The Lost Oasis, part 5

Great Sand Sea

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Ten days out and the trucks file from Wadi Hamra onto a sandpaper-flat expanse.  Without a compass, directions would become interchangeable in these blank distances.  We check the heading and turn north, picking up speed.

            Caught up in the sheer exhilaration of racing across open ground, Said veers off on a tangent, giving in to the pull of pure motion.  He begins to sing and looks back with a smile to draw us into the fun.  Then he punches in a tape and lets the truck steer itself.  He claps to the music with his hands in front of his face as we drift away from the other trucks.  Between each clap, he lifts a hand and turns it about in a graceful arabesque.  Riding next to him, Waltraud Ott begins to sing along, and Said laughs and sings louder.  Soon all of us are singing as Said takes the truck in wide curves, swinging back and forth across the sands. 

            We’re already moving at 45 miles-per-hour over untracked sand when he steps on the gas.  He’s supposed to keep his place in line but can’t contain himself.  Overtaking the lead truck, Said tries to catch the attention of the women.  He snaps his fingers to the music, laughing with delight when they finally notice.  Khaled gives Said a disapproving look, and he reluctantly slips back in line.  But he keeps playing the tape, the same Egyptian pop over and over.  Rick shrugs his shoulders.  “Every movie,” he says, “has to have its theme music.”

            After traveling for days across the desert, I continue to stare out the window, fascinated by the infinite forms of sand.  It takes on the shape of the wind, sweeping into high ridges and trailing into hollows.  It comes tossed into waves and flattened into sheets, cut into sand cliffs and carved into crescent dunes, rippled, ripped, and ground into dust so fine it carries across continents.  Add sheer distance to it, and sand begins to float and glimmer, camouflaging itself as water. 

Far ahead of us the horizon line stretches thin and breaks apart, dissolving in a mirage.  The desert has its measurable hazards, the ones you can read about in survival manuals.  But for some the greatest threat is facing an immense, overwhelming vacancy.  More than anything else, they fear nothing. 

            Another flat tire and the drivers work steadily to patch it, rotate the other tires, and get the air pressure right.  An hour passes.  We've had so many blowouts, András is convinced he was sold a faulty batch of inner tubes.  Something that simple has crippled more than one expedition.  Up and running again, the trucks roll north.  A cloud shadow spreads out on the ground as dark as a water stain.  Shadows are such rarities, I keep watching until this one disappears behind us.  By late in the day a few more clouds have gathered. 
Broken light falls across the crests of sand as we follow a broad corridor flanked by dunes.  Traveling on a north-south course, we’re going with the grain as we run between parallel dune chains.  Some individual ridges stand 300-feet high and extend for 60 miles.  “It is as though you were in the trough between two towering waves,” wrote Bill Shaw, “frozen still for the moment but able if they chose to resume their movement and overwhelm you.” 

We have entered the Great Sand Sea, a vast expanse of dunes spreading 400 miles to the oasis of Siwa.  In 1874 a German explorer became the first to probe the heart of it.  Gerhard Rolfs tried to cross the Great Sand Sea with camels and nearly died in the attempt.  He gave up and turned north, barely reaching Siwa after covering 300 waterless miles.  “It was,” Rohlfs wrote, “as if we were on a wholly lifeless planet.  If one stayed behind a moment and let the caravan out of one’s sight, a loneliness could be felt in the boundless expanse such as brought fear, even in the stoutest heart.” 

Tracks from past expeditions begin appearing with more frequency, converging on a unique site.  We are heading toward a place where the shock wave from a disintegrating meteorite melted the sands into silica glass.  A few kilometers from our destination another tire blows, forcing us to make camp below a high dunal ridge.  Next we learn Achmed is too sick to drive.  “At this point in the journey,” says Waltraud, “we can afford to lose a driver more than a tire.”

After setting up the tents we wander about and start finding a few fragments of the meteoric glass.  An estimated six tons of it lie widely scattered across an area roughly fifteen miles in diameter.  Some flakes have been worked into primitive tools, and all are wind-polished.  Thousands of years ago, one piece found its way to the Nile and into the hands of a pharaoh.

When Howard Carter opened a wooden chest in the tomb of Tutankhamen, he discovered a beautifully jeweled pectoral.  At its center was a falcon with spreading wings and a scarab body made from a cloudy-green stone symbolizing the journey of the sun and moon across the sky.  Archeologists identified it as chalcedony and were puzzled why the ancient Egyptians would choose a common stone for such an important piece.  But it turned out to be much rarer than gold.  Scientists at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have now identified it as silica glass from the Great Sand Sea, a rock found nowhere else in the world.  I pick up a piece of the pharaoh’s stone and hold it to the sky, letting the light shine through in a green translucence.


            When I return to camp, the captain calls me over to his tent.  Ramadan began several days ago, and he’s observing the customary fast, abstaining from water and food from first light until the sun leaves the highest point of rocks in the evening.  The religious authorities in Cairo released him from this obligation, but he chooses to practice his faith despite the difficulties of going without water in the desert.  He has spread out his best foods on a blanket under the crescent moon.  Unable to be with his family for the evening meal, he invites me to join him for a feast of Wasa crackers and Dakhla apricots, taking pleasure in sharing what food he has.  When I ask why he fasts, he answers, “It’s for the good of the people.”

            With wood carried from Wadi Hamra, Said makes a campfire in a place where no tree could possibly survive.  The talk this evening soon moves from the captain's fasting to Islam.  Irina, raised in the old Soviet Union, tells me she doesn’t believe in God.  “Look at the Crusades,” she says, “at the conquistadors in Mexico, look at all the wars that have been fought in the name of religion.  How can that be?  That is not right.”

            “Do you believe in love?” I ask.

            “Yes, of course.”

            “As something real, as something you have experienced?”


            “People kill for love all the time; people go to war for love.  Have you read Homer’s Iliad?  The Greeks fought a ten-year war for the love of a woman.  Does that make love wrong?  Does that destroy your belief in love?”

            “People can believe in any religion they want, I don’t care.  If it helps them, fine.  I believe in having fun.”

            “Fun?  And then what?”

            “In Russia we mean that in terms of happiness.”

            “Are you happy?”

            “Yes, I have a daughter; I have a career.  Yes.”  She is tired of the conversation and talks of other things. 

            Sitting nearby, Waltraud has been staring into the flames.  “Fire is a powerful element,” she says.  “It is endlessly fascinating to look at.” 

            Waltraud continues to surprise me.  I suspect she’s in her mid-sixties, although she gives her age as fifty-nine.  Each evening she goes off alone to write in her journal, and each morning she wraps her cropped gray hair in a Tuareg scarf.  It’s not done for effect.  She’s desert savvy, having traveled throughout North Africa and the Sinai.  Being the most inaccessible corner of the Sahara, the Western Desert has long grabbed her imagination, and she’s enjoying the trip immensely.  When I ask her about the best method of desert travel, she answers without hesitation, "By truck."  Her preference for trucks over camels comes from experience.  The novelty of riding a camel, she says, fades quickly.  They are too slow to cover much ground, and she likes covering ground. 

            On a desert trip in Algeria, her group left the standard route to explore.  They drove far off the track into an area where nobody goes.  She remembers seeing a spot of white in the distance, far across the sands, and pointed it out to her Tuareg driver.  He dismissed it as nothing unusual, but on getting closer they saw it was a man. 

            “He was nearly dead,” she says.  “He had broken down and got disoriented.  He walked two or three days in the wrong direction.  He suffered greatly and cut his wrist in three places with a sharp stone.”  She makes slashing motions across her wrist to make sure I get the point.  “He tried to kill himself without succeeding.”

            The Frenchman couldn’t speak at first.  “The Tuareg gave him a sip of water and told him, ‘My name is Achmed.’

            “He said, ‘Mine is Felix.’  That’s a French name meaning ‘lucky.’”  Waltraud smiles, pleased at how the world sometimes makes sense.  “If it’s not your time to go,” she adds, “it’s not your time.”  

            I think of her life back in Switzerland, going to work each day, and each day following the same routine.  She shows up at the office, puts in a day of secretarial work, and then walks home in the dark as a few snowflakes fall.  On a city street you would never suspect she has spent so much of her life exploring the Sahara.  Alone at night she pulls out her journal and reads, dreaming of deserts faraway.  The dry winds, the dead heat, and always the limitless space.  When she has saved enough money, she returns.  She tells me she began traveling in the Sahara because of her fear of heights.  “I had the fate to grow up in the Alps and be afraid of heights,” she says.  “What could I do but go to the desert?” 

The desert surrounds us.  And it wasn’t until 1932 that the British were able to traverse this 45,000-square mile expanse of unbroken dunes.  Almásy soon followed.  The Hungarian carried only one book on his expeditions, The Histories of Herodotus.  In it the ancient historian related a story about a Persian army of 50,000 soldiers, sent by the mad king Cambyses to destroy the oracle at Siwa.  His army entered the Great Sand Sea and never returned.  “A wind arose from the south, strong and deadly,” wrote Herodotus, “bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear.” 

            Expecting dust storms, I've packed a pair of sand goggles, but so far none have caught us.  Spring, Khaled tells me, is the most likely season for a wind he calls the asafa.  He was once camped in the Quattara Depression when a storm hit without warning.  The terrific force of the wind picked up a tent with a woman in it and tumbled her along the ground until they could rescue her.  Forced to take shelter in the truck, the party waited it out.  They stepped outside when the wind finally subsided and found the paint had been sandblasted away.

            Trucks are a hard necessity.  My inclination is to leave them behind and set out on foot.  But without water dumps and a periodic rendezvous with a support vehicle, I couldn’t get far.  To my surprise, walking over the dunes hasn’t been difficult; the wind-packed surface easily supports the weight of a hiker.  The real obstacle to crossing the desert on foot has always been the impossibility of carrying enough water.  As I think through the logistics of traversing the Great Sand Sea, Khaled tells me he has crossed it by truck.  On one of his first trips into the deep desert, he joined an expedition whose goal was to traverse its length.  “From where we are now,” he says, “it could be done in four days going north, maybe five.  But I wouldn’t want to do it.  Once was enough.”

            In 331 B.C. Alexander the Great and a few companions undertook a perilous journey into the desert, determined to reach the oracle at Siwa.  They got lost after leaving the coast, and one account says they were saved by a pair of ravens which showed them the way.  Travelers from around the ancient world endured hardships and risked their lives for a chance to hear the Oracle of Amun.  What it told Alexander he kept secret, but his friends said he had a smile on his face when he left the temple.  And from that day he began worshiping Amun, later restoring the sanctuary at Luxor in his honor.  

             “We have only two spare tires left,” András announces before we turn in, “and two inner tubes.  If we lose one more, we will have to make a beeline to the highway.”  That would still take us several days.  Actually we have only one spare, but he doesn’t want to worry the others unnecessarily.  Some are worried anyway, and Khaled tries to reassure them by describing a method he has used before.  “In an emergency,” he says, “you can fill the wheel with sand and clothes – and drive out very, very slowly.”  This does not reassure them.

Rolling over early in the morning, I hear birds chirping.  They remind me of mornings in Tucson when restless birds filled the palm trees outside my window.  We have passed only a few Zerzura birds in the two wadis where trees grow, and I haven’t seen any since entering the sands.  I come fully awake and realize what I am hearing is coming from my head, a sound registering somewhere above the ear.  Spacecraft have recorded signals resembling songbirds, generated by electromagnetic bursts detected on the earth’s morning side.  Scientists call it the dawn chorus.  What I'm picking up may be related somehow, a subtle physiological response to the approaching day. 

Listening to the sound, I think about birds and their migrations.  They continue to follow flyways over rivers now buried under sand, detected by Breed and McCauley using surface-penetrating radar.  Phantom birds and lost rivers.  When the others wake up, I mention the dawn chorus.  Knowing the effect solitude can have, they begin to look at me a little differently and politely avoid the subject. 

            This morning I skip breakfast, having decided to observe the Ramadan fast with the captain.  Before we leave, I climb the dunes and look out on distances so great the desert hangs suspended like mist.  Nothing moves.  The dunes stand still; the blank sky motionless.  In such a dead world a single life becomes as ephemeral as a spark flying into the dark night.

            Waltraud discovers she has lost her sandals when we begin loading the trucks.  Said immediately pulls off his and tries to give them to her.  His generosity is such a natural reflex it’s almost instinctive.  She refuses, so he lifts a foot to show her his heavily-callused sole.  “No problem,” he tells her.  “See, plastique!”
We have gone as deep into the desert as we will go.  Our job now is to get back by the most direct route possible.  That happens to be a rather round-about way.  We will recross the barrier dunes, then drive east and north to finally reach Dakhla on the fourth day – if all goes well.  The drivers must take care to avoid rocky ground.  If we lose any more tires, we may be forced to abandon one of the trucks.

            After hours of driving, we return to the dune belt crossed on the outward run, the most serious obstacle we’ll face.  Going in the reverse direction means climbing steeper faces, and it will take twice as long to cross.  András, in the lead truck, hunts for the best entry as we proceed along its flank.  Stopping abruptly, he climbs the highest crest and stands for a long time scanning the dunefield with his binoculars.  “I’ve found a weak point,” he announces on his return.  “That doesn’t mean it will be easy.”

            By the next day we are through the dunes and covering ground at a fast clip.  That evening the shadows angle long from each rock, and the air has an edge to it.  We pull into camp and Said starts a twig fire. 

            When I join him to warm up, he smiles and hands me a cup of coffee.  It's his last cup, and he takes a simple joy in the opportunity to give it away.  I'm unable to refuse.  Earlier in the trip he learned I had a taste for the thick Turkish coffee and at every camp would make some for me.  The ritual involves placing a generous pinch of the powdery grounds in a brass coffee maker before placing it on the coals.  The moment it starts to boil up, he removes it and pours the syrupy brew into a thick glass cup.  Said always drinks his heavily sweetened.  After sharing his stash with me for two weeks, he has now run out, and we're still several days from the nearest oasis.  He shakes out the empty bag and laughs.  A day later Said, who has less than $2 to his name at this moment, will insist on giving me the coffee maker his father carried on his desert travels.           
Near Two Peaks we stop to let the trucks cool and stretch our legs.  András wanders over a low ridge and I circle the ground, finding a wind-polished blade dating back to the Middle Paleolithic.  Walk thirty feet at any random stop out here, and you’ll trip over an artifact.  When András returns I hold out the stone point and he holds out his find – a can.  Exposure to the fierce Saharan sun has oxidized one side, but the other remains in perfect condition.  He translates the German label for me.  It contains concentrated chocolate with extra caffeine and cola, the type of ration issued to special operations units as a stimulant.  “There was only one German mission sent across this sector during the war,” he says.  “Almásy!  This is from the expedition he led.”

During World War II, Bagnold formed the Long Range Desert Group while Almásy joined Rommel's forces.  The Hungarian volunteered to lead a dangerous mission across the desert to place spies in Cairo, and novelist Ken Follett recounted the fate of these German agents in The Key to Rebecca.  Before we continue, András checks a copy of the journal Almásy kept while infiltrating the British lines.  By chance we have stopped at one of his camps, confirming András’ deduction.  They left one of their trucks here and picked it up on the return journey.  The LRDG knew Almásy was crossing the desert from radio intercepts being decoded in England.  But their old friend eluded them, and Rommel eventually awarded him an Iron Cross.   

A river of dreams

We have come out of the far desert to the roadhouse at Abu Mungar.  Water jars sweat in the shade of a stubby palm as we drink glasses of tea.  I listen to the gurgling of a hubblebubble as Said, slumping contentedly in a chair, takes a long pull before passing it to Achmed.  That morning Said used the truck’s side mirror to shave, put on the cleanest of his two shirts, and carefully wrapped a Bedouin scarf around his head for the return to civilization. 

Walls painted aquamarine enclose us, and after days in the open it’s like being tossed in an aquarium.  A mural on the back wall adds to the strangeness.  It shows a river done in startling blue, running as straight as a desert highway.  Surreal trees line the banks, their green trunks supporting nubbly heads as if they had sprouted right out of the Permian.  If rivers ever flowed here in the past, all traces of them are now lost under drifting sand.
The mural begins to make sense when I learn the owner of the roadhouse once lived on the Nile.  At some point he began to dream of water.  He must have realized he could spend the rest of his life here and only feel rain on his face two or three times.  Taking a brush he painted a scene half-remembered, letting his imagination transform it into a perfect river with all the bends straightened and the water running as blue as the sky.  He must have kept painting, filling the blank wall with greens and blues until he had a river flowing deep enough to carry him away from the dead world of Abu Mungar.



Click for past explorations

New World part 1 of 3

New World part 2 of 3

The Lost Oasis part 1

The Lost Oasis part 2
The Lost Oasis part 3
The Lost Oasis part 4