A dust devil rose from the desert floor like a phantom. It approached with the speed of a Cairo taxi and found me in its way. That morning began with silence so dead I yelled to prove I was still alive. Fog hung over the dunes. Winter chill nipped my nose and stung my fingertips. Around me, slithery trails and birdlike tracks told me desert creatures had checked me out while I slept.
I emerged from my sleeping bag dressed in a week old stink of clothes. I shook my boots and sent scorpions scuttling, tails curled and sting ready, before shoeing my blistered feet. Wood smoke drew me to our dawn campfire. I sat beside it like a half wrapped mummy thawing back to life. Over gallons of sugary tea, Mahjdi and his desert ‘commandos’ discussed the day. Our walk to the White Desert near the oasis of Farafra would be long, exposed, and incinerator hot so we must fill up like camels before heading out.
“You OK?” Mahjdi looked at me with concern.
I’d been trouble all week, passing out with dehydration, and whining about sunburnt lips, heat rash and bruises from camels. All week his espresso coloured eyes had asked, Why did you come? To unclog my brain was my silent answer. I was convinced that ten days on the Great Desert Circuit from Luxor to Cairo, stopping off at four oases to walk in the desert and sleep under the stars would do the trick. Just a tough holiday, I thought. But in Luxor, the guides’ briefing to our small band of trekkers rang alarms—“Drink, pee, drink. Cover up or you’ll fry. Don’t wander off anywhere. This is the Western Desert, not the Costa del Sol.”
When they finished, I realized I was on an ‘expedition’. Days were spent walking between dunes where footsteps left no trace. Where we went looked like where we’d come from, and every dune appeared the same. My skin flaked like old bark, and my constant mirage was cold beer with condensation running down the glass.
We set out that morning in icy light. Mahjdi was on straggler duty with me and my camel, a beast the colour of bleached rope with burnt tufts. Though slowest in the pack, her lolloping gait was still too fast for me. I kept in step with the spindly calf toeing behind as if in high heeled shoes. Midday heat shooting off the thermometer caught us strung out on the razor edge of a crescent dune. One sleek side sloped to the ground, glassy crystals glinting amid golden grains of sand. The other side rippled with waves as the seashore does when the tide flows in. Some poetry sprang to mind, but this was no time for words. I guzzled tepid water and taking my boots off soothed my feet in sugary sand cool as the sea.
Shimmering heat haze guided us to the White Desert. Light, diamond hard, played on giant white monoliths, mushroom sculptures and creamy boulders strewn on a bed of sand the colour of cooked pastry. It could have been a meringue cake made by gods. I sat beside my hobbled camel eating falafels (chick pea fritters) and listened to the rushing wind. That same wind had sculpted these chalky shapes when an ancient sea floor dried up. Beside me, sea shells from millenia ago stuck out from a limestone wall. I picked up a fossil of polished black stone spiky like a mace, my souvenir of time past.
And then they came—a corps de ballet of dust spouts and with a principal dancer, desert gatekeepers demanding an entry fee.
“Djinns. Spirits of people dead in the desert. They will pass Insha’Allah,” said Mahjdi.
Tucked into the side of my camel, I remembered the houses and telegraph poles I’d seen sticking out under marching dunes, and hoped Mahjdi’s Allah would be merciful. Whooshing threats to bury me, the djinns rained over for a lifetime with a blizzard of grit and sand. When they were spent, my eyes, ears, nose and every part of me was filled with sand. Not the soft mush of sandcastles, but sharp particles of rock that turned me into human sandpaper, scraping and grating between teeth, between legs and under armpits.
I was alive, though, and I thought I heard the universe click. I’d beaten the desert.
Later, at peace in my musty sleeping bag, I recalled legends I’d read about the Western Desert, of lost armies and mythical creatures. I watched the sky turn pink then orange then become black and clustered with stars. I felt every tingle in the air, and just before I fell asleep, I added my legend to the list—I was here.