February 16, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

You might be surprised at the similarities between real sand – desert sand – and snow. Their dissimilarities might come to you sooner: desert – hot; snow – cold. Yes, but getting stuck in both is similar and sometimes driving in them each, one is not unlike the other.

If there is enough snow, far enough from shelter or settlements – housing, protection from the temperatures, water, food – far enough from all that, you couldn’t make it in time, you could die of being in the snow.

Likewise, if you are in the sand – of the desert – also far enough away from all of the above that you couldn’t make it in time, you could die of being in the sand. It happens all the time.

Longitudinally, Ouagadougou is on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, a terrible place when Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson was there, in 1985, and when I was in the neighbourhood at another time too.

The drifting sand, like drifting snow is predictably unreliable. You go to bed at night thinking you know the landscape and, in the morning, the winds may have whipped up a mountain, changing the shape of the land dramatically, but which could leave again at any time, ever depending on the winds.

We drove out of the desert somewhat east of Ouagadougou into Mali, where the thorn trees dropped thorns that could shred a tire, giraffe ambled, wide-eyed and cautious amongst the terrible trees, and the people’s skin was blue from the dye of their wraps and clothing.

They spoke that sing-song West African French that we had come to understand so well, using the “tu” form of “you,” a linguistic intimacy that seemed to suit the tropics eventually. It was a little shocking at first – the presumption! Not the last, as we would learn.

In the deep snowbound regions of the north, the sky is open to starring, stars filling the entire canopy from horizon to horizon, with perhaps, the flashing green and blue of the Aura.

So too, in the desert, where at least it is not freezing cold, although desert nights are surprisingly cool after the ritual pounding heat of the days.

There, the night sky is a miracle of clarity. The Southern Cross makes itself known very soon, replacing the Big Dipper. Everything familiar to the northerner has slipped from view so that even to a person relatively uninformed as to constellations, the familiarity of pattern in the sky has shifted and strange.

Like snow, like sand, if a storm-sized wind begins to blow, between them, there is no mercy and shelter, however small but tight will save us, heads down, hoping for calm come the evening, praying for relief by morning. There are no guarantees….

The Tuaregs of the Sahara wrapped themselves in clothing, with cloth over their heads and protecting their faces. They rode camels and could be right beside us one moment and out of sight the next. What they wore was traditional and practical, they who understand the moods and demands of their desert home.

There is mystery in wide, wide-open spaces that seems to teem with the unknown, life that buries itself in the sand, with ready access to all its needs, knowing how deep there was water, how to dig in for shelter, ready to live a long time without that which we would call food, for there are elements in the sand that can sustain some beings but not us.

Before embarking on the actual desert crossing, we had come to Figuig, the largest oasis in north Africa, just inside the border of Morocco, with Algeria on the other side. An oasis is a place of wonder. Date palms cluster in profusion, creating intense shade within the encompassing desert. If the feeling of peace can also be intense rather than simply calming, it is so in an oasis: the contrast between the lush green richness and the strict deprivation of the standing desert fills all your senses.

Because we had opted to take the “country” route, we were obliged, very wisely, by the Algerian authorities to travel in convoy with at least one other vehicle.

Our path across the Sahara was marked by stone-filled water barrels placed every half kilometre so the next one could just about be seen from the previous one. We were extremely lucky with our companions, Bibi and Alex, Austrians who came this way every year in their mighty, all inclusive jeep. They laughed at our naivete and our humble Volkswagen, but they were protective and wise while we were together, reminding us to fill jerry cans with  water and others with fuel. Know that we had food and dates and a good attitude, all before we took off.

What it is to travel! Brains like sponge, we drink in the wondrous differences, open ourselves completely to new realities, and treasure every moment.

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