The World in its Extreme
June 26, 2012 7:37 PM   Subscribe

It is the hottest place in the world, and the driest. It is home to thriving commerce and to desperate, hopeless poverty. It is the Sahara, an eternal source of fascination and terror. Part 2. Part 3. [Hat tip: Longform]
posted by Joe in Australia (13 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I crossed it, overland, in 1980 at age 23. Algiers to Kano, Nigeria. Took about a month, on various conveyances. Hella trip, I'll tell you right now. And indeed, fascinating, and occasionally terrifying. Almost died at one point. So glad I did it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:17 PM on June 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Maybe the second driest.
posted by signal at 8:36 PM on June 26, 2012

I remembered one ride on a truck, in a passenger box thick with heat, bodies, and dust. We laughed when the first bump threw us from the benches; the second bump smashed us agains the ceiling, and suddenly it was no longer funny. For two days we held on, waiting for the pounding to end.

Oh god this is so true. I didn't have to endure it for two whole days - only one particular stretch outside of Timbuktu - but the fun aspect wears off really quickly... only to be replaced by nausea, anxiety, and finally a certain unpleasant detachment. I couldn't wait to get out of that 4x4.

I think the cinnamon-like colors of the Rub al Khali are much prettier, but the Sahara has an air that's completely unique.
posted by mykescipark at 8:42 PM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Almost died at one point. So glad I did it.

Full story, please?
posted by Panjandrum at 9:04 PM on June 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm pretty sure the Atacama desert is drier.
posted by dfriedman at 9:13 PM on June 26, 2012

Metafilter: Almost died at one point. So glad I did it.

Yes, please tell us more!
posted by littlesq at 10:30 PM on June 26, 2012

I'm pretty sure the Atacama desert is drier.
And parts of the Antarctic are drier yet.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:35 PM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sahara Unveiled : A Journey Across the Desert (1996) by William Langewiesche. I read it in 2006 and enjoyed it. Appears to be the same text as these Atlantic articles (though expanded).
posted by stbalbach at 10:35 PM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well this is... dated politically, to put it nicely.

Still interesting, though.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:21 PM on June 26, 2012

I crossed it too - what a place. We were travelling across africa pretty much on a whim, and following the lonley planet guidebook. To traverse the desert we hitched a ride with a group of french guys that were driving cars to Niger to sell them, and they took us along to help dig out the cars when they got stuck in the sand. It sounded easy enough, but the trick was that once the stuck car was moving again, the driver had to keep going until he was on a more solid surface or it would just get stuck again. This meant that once you had dug out a car in the insane heat-upon-heat-upon-heat, you'd have to walk a mile or so to catch up to the car. I can't remember how long the crossing took - it was back in 91, I was 21. crossing the border into Niger was prticularly anxious. Just before we got to the huts that served as customs, the lead driver hands me a roll of cash, and tells me to hide it in my bra - it was illegal to bring any undeclared currency into the country, and he wanted to smuggle it in. He said it was ok, they would never think of searching me, don't worry. I went throught the border crossing in a daze - totally unprepared for the weird act of smuggling that had been sprung on me, but there really wasn't any choice - I'd been given a free ride for days, and there really wasn't any turning back. The heat was unbelievable - I'm sure I was sweating constantly, but never wet, salt crystals would just appear on my skin. The driver of the car we were in was pretty smart about our supplies. He had huge plastic jugs of water that we hung outside of the car while driving and wrapped in a towel we would periodically pour water onto. The evaporating water kept the jugs cool and good to drink from. Another driver on our group didn't do this and ended up not drinking enough, and was sick for days once we arrived in the town in Niger where they sold the cars. Arriving in the town was very surreal - it was an oil drilling town, so a lot of the workers had money, and nothing at all to spend it on. Once our small convoy, 3 cars, was spotted, men came running out of town waving huge stacks of cash, hoping to buy the cars we were driving. We went from driving for days in the empty, dry, hot, disorienting desert, straight into a small mob. I still have some rocks I picked up there - they are dark brown burnt on the side that was facing the sun, and pink on the other side. We slept in sleeping bags on he sand, in the morning you could see the tracks of all the bugs that had walked past and under the bags looking for water food or warmth. I saw the most amazing sunsets there. I actually kept a dairy of the whole trip that I have never read since returning, maybe someday I should see what else is in there that I don't remember anymore.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:00 AM on June 27, 2012 [15 favorites]

I have a cousin who has what is known in Italy as Mal d'Africa, loosely translated as excessive yearning for Africa. He is over sixty now, but stills travel to the Sahara every year either alone with his motorcycle or guiding a group of people. He has developed strong friendships with tribal people (all motorcycle daredevils) and it always surprises me how safe he feels considering the political unrest in the area.

Deep down I have envied his free life cycle: make money, spend it all, return to work. In my saner moments I worry how long he will be able to keep going that way.
posted by francesca too at 7:23 AM on June 27, 2012

Just to note that this article was written in '91. Fascinating nonetheless.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:56 AM on June 27, 2012

hey, 5_13_23_42_69_666, same here on the French drivers of trucks to resell, I did that too. Part of the way.

Otherwise, to those who've asked to hear more of my experiences, I'll be back, but no time right now. I know once I start writing about it, it's gonna take a while...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:20 PM on June 27, 2012

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