert in Morocco, has a population of 24,000, a souk, some 3-star hotels, ATMs, a few taxis, and a thriving tourist industry. But Erfoud is not the biggest oasis in the Sahara. M’zab Oasis has 3000 wells, a fair-sized lake, a waterfall, and 270,000 date palms. And that’s not the largest either.
The most famous oasis of all is Mali’s Timbuktu. Ah, who among us doesn’t feel a yearning in the heart at the mere mention of that name? Timbuktu, the fabled trading outpost for camel caravans bearing salt, silver, gold, ivory and slaves. The educational and spiritual centre of Islam. With its mud-walled mosques and its rich but turbulent history, it is a Mecca for travellers the world over, but few of them ever get to see it. That doesn’t stop them dreaming though.
An oasis can mean the difference between life and death for a desert traveller. “Where is my oasis? Too far for me to crawl with these dead legs, refusing to co-operate. Hands and fingers clawing uselessly through the grains of sand.” Kiera Woodhull wrote that.
Surprisingly, heat and dehydration aren’t the main cause of travellers’ deaths in the desert. More people die from the cold in the desert than any other reason. By day deserts are unbearably hot; by night they’re bone-numbingly cold. Sand reflects heat, but does not absorb it, and when the sun sets it becomes as cold as a hangman’s handshake. The traveller had better build a fire fast, or suffer the consequences.
And mirages, what are they all about? Hallucinations of a fevered mind? The first warning of impending sunstroke? Figments of the imagination? I’m not so sure about that.
I was with a group of four people on a truck ride into the Sahara desert. In the shimmering distance I saw a clump of trees and beneath them a pool of silvery water glimmered. “Do you see that?” I asked my companions. “Yeah.” “What exactly do you see? Describe it.” One by one they described the features of the mirage. A clump of trees, shorter ones on the left, some quite tall ones in the middle, tapering off to a few medium-height trees on the far right. A barely discernable speck of water among the medium-height trees, and a larger pool on the far right. Exactly the way I saw it. Now, if that was a figment of the imagination, it was a mighty peculiar one. Four people imagining exactly the same thing? I don’t think so.
Another time in Morocco I was in a group of around fifteen travellers. We’d arranged for a guided tour into the desert next morning. We turned up at the rendezvous spot dressed in t-shirts and shorts, already sweating in the early morning heat. We were met by our guide, a thin guy in his twenties clad in a long overcoat. “Now is winter in the Sahara,” he explained.
Our first stop was the dried-up bed of a salt lake. Many, many moons ago, the Sahara was a sea. Then, bit by bit, the sun and the heat began gradually evaporating it. After… oh, let’s say three quarters of a million years, the sea had shrunk to a tenth of its original size. But what do the marine creatures do during this process? They huddle up a bit closer together. And complain about the congestion, I bet. Then – uh oh, move up you guys, there’s even more water going up the spout! And more. And more, until finally there’s a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of fish, krill, phytoplankton, tube worms, anemones and ammonites. And then the final vestiges of water evaporate, and you’re left with truck-loads of salt, sand, and dead sea creatures.
So, here we were wandering around this dry lake-bed, and I stooped to pick up a stone. “Hey, look at this you guys! It’s a fossil!” My discovery was the cue for the rest of the group to start fossicking too.
About one in every ten stones we picked up contained a fossilized ammonite. None were bigger than a bottle-cap; most were three quarters that size. They weren’t the biggest ever found – not by a long chalk. A few decades ago, Moroccans noticed how Westerners were wetting their pants with excitement when they found fossils, and wondered how they could capitalize on the situation. They searched for and found the biggest fossils around. And when I say big, I mean b-i-i-g. Ammonites as big as car tyres.
They had the rocks sawn in two and the cut surfaces highly polished. Wrought-iron legs were attached to the undersides, and, bingo, you had two unique restaurant tables. Once the Moroccan government woke up to what was happening, they quickly clamped down on the practice, but too late. Now the big ones are all gone. Even today you can go into some upmarket restaurants in Rabat or Casablanca and have your meals laid out on a giant prehistoric fossil.
The experience instilled in me a life-long love of deserts. I’ve visited the Gobi, the Sinai, the Negev, and Australia’s Great Victoria and Simpson deserts, but for me the Sahara will forever remain my favourite.