Desert storm

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

For two days we had been driving towards the desert and then suddenly, one sunny afternoon in a Moroccan market town, the desert came to us…in a dense wall a hundred metres high.

The first sign of anything unusual was when the hot chergui wind began slamming metal shutters and shaking the awnings of stalls like an angry djinn,or poltergeist. An instant later a gigantic wave of sand rolled high above the first mud-walled houses of M’Hamid, and we scrambled inside a stall just as a stinging, café-au-lait coloured blizzard howled through the town that is known, for increasingly obvious reasons, as ‘the door to the desert’.

All the djellaba-clad men, and most of the street-kids who had surrounded our Toyota 4×4 a few minutes before, had disappeared and the only thing left out in the sudden darkness was a little donkey, spinning around trying to escape the litter that wrapped around its legs. This might last many hours and the people would simply wait it out with unshakable patience, then emerge to fix their roofs, bolster the ravaged date palms and empty ancient irrigation ditches. Sandstorms like this are no more than minor inconveniences – whims of the djinns – for people who work to carve a difficult living on the fringe of the Sahara.

But we were close to camp so we abandoned our safe harbour, navigated through a reef of violently flapping nomads’ tents at the edge of town and set an optimistic course across what the nomads call the erg (the sand-sea), into the eye-of-the-wind. The wallowing motion of our pickup, bucking and ploughing over the peaks and troughs of marching dunes, helped to enhance the image of the Sahara as an immense and unpredictable ocean. The ubiquitous myths of lost caravans and buried armies suddenly did not seem so far-fetched.

There is a great tradition of blind Saharan guides who navigate with the instincts of sailors by the smell of the prevailing winds, which are far more reliable than the ever-changing dune formations. I was happy that my Berber guide and driver, Brahim, was relying on more conventional senses, though years of experience with Marrakech-based Mountain Safari Tours have taught him not to take the desert for granted.

“I could guide you many times through the Dunes of Chegaga without a problem,” he explained in educated French, “and then one day we could go and the wind has changed everything. Last year I found the body of a young man near here. I think he knew the erg well but he became disorientated.” Brahim shrugged. “It could happen to anyone.”

The possibility of death by dehydration is an inescapable fact of life for a desert nomad.

Shortly after the track disappeared altogether under a rippling carpet of sand – and long after I had lost all sense of direction – we saw the lighted windows of a mud hut ahead. We unloaded the pickup and, in a typically Moroccan gesture of welcome, Ali (owner of the hut and guardian of a few deserted tents) served us mint tea from a ceremonial silver teapot.

Looking out through the door at a world that was still thick with flying sand I assumed that we would be confined for at least the rest of the night. But as soon as the sun began to set Brahim and Ali carried the mattresses and small table that were the hut’s only furniture outside.

“What if it blows up again?” I asked, gazing into a sunset that still reflected a dense band of ochre haze.

“Once the sun goes down the wind must drop,” Brahim explained and, sure enough, an hour later we were feasting on a communal plate of (sand-free) couscous that Ali had heaped with chicken and some truly explosive chillies.

I dragged my sleeping bag to the side of a dune and lay for a while, staring at an immense canopy of desert stars that I had seriously doubted seeing. I promised myself at least one meteor before I slept and began counting stars while I waited. I counted 32…but there were certainly many more.

The next morning we loaded up and voyaged onwards across the shimmering hamada (rocky desert) that might, once in a decade, become Lake Iriki. Only with some skilful manoeuvring on Brahim’s part – and some desperate pushing on mine – did we manage to keep the Toyota moving through the dry talcum-powder riverbed of Oued Laatach (‘Thirsty Wadi’). We had enough water for a couple of days but it was clear that little traffic ever passed this way and the concentration on Brahim’s face betrayed the fact that getting stuck here could have serious repercussions.

In late morning we reached the oasis of Foum Laag (which Brahim translated as ‘Sweaty Mouth’!), like a scene from Beau Geste with its swaying palms and small fort. The Algerian border, for the time being peaceful, lay forty miles to our south and the soldiers checked our papers and refilled our water bottles primarily to relieve the intense boredom of service here.

For several hours Brahim steered a northwesterly course across the featureless hamada until a narrow line of shadow rose above the horizon and I had my first sight of the Dunes of Chegaga. We climbed onto the roof to get exact bearings and I was surprised to see three camels on the bleak empty desert, their legs invisible in a watery mirage so that they seemed to sail like true ‘ships of the desert.’ In this boundless desolation I wondered where they had been and where they were heading for so doggedly…and, more importantly, whether they would get there.

On the plains below the erg of Chegaga, where 160-metre dunes have piled up on what are actually the foothills of the Atlas, we realised what had attracted the camels. It seemed that, while the sandstorm was destroying crops and wrecking homes in M’Hamid, a short sprinkling of rain (perhaps the first in five years) had fallen on Chegaga. A herd of over 200 camels had already gathered to graze on green plains where, a few days before, there had been nothing but a lizard-baking dustbowl.

We were now only an hour from the relative abundance of the mountains so before driving on we left what water we could spare with a tough nomad family, who had pitched their tents to take advantage of the grazing for their animals…and give thanks to Allah for what they considered ‘a time of plenty’.

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