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The moment before the sun rises in the desert, just a second or so before the disc breaks the distant horizon, there is an observable green flash of light, an anomaly of refraction. Strange and suggestive of the mystery of the desert, this optical display is but one of the attractions that make exploring the desert a special, even addictive activity.The desert is dry, by definition, and the lack of water, the immense potential torment of thirst, is offset by the otherwise benign nature of the place. In the deep desert there are no flies or mosquitoes, nothing dirty, nothing stagnant; cuts heal fast as there are fewer infectious agents, and there are even very few snakes and scorpions once you leave the ambit of well and oasis for the pure desert of dunes and rock.This is a place of light par excellence. At noon, with the sun beating down, the landscape can appear flattened and uninteresting. At dawn and dusk its full majesty is revealed. Shafts of light turn rock mounds into castles and wadis into fantastic canyons of colour and contrast. The sheer beauty revealed leaves one in little doubt why the great monotheistic religions all arose in desert countries.Desert explorers are marked by an affection for the people of the desert nomads, Aborigines and Bedouin, whose harsh lifestyle and traditions of generosity and courage have inspired generations to find out more about this extraordinary environment.ONE DAY I STOOD ON THE EASTERN EDGE OF THE SAHARA DESERT and realized that if I were to set off in a straight line from that point I could travel for day after day, week after week, and never come across a road, nor a river, nor a major city, until I reached the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, 4,828 km (3,000 miles) away. It was then that I first conceived the idea of crossing the whole breadth of the Sahara, travelling in the way desert folk had done for millennia, by camel and on foot. If I succeeded, it would be the first recorded lateral crossing of the desert by such means, but for me that was not the main goal. The real prize lay in the prospect of living beyond the industrial world, of moving within the rhythms and cycles of nature, in close harmony with the Earth.It was several years later, in 1986, that I arrived in Nouakchott, Mauritania, with my wife, Italian photographer and Arabist Mariantonietta Peru, to live that dream. By then, though, I had learnt to speak Arabic fluently, had travelled thousands of miles by camel, and had lived for three years with a nature-based nomad tribe, the Kababish, as one of them.These desert nomads moved ceaselessly with their camels and goats, living as their forefathers had done for generations. At first I regarded them as ‘quaint’. Soon, however, I came to see that while they had none of the ‘benefits’ of modern civilization, their lives were so much more satisfying and harmonious than ours. I came to understand, as they did, that humans are not separate from Nature, but part of it, and that the wilderness must be approached not in the spirit of conquest, but with humility, reverence and awe.When Mariantonietta and I set off in early August from Chinguetti Oasis in Mauritania with three camels and a guide called Mafoudh, it was like entering a blast-furnace. In such heat, a human being could not last a day without water. On the upside, however, it was also the rainy season, and at first we were able to fill our waterskins from rain-pools scattered through the desert. We carried six skins, stitched from tanned goat-hide, which we proofed with a tar extracted from the seeds of the bitter desert melon, Citrillus colocynthis. The skins kept the water cool by evaporation, but thus lost moisture in the heat: after a while the tar could render the liquid barely drinkable.We passed through a landscape of amazing diversity vast, flat sand-sheets, rippling fish-scale dunes, endless gravel plains and surreal massifs where sand and water had bored natural arches through the stone. Our days followed the same routine, striking camp before sunrise, setting off on foot, walking behind the camels until the morning grew hot, then mounting up as the fancy took us, riding until about midday, when we would rest in the shade of a blanket.The afternoon was the hardest time of day: the heat poured down like molten lead, and we would squint anxiously at the sun, longing for the coolness of the night. The evenings were a holy respite from the day’s firewalk: we would unpack the camels and turn them out to graze. While they grazed, we cooked couscous or polenta on a three-stone nomad’s fireplace, made with firewood collected during the day or with dried camel’s dung. Often we baked bread in desert fashion, burying a flat loaf in the sand under the embers of the fire. Onions were our only fresh food; protein came from tishtar a jerky we prepared by cutting goat’s meat into strips and hanging it in the sun to dry.After dinner we would bring the animals back into camp, hobble them, and surrender to sleep under the overwhelming magnificence of the stars. We brushed our teeth with sprigs of araq bush, and after defecating cleaned ourselves with stones. We wore nomad dress long shirts, baggy trousers, headcloths and sandals: we never washed our clothes and rarely removed them at all.As we made our way southeast towards Timbuktu, nomad life completely disappeared. A week passed. We saw no one, and found none of the wells shown on our maps. After failing to locate two wells in succession, Mafoudh confessed that he’d forgotten how to find them. The situation began to look serious. Mafoudh swore that he could find the next well, but when we reached it after another desperate day’s march, it proved to be dry. We had no choice but to continue, plodding on painfully with cracked lips and swollen tongues, bent over with kidney pains.I was beginning to give up hope, when we suddenly came across growths of sweet melon, Citrillus vulgaris a rare desert succulent the size of a tennis ball. The liquid these fruits contained probably saved our lives. The next afternoon we spotted a curl of blue smoke in the distance the first nomad camp we’d seen in ten days. The nomads welcomed us to their tents, made a place for us to sleep, gave us food, water and camel’s milk. In the morning they showed us a gelta or rainwater cistern a sacred site hidden in the nearby hills.From Timbuktu we headed east across Mali towards the Niger frontier. The landscape here never varied from undulating red sand and gravel plains, but each day was a drama a struggle for survival, a quest to find food, water, fuel and shade, to find grazing for the camels, to keep ourselves and our caravan moving. Time seemed to stand still: it was as if the journey had no beginning and no end, as if we had been wandering across these vast horizons for eternity. The civilization we had grown up in receded in our minds to the fringes of reality: this wilderness was, and had always been, our home.From Agadez, Niger, we traversed the Ténéré Erg, or sand sea, a mystic ocean of rolling sand dunes as desolate as the surface of Mars. It took us seventeen days to cross it, and in all that time we saw not a stone, not a tree, not a single blade of grass. It was on the edge of the Ténéré that the worst sandstorm of the trek hit us like a hurricane, bringing with it a wave of dust hundreds of feet high, reducing visibility to just 2 m (6 ft). The roar of the wind was shocking it felt as if the Earth itself was trying to shake us off. Desert nomads cannot navigate through sandstorms and usually go to ground in them, frequently dying of thirst. This was not the last time my compass would prove of crucial value. We marched into the eye of the storm: when it blew out two days later, it seemed as if the whole desert world had been washed clean.The cool season was at its height by the time we reached Chad: nights were freezing, the cold cutting right to the bone. By this stage, though, we had become perfectly adapted to our desert world: travelling on a compass bearing, now without a guide, we would often cover 50 km (31 miles) a day. We crossed into Sudan, tramped across Darfur into the vast empty deserts west of the Nile. It was here that the most terrifying experience of the journey occurred: we began to lose touch with reality. We heard the chattering of demonic voices and the sound of footsteps behind us, saw eyes leering at us out of the night. We were 322 km (200 miles) from the nearest settlement and had seen no one else for days, yet it felt as if we were not alone that some ghostly caravan was accompanying us. We had been ready to take on any challenge, but had not expected the danger to come from within ourselves. This nightmare stayed with us until we reached the camp of some nomads: once we were among real people again, the delusions passed.We were only ten days from the Nile, but there was one well Abu Tabara that we had to locate on the way. It was hidden in a labyrinth of sand and volcanic blocks, and was notoriously difficult to find. We arrived in the area and spent an entire morning searching for it in vain. For the first time we were obliged to turn back, an ironic twist of fate so close to the Nile. We had just wheeled the camels around when Mariantonietta glanced behind her and gasped. She pointed out in the distance the dark figure of a man. At first we thought it might be another illusion, but as we approached nearer we realized that not only was it a real person, but that he was standing right next to our lost well.Six days later we saw the Nile flowing beneath us at Ed-Debba, like a brilliant electric blue streak. We had fulfilled the vision I had experienced standing on the desert’s edge so many years before albeit the opposite way round yet our journey was not over. From here, we turned due north and travelled parallel with the Nile, crossing the Egyptian border several weeks later. At Abu Simbel the border police arrested us. They confiscated our camels and put us on a tourist bus under armed guard. We could not believe the journey was over. We had made the first recorded west–east crossing of the Sahara Desert by camel, traversing a total of 7,242 km (4,500 miles) in 271 days, yet there was no exhilaration; instead, it felt as if we had been sent into exile.This was not the end of my desert travels. Three years later, I returned to Egypt to cross the entire Western Desert from north to south with a Bedouin companion. I have gone back many times to Egypt, Sudan and Mauritania, I’ve travelled in Algeria, Morocco, the Empty Quarter of Arabia, in Sinai, India, Pakistan, Australia and many other places, always without modern technology, covering more than 48,280 km (30,000 miles) by camel. In one way, though, our great journey across the Sahara has never ended, for the strong sense of belonging we felt there has not left me: ever since then, in this industrial society that destroys a little more of our planet each day, I have been a stranger in a strange land.


Last edited by William Jones