Thirty long years ago today, I entered the desert of northern Sudan to live in a faraway, unforgettable village of mud huts, roaring camels and beautiful people. My role was community development, but my dream was to simply meet with God in the desert.
Perhaps I'm too much of a dreamer, but I had long felt a tug to desert places. Call me monkish, or blame Lawrence of Arabia; all I know is, I was attracted to the desert. Its emptiness attracted me, the scale of it awed me, its extremes excited me.
Years ago, while traveling in the same deserts of northern Sudan, Wilfred Thesiger wrote, "Hour after hour, day after day, we moved forward and nothing changed; the desert met the empty sky always the same distance ahead of us. Time and space were one. Round us was a silence in which only the winds played, and a cleanness which was infinitely remote from the world of men."
I found Geoffrey Moorehouse even more inspiring as he wrote in The Fearful Void about his travels in the western Sahara: "...we were confronted with a passage across what looked like an eternal plain. Its dimensions were only emphasized by the presencie, low on distant horizons, of isolated peaks and tabletops of rock... their greatest effect was to provide such scale to the entire panorama as to reduce two men and four camels to their proper proportions in this towering and and barren universe. We were insects creeping forward to a rim of the world that might never be reached, across pure and unbounded space in which we had no hope at all of encountering anything else that lived and could offer comfort by its presence. It was appalling; but at the same time, it was exciting, with a spellbinding quality that penetrated even the dulling of the senses that it imposed...
"...in its utmost desolation, I began at last to understand its attraction. It was the awful scale of the thing, the suggestion of virginity, the fusion of pure elements from the heavens above and the earth beneath which were untrammelled and untouched by anything contrived by man."
So there I was thirty years ago, a 23 year old kid with a head full of romantic notions about what turned out to be the hardest year of my life up to that point, cheerfully hopping in a Land Rover and being driven into an 11-month crucible of fire for my yet half-grown character. Ah, but what better way is there to be refined than in a furnace of desert heat while being mocked by petulant camels and enveloped in mountainous sandstorms?
My journal entry from all those years ago as we left Khartoum and eventually approached the village of Hamrat reflects my fascination: "The ride is across desert where no roads exist; just the paths of previous lorries that travel the region with supplies. At one point in Khartoum, the pavement abruptly ends, and the bumps of the 'paved' roads become the bigger bumps of dirt and sand... Soon we were out of [town], save the few odd homes seen in the middle of nowhere as we drove through the desert. Nothing for hundreds and thousands of square miles, and you suddenly see a home built of dried wood standing all alone. We saw some camels, and a few herd of cattle in the beginning too, but most sights became pretty rare after about 20 minutes. There was sand, shrubs, scrawny trees and sky..."
The next day, after a chilly desert night, I wrote, "as we drove up a dune or hill (or both), apparently off course with no path to follow, we saw appear in the view from the top of it, a town in the distance below! Hamrat el Wuz."
Google Earth allows us a glance-from-above, gradually zooming in on my desert home for 11 months in 1987 – a year I will never forget, among a people I will always cherish, and during which, I truly met with God in the desert...
© 2017 by Ken Peters