So here comes summer. In April, of all things. 25C (77F) forecast for London today. That’s unusually hot for this time of the year. And it comes accompanied by a government warning – this is an entirely new one on me – for people with any sort of chest problem, about smog generated by the heat and the exhaust fumes from the millions of cars forecast to be on the roads, most of them heading I imagine, for the sea. Good luck to them. My idea of a hell on earth is to be shoe-horned in among thousands of others in varying stages of undress, on a beach by the sea under a blazing sun. I’m not anti-social, but I like my space and my silence. And that’s no way to get either. To each – as they say – his (her) own.
Writing of summer and heat reminds me of a time, some years ago when I was doing a recce (‘scouting’ in the US) for a film I was to make (but never did, as it turned out) in the Niger. This was long before the present ugly round of hostage-taking there, when the country was a largely safe place for foreigners to wander around in. Also I should add, it was in the days before global positioning systems were available to any but the military .
Five of us – my French producer and myself, our main Tuareg guide, a Hausa driver from northern Nigeria, and a Tuareg cook – set out in two Toyota Landcruisers from Agadez, a mud-walled town which lies between the vast flat, virtually empty region of sun-burned scrub and rock between it and the capital Niamey to the west, and that land to the east which is what is more usually thought of as ‘desert’ – rubble plains, rocky outcrops, and the legendary dunes. This sort of terrain stretches for best part of two thousand miles to the east, right through Chad and on into The Sudan. The extent of its relentless aridity and its scorching heat is incomprehensible until you experience it.
We had been a week or so driving through this terrain before we went up onto the dunes. To put this in context – the dunes form only a part of the desert. The rest consists of almost entirely treeless, seemingly endless, moon-like plains strewn with boulders too hot to touch in the day. It is out of these stark plains that the dunes rise. The dividing line at the foot of the dunes between the sand of the dune itself and the surrounding plain is quite distinct with relatively little transition between the two. This, I believe, is partly because the dunes are in motion, moving forward, encroaching all the time. And the dunes in that part of the Sahara are high. When we were setting up camp one evening near an area of them, I asked our Tuareg guide if they were solid enough for me to walk on – I fancied taking a stroll to the summit – such Western naiveté. ‘Yes’ he said. ‘But take water with you.’ Why, I asked, was that necessary when the heat of the day was fast easing off and we had so much water with us anyway. ‘It will take you an hour,’ he replied. ‘The dunes are three hundred metres (1,000 feet approx) high’. I did not go. I walked away just to try and get my head around a one-thousand feet high pile of sand.
The following day we drove up onto them. It was a bizarre experience. I’ll try my best to describe it. As you drive across the dunes, the image before you through the front windscreen of the Landcruiser is like a very simple abstract painting – the top half (the cloudless sky) is just a wash of featureless pale blue. And the bottom half of the windscreen (the sand of the dune itself) is just a featureless brown wash with a relatively flat horizon between that and the blue above it. And because there is no way to judge exterior speed or movement (no tree, no bush, no big rock, no shadows – the sun being directly above) there is no normal sense of forward movement. The only apparent movement one is aware of is the usual vibration of the vehicle on its suspension, along with the strange and apparently unmotivated floating motion of this blue and brown abstract painting in front of you which goes gently up and down, seemingly in two dimensions. This is in fact in response to the vehicle’s movement forward across the undulations in the sand. But again – with no shadow, nothing by which to judge size or movement – the only detectable aspect of that normal three-dimensional movement is the two dimensions of up and down – and for that, until you’ve figured it out, there seems no rational cause. It is extremely disorienting. For the first few minutes of this until I became used to it and had in fact worked out what was happening, I felt physically sick.
Our Tuareg guide eventually brought us to a stop. We were completely surrounded on all sides, by nothing but undulating patterns of deeply ridged yellow sand, on and on, disappearing into the far distance. I stepped out of the vehicle. The heat hits you with an alien ferocity. The heat generally had been such that the air-conditioning in both Landcruisers had long given up anyway. But this was something else. This, I thought, is not the place for the human body. You are not made for this. I asked our Tuareg guide how long he thought a human being could survive out here without shade and water. ‘A Westerner?’ he said. ‘One hour.’ Walking for that time would bring you to your knees due to chronic dehydration. Once down, you don’t get up. Within a very short time you are unconscious. The rest is inevitable.
Most people who are rash enough to walk away from their vehicle, or who panic and do so in the event of its breaking down in these sort of conditions (and who were rash enough to attempt to drive here in the first place) are never found. They die from dehydration and the vultures are soon on the scene. Then the sand – which is endlessly drifting in the constant movement of hot air over the dunes – covers the bones. And sand, once again, is all there is.
I asked the guide, if he knew what the temperature up there on the dunes actually was. ‘Fifty-five Celsius’ he said. Which, for those who prefer it, is one hundred and thirty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Try it. That’s hot. By comparison with which, London’s 25C is minor. But hey, let’s make the most of it, folks. When the real months of summer arrive, this is England and we could well be in our coats and under umbrellas for weeks at a time.