In mirage country
Waves and ripples at a distance.
A promise of relief for the
parched throat. A herd of
camels splash and spill water under their
hoofs. We reached them after a long
drive. But there was not a drop of water.
The camels hesitated a moment, then
continued their trudge. At some
distance, again water splashed under
A lakeshore. Waves were playing
tender music. Some animals, huge as
whales, were resting by the lake. Some
vessels seemed to have anchored there;
but we could not say if they were ships
or boats. Some people were bathing;
some washing. Slow down, or the car
would plunge headlong into the lake,
warned somebody. After that we drove a
whole day but did not reach the lake.
We had been travelling through the
Dehna desert in Barak-al-wadi in south
western Saudi Arabia. Eight days and
eight hundred kilometres later we got
used to hallucinatory experiences--the
deep gulf of mirages, the phenomenon
that gives psychedelic illusions of pools,
lakes and puddles.
The tantalizing illusions of wetness--
suraab in Arabic--came alive
when the sun got hot. The interplay of
sunlight and hot air spread the illusion
of undulating water on the desert's wide
canvas. It became more appealing at
noontime, and disappeared just before
Lone trees appear occasionally in
the Dehna. The interplay of these trees
and their shades takes on the guises of
islands, wharfs and whales.
GPS and two deaths
A fellow traveller spotted an eagle's nest.
It was a miniature of tree-houses--very
large. It was built using leaves and twigs
of thorny trees, and pieces of plastic.
(Wherever man goes, plastic goes with
him.) The nest also had hefty nails that
held on strongly to the branches--
superb design to survive high-winds and
|It is easy to lose way in the Saudi desert, so GPS is a must for travellers
We kept our route far from human
habitation and highways--as far as possible.
We had enough preparation. We
had marked Dehna on Google Earth
(2002 update) and transferred it onto
the GPS (Global Positioning System)
attached to our caravan. Seven years had
wrought some changes to what was
marked on Google Earth; but those were
not drastic enough to mislead us. We
also had a good map; and two among us
were good map readers.
I have gone into details of my travel
paraphernalia because I am reminded of
a tragic incident. In 2001, two youths
from Kerala attempted the same journey.
But they were ill-prepared. The
desert claimed them.
One of our fellow travellers was
among those who reclaimed their bod-
In mirage country
ies. The two youths had gone to erect
mobile phone towers. Hoping to finish
the work and return soon, they did not
take much water with them. Their vehicle
got stuck in the sand. It was not a
four-wheel drive vehicle and the two did
not have satellite phone or GPS.
After this tragedy, the Saudi government
made compulsory for the companies
to provide GPS and other amenities
to those who go installing towers.
We had travelled 110 km from the
Saudi capital Riyadh to Al Kharge
before driving into the desert. Not long
into the desert, we saw a small tower of
stones. Every passerby had placed one
stone upon the pile and it had grown
taller than a man. The pile is a signal
encouraging newcomers to go along.
The chase of mirages exhausted us
by the end of the day. We had to find a
place safe from snakes and scorpions
and having enough firewood, and fix the
tent before light was gone. Then it was
time to light the campfire. Like all desert
travellers, we used the campfire not just
for cooking, but also to fight the bitter
|Bedouins believe every outsider to the desert is a worker of a mobile company or an oil company
Mobile phone networks were available,
but only sparsely. For many days
we could not know what was happening
in the outside world. Nomadic life.
Every night during our journey, the
temperature dipped to 2 Celsius. After
our return, we learnt it had even slid
down to minus values.
The tents were set in a manner that
we could see the sunrise. In the deep desert
We had passed through four villages. In
all the four, Bedouins had the same
question: Jawaal walla Aramco? (Are
you labourers of mobile companies or
are you employees of Aramco, oil company?)
For villagers in the deep desert,
these two are the only visitors from the
outer world. They were not satisfied by
the answer that we were muzafireen
(travellers). "What is here for the city
people to see?" they asked.
Once convinced, they extended an
affectionate welcome. They offered us
tea and insisted we stay with them for a
day. When we apologized and said staying
would upset the travel schedule,
they scolded us lovingly. Soon our hosts
were busy preparing mutton dishes.
Bedouins are like that. They feed
travellers to the full, even if they are
strangers. Then they give them mats to
rest. As we stretched our limbs an elderly
Bedouin enquired about our travels.
His wizened face would often break
into a smile. Adeeb was in his 90s and
remembered the times before technology
changed their way of life. Bedouins
used to identify directions and routes by
looking at the colour and design of sand
dunes, he told us. When the mirage
tried to betray them, they fixed their
eyes on the sand. If the water was near,
the sand would have a tinge of white. In
regions with heavy winds, it would be
thin and light.
Adeeb's legs were in a cast and he
was visibly in pain. He explained his
young driver had no use for his wisdom.
Once while they were travelling
across sand dunes, the driver tired of
chasing mirages did not pay heed to
Adeeb's warning about a waterbody
ahead. The vehicle plunged into the
water and overturned.
In the villages we saw Bedouin
women driving cars. In Saudi Arabia
women are not allowed to drive.
After a week, we were at the end of Barak-al-wadi. It was time to hit the
highways. A little distance from the
highway on a sand hill were perched
wild falcons--more than 20. Not far
away, there were some vultures.
In the desert, domesticated falcons
do for men what hunting dogs do in
other places. They trace animals like
rabbits and lizards; they can also fly with
these animals. We had seen falcons used
in desert hunts. We had also seen breeding
centres where they are sold. But it
was the first time, we were seeing wild
falcons. They were at a distance. Our
camera got only very long shots. By the
time we mounted the tele lenses, they
were gone. Perhaps, some day we could
go to a settlement of falcons, we consoled
V Muzafer Ahmed is a filmmaker and a journalist based in Kerala