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January 21, 2009


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Thanks for yours and Bagnolds vivid descriptions of the North African desert environment. I would love to experience the unique feeling of such remoteness and quietness as juxtoposed to the ambient noises we are surrounded with almost daily(at least for a brief interlude! After a while I have read that a place of utter silence can be almost maddening because you only hear your own heartbeat.)

Since those sands would damage your camera lenses, how well do the windows and paint hold up on those vehicles during such storms?


Jules - thanks (as always) for your interest and comments. To answer your question, windows hold up pretty well, but paint takes a battering. Given how incredibly penetrative sand is (I still use the backpack I had with me and it's still "saturated" with sand grains), the way in which Bagnold and his colleagues were able to maintain Model T Fords and keep them going under such abusive conditions is really quite incredible. And I was pleased that I had thought to buy a pair of ski goggles before my trip - the guy in the shop asked where I was going skiing and was interested in the answer - I guess they were the first sand goggles he'd sold. Another quote from Bagnold's account of his 1938 expedition:

“My work necessitated waiting for a sand storm to blow up....A heavy one blew up within a few days. I was well prepared for it except, alas, I had lost my sand goggles. I spent some very uncomfortable hours sitting in the open, directly exposed to a violent sand blast, trying to keep my eyes open while taking readings from an array of gauges and sand traps. The purpose of eyelashes was very evident. Fortunately, I managed to get some reliable measurements which nicely confirmed my wind-tunnel measurements made in London.”

Thanks Michael,

Just as Bagnold appreciated his own eyelahes,another animal,the camel uses those very long eyelashes to sift out sand, obviously an evolutionary adaptation to this harsh environment. These descriptions also make me remember the dramatic desert sand storm scences and others captured by the amazing cinematography of David Lean's epic movie "Lawrence of Arabia"

More on adaptations of camels


Got here via carnival of the arid. Bagnold sounds like an awesome guy. Enjoyed reading this affectionate post. Maria Brumm over at scienceblogs was recently lamenting the under-representation of geology blogs (and, of course, the over-representation of biology blogs) in the public perception of the science blogosphere, and I had made a mental note to check out more geology blogs. Will add yours to the list.

I am researching the use of "Going Maps" used in tank warfare by the British Army in the North African campaign of WW II. Does anyone know if (as seems very likely) Bagnold contributed to these maps via his knowledge of Saharan sand deposits and his activities with the LRDG.

Dave - by an odd coincidence, I'm in the middle of rooting around in some Bagnold materials and have dug up a couple of things that might be of use. It's easier if I e-mail them to you.

Hello Michael
Am completely absorbed in Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" and have never been more
fascinated by anything as I am by the desert and of course Herodotus! Thank you for the
excerpts from Bagnold! You have delightfully added to my journey of discovery whilst reading this book!!

Hi Catherine - thanks so much for letting me know! Yes, it's a great book and a great film - for me, the opening scene shows some of the most stunning images of dunes that I've seen. I was lucky enough to visit the original "Cabe of the Swimmers" but saddened (well, disgusted, actually) to see it defaced by graffiti - I'm astonished that anyone who has the interest and the determination to visit it is then moronic enough to do this).

You might be interested in a fascinating non-fiction account of the characters, particularly Almasy, and the history behind Ondaatje's book. I would thoroughly recommend "The Hunt for Zerzura" by Saul Kelly. Almasy was, in reality, an extraordinary and enigmatic character, and he and Bagnold had an enigmatic relationship.

Hi Michael
Thanks for writing! I have the screenplay by Anthony Mingella (sad to me that he has
passed on) whom I thought did a splendid job and I have the dvd. Thank you, I did look up details on Almasy and that he discovered the "Cave of Swimmers" in 1933,painful to read your words about the defacement of such historic beauty, and... I will get a copy of "The Hunt for Zerzura" I also think the desert,the wind and the people is all just so romantic as well! I loved the tales about the winds, "Aajej - against which the Fellahin defended themselves with knives" etc.
I must tell you that I have ordered your book (hard cover) and I am assured that it will be winging its way to me arriving in 3 weeks - can't wait!

Hi Catherine - thanks for ordering the book - please let me know what you think!

I have to admit that I'm hooked on the desert and share your fascination. I included in the chapter on deserts a wonderful quotation from Wilfred Thesiger: "A silence in which only the winds played, and a cleanness that was infinitely remote from the world of men."

Where are you based?

Hello again Michael
I live in the seaside city of Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Province of South Africa.
I clicked on your site because I 'sighted' "Through The Sandglass" which caught my imagination
and I just knew that I would find interesting reading on Bagnold. It was the fascinating
sentence of Bagnold's about dunes in "The English Patient" that lead me to google him and so also
stumble onto you, "The grooves and the corrugated sand resemble the hollow of the roof of a dog's mouth." and then Michael Ondaatje's sentence thereafter, "That was the real man who would put his inquiring hand into the jaws of a dog." -quite some writing, wouldn't you agree!-
Now though, I have discovered your book after seeing that the one of Bagnold's that I wanted is
out of print. Great Scott, lest I forget, I love the quotation in your book!! I enjoy this quote from Christopher Smart "For Echo is the soul of the voice exerting itself in hollow places." I am sure that you will not disappoint! and I will share my thoughts once I have read it!

Yes, Bagnold was a quite extraordinary man - soldier, explorer, and scientist. You'll read quite a bit about him in the book. I didn't know the Christopher Smart quote - thanks for adding it to my collection.

So, Port Elizabeth, eh? As I sit here in icy London, I'm quite envious. If you ever feel like collecting a small plastic bag of sand, I would very much like to add it to my collection - I am a modest "arenophile" and have samples of a couple of hundred sands from around the world (there's a piece on my blog about bottles of sand as interior decor)- but South Africa is not well-represented. I would, of course, re-imburse postage costs.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book! My e-mail address is on the blog, so please use that if you'd prefer.

Good morning Michael
We are all sweltering in the heat and I'm afraid our water levels are dangerously low in dams. I would enjoy icy London right now! So, I am now officially frightened! I had no idea of the YOU that you are!! I went into some blogs this morning and what an exciting, magical life you lead!! I really enjoyed the one posted in May 2009 and also those cigarette cards, (what diverse reading in one blog- wonderful!) of which my favourite is what looks like could be Donald Campbell's Bluebird on The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah?? I was visiting my sister in 2005 and went to the Lakeland Motor Museum at Holker Hall where they have a fibreglass replica of the Bluebird and many TV's showing his tragic death. I was rather taken with this Speed King! I'm pleased you like the quote but please replace "exerting" with "exciting", sorry! I will with pleasure send you some sand. My sister will be here for the 2010 World Cup in June returning in July and she can take it back with her and post from Blyth, Northumberland to you, that's if you're willing to wait a few months mmm Must start working now. Au revoir

Hmm - exciting and magical - I'll have to think about that, but thanks!

Yes, the image is of one of the Bluebird world-record holding cars, but this one is Sir Malcolm Campbell's version from the 1930s - several records were set on Daytona Beach, and I suspect this what the card illustrates. The description on the back of the card refers also to "Ninety Mile Beach" in New Zealand - I'd never heard of this so it has set me off on another quest (and quite possibly a blog post).

As for the sand, I'll be happy to wait - just pleased and grateful!

And, if you don't mind my asking, what does working involve?



Great story!

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