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Day 20: São Luís to Barreirinhas

Michael Palin - BrazilI climb to the top of the first dune, which is so smooth it's like scaling a hill that's been varnished. From its summit I marvel at the abrupt contrast between the green scrub we've driven through to get here and the almost eerily bare white dunes that stretch ahead of me for kilometre after kilometre towards the distant ocean. And the sands are growing, claiming more and more of the land. There are tales of lost cities submerged beneath them by sudden ferocious storms.

I continue on down the far side of the dune, along an elegantly curving ridge, one side of which drops a sheer ninety metres into a dark blue lake. To add to the dreamlike quality of the place, a restless, whispering wind blows, carrying a constantly fluttering veil of sand up and over the dunes. I feel a compulsion to keep walking, and at the same time a primal anxiety that this huge spread of sand and water is somehow alien, like the surface of the moon. Beautiful indeed, but also mysterious and disorienting. Probably the only National Park in the world which looks different every day. Not a place in which to get lost.

As the sun begins to sink, immense shadows are cast by the dunes and the lakes turn to fire. I'm aware of the heat of the slanting sun, but the sand remains comfortably cool. This sensation is, apparently, caused not only by the ever-present wind, but also by the mangrove swamp beneath the dunes which retains water and keeps the dense-packed sand aerated. Walking barefoot has rarely felt so good.

We head back on the edge of the sunset, not wanting to risk the deeply rutted track after dark. It's only eleven kilometres or so (seven miles) to the ferry across the Preguiça ('Lazy') River, and out of the park, but it takes us almost an hour, in and out of quite deep water, to get there. The ferry is severely functional, nothing much more than a floating steel platform. As we wait for it to come across we buy empanadas, made from manioc flour, salt and water and cooked over charcoal in a hut on the riverbank. I choose cheese and coconut filling. Not a familiar combination, but delicious. Out here away from the cities, everything grows quieter after sunset. Sounds are magnified. The laughter of the ladies who are cooking, the plash of a paddle as a dugout slides in from the opposite bank. This tiny glimpse of village life is as magical to me as the extraordinary sand desert we've just seen.

We move on. Across the river and into the town of Barreirinhas, where we spend the night at a vast resort hotel, which only makes me miss the village even more.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 20: São Luís to Barreirinhas
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Barreirinhas
  • Book page no: 93

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