National Geographic : 1999 Mar
camel herdsmen, young Koranic students, government officials, and merchants now anticipating a more peaceful and prosperous future-we were seeking rhythms of life unbroken since the time of Muhammad, 1,300 years ago. SHE FIRST DEAD CAMELS turn up on Day 2. They're mounds of pale, chalky bones, scattered atop dishes of desic cated, apricot-hued fur. Each is the size of a kiddie wading pool, and they rest balanced on low, wind-sculpted pillars of sand. In the natural autoclave of the Sahara, humidity sometimes hovers in the teens and daytime temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahren heit. Consequently the desert's sandy surface is sterile, and microorganisms can't survive there. Decay comes in the abrasive form of wind blown grit. Yesterday we left Agadez, Niger, driving east in a line of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Behind us the minaret of the city's mosque rose seven stories above a grid of streets where low, mud brick buildings hunkered in the sun. After a day's drive into scrublands east of town, we topped a rocky bluff, and beyond it began the Tenere, a landscape of dune fields and sand plains larger than Germany with a name that means "nothing" in the language of the Tuareg. Here strings of dunes stretch east to west, a hundred feet tall and several miles long, piled up by the wind. Devoid of water and completely unsettled, the Tenere is lonely, hot, and breath takingly gorgeous in rounded shades of beige. Most every day we drive about 70 miles across the soft sand, often becoming bogged down and having to dig our way out with hands and shovels, placing perforated metal sheets called "sand ladders" beneath the tires for better purchase. We pause at midday, when the sun heats the desert so thoroughly its sand grows impassably soft. Then we wait out the inferno for a few Framedin the traditionalindigo hue of the seminomadic Tuaregpeople, Tanelher Bailah makes up herface with pow dered stone from Niger'sAir mountains. Niger and neighbor ing Chad were the site of a three-month National Geographic exploration. The photographer-writerteam encountered skin scouringsandstorms, dehydration, venomous snakes, the threat of bandits, and black, crystalline nights brilliantwith stars.