Sun, sand, water... and other
Sounds like a
great beach holiday? Well, we did have lots of sun, lots
of sand… and lots of water (in 1.5 liter bottles), but no beach!
Click on photos for larger images:
There was always
sun. It was hot… after all, we were in the Sahara desert. The heat wasn’t overpowering most
of the time, but we wouldn’t spend much time in the mid-day sun.
The last couple of days, the temperature climbed into the low to
mid-40’s. (Way over 100F). That was hot. But the heat grew on you.
In fact, many of us felt great
there. It may have been the benefits of a hot dry climate on
bones and joints that can tend to suffer in damp climates, but
certainly there were a few of us who have said since returning
home that they never felt
better than in the Sahara. It was more than physical health. All that glorious
sunshine, heat without humidity, glorious vistas... it sometimes
felt like heaven.
Bonnie hides from the sun
If the sun and
heat grew on us, well, so did the sand.
grew on you, and stayed with you. While the land was varied, we were
never away from sand. It was on the ground, in the air, in our mouths,
eyes, ears, clothes, car, camera (I had mine cleaned after
returning). Food was inevitably, if unintentionally, seasoned with
it. Every dish we ate came with crunch.
found its way into song. At our first "shower" opportunity we
found (a hose by a well), Oksana sang, "I'm going to wash that
sand right out of my hair". Later, in the car, she and
Bonnie exhausted their memories of sand songs: "Love Letters in
the Sand", and "Mr. Sandman". (Well, you have to go way back
to remember any of those songs. Some might say remembering Pat
Boone was just a symptom of sunstroke).
And, the sand added
to the sun’s heat – in the Sahara, the sand reflects back 90% of the
heat it receives.
The areas we
travelled through were dominated by three different giant
landscape features: the
dark, craggy Acacus Mountains, and two huge Sand Seas: The Murzuq and Ubari
Sand Seas. Extensive flat plains, accented by giant dunes, they
were our campsites every night.
The gorgeous sand
clearly remember our first sight of those dunes. Following
day's lunch, we drove over flat, hard packed
sand and rock. After some time, it briefly seemed to me that there
was a large city in the hazy distance, but soon the image
transformed itself first into “mountains”, and eventually revealing
itself as the gigantic, soaring sand dunes of the Murzuq Sand Sea.
Looking back, now
two months afterward, those dunes still feel like home. Our days often
consisted of long, often bone-crunching drives while breathing hot,
sandy air; at the end of the afternoon we would pull off into
another beautiful campsite, framed by these giant, curving dunes. It
was at this time of day (and early morning) that they were at their
most beautiful, with the low sun turning them into a golden, ruddy
red, highlighted with long shadows and accenting the crests and
tactile memory of those dunes is the experience of climbing up or
down them. It took a day to get the hang of climbing up the steep
side, but the sensation of going up and down that soft, soft golden
sand in bare feet (“Like walking through silk”, Oksana said) will
always stay with me.
Sahara video, there is a brief clip of his
friend Michael pointing to one of our sand dune homes saying “This
is what I’ll miss the most”. Absolutely.
(It's Michael who's enjoying Sahara heaven in the photo
in the top left)
Walking through silk
I had heard many
stories about (and seen some photos of) the great Saharan
sandstorms. While any blowing sand would have been a problem during
the eclipse, Saharan sandstorms are capable of incapacitating any
travel or movement. I had read that the only
thing to do was to stay in your tent, zipped up in your
sleeping bag and wait it out in the oppressive heat.
didn’t experience any of that. On our second last day, however there
was a moderate sandstorm for most of the day. On the way to the
ancient town of Ghat, visibility was so poor, it reminded us of a
bad smog day at home. This was the first day that the temperature
climbed into the 40’s, and while walking through the old Medina of
Ghat, and especially at the top of the central hill beside an old
fort at the top, we got a little more understanding of the power of
the sand, wind and heat here (and it was still early April!)
(Photo at right taken from the fort)
For a taste
of what sandstorms are capable of, look at these
photos of Crete in April of 2005. Remember: these pictures
were taken during the
daytime, and the photographer did not have a dark yellow filter on the
camera! Note the car headlights. And
here's an article on NASA's website about how much Saharan
dust crosses to North America. (It estimates Florida receives
about three feet of dust a year!)
Water and other liquids…
With all that sun
and sand, we learned early on not to go anywhere without water. We
traveled with a large supply of large plastic water bottles. As the
day progressed, the water would warm up to its normal lukewarm temperature.
We were dry beyond just thirst… everything was dry. Lip balm,
mints and candies were popular items to help moisten that which
didn’t seem “moisten-able”. “You just can’t get wet enough” was one
comment I heard.
The country was dry
in more than one way: Libya is an alcohol-free country. During the
first week, there were a lot of comments and jokes about
this situation we found ourselves in. Wistful evocations of gin-and-tonics, martinis and wine were
frequent… to say nothing of memories of real beer, as opposed to the
non-alcoholic type available there.
“I’d chew my arm
off for a cold beer”, was one less-than-wistful wish I heard. And I
recall once commenting to someone that I could probably drink a
whole bottle of a nice cold, Portuguese Vinho Verde.
But thoughts of
alcohol seemed to recede as we established ourselves in the Sahara.
It was partly the result of time – we were getting used to this –
but mostly because the heat and sand focused everyone on the
essentials of the desert: liquids and thirst.
We consumed a few
liters of water a day; but after a few days of heat and warm water,
some of us began obsessing with the idea of drinking anything other
than water, and anything cold. One morning at breakfast,
someone asked if there was any fresh squeezed orange juice… how
about a grapefruit? A papaya?...
Three days into the
Sahara, we heard that the next day we’d pass through a small town,
Al'Uwaynat. After the days we had just spent, the idea of a town in itself seemed exotic, but I had
only one question about it: did it have electricity? Because that
meant refrigeration… and something – anything – cold to
To be continued...
Cooling down... and washing away that sand
The other liquid
we missed was water to wash in and to cool down with, and so we reveled in
it whenever we did find some. On the first day, we drove by a large
irrigated agricultural facility -- growing wheat of all things -- watered by massive sprinklers.
Already on our first day here, the experience of standing under the bracing cold water
spray was a refreshing treat.
A couple more days
of heat, sand and sun brought us to a “well” (a stone building with
a hose and water supply). Many of us jumped at the chance of a
rinse, a shampoo (“best shower ever” I said afterward), or as much
of a shower as people could manage.
In the last few
days of the trip, we would occasionally stop at facilities that
catered to "4x4 travellers", which would include showers -– a wonderful
Next: Notes from the desert