National Geographic : 2012 Nov
• old French map that depicted the dunes as right parentheses, all pointing into the wind. I did not realize the di culties that awaited. Nor did I realize the allure of dunes. Once I start- ed ying in the desert, I came under its spell and began what turned out to be a 15-year project to photograph the world's most extreme deserts. When we got to the Mourdi Depression, my traveling companion had bad news. Shouting to be heard over the gale, Alain told me there was no way even he could y in such wind. So we drove out into the middle of the broad stony basin until we found a 50-foot-tall barchan to give us some shelter for the night. We awoke before dawn. e wind on the dune crest had died down to a breeze. I took o at sunrise, running down the windward slope of the dune. A er gaining 500 feet, I felt like an insect ying over an enormous conveyor belt in a croissant factory. e barchans stretched to the horizon as they combined, separated, and spawned progeny. I soon became nervous. e wind was much faster than I was, so I was being pushed back- ward while heading into it. It was like trying to swim up a river against a current that's moving faster than you can swim. at's a frightening ex- perience for a pilot. You can't see what's behind you, and when you land, you have a hundred pounds on your back and a large sail over your head that wants to keep moving backward. Ground friction slows the wind, especially in the morning, so I dropped to within 50 feet of the dune crests to advance. After an hour even the wind down low began to increase and become turbulent. e sun was heating up the dark ground, creating bubbles of rising hot air that broke up the smooth ow of wind across the surface. When I gained altitude to nd our dune camp, I began ying with the wind in- stead of against it and suddenly found myself moving ahead at more than 70 miles an hour--- an alarming speed. I turned into the wind and hovered like a kite 200 feet above camp. Alain came zooming in underneath me. Landing in such a gale made me anxious, and I watched to see what the champion would do. He read the dune like an open book: e wind was rushing over the top of its crest and then doubling back. To try and land near our cars, parked in the dune's inner arc, would be fatal. e paraglider is an in ated wing; in turbulent air it could lose rigidity and crumple. Landing on the dune's windward slope was a better option, but a gust could push us back into the whirl- pool of wind---and a nasty mess. As I watched, Alain made the prudent choice and landed in the gravel plains beside the dune, avoiding the turbulence. I soon came down to join him. Alain had given me a great lesson in reading the winds. A er 26 desert ying expeditions, I've had a lot of postgraduate training. I have found that dunes are both yable and beautiful in the calm rst hours of morning. And I've learned to be patient and to pick my seasons carefully. In the Sahara, for example, fall is best because the winds are relatively light and the weather is cool. I still fear sandstorms, which can come up with little notice. I've even learned how to land in them: as soon and as quickly as possible. With an aircra that ies faster than I can run, I have also learned that dunes are my friends. ey're so and always point the direction to a safe landing. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows when you have dunes to inform you. I have developed a few simple rules. e small- est dunes are the ones most a ected by the wind, so their direction indicates the way the wind is blowing. If at all possible, land on the sunny side of a sand dune; the shady side usually has down- dra s, so you just drop like a stone. White sand is safer to y over than dark sand. Dark sand absorbs the heat, then releases it in big bubbles of hot air, like a lava lamp. When the sand is blowing o the dune crests, it's a good time to be on the ground. And last, it's always better to be on the ground wishing you were in the sky than in the sky wishing you were on the ground. j George Steinmetz is the author of the new book Desert Air, featuring photos of extreme deserts made while he soars in his " ying lawn chair."