Sure, I’ve read a lot about the Sahara. Watched documentaries. Heard people talk about it. And yet yesterday when we flew above it I was struck speechless by the sheer dimensions.
It goes on and on and on… all 9 million square kilometres, amounting to 31 percent of Africa. Desert also covers around 65 percent of Mali, a landlocked nation three times the size of Germany in West Africa – and my home for the next couple of months. So I’d better get used to the desert! Let’s just say I spent that flight listening to classical music, taking pictures and writing down my thoughts. Anything else would somehow have been inappropriate to this experience.
And yet it’s not all the same. The desert. The colors change. From deep red to ochre, sepia, orange, yellow to grey and even black. There are patterns painted into the sand. Huge figures bearing witness to ancient or recent movements of the terrain. Occasionally there is some water. Left over pools from some torrentious rainfalls now drying up in the relentless heat. Islands shaped by raging torrents or rolling streams, now abstract art painted into the malleable yet forbidding canvas of the desert. Water forged its path somewhere on its way through this nowhere place.
Clouds like grey chiffon veils thrown across the pale vastness, like fluffly continents sketched on the real thing. Seemingly random patterns that look as if they had been marked in the sand by a horde of gigantic drunk beetles. Some old parchment with crazing effect, crumpled and wet, smoothed out again and slowly drying.
The grey fingers of a plateau reaching into the sandy softness like a massive tidal wave frozen in time and place. A straight line designed with a demanding ruler on the African drawing board … the tracks of a train, many of them built during colonialism to better transport soldiers, mined minerals and to further trade.
The desert is mainly rocky stone plateaus (hamada), while the famous sand seas (Ergs) only form a minor part of the Sahara. Its features are mainly shaped by wind or rare rainfalls. From the air, the presence of mankind leaves weird black marks on the rough and beautiful map of the desert.
We love generalizations. They make life so much easier and it’s hardly more present than when crossing over the desert in a plane. You don’t have to feel it. Live it. It just stretches below you, goes on forever as if there was no end to it.
And yet I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be down there. To feel the sand, the heat, feel the dry air stealing away moisture with every breath you take. Being at the mercy of the elements. Not knowing when you reach your destination. Just desert streching on all sides. It’s easy to romanticize that epic landscape from a plane. I wonder what it will be like down there. I’ll let you know.