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Literary Locations: Desert Edition

Sand, Sand, sand everywhere. In your shoes, in your clothes, in your bag, in your ears, in your mouth. How can you get sand in your mouth with a scarf wrapped around your face?

My first real meeting with the Desert was in Egypt, which basically is one big desert. Our last days in Egypt were spent relaxing at Sharm el Sheik, where we went on a “desert experience”. This is one of the few things you can actually do there, when you’ve had enough snorkelling.

We were driven to the desert and fed a Bedouin style meal. You could probably ride a camel as well. But never mind camels and bedouins. What I remember was the night sky! Lying on my back in the pitch black desert and staring up at the stars made me feel an unusual degree of humility. It also made me see things in a different perspective, realising how important it is to keep focus on the big things in life, the things which really matter, not the minor trivialities. Despite of the whole experience oozing of mass tourism, I was sold.

Since then I’ve visited many deserts across the world. Below are some favourites.

The Red Desert in Namibia (Sossusvlei)

Sossusvlei is part of the Namib Desert. The salt and clay pan which is surrounded by flaming red sand dunes makes for a spectacular sight. 

Red desert in Namibia

Early in the morning I went to the nearby Dune 45 to enjoy sunrise. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too cloudy, but it was a nice spot.

Red desert in Namibia

After that it was on to Sossusvlei. It was every bit as spectacular as my Lonely Planet guidebook had promised.

Red desert in Namibia

Walking around in the sand reminded me, how brutal the desert can be. As the day progressed, temperatures rose to 40C and no shade was to be found. Even the sand was burning hot and unforgiving. Should you run out of water, you wouldn’t last long.

Fog basking beetle in the red desert

The fog basking beetle is better equipped for the desert than we are. It gets all the liquid it needs by extracting water from the occasional morning fog.

I loved this beautiful and brutal place. If you visit one desert during your lifetime, let it be this.

Wadi Rum in Jordan

Wadi Rum is a different kind of desert. There are sand dunes around, but the landscape is dominated by sandstone formations. Due to these shade-giving rocks, people settled here very early and you’ll find rock inscriptions spread across the area.

Wadi Rum desert in Jordan

The temperatures in Wadi Rum weren’t as extreme as in the Namib Desert and we spent a couple of days exploring the magnificent landscape, which over the years has attracted a surprising number of film makers. Movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, Aladdin, Star Wars and Dune all include scenes from Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum desert in Jordan

Wahiba Sands in Oman

Wahiba Sands desert in Oman

Why on earth would anyone choose to go camping in the desert? Well, I asked myself that exact question at some point whilst trying to scrape 6-7 layers of sand and sun lotion off my body. Even with a dip in the ocean from time to time, you inevitably ended up covered in sand.

But can you imagine endless stargazing during the night, obviously equipped with the stargazer app explaining what you are staring at. Or opening your tent in the morning and looking out on the sand and the sea – and the occasional camel. To me trips like this are bliss for the soul.

Book Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The desert is extreme and dramatic with a landscape which often is uniform in all directions and it’s all too easy to get lost. It’s utterly dry and I always imagine the hallucinating explorer staggering around whispering: water, water, when I think of the desert.

In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje makes the most of the desert setting. A dramatic love affair, a plane crash, a women lying injured in a cave, whilst her lover runs across the desert for help… Furthermore, the author throws about beautifully phrased desert metaphors drawing parallels to big and small aspects of life. In particular, I like how the desert is presented as a free territory where you can escape from belonging to certain countries, certain people, certain names.

“The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names”

Four people come together in an Italian villa towards the end of World War II. We follow their lives for a short period and we are gradually presented with their backstories. The desert drama is part of the English patient’s past.

Ondaatje is often praised for his lyrical language. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me. Sometimes, it was mesmerising and evocative, but quite often it felt over the top, too abstract, too pretentious. Combined with the excessively fragmented storytelling, I found it difficult to engage.

The novel left me feeling privileged having had a peek into the lives of these four characters. But whilst reading I regularly found my attention wandering. I suppose my linear brain is just not wired for such a quiet, poetic and fragmented novel. This is one of the rare cases, where I actually preferred the movie.

Title: The English Patient [1992] 
Author: Michael Ondaatje 
Format: Audiobook, narrated by Jennifer Ehle
Genre: Historical Fiction

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