I love desert landscapes. There’s something which pulls me to them – whether the rich orange dunes of Namibia, the undulating whites and golds of Morocco, or the rocky grey flatness of the Atacama. I wonder if it is from living in a country where rain forms so much of our surroundings? Scotland has a lot of weather, much of it wet, often cold. Sometimes there are multiple weathers all at the same time. Complaining about the rain is a national pastime, yet anyone would readily admit that there would not be the rich greens, the lochs, waterfalls and rushing rivers if the rain did not come.
I have lived in countries where the rains are seen as blessings, where old men scan the clouds, listen to the birds, and tell you that, this season, the rains will not fall. That there will be another failed harvest, the rivers will recede a little more, that the dust will encroach further and wider. I have learned to love the rain, learned to appreciate what it brings, even if my roof leaks and makes the wallpaper fold itself from the walls. Even if it turns the garden into a bog and the potatoes rot. Even if I imagine that my toes are starting to web as I stuff yet another pair of shoes with newspaper and sit them by the radiator.
When a child thinks of a desert, it is usually some flat sandy landscape, yellow underneath a blue sky, perhaps with some waving palm trees in the distance. That image doesn’t change much over the years – until you visit your first desert. Mine was the Sahara. I was going to say that this was pretty special – the famous Sahara. It is, after all, the largest hot desert, and the third largest desert after the Antarctica and the Arctic. But, actually, I haven’t been to a desert which isn’t special, each in its own unique way. And that’s what draws me to them.
I was on a trip to Tunisia, but had escaped the package deal hotel, and done a bit of travelling on my own. However, on this occasion, I was on a three day coach trip, taking us to places such as Tataouine (where several of the Star Wars movies were filmed), Tozeur and El Jem. One day, we finished at Douz, a town on the very edge of the Sahara, where we were handed over to the camel men who patiently dressed us up, and settled us on our camels.
It was that first tourist ride on a camel (a pale fluffy beast, with a kind nature – nothing like the caricature of the nasty bad-tempered spitting creature) which took me into the dunes of the Sahara to watch the sunset.
The low, flat undulations of the creamy dunes took my breath away. They stretched off into the far distance of a cloudless sky, as we swayed and rolled on our elegant-legged camels. I managed to block out the shrieks of some of the less camel-loving tourists, and the grunts and groans of some of the camels themselves, and in my memory, all is serene and magical.
I sat on the top of a low dune, watching the sun set into the hazy horizon, the sand cooling almost immediately. I felt miniscule in the universe, and filled with awe at just how vast this huge flow of sand was. All sorts of theories and philosophies compare things to grains of sands, or the multitudes of grains of sand. These tiny grains – powder almost – made and filled a landscape which was each second unique in itself. Heraclitus, that great philosopher of change and flux, would have loved it. I filled a film tub with a little sand, which I now keep in an elaborate hand-blown perfume bottle I haggled for in the souk in Tunis. (Remember when we used film in our cameras, and the little stubby black tubs were perfect receptacles for all kinds of things?)
These tiny grains of sand were once rock. Perhaps they were once seashell or bone. They are a larger object somehow transformed into its smallest particle – a small particle now part of a vast shape-shifting barrier land which can swallow unwary travellers and block roads and rivers. Yet people live out there, as do birds and animals, and there are rivers and rocks and greenery. But these are hidden from the casual tourist, on her well-behaved camel, travelling between experiences by coach.
But if I had been only vaguely prepared for the desert, I had no idea of the astounding colours that a desert sunset would bring. The clouds rose and fell in vivid oranges, yellows, reds and purple. It was like a renaissance painting come to life, like one you can see in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and assume that it was the artist’s imagination running away with him. I don’t know how long we sat as the sun slowly settled behind the dusty horizon, the colour playing out on the ever-changing clouds, but it would never have felt long enough to saturate myself in these intense colours.
As the evening gathered, we made our way back to Douz on the swaying beasts, leaving the vast emptiness of the sand to the stars, and to the peoples who live out past the horizon. My first trip to a desert might have been a cheesy tourist attraction, but it began a life-long desire to visit and spend time in these vast, ever-changing landscapes.
As mentioned above, it was the time of film camera – so all the photos taken here are scanned from the originals.