The following is an extract from William Atkins’ new book The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places:
The main quality sought in a desert campsite, other than shade from the sun as it rises, is shelter from the wind. It’s thought that most of the Rub’ al- Khali’s dunes accumulated some one million years ago, during the Late Quaternary period, when winds even stronger than today’s winnowed sand both from the wadis of the peninsula’s interior and the Arabian Gulf. The wind continues to be a potent presence: it shapes and reshapes the dunes, and, during the day, is as constant as the sun. The sun heats the morning sands, the warm air rises and must be replaced. Hence the wind ubiquitous in desert literature.
Herodotus tells the story of a Libyan army sent into the desert to subdue the lord of the desert of swirling sand’. At a ruined fort in northern Syria, T. E. Lawrence and his Bedouin companions ‘drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert’. Bertram Thomas recounts the story of a party of the Mahra tribe who pursued a band of camel raiders into a part of the desert unknown to them, only for a wind to rise and obliterate the tracks they had been following. ‘Six months later one of my own party of Rashidis came upon the seven skeletons and the bones of their camels.’
The desert is mobile, and wind its engine. It is the wind that shapes the dunes. To travel in the Empty Quarter is to see their forms – ‘species’, as they are known – in their infinite permutations. The desert is formed chiefly of the uruq variety (from the Arabic ‘vein’), towering parallel ridges sometimes tens of kilometres long; and of crescent- shaped barchans (from the Arabic ‘horn’), whose tips point in the direction of the prevailing wind. But few deserts, even the great ergs or ‘sand seas’ of the Sahara, are formed of sand alone. In the southern marches you experience not a pure dune- land, an endless beach, but rather a complex of arenas. The sand is quartz; anything softer will be ground to dust and blown away. Each surface grain accumulates a rind of ferric oxide, and it is this that accounts for the Arabian dunes’ characteristic redness. Thomas suggests that ‘Dhofar’ means ‘Red Country’. The redness was most conspicuous in hollows, and where the sand was finer; but dig beneath the surface and the colour changed to a cool grey-green.
The dunes are separated by shuquq, ‘interdune corridors’ – elongated plains of brown gravel and white gypsum; while the dunes are barriers exhausting to man, camel and vehicle alike, these flat plains are the desert’s highways. From their edges archaeologists have recovered the bones of water buffalo, the shells of fresh water molluscs and the teeth of hippopotami. For, some twenty-five thousand years ago, during a cold phase in the global climate, these plains were lakes. Arabia, like the Sahara, became green. Then, as the planet warmed once more, the water evaporated and the vegetation died. The desert returned. Today, even from a small distance, the plains can resemble lakes – it’s possible to walk along their shores or between islands of crusty marl deposited by the ancient waters. These honeycombed accretions, sometimes a metre or more tall, are home to desert foxes, and twice I caught a distant glimpse of one – black against the gypsum – ducking into its cave.
To travel here, then, is to move from one lakebed to an other, over passes in the intervening dunes. Even for the desert traveller who is not dying of thirst, it is easy to believe, having laboured across the partitions of sand, that what you are beholding as the next plain comes into view, sometimes rippled or blue- tinged and shimmering with heat- haze, is a tremendous sheet of water. Not mirage, not illusion, merely resemblance. At such times the aridity of the desert occurs to you with its full force.
The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins is published by Faber & Faber in June (£20.00). Find out more here.