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Day 26: Atâr to Chinguetti

Michael Palin - SaharaIt's still dark when I wake at the Auberge. It takes a while to work out why the room appears to be shaking. Then the dull reverberation focusses into a familiar sound. The planes are leaving. The circus is moving on. The Dakar Rally is taking to the skies again.

Sure enough, as we pass out of Atâr later in the morning, the airport is empty, the tarmac cleared. Soldiers are no longer in position. The corrugated metal sheets of a 'Toilette Publique' are being dismantled. A line of damaged bikes waits to be collected and flown home. A goat sniffs around the leftovers of the bivouac and somewhere out in the desert the strike force heads south. They'll be in Dakar long before us, that's for sure. But we'll have seen a lot more.

It's a good day to be on the move. Skies bright and clear, mellow winter temperatures peaking at around 30ºC/86ºF. We're climbing up between the sheer, brick-red walls of the Adrar Massif in scenery that could have come straight out of a John Ford Western. What's more, we're on that luxury of luxuries - a freshly tarmacked road, paid for and constructed by the Chinese in return for fishing concessions off Mauritania's Atlantic coast.

Having done its basic job of taking us through the pass and onto the escarpment, the tarmac ends abruptly. The road reverts to dirt track but soon the rubble gives way to softer, sandier terrain, and by the time we reach the outskirts of Chinguetti we are on the edge of a sand sea, classic date-box desert, for which the Arab word erg sounds awfully inadequate.

The fine golden sand looks soft and seductive, but it is the most difficult and dangerous surface and dune-driving requires great skills. Despite clever use of the four-wheel drive, we have to make three attempts to climb one towering dune. My heart is in my mouth each time, for we seem so close to tumbling over and
crashing down the slope.

Once at the top I'm left gasping, not so much at the perilousness of the ascent, as by the revelation of the sand sea, stretching to the horizon. The sinuous outlines of the dunes, formed by the wind into hundreds of thousands of peaks and crests and troughs, is mesmerisingly beautiful. Though the sand is constantly in motion, being smoothed and reshaped by the wind, there is an illusion of complete stillness, the sculpted contours of the sandscape smooth as marble, not a grain out of place, everything in perfect equilibrium.

John studies it more philosophically.

'I suppose you could say it's the ultimate wasteland,' he observes. 'The world's surface reduced to fine dust.'

He's right of course.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 26
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Chinguetti
  • Book page no: 91

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