It is hot, it is dry, it is dusty. So if you’re heading to the Sahara, make sure you’re never too far away from an oasis.

WORDS: Brendon Bishop


There is something basely invigorating about sleeping under night’s warm blanket on the desert floor, blissfully stargazing beside a crackling fire, as you anticipate unfolding the secrets of the mighty Sahara – in a big orange truck. We have landed in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, situated on the north-western end of the African continent holding up the western end of the mammoth Saharan desert. Nouakchott, the dry and dusty desert capital, was the meeting place for our group of confident city renegades and, after a day of haggling for food in the local markets, we were ready to take on anything that Mauritania could deliver. Almost.

Sand storms are really not much fun unless you enjoy eating sand. The pumping temperate winds whip the sand into a frenzy of nasty, flying grains which, in turn, form a seemingly endless stratosphere of raining sand that rages for kilometres. The sand was inescapable. It got into every crevice, gap and landing site available. It beat you up, tossed you aside and then blinded you just for fun. When we eventually emerged from the assault, I looked back to see the almost transparent wall of sand being carried by the winds as the storm extended out to the horizon of the desert.

Yet in this harshest of environments were signs of life: a herdsman and his camel journeying straight through the heart of this storm; isolated and sporadic nomadic tents slanting in the whipping winds. And on the periphery of this sea of dunes, the desert settlement of Chinguetti.

Founded on an ancient Saharan trade route by nomadic Arab traders, modern-day Chinguetti is a place of tunic-clad desert folk and noisy herds of goats and camels. The muezzin’s shout is everyone’s wake-up call in this surreal place of strong Islamic identity. In a small library hidden among market stalls lie some of the world’s oldest collections of Koranic literature – 12th century manuscripts as weathered as the desert landscape in which they were conceived, revealing the precise sketchings and mathematical studies of the ancient peoples who once settled here.

The library tour led into a camel tour, our Lawrence Of Arabia-style troupe heading up the nearest and highest desert dune for sunset. The view was overwhelming. The sea of dunes landscape is a gallery of perfect form and contour, sculpted by millennia of climatic effect into an expansive, environmental artwork, hauntingly similar to the contours of the ancient manuscripts from earlier in the day.

The next day, our pioneering plan was rolled out: to bash through the Sahara with the express aim of reaching the world’s second largest monolith, Ben Amera. A few GPS coordinates, luck and intuition were all we had to aid our quest. The three days we spent crusading the simmering desert sand in an attempt to reach Ben Amera were certainly the most awesome, entertaining and exhausting. We continuously found our heads pointed towards the sand during the repeated labours required to dig the sunken wheels of our truck out of the cooking grains of sand. Lost in the Sahara with only our tracks left from the day before to guide us back home, the men were separated from the boys.

The end result of our Ben Amera crusade was Mauritanian desert 1, Overlanders 0, as we reluctantly gave up our pursuit after 150km of hard-worked desert penetration. Feeling well defeated, forlorn and filthy, a short council concluded that we head towards that rare and precious natural resource of the desert: water.

As a truck full of dusty and smelly overlanders motored along the gravel road leading into the oasis village of Terjit, the excitement over the prospect of bathing was palpable. Floating in the shallow pool like a basking crocodile I became acquainted with the healing properties of a desert oasis and was thankful that this splash of water in a world of sand truly existed. That splash soon became an ocean when we, due to our intense exposure to lack of water”, convinced the hosts to take us to where the biggest pool of water was to be found.

Cruising along the desert edge where the ocean greets the sand, we were again emblazoned with a crimson sunset as we triumphantly made our way along the coastal highway of the Atlantic Ocean, through the sights, sounds and smells of crude and colourful fishing villages. With little difficulty we found a temporary home and our group of novice nomads went about the well-rehearsed routine of setting up camp. We built a fire specifically in anticipation of grilling our fresh fish over the lively flames.

Seventeen hungry, now initiated, desert overlanders took the time to chill around the fire at the end of this challenging adventure. Like old friends at a reunion we lashed out the last of our desert anecdotes in humorous banter, our bodies weary but our spirits at a peak. As the flames turned to embers, so our minds turned towards the finality of what felt like an epic desert journey. I collapsed into my sleeping bag one final time under the desert stars.”