Entries in desert (2)


Desert Colours

I took another trip to the deep desert, right on the edge of the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter. My own quarters were in the gypsum plains but I travelled out to the edge of the dunes, not the Empty Quarter itself, but one of the places where the heat and the wind practice at building dunes before the main event. It was ravenously hot, well into the forties. It was sunset and the wind was rising, not a refreshing breeze, but a heated sand-blast. The sun was too low to create a mirage of water, but I imagined that I saw a man in the distance, stumbling across the top of a dune.

I remembered that Wilfred Thesiger had passed this way and his Arabian Sands was on my bucket list. I bought it in good old-fashioned book form. A paperback, though, sorry Wilf. I don't entirely trust his hatred of the very progress which delivered him all of his privilege, or his desire to hide in the desert instead of taking the fight against progress to where it might have mattered. It seems to me that he was one of those men who represented the tip of the imperial spear: detached from his origins, funded by privilege and wealth but expressing disdain from it. One of those Englishmen who infiltrated the old cultures of the world and then betrayed them. No, not a spear. The tip of the stiletto claiming disdain for all stilettos as it slid regretfully between the ribs of the Bedu and their way of life. That said, he knew how to write. One section in particular addresses the colours of desert sand and rang clear and true as I watched the wind blowing off the dunes.

Sand blew like dust in little scurries across the road, lines dancing back and forth like great hot snakes. It blew off the tips of the dunes like smoke. But the sand that moves is the lighter sand, which is a different colour to the heavier sand which stays behind. This divides the scene into two tones. The dunes were the colour of chocolate powder; of dark honey, warm and glutinous like oil; dark skinned and sinuous, lying in sweet curves the colour of cinnamon powdered dry and hot in the mouth. The blowing sand was the colour of warm toast,  The low sun played with the heat and made fires of these gritty banners. A whirlwind crossed from right to left. Stopped. Caught my gaze. Promised to return and vanished.


49.7 ┬░Celsius

A man places an instrument on the ground and stares at his watch. On the distant edge of the gravel desert, indistinct in the dusty heat-haze, tall structures are dabbed onto the sky like a child's uneven drawing of derricks. At the top of the haze-waved towers waste gas burns away like an orange rip in the hot grey-blue sky. The tear reveals the hidden magma of heaven concealed behind the sky from horizon to horizon, making a furnace to beat down on the Earth. I pull at my plastic water bottle.. A dust devil dances in front of me, twisting grit from the concrete into the sky. It is just a little taller than me, and just a little broader. A dozen eyes watch it stroll past. Someone makes a sign of warding of some sort. Someone else scoffs. The dust gathers into spirals within spirals within its inverted cone. The Navajo say that if a dust devil spins clockwise, it is a good spirit, if it spins the other way it is malign. A huge dragonfly skims past, flying in from some distant tiny spec of water, seeking out the pool that had gathered yesterday beneath a leaking air-conditioner. Today the water is gone and the dragonfly skims around the stained sand, settles sadly and I imagine its regret at its fatal errand. A stiff wind starts up, strong and hard, as hot as a hair dryer. The wind causes the dust devil to vanish into the sky, its tail of dust curling to the left and vanishing. There is shade in the form of a shelter, but it has been invaded by hot glare and conquered with these new, hot gusts of wind. Heat rises from the concrete underneath our feet. Men in brilliant red coveralls sit in the faint respite, talking Arabic, Spanish, Hindustani and some English. Two of us are waiting for a ride to some arcane installation in the desert. The rest are taking smoke-breaks. Their cigarette smoke is sucked up and scattered by the greedy wind. The man grumbles, picks up his instrument and switches it off.

"Fifty?" Demands one of the men with his cigarette dangling. "Fifty, right, feels like?"

"Forty nine point seven," says the man very precisely with a sigh of dissappointment. The other men shake their heads.

"Fifty," they say, pointing with their cigarettes to each other as though signing an agreement in smoke and ashes. Who would let fate cheat them if they have to suffer this heat? Fifty degrees it is. The man refuses to write fifty in his log.

The burn off continues in the distance. The falling sun is a laser-cut hole in the sky. The concrete is like white-hot charcoal. Even in this heat, men crave their smoke and ashes. They draw as one. The points of their cigarettes are cool points inside the furnace.