At the edge of the Sahara, I stood for a while and watched a dune move. It pushed out its toes, testing the flat ground in front of it; a small trickle of sand cascaded down the lee side and staked a claim, a first footstep of a few millimetres, across the stony flat.
We were in south-east Morocco, and had spent much of that morning crossing the reg, a gravel plain, and were now into the erg, a broad sea of dune-waves. It was a windy day, the sky hazy with particles and the ground beneath our feet blurred by a spray of sand. The particles whipped round our calves as we tramped up each windward slope. From each crest – the sharply-carved edges so familiar from tv documentaries and photos – there would be a view of more dunes; and then we would stride down the lee side where the negative pressure, created as the wind skimmed above our heads, sucked the disturbed sand upwards into our faces.
Having long ago read Michael’s book Sand, and having skimmed the relevant sections in The Desert (his new book arrived two days before our flight), I was delighted to experience for myself the physics and lexicon of dune-formation (saltation, reptation – lovely words): to watch the bounding sand-grains knocking into each other, leaping in the air, and co-operating to form small avalanches; to see the different patterns of aeolian ripples - and to draw comparisons with water-formed ripples on my home patch, the Solway shore.
Less delightful was the determined ingress of sand grains into clothes, socks, boots, eyes, hair and later, food (but no ‘sand in the sandwiches’ here – much tastier ‘sand in the salad’ and tagine instead).
And then, after about four hours’ walking, we came to an area of flat ground on which the dunes were scattered, not contiguous, encroaching individually or in small groups. Formerly this had been the bed of a lake, on the flood-plain of the River Draa, but after the dam was built upstream near the Atlas mountains and the river’s path moved for irrigation purposes, the lake inevitably dried out, leaving a stone-scattered and gently-contoured plain. Now, the sand was taking advantage of this empty space and was piling up and moving in, millimetre by millimetre.
However, it wasn’t only the dunes that were intriguing, for whenever we came to areas of reg, the flat and stony desert, there were scatterings of red or grey clay potsherds – handles, fragments of bowls, even a couple of large, almost-whole pots. Some pieces were engraved with simple patterns, and a few had remnants of green glaze. Had these fragments been washed down from dwellings in the Atlas or the Draa Valley? How old were they? Sadly, other than a comment that they were ‘perhaps a hundred years old’ it wasn’t possible to get a definitive answer from our Berber guide.
The camels, carrying three days’ water, the food, cooker and utensils, and our tents and baggage, moved faster than we did, and one of the camel-drivers had staked a sack on top of a ridge to show exactly where that night’s camp was being pitched. The camp-site, on flat ground between the tall dunes of Zahar, felt remote, yet without the use of GPS or compass, our guide had led us to this spot.
The next morning, an hour after we had set off, a lightly-laden camel and his driver suddenly appeared from between the dunes and crossed our path, following an unseen (to us) route. Elsewhere we saw camel footsteps imprinted and dried into what had once been mud. Humans and their animals were moving purposefully through this landscape, clearly using natural signs and age-old knowledge. Lacking this knowledge, and with only the footprints of other members of our party to follow, we would soon have been lost.
But not all the footprints were caused by human-related passage: parallel scrapes of the clawed feet of laboriously-moving beetles; a lizard’s skittering footsteps straddling the straight line of its tail; small mammalian footprints – gerbils, scampering and churning the sand around their burrows; and the focussed, straight-line padding of a fox: apart from these signs, no-one would have known that animals were living in this landscape.
After four days trekking through erg and reg, wadis and hamada, and feeling the chill of February nights that were deeply silent except for the occasional camel grumbling, and seeing into the depths of the Milky Way, I came away with a sense of wonder at what I had seen – but also knowing that, apart from saltation and reptation, I really didn’t understand a thing.
Sunrise at the well of Tilhatine
[Ann is an old friend of mine and of the Solway Firth, a sheep-raiser and weaver – and a wonderful writer. Enjoy Solway Shore Stories, her blog, Solway Shore-walker, and her extraordinary and compelling novel, The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, now out in its second edition. See also Ann’s website. Since she has recently been trekking in the Moroccan desert, I requested a guest post – and here it is, so many thanks, Ann.]