Behind sand dunes’ exquisite splendour is savagery. The desert knows how to win

Wilfrid Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, his account of crossing the Rub’ Al Khali, the Empty Quarter, changed the life of Irish writer Denyse Woods

They could scarcely be called dunes – more like lumpy humps – but like all dunes, they were devious. After spending a night in the Wahiba Sands, in the heart of Oman, we had been having breakfast under an awning when a Bedouin woman walked in from the wilderness, over those low, deceptive heaps, to sell trinkets. Before hitting the road, I wandered beyond the enclosure, making the classic mistake of the Stupid Traveller: presumption. I thought I might glimpse a nearby Bedouin encampment, on the horizon, perhaps, or beyond that next mound … I didn't go far – a hundred metres maybe, but when I turned around, those harmless baby dunes had surrounded me like a flash mob and, instantly disorientated, I couldn't tell from which direction I had come. Panic hovered. One bad decision and I would be foutue. Lost. I turned again. The considerable expanse of the Wahiba Sands spread out in every direction.

Wilfrid Thesiger's Arabian Sands could be blamed for this mis-step, in the literary and literal sense. This account of his crossings of the Rub' Al Khali, the Empty Quarter, after the second World War changed my life. His exploration of the more accessible Wahiba Sands in 1948 was effectively his last journey in Arabia and I had come in his footsteps, on wheels. Romanticism, yes, but on any given day at least one Thesiger-ite can be found roaming about the Arabian Peninsula, gripping their grubby, dog-eared copy of Arabian Sands. My own fascination for deserts certainly began the moment I stepped into Hodges Figgis in 1980, on a dark November evening (one never forgets that coup de foudre when a significant book slides into our hearts) and saw Thesiger's book on the table: sands. Bedu. Coffee pot. I still have that paperback, and also a signed, early edition, hardback, which I used to visit in the Time Traveller's Bookshop in Skibbereen before my family took the hint and bought it for me.

Thesiger isn’t entirely responsible for my near-demise in the Omani Sands. It was the language that first drew me to the Arab World, specifically when I heard Algerian friends chatting on a Dublin bus and realised that I couldn’t work out where exactly the sentences, let alone the words, began or finished. Written Arabic, likewise, flows unbroken across the page. Intrigued, I set out to find the people behind the language, and the places behind the people. And what a wealth of experience, friendships and landscapes lay there! Snow-covered mountains and soft-flowing wadis; the mudbrick skyscrapers of Yemen; villages perched on promontories; the ancient and modern tucked in side by side; and in the towns and cities, what Kinglake described as, “the splendour and havoc of the East” … Beyond all that, magnificent deserts.

It has been suggested that I must like the desert because I’m Irish – the rain thing. Our climate might make a person long for the dry, but the desert dry is way too harsh an extreme if one is merely seeking refuge from Irish showers. Behind the exquisite splendour of sand dunes is savagery. The desert knows how to win. Unlike our oceans, it is never benign. Only last year a young American couple died in a presumed sympathetic murder-suicide pact after becoming lost in the Joshua Tree National Park. Their water gone, the heat searing, it seems they could not face a slow death by sun. In researching my current novel, Of Sea and Sand, I learned that two things kill you in the desert: confusion comes ahead of thirst, and behind it. Confusion gets you lost in the first place and when thirst sets in, a dehydration-induced confusion causes bad decisions, like leaving your vehicle or chasing a mirage. It can take a split second to get lost. Although no two dunes are the same, it is impossible to tell them apart, which is why I, befuddled, could have taken one wrong step and perished. That I didn’t do so was mere luck, but it was a salutary experience. A driver later told that he had once accompanied a film crew that was following Thesiger’s routes across the Empty Quarter. “But even with GPS,” he laughed, “we got lost!”

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I never set out to write about blank spaces. The inspiration for Of Sea and Sand originated in an uninvited mental tableau: outside a remote cottage in west Cork, a man is looking through a window at an empty room. When he goes inside, a woman is reclining on a couch. Back at the window, he looks in again: no woman. At this point, Oman began to call, as places do. I had long been drawn to Muscat – the most charming of the Arabian ports, according to Jan Morris – given that seafront, the Corniche at Muttrah, the boxy white buildings and bobbing dhows, the coffee-cream mountains encircling. In addition, the wealth of Omani lore and its plentiful stories of jinn (beings as mischievous as our faeries) provided a perfect context for the fluctuating woman who somehow did not belong in west Cork. It was only as the novel progressed that the desert began to encroach, as only deserts know how. Four of my six novels have veered towards the sands, yet still I struggle to capture their primitive beauty, to explain their hold.

Some people love the silence; others the shimmering horizons. Thesiger wrote that he found in the desert 2all that I asked”. He also knew that, when he left Arabia, he would never find it again. Legend has it that, when asked what he liked about the desert, TE Lawrence replied, “It’s clean”. Steven Spielberg, raised in Arizona, agrees: he loves the pristine nature of his childhood wilderness. I’m not a fan of Lawrence, never could get on with The Seven Pillars…, but I tackled Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1808), despite its mostly arcane style, and revelled in his surroundings: “So we set out across the dim wilderness, Sheikh Muhammad leading on his white dulul. The sky ahead reddens, and fades, and the moon pales and in sudden splendour the sun rushes up over the rim of the world.” Such words have pull. The Letters of Gertrude Bell, a fearless, magnificent woman once termed Queen of the Desert, still entrance. During her foolhardy journey to Hial in 1913, she wrote, “It was a wonderful view from the top - desert, desert and desert; wide stretches of yellow earth, great shining pools, and miles and miles of stones.”

This is why I did not become a travel writer. As a student, it seemed to me that the Arabian wildernesses had already been so well served by the English language that nothing I could write, ever, could improve upon it. In style and content, no one would out-Thesiger Thesiger. Besides, I am no explorer. Oh, I’ve had the seething camel-saddle sores, have seen scorpions scurry; I’ve eaten bread baked in the sand and heard the wind scrape across the earth’s gold dust, but I don’t pretend to be among the hardy, show-me-the-sandstorm, wearing-the-right-boots species of traveller. I’m more of the “There’s sand in my sandwich” breed.

Gertrude would scoff, but I will cross the Sahara on camelback only when there is a camel carrying a portaloo. In Morocco’s southern desert, our guides set up organic toilets at night, but during the day there is nowhere to hide on a gravel plain. However, if I might briefly skip continents, I have enjoyed a loo with a view – and a passing view at that, for this was a lavatory on the move, a pull-out affair in the single cabins on the Indian Pacific. This train crosses the Nullarbor Plain – Australia’s red heart – from Sydney to Perth, and includes the longest stretch of straight railway in the world. Not the slightest swerve for an entire day. Waking at dawn and setting eyes on the bleak, hypnotic Nullarbor, and falling asleep unable, still, to relinquish its moonlit glow – these are the joys of desert travel and why, on another train, from Damascus to Aleppo, with the sun rising over a Bedouin camp, its tents and livestock scattered across the gritty ground, I thanked Gertie for getting me there.

Travel literature drew me to the sands, but the sands keep calling me back. I love the desert’s attitude; its refusal to compromise. It huffs and puffs and blows itself everywhere. As I write, the Sahara is taking a winter break in Sochi, Russia, where the snow has turned orange. The desert is getting places – places it shouldn’t be, thanks to our dependence on its belly fluid, oil. Desertification is destroying pastures and livelihoods, spreading drought and hardship. Many migrants heading for Europe are escaping a dry that has come to where it previously was not. We need to know this foe. We need to stop it. I might revel in its glories and mysteries, its very resistance to me, and I will keep on writing about it, but I will never underestimate it.

Look at Mars.

DenyseWoods is the author of Of Sea and Sand, published by Hoopoe, at £9.99