Extreme Nomad

The Science of Sand Dunes

The volume of a grain of sand with a diameter of 0.060 mm (a lower bound) is 1.13 x 10^-13 m^3 with a mass of 3.00 x 10-13 g. As an upper bound, the volume and mass of a grain of sand with a diameter of 2.10 mm are 4.85 x 10-9 m3 and 1.28 x 10-8 g. The deposits of the...

Sandstorm

A stark chill descended. Sand swirled like ocean spray, its thick foam deleting the lines. Dust clouds churned in the sky, dulling everything into opacity. The desert in anger had found its voice. ‘Go home, infidel!’ it cried. ‘This is no place for you!’ Nose to the...

Crossing the military zone at In Eker

Fear can halt time and close up distance. Its spiky, thorny edges cut to the bone. I recognised its dark venom of old. It reached back to me, this terror, from out of my past. It slunk silently out of my muscles and sinews and stalked me. I felt it. I smelt it. I knew...

Freedom for sale

While the camels played in the dust I sat inside a tent amid strangers speaking unknown tongues in hushed tones. Whatever I said felt wrong and in whichever language. One of the nomads, who was called Hassan, seemed jovial enough, in fact rather too jovial in the...

First checkpoint

Our first checkpoint was manned by a brawny officer in a sweaty uniform that accentuated his bulk. Spotting an opportunity for advancement, he promised to put in a good word for us with his superior to ensure the smooth running of the rest of our journey. ‘It is a...

The qualities of sand: movement

Imagine what it must be like to see your home swallowed by nature, to be uprooted like a tree and displaced. Hardly noticeable at first, sand can drift for years and even decades in one direction, and then suddenly it moves in another. The dunes move in and hold sway,...

drug planes in the Sahara

The sky was brilliant blue, the air hot and still. I was picking prickly pear flowers and handing them to Fleabag. There it was again, that same angry grumble I had heard earlier. I looked up to see a jet thundering overhead like a colossus in descent, undercarriage...

What have I done?

Lying in my sleeping bag, wriggling to make a body-sized dent in the hard mattress of the lumpy desert floor, I felt glad day five was over. Not for the first time had Samir repeated verses from the Qur’an that he knew off by heart, giving himself marks out of ten,...

A new language

Tamahaq, sometimes refered to as Tamashek or Tamajak, depending on regional dialect is the ancient and, some would argue, dying language of Tuareg nomads. It is spoken throughout the Saharan regions, and to an outsider like myself, sounds a bit like a cross between...

The forgotten

ve here survive in the face of their homesickness. Water for washing is rationed to once a month. There is not enough food to feed the children and, thanks to the irony of medicines made available by charities, the population is growing.

We waved our farewells and became small dots among the other dots fading on the horizon, locked in the spiral of our own frustration. Tribal feuds and conflict have caused many battles in Africa, but the greatest enemy of all is poverty.

The Tuareg

The Tuareg, the Blue Men of the desert, or the Kel Tamahaq, as they prefer to be known in Algeria, number around two million and belong to no fewer than eight territorial groups. The Kel Ahaggar live around the Hoggar and Tassil-n-Ajjer mountain regions. They are well...

Day three: colour in the desert

The desert can never be imitated in a photograph, or summed up in a souvenir. Every aspect of its complexity defies capture. In a universe of yellows, the smallest contrasting bright shades stand out. Details appear magnified, more intense – the beige of...

Desert walk: day one

We moved off towards a vast empty landscape, the mountains like the edge of a saw along the horizon – two nomads, five camels like giant tortoises with their homes on their backs and a bewildered stranger. In the West, where rainfall is frequent, we crave the sun. To...

Catching camels

Tracking camels is an inexact science. In theory there are toe marks and droppings to follow. Suleyman, a seasoned professional, could tell by examining the tracks the sex of a camel, when it had last been watered and whether it had a rider. If the markings showed the...

Day one: the plateau of rivers

It is easy to see why the Tuareg call this place the plateau of rivers. The land ebbs, flows, rushes and pulses. It moves constantly. Where there is sand it is icing-sugar fine, swept smooth by the winds and sometimes bearing minuscule footprints hinting of moonlit...

Saharan meditation

The Tibetan word for yoga, naljor, means abiding naturally, just being. In the desert, just being has a quality unlike any other place. When surrounded by wilderness stillness, patience and the suppression of the self lend themselves to the discipline of meditation....

Stressed in the Sahara

Stress takes on its own momentum. In times of anxiety we are like children peeking through a hole in a fence, not catching the view in its entirety. Ignorance all too often misconstrued as naïvity is in reality denial. Inevitably, there was even more to the trip than...

The Art of Loading a Camel

‘Where’s the other tent, Samir?’ We were standing on the sand, around us a battalion of bags, bundles and boxes extending towards the distant horizon. ‘Well, we are good friends…’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Just good friends.’ ‘If we know that, there is no problem.’ ‘What are...

A trip to the marabout

As they had raised their chèches out of respect, I wondered what the elders were really thinking. If they regarded it as unusual for a foreign woman to travel alone and admit herself to their home, they had been too polite to say.Experience told them to be on guard....

A desert bath

The men spent so much time with their camels that they didn’t notice that I smelt like one. Amina and Rhaicha understood. Tucked away, in a quiet corner of the compound, a shelter of twigs had been woven into a dome, over which coarse blankets were secured. Inside,...

Borders

One afternoon, father, son and I sat beneath a spreading acacia and divided up our duties for the trip. In other words, Suleyman announced that he would look after camels and navigation, Samir decreed that he would cook and look after the water supplies, and then,...

The elders’ offer some advice

Bright and dark, the shades of yellow on the crumpled paper seemed to merge. Patches of ochre seeped into orange, beiges faded to black and contours meant to distinguish the varying terrain blurred. I had bought the map in London. Looking at it now, there must have...

The Meaning of Jihad

The message of love and tolerance advocated by most peace-loving Muslims stands today in direct opposition to the perceived association of Islam with violence at the heart of a clash of cultures that threatens to engulf the world in a third great war. Surely for the...

The question of Fleabag’s soul

With his pipe perched precariously between his lips, Suleyman lit another match, proclaiming that the Four Aces tobacco he had procured on the black market in Abangerit didn’t taste the same as it used to in the old days. ‘So who is this 'specialist'?’ I asked. ‘He is...

Taxi to Tamanrasset

Taxis are a law unto themselves in the desert. When and if one appears depends on the heat and whether a driver is prepared to make the trip. The money they earn is always secondary. We trundled across the rocky plain, jammed together and united by our discomfort....

When on camelback

Fleabag refused to budge. Her head was up. She had a purposeful look. She had learnt early that in the middle of the day, when it was hot and unbearable, a roar created a fuss and brought any human scurrying with the water bucket. A gentle tug of the rope to one side...

Islam: unity and division

As the recent horrific attacks in Manchester and London kill and maim more and more innocent people, those who commit the atrocities in the name of Islam are achieving exactly the division, fear and mistrust in our world that are their goal. The current rift between...

Remembering Kabul

The thud of dough against the walls of a bakery oven; the wail of prayer and the buzz of a helicopter… these where the sounds of the morning of 1 October 2006. I remember the light gleaming, radiating from the high walls as if the dust itself were gold. I was just...

Camels and physics

Gravity, the natural force by which all things with mass are brought towards one another, has an infinite range. Its pull affects stars, planets, galaxies, sub-atomic particles and even light itself. I was gravitating towards a camel - and our mass and energy appeared...

Where men go veiled

The street is a jumble of livestock, bicycles and carts all narrowly avoiding each other. Already the heat is high. I can smell the buttery, warm odour of sheep dung, spices, the heat crisping the skin and the harsh tobacco that thickens voices and dries throats. I...

Camel training: day one

It took two or three months before Fleabag was ready for training. By then the scabs had healed and a little light exercise had filled out her muscles. Good care had put a sheen on her hump. The priority was to win her trust, and that meant not asking too much of her....

Islam: where do we go from here?

In the twenty-first century, Islam's battle is not only one for the mind, but one for the heart, as the world faces perhaps its greatest challenge since World War Two. The battle lines of the new conflict of understanding between Islamic and non Islamic peoples have...

Innocents caught in the crossfire

The terrorist threat to our security is today more complex than ever. Within Islamic societies sectarian acts such as that in Manchester have continued to terrify and horrify Muslims all over the world, perpetrated by those within the faith adopting a narrow...

Camels and humans

Gone were the bruises, the chafes and abrasions. The hump was full, the flanks rounded, the gashes and cuts were no more. The brisket was back to normal, and that nose, once in tatters, looked intact. Approaching with caution and small steps, since I was hoping it...

Refugees in the Sahara

  Richard Leakey once wrote, ‘Given that thousands of generations of our ancestors were hunters and gatherers on the move, it may well be that this life is an indelible part of what makes us human.’ But is that actually true? Industrial civilisation has existed...

Oasis

In the Middle East and Africa, nature’s remedies are known from the tracts on plants attributed to Aristotle and mentioned by Nicholas of Damascus, work that was continued long after by Avicenna. In Roman times Pliny the Elder composed treatises on the use of plant...

Barks, roots and leaves

Fleabag was bearing up. Minor surgery on her nostril was followed by doses of antibiotic powders, as well as a special treatment for the common nasal bot flies. Vaccinations with what looked like a knitting needle were meant to protect against septicemia, tapeworm and...

The healing of a camel begins

In the Second World War, when General Eisenhower commanded the invasion of Normandy, he coordinated sea, air and land forces while negotiating unpredictable weather and juggling the political forces of Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle. When asked about his success,...

Goats marching in the Sahara

Nowhere on earth does the wind’s true force feel more unremitting than in the Sahara, where it disperses the clouds arriving from the ocean before they release rain and shapes the rocky plateaux, known as tassili. Sailors call it the trade wind. Saharan dust the...

I bought a camel

In the centre of a square, men are seated, noses drooping like birds. Wool merchants touted dung-spattered fleeces and foul-smelling goatskins. Elders with leathery faces sit in tatty loincloths playing desert draughts with dung and smoking pipes. Cattle herders from...

Sahara air

  ‘Breathe’. The word comes from the Latin spirare, meaning both spirit and inspire. In the desert, inspiring feels a more accurate description than breathing. The air is so clean here that it has a crystalline quality. I feel buoyed up by a sense of...

Living among camels

Suleyman is a master cameleer. There are over ninety dromedaries in his herd, and he has insisted on introducing me to most of them. I am sure he has adopted Western names for some of the most notorious characters on my behalf. The most fearsome is an old bull named...

Camel milk

    A pregnant nagar, or female camel, carries her baby for a whole year before it is born. Her milk when it arrives is warm, delicious and frothy. It is also much sweeter, creamier and less grassy than goat milk. It contains ten times more iron and three...

The Frankincense tree

It is said in the Sahara that a tree weeps when giving up its frankincense. The resin, once likened to the scent of heaven, is evident only when its bark is wounded, whether scored deliberately, damaged by livestock or struck by lightning. The cut oozes a syrupy kind...

Old Lala, the 100-year-old wise woman, Tamanrasset

Leaving men, camels and flies behind, we followed the narrow track that ran through the compound as the light scattered pink filaments across the horizon. Through the rough, varied terrain wound threads of tracks, born of sheep, donkeys and goatherds carving...

Dawn in the Sahara

The Sahara can never be imitated in a photograph, or summed up in a souvenir. Every aspect of its complexity defies capture. It is the planet in the raw, with more than 3,600 hours of sunlight a year and a summer temperature that can soar as high as 117oF in its...

Tuareg women healers

‘Everything comes to you from your mother,’ say Tuareg men, and it is not hard to see why. More than a century ago, before women had the vote in Britain,Tuareg women were arguably more liberated than in any Western nation. While they remain faithful to the instruction...

My stay with nomads

England felt monotone upon my return. Expressions on faces turned inward. Matter was dusted with the everyday. I drowned in the grey skies, shadowy, viscous landscapes, felt constrained by the organized boundaries. I preferred the ones I had left behind that had...

Return to Tamanrasset

England felt monotone. Expressions on faces turned inward. Matter was dusted with the everyday. I drowned in the grey skies, shadowy, viscous landscapes, felt constrained by the organized boundaries. I preferred the ones I had left behind that had sparkle and breathed...

Desert sanctuary near Djanet

The square mile of oasis was the perfect sanctuary for a recovering camel, located in an area of startling beauty. A long aisle of tall palms on the north side formed an effective barrier against the cruel desert winds. South and east, it ran into low inclines with...

The Art of Tuareg Medicine

In the Second World War, when General Eisenhower commanded the invasion of Normandy, he coordinated sea, air and land forces while negotiating unpredictable weather and juggling the political forces of Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle. When asked about his success,...

A makeshift camel hospital

In the Second World War, when General Eisenhower commanded the invasion of Normandy, he coordinated sea, air and land forces while negotiating unpredictable weather and juggling the political forces of Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle. When asked about his success,...

An unlikely camel doctor

Beneath the high palms dead fronds littered the ground where red ants carried leaf trophies twice their size on marathon journeys. An elderly gentleman stood waiting for us near an adobe shed. He had one of those faces that attract the attention at first glance. A...

The art of buying a camel

The pure air of the desert retreated behind us in a smog of diesel fumes, camels and human sweat. We parked below ragged palms and carved our way through a crowd. In the centre of a square, men were seated, noses drooping like birds. Wool merchants touted...

First Steps into the Sahara

Two days had shot by and I had barely even noticed their passing, but already it felt as if a great curtain of gloom had been lifted. For a start I had changed rooms. The new one was less coffin-shaped, more a jam jar, and mercifully north-facing. There was a cot for...

Grilled camel with chips

The street was a jumble of livestock, bicycles and carts all narrowly avoiding each other. Already the heat was high. I could smell the buttery, warm odour of sheep dung, spices, the heat crisping the skin and the harsh tobacco that thickens voices and dries throats....

Tamanrasset

Word had it there were several not-too-bad lodgings for the few travellers who came to Tamanrasset, but apparently they were all miles away. Instead, I found a tumbledown establishment with a dimly lit façade that appeared to be in the process of refurbishment. In...

Air Algerie

Any journey is a state of suspended animation. Temporarily, we find ourselves holed up in an interim, that mysterious location that is neither here nor there. For a while we are boxed in. Our surroundings are boring, crowded places that do little for our blood...

First steps

Sanctuary takes many forms. A home can be somewhere to rest, to escape fear, or to find ourselves. It calls to us, like a womb song. Where we inhabit echoes our joy, our strife, and where it bears witness to sorrow it can feel as if the very walls are weeping. This...

New Year’s Resolutions

As I begin writing it is New Year's Day. I have written a long list of resolutions and have just ripped it up. I won't be able to keep any of them. Do you think you will  keep yours? Resolutions, like promises, are tricky. It’s all about the delivery. We can offer...