Sahara: A sea of sand

An ocean of silence.

The hush penetrates and mutes the noise and confusion of our busy city lives. This is a place for quiet contemplation, patience and soaking up the stillness. 

A line of camels glides into view and then, as swiftly, is swallowed by the next dune. Quad bikes scurry like little bugs along the skyline – sounds and movement absorbed by distance and sand.

Someone once wrote about the Sahara: “I came here to empty my mind”; and it is having that effect on us.

Is the allure of the desert that it ever appears untouched and unexplored; its harshness and vastness triggering vague memories of our atavistic search for water, food and shelter; a call to more basic, simpler times?

Not for us the classic golden hues of ochre and orange with sharp black cut lines under azure skies.

But the muted tones of rose and salmon, delicate peach blush and apricot. A haze tempering the sun as a gentle breeze wafts through the dunes cooling and refreshing.

A typical itinerary for a Sahara desert trip is usually an hour long camel ride across the dunes , watching the sun set, then arrival at a luxury (or not) camp, enjoying a Moroccan meal, followed by traditional drumming and dancing. Probably a wonderful experience for most, but a little canned for our liking, and, as riding a camel is purportedly uncomfortable we chose to forego one of these.

Instead, we walked some distance into the dunes.  watching the trains of tourists setting off and appreciating the tranquility like the locals.

A mild sandstorm signed the death knell for Nikki’s camera and added a horrible grating sound to mine.

By definition, a desert is an area which receives less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. Both Antarctica and the Arctic therefore qualify as deserts, and are larger than the Sahara. The Sahara is, however, the largest hot desert. During the summer months, temperatures in the Sahara average between a sizzling 38-46°C.

 It is about 9,000,000 square kms and is 10% larger than it was a century ago. While this is partly due to natural climate cycles, human-driven climate change is also responsible

Roughly 25% of the desert is covered by sand dunes. They can be small or massive, often reaching over 500 feet (152m) in height. They are found in the sand seas, called ergs, where the sand is constantly shifting with the wind. Much of the desert landscape is comprised of rock-strewn gravel plains called regs in addition to salt flats, dry valleys, and rocky highland plateaus called hamadas.

Covering nearly a third of the African continent, the desert stretches from the Red Sea to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean/Atlas Mountains to the west. The southern border is delimited by the Niger River and the Sahel, a transitional belt that transverses the continent at the line where the desert landscape transforms into a semi-arid savannah. The Sahara falls within 11 countries – Egypt, Algeria, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Western Sahara and Tunisia.

Around 2.5 million people live in the Sahara, most of whom have Berber or Arabic roots. They either live in permanent settlements near water sources or have a nomadic lifestyle, travelling from place to place with herds of sheep, goats or camels.

Saharan trade routes played an important part in the economies of Ancient Africa. Goods such as copper, salt and gold were transported using camel caravans, which in their heyday consisted of thousands of camels. There’s even a record that mentions caravans of 12,000 camels travelling between Egypt and Sudan.

How do camels survive in the desert and other interesting facts?

  1. Camels have three sets of eyelids and two rows of eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes.
  2. Camels have thick lips which let them forage for thorny plants other animals can’t eat.
  3. Camels can completely shut their nostrils during sandstorms.
  4. Thanks to thick pads of skin on their chest and knees, camels can comfortably sit in very hot sand.
  5. Their humps let them store up to 80 pounds of fat which they can live off for weeks and even months!
  6. When a camel finally does find water, he can drink up to 40 gallons in one go.
  7. Camels are very strong and can carry up to 900 pounds for 25 miles a day.
  8. Camels can travel at up to 40 miles per hour – the same as a racehorse!
  9. Don’t make a camel angry – they can spit as a way to distract whatever they think is a threat
  10. Mother camels carry their calves up to 14 months before giving birth.
  11. Their coats serve as insulation, protecting them from the heat –  shorn camels tend to sweat more.
  12. Camels do not have a stifle fold – the skin that stretches from the abdomen to the thighs –  so when they are lying down, air can continue to circulate under their bodies.
  13. Camels have thick, syrupy urine and their faeces are so dry that they can be used as fire starters
  14. A camel can also use its nose as a dehumidifier. When air passes out over a camel’s mucous membranes it is cooled and the water vapour is removed and reabsorbed into the body. This saves them from losing water with each breath.

Courtesy: and Natural History Museum how-do-camels-survive-in-deserts.html

Riad Chebbi is one of a number of lodgings in the villages that line the edge of the dunes and provides a view straight into the Sahara. A welcome rest after our long journey to get here

An eating place which is popular amongst locals and tourists alike and is frequented by tour guides with their wards in tow, usually results in mediocre fare, exorbitant prices and desultory service. Establishments we usually avoid. How refreshing then, to experience the opposite at Cafe Nora.

The ambience is very laid back, “enjoy yourself, we are not rushing you”. So it was a while before the menu, burnt into a goat skin, was produced with a flourish and a smile.  Ordering was interesting, our French not up to the task of selecting what we wanted specifically. Our waiter was very patient eventually he was forced to say “I understand what you are saying, you don’t understand what I am saying”. I had to admit he was right and I ended up just ordering the standard set menu after all.

It will take a long time he said (I was aware that their speciality was made to order and many reviewers had complained about the time it took).  We drank mint tea, chatted, caught up with our journals and generally revelled in not going anywhere or having  anywhere to be.

The starter, a cooked salad with eggplant, red pepper, olives, egg shavings and rice, was delicious and the freshly sliced, steaming medfouna, accompanied by a really good version of freshly prepared green and red chilli harissa, equally so.

Berber pizza or khobza medfouna is a traditional dish originating from Morocco, and it is believed that its true birthplace is Rissani, a small oasis town near the northwest edge of Sahara. Although it’s called a pizza, this is more of a stuffed flatbread that’s similar to calzone or stromboli.

The flatbread dough is stuffed with beef or lamb, diced onions, and various spices, and it’s then baked in a fire pit until done, while many restaurants and local Berbers cook it in a mud oven. Fried almonds and hard-boiled eggs are welcome, but optional additions.

The name medfouna means buried, referring to the ingredients that are buried or hidden in the flatbread dough. Once prepared, Berber pizza is cut into slices, and it’s usually accompanied by hot mint tea, which is believed to be a palate balancer that will contrast the flavor of fat from the meat.

Fertiliser in the Amazon from the Sahara?

Photo: NASA

 A paper published online by Honbin Yu and colleagues in Geophysical Research Letters Jan. 8 in Remote Sensing of the Environment provided the first multi-year satellite estimate of overall dust transport from the Sahara to the Amazon.The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons of dust each year and carry it past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. This volume is the equivalent of 689,290 semi trucks filled with dust. The dust then travels 1,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though some drops to the surface or is flushed from the sky by rain. Near the eastern coast of South America, at longitude 35W, 132 million tons remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons – enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks – fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons of dust travel farther to settle out over the Caribbean Sea, past longitude 75W

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust, Yu said. Specifically the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed where rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

Nutrients – the same ones found in commercial fertilizers – are in short supply in Amazonian soils. Instead they are locked up in the plants themselves. Fallen, decomposing leaves and organic matter provide the majority of nutrients, which are rapidly absorbed by plants and trees after entering the soil. But some nutrients, including phosphorus, are washed away by rainfall into streams and rivers, draining from the Amazon basin like a slowly leaking bathtub.

The phosphorus that reaches Amazon soils from Saharan dust, an estimated 22,000 tons per year, is about the same amount as that lost from rain and flooding, Yu said. The finding is part of a bigger research effort to understand the role of dust and aerosols in the environment and on local and global climate.



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