Under the scorching sun in the desert, gigantic semicircular dunes quietly carve through vast areas of the Sahara, resembling an ocean of golden sands stretching towards the horizon in the Western Great Erg.
Algerian-born writer Albert Camus, who felt at home in this barren and unsettling landscape, described the arid and evasive sands of the Western Great Erg as a place of subtle and irreplaceable beauty.
The wind ceaselessly lashes the sand here, shaping fantastic forms that it soon destroys within moments. The desert’s sun intensity makes it one of the Earth’s hottest and driest regions: its temperatures exceed 38°C.
And as if the scorching heat weren’t enough of a challenge for human endurance, the searing sand temperature causes air vibrations, blurring contours and deceiving the eyes. Moreover, a group of identical and polished dunes silently disappearing on the horizon perplexes even the keenest observer.
For most, the term “desert” conjures images of extensive, undulating, and golden dunes; ERG in Arabic means “fields of sand”, yet less than a quarter of the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, has that landscape:
80% of the Sahara desert consists of monotonous gravel plains, barren rocky plateaus, arid peaks, and salty plains that evoke mirages.
The surface layer of sand in the Western Great Erg depends on the whims of the wind.
In areas where strong, consistent winds blow in one direction, the sand is propelled up to a height of 120 meters, forming the large and well-known semicircular dunes.
These large parallel waves, separated by broad troughs or enormous ridges and tall pyramids, take on varied shapes when the wind’s direction is subject to swirls or when air currents converge at a point.
This mysterious region is rich in legends and traditions. Nomads claim that terrifying screams are heard at night and vague figures lead camel caravans in darkness.
Even more alarming are the violent sandstorms, when the wind rages through the erg, raising thick dust clouds in its wake.
Sir Samuel White Baker, a 19th-century English traveler, described the onset of one such storm:
“I saw from the southwest a flying chain of huge brown mountains. The advance of this extraordinary phenomenon was so rapid that within a couple of minutes everything turned dark; we couldn’t even see our hands, even though we brought them to our eyes.”
Some claim to have seen sand curtains 480 km wide traveling at speeds of 48 km/h, and they also assert that entire caravans vanished in the midst of a storm without a trace.
The heavy sand doesn’t rise above the ground, but the fine grains can soar up to about 1,500 meters, occasionally obscuring the sun, even in far-flung spots from the storm.
The wind is capable of carrying them over such great distances that, following a terrible storm in Algeria in 1947, some of the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps turned pink due to the Sahara’s pink sands.
The sand of the Western Great Erg wasn’t carried by the wind from a remote location, as once thought, nor is it residue from a dried-up ancient sea.
Before the last great ice age retreated from the northern continents about 10,000 years ago, the Sahara was a cold place, traversed by a river system.
As the ice covering Europe began melting, humid air currents rotated from Africa to Europe; thus, due to warm and dry winds, the Saharan rivers evaporated.
Without the moisture that gave it substance, the soil cracked, sterilized, and transformed into a desolate place of shifting sands.
Only the Tuareg nomads traverse today the vast plains of the Sahara desert, but even they might have to forsake their traditional and gallant way of life due to law and the forces of nature.
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