Updated: 23rd October 2017

The most remote, alien place on Earth Nicholas Jubber on the Sahara

Living among nomads and camels has given the writer rich insight and amazing experiences but hes also had to evade banditry and anti-western feeling

I was six when I first saw the Sahara sitting on my fathers knee, watching Star Wars on the telly. It stuck in my mind as the most remote, alien place on Earth (although at the time I thought it was a planet called Tatooine!) Over the years, images from the movies (a galloping Peter OToole, a burnt Ralph Fiennes) reinforced my romantic image of the desert.

Nicholas
Nicholas Jubber. Photograph: Poppy Maltby

On my first journey there, I was thrilled by the scale and emptiness. I loved how you could lie at night, warmed by the embers of your fire, gazing at the constellations; or how you could stumble upon neolithic rock paintings of giraffes and crocodiles I saw a few on a cliff near Amougjar Pass in Mauritania. I loved how history was laid out for you, above and below.

The longer I spent in the Sahara, the less empty it became. Travelling from Fez down to Timbuktu, I was fascinated by the deserts capacity to transform. In the caravan town of Ouadane, Mauritania, I wandered through a maze of medieval dry-stone houses where the only sign of habitation was the droppings of rock hyraxes (rodent-like creatures). But later that evening, hundreds of people gathered in a courtyard house for a wedding party, where there were swirls of colour from womens headscarves, the hullabaloo of ululations, and frantic dancing to electric guitars and a Moorish lute.

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A water well in the Sahara. Photograph: Alamy

The desert is in a state of constant flux, and life reflects that. Brutal winds shift the sand to the unlikeliest places: to the decks of Atlantic freighters and mainland Europe. Theres a feeling of perpetual movement. This was never clearer to me than in northern Mali. Riding across scrub desert, my guide checked the stars to locate his familys camp, only to discover they had moved in search of grazing. He raised a finger to read the starscape, re-calibrating our position. After an hours tacking, we found them, and settled down to the customary three glasses of tea, like commuters after a hectic journey.

Staying in nomad camps were some of my happiest experiences. Morocco is the safest Saharan country at the moment; Id recommend Zagora or Merzouga in the south-east as a first ports of call. I loved hanging around the tents, taking part in daily chores: drawing water, hobbling camels, baking millet-bread (you drop it in a pit covered in ash, and turn it over after half an hour). But mealtimes could be hard work as an un-supple leftie I struggled with cross-legged, right-handed eating. My bit of carpet would be scattered with so much rice that goats would gather around me.

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Oasis and camp in the Zagora area of Morocco. Photograph: Alamy

Nomads are driven by adaptability, like the fauna around them. I was fascinated by the tracks my guides picked up: snakes, grasshoppers, even hares and fennec foxes. Most distinctive are the heart-shaped hoof prints of camels. The 19th-century explorer Ren Cailli called them a masterpiece of natures workmanship and he was right. They can modulate their temperature, reflect sunlight off their coats, consume up to 120 litres at a single watering, among many other talents. No animal rules the desert like the camel, and spending time with them (not just riding them) is one of the regions real treats.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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