There is something invigorating about sleeping under night’s warm blanket on the desert floor. A natural bedroom covered in stars, revealing the nightly secrets of the mighty Sahara.
Landing at the airport in a military coup
Our group had landed in the little acclaimed Islamic Republic of Mauritania in the midst of a military coup. Mauritania is found on the North-Western end of the African continent, straddled along the mammoth Saharan desert’s edge.
Nouackchott is the dusty desert capital of Mauritania and was to be the meeting place for our Dragoman Overland hosts. A group of confident city renegades had come together to brave the challenge of traversing the Sahara. The means of transport was a large, orange truck.
Chinguetti, possibly the most random village in the Sahara desert
The nomadic settlement of Chinguetti was the first stop after Nouakchott. This random desert enclave, found along the peripheral of a sea of dunes, was born in the times of nomadic Arab traders.
Chinguetti splits into two “halves” by what looks like a dry riverbed. Herds of noisy goats and camels abound freely. Around here, in this surreal place, the Islamic call to prayers is everyone’s alarm.
The day started with a tour of some of the oldest collections of Koran literature in modern existence. I crossed the town’s sandy divide to arrive in the obscure desert library, hidden amongst local stores and market traders.
I entered the strange little library. I was greeted by a young Muslim man who proceeded to provide a brief tour of 12th-century manuscripts. These were the most fascinating books I had ever laid my eyes upon. The tour was short and sweet.
Any trip to a desert is a natural chance for camel riding. The dunes of Chinguetti provided my first experience of this. Into the desert, we rode, with much amusement at the awkwardness of riding a camel. The obedient camel led me to the top of a nearby dune.
From my vantage point, a breath-taking amber sunset spewed over the sea of dunes. The sheer mass of sand was overwhelming. A gallery of dunes sculpted by millenniums of climatic effect.
I soaked up the wizardry of the desert landscape before it was back to camp in Chinguetti. Night crept over us inconspicuously.
The main challenge awaited the intrepid travellers
Our group of invigorated desert adventurers woke up with a degree of seriousness on their faces the next morning. The main challenge lay ahead. The next phase of the trek was explained in serious overtones from the guides.
Our solo entry into the wild desert was about to begin, with the express aim of reaching the world’s second-largest monolith rock, Ben Amera. No road guides here. A few co-ordinates, luck, and intuition were the only vices on hand to reach our ancient monolith.
The three days we spent desert bashing to reach Ben Amera, were the most awesome and entertaining, and the most exhausting. We continuously found our heads pointed towards the sand during the day. The desert sand repeatedly swallowed up the wheels of our heavy truck. We laboured on, into the soft desert sand.
Amongst the incessant heat, sweat, and graft of rescuing a sinking overland truck from soft sand, the Sahara provided some spectacular universal gifts for a travel photographer.
During those character-building days, I indulged my photographic nuances, capturing the more beautiful scenes of an otherwise unforgiving desert landscape.
The end result
The result of our Ben Amera crusade ended in defeat. Mauritanian desert 1- Overlanders 0.
We reluctantly capitulated our desert bashing attempts after 150km’s of hard-earned desert penetration. Feeling well defeated, forlorn and filthy, a short council concluded that we head towards that rare and precious natural resource of the desert — water. We never found Ben Amera.
As a truck full of wary, dusty, and smelly “overlanders” motored along the gravel road leading into the Oasis village of Terjit. I felt much excitement over the prospect of bathing for the first time after days.
Bags carted to camp.
Into the water.
While floating in the shallow pool like a crocodile I became acquainted with the healing properties of a desert Oasis. I was thankful for this small miracle of water in a world of sand.
Terjit was an overnight stop. We revitalised our spirits and sunburnt bodies. Alas, our dust filled days were not yet over, for the desert had one more cruel surprise awaiting us as we headed for a larger body of water, the Atlantic Ocean.
A wild sand storm
Sand storms are really not much fun unless you enjoy eating sand. The pumping temperate winds whip the sand into a frenzy of nasty, flying grains which form a seemingly endless curtain of sand rain, it was inescapable.
Sand got into every gap available. It beat you up, tossed you aside, and left you blinded.
Amongst the sand storm chaos, we encountered unexpected signs of life. A herdsman and his camel were journeying straight through the heart of this storm. I saw isolated and sporadic nomadic tents slanting in the whipping winds.
How could anyone exist in this rain of terror? A fellow sand-stormer noted: “This is the harshest environment I have ever been in.” To which another replied: “But is it as harsh as a night out where all the girls have given you the cold shoulder?” Well, I wonder.
After four hard hours of the sand assault, we eventually immersed in the clutches of the monstrous sand cloud. Looking back, I could see the almost transparent wall-like formation of the mass of sand. The storm extended along the desert horizon.
The ocean was a blessing to sandy eyes
Almost magically, pristinely waiting ahead, the much-needed sight of the serene Atlantic Ocean, cool and inviting. We cruised along the water’s edge where the ocean greets the desert, emblazoned with a crimson sun slowly descending into the Atlantic horizon.
Sights, sounds, and smells of fishing villages enthralled us as we triumphantly made our way along the sand highway. We found a camp and built a fire.
Fresh fish was on the menu. Like old friends at a reunion, our group of weary travelers lashed out the last desert anecdotes amongst outbreaks of laughter in the calm night. Spirits were at a peak, yet bodies wary.
As the flames turned to embers so our minds turned towards the finality of an epic desert crusade. I collapsed into my sleeping bag one final time under the mural of desert stars with the sound of waves stroking my mind from the ocean’s reach.
In this sublime tranquility, I found the chance to indulge in some more desert wishing before I shut my eyes to the desert world.