Saturday, 5 June 2010

Desert Tales

I’m not a fan of deserts. I guess I was a teenager when I saw my first one, flying over the Grand Canyon but that hardly counts as we were otherwise air-conditioned, spending only a few hours outside in the cool air at the rim. Magnificent, but it was not a desert journey.

The first desert I have actually stood in and broke sweat was in West Texas. Not that I broke very much sweat mind you. Autumn soon turned to winter and a cold-front, a Blue Northerner, moved over. Night-time temperatures dropped to -10 C and the morning desert was rimed with frost or even a sugar-dusting of snow.  In the final phase of training I was on the early shift, stopping off to buy breakfast for the guys on the well. One morning and being British, I fancied a cup of tea and noticed it on the fast-food menu board. Seven coffees and a tea. Great. But my joy turned sour when I grabbed my cup. Of course, the tea was iced. Perverts.

Later that same winter I found myself on the Kuwait-Saudi border. It was a war desert; seven years before the allied coalition had swept through the zone, carrying away everything before them.  As I think back, I can still see the village with no walls. Nearly every room of every house was open to the elements. The image of a lime-green bathroom is still with me. Goodness knows what weapons were used against the town but the outer walls were stripped bare, leaving most structures standing. Outside the town a burnt-out T60 tank, Soviet-made and as dead as it’s former owner, Saddam Husain is now. Road signs warned of the dangers of unspent ordinance.
At least the Texan desert was scrub-filled and full of life. This desert was flat and strewn with small boulders. Being winter, it wasn’t hot. It did not encourage me to volunteer for further desert work. I moved to Norway soon after.

The Kazak steppe was unexpected. It was June and I had just spent nine long hours in an ancient Land Cruiser, complete with de rigueur cracked window screen. We had driven north from the head of the Caspian Sea, up the main highway, zigzagging our way through the massive pot-holes and the thin strips of asphalt that connected them. To either side the land was green and shrubby.  Finally we turned off left onto a dust track and ironically the drive got easier. We were soon at the rig site and the door was opened. The smell!  The strong smell of sage brush was amazing and so refreshing. But there was no soil; below the bushes was only sand. It was the same kind of terrain in central Kazakhstan, uncompromisingly flat but in the Spring the sagebrush smell was replaced with small clumps of wild tulip and the occasional sighting of a large tortoise as it lumbered across the (better maintained) highway. I was worried for their safety but the Kazak drivers never failed to slow down and go around them. I think the Steppe remains my favourite desert because it isn’t quite one.

I had a drive through the Judean desert last year. It is a bit of a shock really, starting as it does at the east gates of Jerusalem. The terrain is of ranges of low naked hills, the ground level gradually dipping down under the tectonic stresses until the finally one comes to the lowest place of the face of the Earth: The Dead Sea.  On the other side, the rising vertical cliffs define the land of Jordan. What nonsense we humans make for ourselves; drawing out our petty lines and killing each other for their sake. This magnificent rift valley will continue to crack slowly open; pulled by the planet's internal stresses, regardless of how much blood is spilt upon them.

Now we come to the grandest desert of all. I first saw the Sahara in Egypt. I can’t say I was impressed. The coast road between Alexandria and Mersa Matruh is another war desert, passing as it does through El Alamein. There can be found a museum, or rather a parking lot for a bunch of old tanks, all painted the same colour.   More affecting are the war graves of German, Italian, British and Commonwealth troops. The British graves are maintained within a walled garden and lack the grand, towering monuments that overlook the other two.

The aftermath of war is hard to escape, even sixty years on. Here too the road has signs warning of the dangers of mines. I was disappointed with Mersa Matruh though. I thought an early evening walk along the beach would be nice;  after all the place is supposed to be a holiday resort for the locals. Soon I found myself unnervingly on the wrong side of barbed-wire and black-painted sign with white Arabic script. I retraced my steps and next day a colleague confirmed that I had indeed wondered into an old minefield.  A local girl had been killed there the previous autumn.

It was late winter and Egypt was cold. Along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, I have endured some of my most chilly jobs. I guess further north, one is prepared for it and dress accordingly. But even the apartments in Egypt are not really warm, being dress in tiling and designed more to keep the heat at bay.

Heat is something that the Sahara in Mauritania has given me. I have worked here before offshore. In the capital Nouakchott it is sometimes hard to tell when the street ends and desert begins. Years ago, I was doing heavy work down the port.  It was +49 Celsius, with high humidity. The week before, temperatures had hit +55 C. The air density had decreased to such a degree that the helicopters could no longer generate enough lift to take off. 

On this latest occasion however I am not restricted to the coastline. A couple of hours of flying on a fixed-wing aircraft took us to the deep desert. Of course, one is living in a rather Spartan oil camp but even there is air-conditioning and water at hand. When outside however, one is only too aware of the grand austerity of the surrounding land.  I haven’t been to the Great Erg with it’s towering dunes. In fact, compared to some parts, the desert here isn’t overburdened with sand. But it is the heat and dryness that has to be experienced. Sweat isn’t a problem: the body is desiccated as the hot wind steadily blows from the North East.  Temperatures hit 57 C, making touching anything metal with bare hands an uncomfortable and short experience. It is not beautiful to my eye but there is indeed majesty to this land.

I was asked by my friend Lindi whether I preferred working in hot or cold environments. I am a creature of my own environment so of course my body is adapted for living in Northern Europe.  But if I had to choose to work in a very hot or very cold environment, I would choose the very hot. In The Worst Journey in the World Apsley Cherry-Garrard writes that Antarctic exploration is the cleanest way of having the most miserable time possible.  Now I am no explorer and barely a traveler but when I was in Canada this winter, I found that warmth was only to be found indoors. Out working, my feet were cold most of the time and once inside, the problem of moisture occurred as snow turns to water.  In a hot desert, there is at least a chance of being comfortable sometime during the day.