Travel for mind, body and spirit: Eyes Sightseeing in the desert

I am the sort of man who offends the eyes of women with his thighs. Khaki shorts may have been good enough for John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, but they should be worn advisedly in the Sahara. Travelling by jeep in the heat of the day I wore shorts, and my companions just had to put up with them; but I always pulled on trousers if I was going to meet strangers. On one of the few occasions when I did not; the sight of my legs nearly drove two fully-robed fanatics to homicide.

In the western world in the 20th century we've thrown off our clothes to adore the body, but in the Sahara they still wrap up. I encountered a taboo among Tuareg men - the nomads of the central Sahara - about showing their mouths to strangers. They wear a turban around the head and across the nose and mouth, only loosening it among friends. If a stranger arrives, there's a sudden flurry of turban-wrapping. Even while eating they keep their mouths covered, passing handfuls of food under the front of turbans which bulge rhythmically as they chew.

The beauty of the desert lies not in concealment but in revelation. It is unvegetated, naked, a place of big geographic statements: Sand, rock, sky.

Over the past couple of years I have travelled to most of the world's deserts to write a book about them. I took this photograph (right) in Namibia at the dunes of Sossusvlei, the loveliest dunes I have seen. You set out before dawn to reach Sossusvlei, as the park rangers open the gate at five. There follows an hour-long race on a bone-rattling track, with several drivers vying to be first and avoid inhaling everyone else's dust. The road runs due east through the Namib Desert, towards the sea. As the sun rises you realise you are driving through a canyon; slowly its walls turn to copper, the yellow sand of the Namib burnished by wind-blown red sand from the distant Kalahari.

The sun is rising by the time you reach the water hole at Sossusvlei. Several paths lead to the tops of nearby dunes, but if you are feeling more adventurous climb farther, and higher. You can find yourself on the top of what are said to be the highest sand dunes on earth. The view, 20 miles out across sand, stretching like the Himalayas, is astounding. The dunes, made by winds that gust from every direction, are star-shaped and sinuous.

To my eye, the beauty of the desert arises from the absence of information. The modern world is cluttered with messages, often commercial, mostly inessential. Imagine the contrast with a Saharan landscape where you see no advertisements, not even a Coca-Cola sign, for several hundred miles.

There are other, equally natural environments. But the desert's virtue is monotony - it is a meditation on a single note. Up against the clean desert, without external stimulus, you find the stuff of your mind bubbling to the surface. Some people find it makes them see themselves: a revelation. Jesus went into the arid Judean wilderness for 40 days and nights, and scores of Christian mystics have followed him there.

A 20th-century mystic who loved the desert was Aldous Huxley. At Llano, in California's Mojave Desert, I stood among the sagebrush, beside the wooden house where he lived in the Forties. A few miles off was the dried lake bed of the Edwards airforce base, where the Space Shuttles land, and a huge blue sky barrelled overhead. The present occupant of the house, a screenplay writer called Richard Linnett, looked at me with a grin.

"Huxley learned to drive out here," he said.

"I know."

We both began to laugh.

"Can you imagine it?" asked Richard.

At the age of 17, an illness had left Huxley almost blind. But in his forties he studied the techniques of the alternative therapist WH Bates, and improved his eyesight appreciably. He found that the brilliant desert light made it easier for him to see - hence the surreal image of the purblind prophet bowling across the dusty Mojave in his beat-up Chevy truck.

Bates believed that some exposure of the eyes to direct light was beneficial - so we may be wrong to hide our eyes from the sun, spending millions on the latest shades. When I travelled through the Sahara, my guide,Ya-ya, contemptuously turned down my offer of sunglasses when he was driving. A few weeks later, in any case, sand had turned their lenses into milky blurs, so I threw them away.

But you do need some eye protection in the desert. As we climbed one dune at dusk a breeze began to blow, plucking the crests into mists of sand. A gale from the north soon turned the desert into a choppy sea. That night we sat around the fire turbanned and swaddled. There was sand in the food, sand in our mouths and sand in our eyes.

Martin Buckley

To fly direct to Windhoek, Namibia, from Heathrow, call Air Namibia (0181 944 6181).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    King's College, Cambridge: Stipendiary Junior Research Fellowships October 2016

    £20,100 (pre-award of doctorate) rising each year to a maximum of £25,869: Kin...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Back End

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Lettings Negotiator

    £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

    Guru Careers: Trainer / IT Trainer

    £30 to £32k : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Trainer / IT Trainer to join an a...

    Day In a Page

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'