The Sahara Desert is a spectacular place. I’ve commented elsewhere (and repeatedly) just how much I love deserts, and how much I love wild places. I won’t go into that again, but that goes a long way to explaining just how special the Sahara is.
I’ve got a number of memories from the Sahara. It is, of course, a vast terrain. The largest tropical desert in the world (Antarctica, a cold desert, being the largest, and a place I have yet to visit), in fact only a small portion of it is covered in the sand-dunes which we so frequently associate with it. Most of it is bare gravel plains- on the one hand a barren, dull and numbing landscape, but somehow too all the more brutish and hostile- and therefore exciting- for it.
The boundary between Sahara and Sahel (that vast biome larger still than the desert, a semi-arid savannah landscape of mixed brush, grassland and thin forest that stretches into Africa south of the Sahara proper) is a blurred one, so it’s sometimes hard to know where Sahel ends and the Sahara begins. I think of rutted sandy tracks through the mixed woodland of south Darfur, of gravelly volcanic plains spotted with tufts of sun-bleached grasses in Kenya’s Turkana district, and of the single roadway snaking west to east across the empty expanse that is southern Niger, lifeless dusty plains mixed with scrawny millet fields and ephemeral stream-beds lined with trees that grow verdant with brief, sporadic rains.
The Sahara itself is more obvious. I recall watching the sandy ridgeline on the horizon that seemed to follow us for hours on the road northwards to Gao, in eastern Mali. The dunes that rose on the north bank of the Niger River as we drifted slowly by on a wooden canoe for several days. The white dune sea that covers the land north of Tomboctou’s outskirts beneath a sky equally white with heat-haze. Vast gravel plains pocked by violent, distorted outcrops of rock in central Mauritania, bulging in a lens of shimmering hot air.
But it was my first experience of the Saharan dunes that really took my breath away. Four-wheel driving north of Agadez, an area now off-limits to tourism due to the threat of rebel activity and landmines, we drove first to Iferouane, where we spent a night or two, and then onwards up sandy wadis as the landscape grew more and more devoid of the signs of human existence. Rocky outcrops, the edges of the Air Mountains, stuck up from plains of dust like broken towers. The sky was crystaline blue and the air clear and sharp, dust blowing in our wake. We saw camels and thorn bushes, the only signs of life.
In the late afternoon we reached the dunes. Stopping the vehicles, we piled out onto the golden sand, leaving our sandals within paces of the car doors. Like children at the beach we raced each other up the dunes. I remember sand between my toes, hot on the surface and cooler beneath. I remember a sense of awe at the sight of the sea of dunes that spanned out before us, walled on one side by the spectacular ferocity of the mountains. In the low afternoon sunlight the faces of the dunes were turning a golden yellow colour. Their ridges were traced in dark contrast, the beautiful contours of windswept shadow.
I took photos. Ad nauseum. I hadn’t yet- and haven’t again- been to a landscape so intense in wild beauty, so photogenic, and so unspoilt. Within hours of our departure the next day, wind would have erased all trace of our footprints and tyre tracks, and the grumble of our diesel engines would be replaced by the murmuring of a warm, restless desert wind.
The dunes at Tizirzak were my baptism into the Sahara desert, the fulfillment of all my Lawrencian hopes and expectations (T.E., not D.H.). Few times have landscapes exceeded the vision I had for them in my mind’s eye, and indeed the beauty of the Sahara itself can be an elusive one- many days of emptiness for a few short hours of revealing beauty. Without a doubt, however, the beauty carried in the great sand dunes of the Sahara is the match of almost any scenery on earth. I continue my plotting to return to that corner of the world once more and soak in the wild beauty of that harsh, arid yet ever enticing desert.