There’s golden sand under your feet, rearing up into colossal dunes that ripple away towards the horizon. The sun is fierce, and you can feel sweat trickling down your back. There’s water in your daypack, a hearty Moroccan breakfast in your stomach, and the camels are grumbling and restless.
Welcome to day 3 of our Trans-Saharan Caravan Adventure. It’s time to leave – and the high Saharan desert awaits.
But first, let’s learn about this amazing new world you’re stepping into.
1. It’s The Largest Non-Polar Desert In The World
Note the qualifier there. If you define “desert” as a place where hardly any rain falls, Antarctica is the largest desert on our planet.
(I know – that’s a weird thing to say about somewhere covered in frozen water.)
But excluding the least populated continent in the world, the Sahara is the world’s biggest desert (as reflected in the name, which is Arabic for “Great Desert”). It covers 3.5 million square miles.
By comparison, the entirety of the United States of America is 3.8 million square miles.
In area alone, they’re almost the same – but by width, the Sahara is a lot wider. Driving from one end of the Sahara to the other is a lot further than the classic American coast to coast road-trip.
The Sahara is on a scale you’ve never encountered before. You have never felt smaller than you do right now, standing here at the edge of it.
Take a few deep breaths. It’ll help.
2. On Average, It Isn’t Made Of Sand
The dunes you see before you aren’t the norm. This is the Sahara everyone knows – but in real life, it’s the exception, not the rule.
Most of the Sahara is made of hard, rocky plateaus called hamada (Arabic: حماده). The sea of sand facing you right now (technical name: erg) comprises a little over 30% of the desert as a whole – but, of course, it’s the Sahara’s most impressive feature. The rest of the desert is stony plateaus, gravel plains, sand flats and dry valleys.
Some of these vast waves of sand are nearly 200 metres high, and they’re constantly shifting as the wind pushes them into new shapes (another reason why the term “sea” is appropriate here). Even dunes as big as these can move metres every year.
3. It Wasn’t Always This Way – And Won’t Always Be, Either
Prehistoric rock paintings show us that Sahara once looked very different. The rock art at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria features buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus – none of which can be found in the region today.
Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, a change in the Earth’s orbit dumped more and more sunlight on the Northern Hemisphere, upsetting the delicate balance of environmental systems in North Africa – and the desert started to grow. Today, it covers 31% of the continent.
Amazingly, it’s still changing. We’re in the middle of a 41,000 year orbit cycle – and in around 15,000 years, the Earth’s orbit will change back, and the Sahara is expected to become green and fertile once more.
4. It Gets Really Hot – And Really Cold Too
As you’re no doubt aware (especially now, with the morning sun beating down upon you), the Sahara gets really hot.
The hottest recorded temperature is 136 degrees F (57 degrees Celsius) – which is of course insane. A headscarf will keep you nicely cool, so learn how to tie one.
However, you’ll be surprised at what happens when the sun goes down. There’s nothing to hold the heat in (which is the role of vegetation and water-vapour clouds) – and the temperature plummets, sometimes below freezing.
For those of you with a bit of meteorological knowledge, you’d guess that all that flip-flopping between hot and cold means a lot of air rushes around – and you’d be absolutely right. Northeasterly winds can sometimes reach hurricane speeds, and sand storms and dust devils are by no means uncommon. Again, your headscarf is your friend here.
5. Camels Didn’t Evolve Here
The picture-postcard view of a Saharan erg usually features a camel or two. They’re the most-recognized domesticated animal at work in the Sahara today – and so it’d be easy to assume they were always around.
Not so! They’re an import (around 200 AD) – and a smart one. Watch their feet as they walk, how their toes splay out to distribute their weight. Camels are perfectly designed for the desert, especially when you look at their most famous feature: their humps.
Despite popular opinion, those humps aren’t filled with water – they’re made of fat, which acts like a larder when food is scarce. As they drain their body’s supplies, those humps will deflate.
Couple that with the fact that camels are so resistant to dehydration and economical with their water usage that they can go months without drinking – and you have a creature so uncannily well-designed for the Sahara that it’s amazing it didn’t evolve here.
(The earliest evidence of camels comes from North America, dating back 40-50 million years.)
6. Not Everyone Walks
Incredibly, some of them run.
Described as the “toughest footrace on Earth”, the Marathon des Sables is a 6-day, 250km race in temperatures around 50 degrees Celsius.
We’ll take a camel, thanks.
Speaking of which….
…it’s time to go. Tonight we’ll be having dinner with Saharan nomads and sleeping under a sky with more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life – but right now, the desert awaits.