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  1. TSFN cover

    My new book, 'The Timbuktu School for Nomads', has been published! I'm really excited to be bringing it out – and at the same time utterly terrified. Presenting a book to the public has the same physical effect on my internal organs as being in a minivan crossing the desert between Timbuktu and Konna (a famously bandit-infested stretch of the Sahara) a couple of years ago. In the dark. When the driver's lost his way. Which is ridiculous really, because where one is fraught with physical risk, the other is only psychological (well, unless your readers hate it so much they gather en-masse to hurl their copies at you...). But I guess it says something about how these different instincts intersect.

    It's been six years since I started researching about the Sahara region and set off on my first journey to Morocco. I definitely haven't churned this one out. It has been a real labour of love, a subject that's fascinated me and driven me to some very obscure corners of the British Library, and some equally obscure corners of the desert. It's had me vomiting onto the sand of Timbuktu, falling off the back of a camel, scribbling in a hospital waiting room to get a proposal out to a publisher. The book has gone through eight separate drafts, mostly written before any publisher took it on. It's been checked by several experts (such as the wonderful Dr Jeremy Swift, whose books on the Sahara are some of the most vividly precise accounts of the desert I know – his description of the camel spider is breathtaking!) I've been very lucky in the friendships I made in Africa, especially my brilliant pal Abdramane, who hosted me at his family's home in Northern Mali and helped me when the desert was at its most lethal. I've described our friendship in the book, and I hope readers will find those passages interesting.

    I hope readers will respond to my book. This area doesn't appeal to everybody, I know. The first-person travel narrative isn't everybody's cup of tea. And I know there are some who find my writing unsatisfying. But I hope there are a few readers out there who will enjoy it and engage with the issues I'm writing about. I hope most people who read it will feel it was worth their time. I think I can say, at least, that I tried my best.

    Nick and a Tuareg friend

  2. The English Patient - after the sandstorm

    A morning in the Sahara: waking up, my feet licked by the sun, I stretch out and shake a heap of sand off my back. ‘Rih!’ says my guide, for once again the desert winds have blown. All around the tent, the sand has clustered like snowfall and we spend the early part of the morning digging out our cooking pots, saddlebags and even my notebook, like children who’ve accidentally buried their spades under an overly enthusiastic sand-castle.

    So what are the winds of the Sahara? Some of them are terrifying – swift and fierce as avalanches, burying camps in moments. Herodotus tells of a wind so ferocious a nation declared war on it and marched out ‘in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.’ In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes more than a dozen winds, from the Egyptian khamseen, which blows for fifty days and is linked to the ninth plague of the Bible, to the south-easterly ghibli, which blasts across the Libyan desert.

    In Mali, the most-talked about is the harmattan, a dry-season north-easterly with an astonishing carrying capacity and an altitude as high as 1800 metres. Covering the land in a layer of red dust, the harmattan is a nightmare on contact lenses, and also provokes nosebleeds (which is a bummer if you’re on the trail and have run out of tissues!) It conjures a haze so thick that airlines lose millions of dollars every year, and it adds several tonnes of cargo to the freighter ships in the Atlantic. It’s even been known to spread ‘red sand fogs’ all the way to Cornwall. It’s one of those surreal reminders of how interlinked we are with Africa: almost as if the winds are trying to tell us something…