Stillness, sand and shimmering heat. To do what others only dream of: Hiking with a backpack and in a small group in the desert. On foot into the sea of dunes, Erg Ouranane, which lies in the center of Mauritania. It’s an encounter with the remnants of ancient Moorish culture and the magical colors of the Sahara.
There it is, between our legs, on the sandy ground – a scorpion! Startled, the predator disappears quickly under the rocky wall of a house. We are in Chinguetti, an old Moorish village at the edge of the sea of dunes, Erg Ouarane. In front of us lie lonely days in the world’s largest sand pit. Will all those prophesies by people back home whom I had told about this trip to the desert come true? You’ll be inundated with snakes, scorpions, and kidnappers!
The flight to Atar offers a first taste of the huge barren wilderness of the Sahara. Nothing but beige-colored sand, stones and brown rock ledges are visible from above. One square kilometer is only shared by three people. After we land, the warm air makes breathing difficult. We leave Atar, the airport town, with its road ditches lined with trash, car wrecks, and goats, driving off in two dilapidated off-road vehicles. A bumpy gravel track leads to Chinguetti, a trading post at the edge of the dune fields through which our trail will lead. The place is ancient and was once a stronghold of Moorish culture. Today, numerous libraries are a reminder of this, their dark walls guarding books which are hundreds of years old. In the narrow lanes of the old part of town, women and children surround us to sell us a “chech”, the classic head covering of the nomadic people of the Sahara – protection against sun, sand, and wind. We, too, seek to add it to our gear, but it takes a lot of practice to wind the three meter long cloth around one’s head.
Early in the morning, the voice of the muezzin breaks the quiet of night. Now nothing stands in the way of our departure into the dune fields. On this day we only walk a short distance, just past the oasis of Kemtkemt, where we collect wood to start a fire for cooking. Our guide Jerome Minzetee starts preparing according to Moorish tradition, but rain begins to fall and drives us abruptly into our tents. We did not expect this, although there are showers of rain in the Sahara every now and again. However, now we have already had bad weather for several days, leading to cool nights with temperatures of only around 6 degrees Celsius. Lightning is streaking across the sky and thunder is rolling – in the wide landscape this is fascinating and frightening at the same time.
The weather is overcast for another day. Again and again, heavy drops fall from the sky. Passing stony ruins, we dive into the sea of dunes, Erg Ouarane, rather pleased that the heat has held back. The sand, damp and sticky from the rain, seems to accentuate the richness of the dunes’ orange-red color. Our path into the valley of Hassi-Camp leads past several camel skeletons before we come across our first well there. From its depth we draw up new water: Necessary for survival!
On the following morning, the sun chases away all clouds. From now on, blue sky arches over the sandy ground that stretches into all directions to the horizon. The warmth and the wind quickly dry the ground and the fine sand finds its way into every crack and crevice. We continue our track to the well of Mghalig. It lies in a wadi, a dry valley between the dune fields. In the meantime, it is so hot that we look for protection from the sun in the shade of the few trees. It only becomes more bearable as the evening sets in, when the low lying fireball wonderfully shapes the contours, colors, and structures of the dunes.
At times the sand and dunes are white as snow. Then again yellow and orange, sometimes they are red. We are walking in the main wind direction and climb up the sides of the dunes which are pressed solidly together by the wind, on the other sides, we descend in a fast trot. When we do, our feet disappear up to the ankles in sand. Hour upon hour we move on, intoxicated by the stillness and vastness, until the oasis of Lagueila spreads out below us in a broad wadi. What a sight: palm trees and lush green. We descend and for the rest of the day we lie on carpets and cushions under a tent roof in the shade of the oasis, in which, apart from all sorts of souvenirs, even coke cans are available.
Meanwhile it is so warm during the day, that there is no thought of walking through the dunes around noon. 40 degrees Celsius in the sun and more than 30 degrees Celsius in the shade of the trees. We get up early, walk for several hours, then rest for quite a while under large, thorny branches before walking a bit further in the evening. As it is, the early and late hours, when the light takes our breath away, are the most beautiful. On our way we stumble across clay shards and arrow heads which are thousands of years old. And fortunately, also across the well which belongs to the nomad family Beyed. However, the water smells and tastes of goat. But so what? There is no alternative.
On the way back to Chinguetti we discover some snake tracks. The scaled crawlers, however, stay hidden, as do the scary scorpions and kidnappers. To come across one of these rare animals in the wild is, after all, probably more a piece of good fortune rather than any real danger.
Our thoughts will be drawn back to the desert for a long time. And to the old Nomad proverb: “The way of riches leads through the bazaars. The way of wisdom leads through the desert.”
About the author:
Martin Hülle (*1973) has been drawn for more than two decades mainly to the wild and remote landscapes of Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland. Photography and writing are a way of life for him – an opportunity to capture and express feelings in order to share them with others. In his quest for exiting stories, camera and notebook are his constant companions.