At about 3.5 million square miles, the Sahara is the size of the USA but with the population of Norfolk. Stretching 3,400 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, it is one of the world’s most spectacular and most familiar geographical facts. Its name comes from the Arabic – Sahra al Kubra – the Great Desert.
On the far side of the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara stretches away like a magic kingdom, a world of mysteries and marvels, a forbidding and splendid place where nothing and anything seems possible. Everyone carries its image in their own personal atlas of the imagination, along with the Himalayas and the South Pole. But few people have actually been there. To this day, the most reliable means of crossing the Sahara is by camel. Inhospitable and threatening, the desert seems to promise some kind of purity, a clean and exhilarating antidote to confusion and compromise. It is a place of continual surprise, but its greatest surprise is that it is only four hours’ flight from London, making it closer than New York.
To readers of Paul Bowles, the trajectory of the journey into the Sahara is a familiar one. It begins with innocent curiosity on the coast and ends with disorientation, delirium and Debra Winger locked up in a harem in some remote oasis. The desert has always been the preserve of travellers keen to see things that are not there: misguided explorers, hopeless romantics, misfits, visionaries, obsessives, the deceivers and the deceived. With a camel and a decent map of wells, any self-deluding fool can project his fantasies on that blank heart.