Sahara

This is a story of the most insane display of nature I have ever seen, it starts deep in Morocco, beyond the Atlas mountains towards the Algerian border. We pulled up to a house made of local stone, it seamlessly blended in with the land  around it, the only fault in it's camouflage being the narrow strip of darkness that was the threshold to it’s cool shadowy interior. With the desert sun pounding down, we waited in the 4x4 as a man emerged from the house with a large sack, our guide went to collect it and we set off once again, leaving this small settlement behind. I remember noticing the end of the electricity pylons, they just stopped, clearly because there was nothing else ahead. The unsealed road gradually crumbled to dust and dirt and we eventually made it onto the sand. 

Our guide gestured to the package he had just received, saying it was bread, food for dinner, but he wanted to make sure there was extra food for this journey.

There have been times when travelling when I have felt like I am on an alien planet, these are my favourite moments, when in crazy landscapes like Antarctica, Death Valley or Sedona, nothing seems familiar and everything is extreme, the Sahara desert was another. With strange bushes and patches of dirt and and sand, I could have been on Mars. 

Our guide spoke little English and would occasionally stop and get out to check the path ahead, this was unnerving for two reasons: firstly cutting the engine meant the AC stopped, opening the door was like being pounded by an atmosphere sized hair dryer, and of course the more fatal concern of us being lost or stuck.

After 4 hours navigating sand banks, dust bowls and even an oasis, finally the mountains where on the horizon with the rolling hills in front, but these were not hills, the shimmering evening sun struck hairlines of light across the occasional sharp ridge, these were the sand dunes we had been looking for.

Pulling up to camp we had a generous tent for the two of us with a separate tent for dining. It initially seemed too comfortable for our desert experience, but that is when everything went a little crazy.

The clouds were moving at such a pace in the sky, I headed to a distant dune to set up a time-lapse hoping to catch the rays of light dancing around the landscape. However, eventually the clouds filled the sky and our chances for a dramatic north African sunset or star gazing where looking pretty slim.

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Then it started to rain.

I knew I was typically unlucky with the weather, but for it to rain in the Sahara desert within hours of my arrival seemed like another level. I didn't even think it was physically possible! But there we were watching the droplets land on the sand. Only to be sucked down immediately in this desperately dry place.

As the weather continued to change, a small gap in the cloud opened westward and a streak of golden light cascaded through, giving us our last glimpse of light before being left to the complete darkness of this remote place.

Except that didn't happen either.

Whilst taking some final shots as the last light faded, everything was illuminated by a bright flash, then another, as if the paparazzi had arrived but on a colossal scale. 

I turned around to see that the light rain shower had grown into a thunderstorm and it was headed our way. I ran to find an interesting dune with wind patterns to be my foreground, deciding I didn’t have time to head back to camp to get my tripod, I used a part of my bag to prop up my camera and left it facing up the dune to the sky, taking a series long exposure shots to ensure capturing at least one flash of lightening as the storm came towards us.

After taking some other shots with my second camera body I was told we would have dinner soon and so I knew I had to head back out amongst the dunes to retrieve my first camera. It was now pitch black, with only the occasional flash of lightening to illuminate the way. I had my powerful flashlight in my hand to help find and then literally retrace my footsteps back to where I had left the camera. Just before setting off to search our host of the campsite told me not to go, he said “My friend, do not go out there, come and have dinner” I remember this distinctly because at the time I thought he was simply referring to me ruining the schedule. I replied saying I’d be back quickly, I was just retrieving my camera and I headed out into the dunes with just my flashlight to guide the way.

Finding the camera was not an issue, I had a look through and was very excited to see what I had captured.

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I couldn’t look for long, the wind had picked up and sand was blowing up the crest of the dune into my face and onto my camera. I deciding to head back immediately so I threw the camera into the bag compartment I had left it with and held the lid shut, with one hand over my face as the sand continued to blast into me.

When I turned my flashlight on again I could see the full scale of the situation. To my left was a brown cloud headed towards me, the wind that had been blowing was just the warm up, a sand storm was about to hit and when it did, everything changed.

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I couldn’t walk forwards, the force at which it hit meant that I had to cover my face, but I also needed my flashlight to see. In desperation I knelt down, bending away from the wind to protect my eyes and I took of my shirt, wrapping it around my head leaving the tiniest gap for my eyes to see through. I held it secure at the top of my head with the hand that also held the flashlight, keeping my face protected and the light always pointed forwards. Whilst my body would get thrashed it was nowhere near as sensitive as my face, I could now run back to camp to get in shelter. But when I started to run along the crest of the sand dune I had to stop again because my old footprints had gone.

In the pitch black with the light revealing only a few feet in front of me, I did not know how I would find my way back to camp. This is when fear set in, I could not stand being in this pain much more, it felt like tiny shards being shot across my skin and without knowing which direction camp was, I could wander in the wrong direction and get lost. I didn’t want to wait it out either, this could go on all night and I didn’t have any water on me. 

I took my best guess, following the dune I was on, hoping it would lead me to familiar ground, but without sunlight everything looked so different. Eventually on the horizon I saw a faint light, whatever it was it wasn’t natural so I headed towards it in hope of finding shelter, running as fast as I could I found it was our host, standing on the crest above the camp waving his phone in the air. I was so relieved and so grateful, if he had not been there I don’t know what would have happened. I then realised his warning to me earlier was because he knew the storm was coming in, but didn’t know the words to explain it to me.

With the storm still raging. It felt like a scene out of a Hollywood movie, as we had our candle lit dinner inside the tent with people diving in and out looking like they had been in beaten up outside. I looked the worst off, sand stuck to my skin in strange places and my hair was all over, I must have looked like I had seen a ghost. I remember feeling a sense of great fortune, that I was lucky to be alive and couldn’t believe how comfortable this tent felt, out of the storm with amazing food was a stark contrast to the situation I was in just 10 minutes before. As our tents seemed like they wanted to take off, flapping and fighting against their tethers and the sky still swirling with angry clouds, it did not seem like there would be any chance of star gazing tonight. But with only one night there, I wanted to be certain, so I used my phone to see where and when the milky way would be at it’s best in the sky and set an alarm, to then settle in the for the night, attempting to sleep in the intense heat with the walls whipping around us.

I must have only gotten a few hours sleep, but when I woke, I looked up at the tent entrance, the vigorous flapping had stopped, everything was calm, everything was silent. Through a small crack I could see a black sky, not one grey with cloud! I got out of bed and headed outside. 

Above me was a perfectly clear sky, the clearest I had ever seen. In the dry air of the Sahara with no light around for miles there was nothing to obstruct the view. I grabbed my cameras, tripod and gorilla pod and headed back into the dunes, careful not to use my flashlight and ruin the adjustment to the darkness my eyes had done. It took a while to find the milky way, but I caught it just before it descended below the horizon.

After capturing what I could, I set up some time-lapses and lay down on the top of a dune, now cool against my skin, the sand was more comfortable than the damp bed I had tried to sleep in earlier, and it had a far better view. 

I must have been there for a couple of hours, just watching the stars move in front of my eyes, I lost count of the shooting stars that I saw, it was a magical moment and I get emotional remembering it even now. I couldn’t have been more lucky, the storm had continued through the night, blowing away all clouds to give us this vast window into space and it was just me alone in the desert seeing it. 

The next morning I finally got to experience the beautiful light of golden hour, although admittedly I didn’t get up for sunrise as I had planned! I had stayed up so late watching the stars, only going to sleep when they started to fade because of the sky lighting up before morning.

I knew this time of day would be amazing because the harsh angle of the sun would create such a golden glow and deep shadows that would really help the incredible shapes of the dunes to stand out. 

We had a little exploration back into the dunes, hiking up the huge banks to get views over the rest. The light was spectacular and it was such a peaceful scene, now able to see where the sand had settled after the storm. It was heating up, as the morning sun continued to rise we could feel that all too familiar blast of heat from driving in the day before during the day. We packed up our kit and got back in the 4x4 to head back to civilisation, my time in the desert had come to an end, but it had given me so much.

Oliver Wheeldon