The Winds of the Sahara

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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…

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