The Colors of the Desert - The Yellow Sahara | Nature Documentary
THE COLORS OF THE DESERTS THE YELLOW SAHARA [narrator] Fairy tales were told about them, adventures reported, expeditions conducted. No other landscape is so overwhelming and at the same time holds as many secrets as the desert. Sand seas are the first images that you imagine when you hear the word desert. But the fine sand covers only 20% of all deserts.
Egypt, however, can boast that 40% of its share of the desert is covered with sand. The Sahara Desert is the coffee-table book. Yellow sand seas pass by. Dunes know no national boundaries and migrate slowly, but steadily across North Africa.
The date-palm oasis interrupts the arduous journey. A mirage appears in the distance. The Sahara Desert embodies the romantic notion of the lost dream of endlessness more than any other desert, and had a lasting influence on 19th-century Western culture. The oasis of Siwa, famous for the oracle of Amun-Ra, is only 37 miles away from the Libyan border and is one of the most remote parts of western Egypt. Only since the straight four-lane desert road from Mersa Matruh, on the Mediterranean, was drawn through the Sahara, Siwa is also accessible for non-caravans. Nine days of tribulations have been replaced by nine hours of flat, featureless land.
There, in lush, green palm groves, between olive trees and orchards, our journey will begin. The vineyards cited in poetry are a thing of the past. Then, suddenly, a hustle and bustle in the oasis. Loud honking. Donkey carts race behind mopeds or block the road. A chicken waits for its death at the grill.
And here I am, like I had fallen here from another world. I have an appointment with Hamdy Mohammed Ali. The desert-tested Bedouin from neighboring Farafra will accompany me on my journey. We meet at a café in the center of the oasis.
-Would you like a cup of tea? -Sure. [narrator] I want to enjoy Siwa for one day and after that begin the journey through the Great Sand Sea. For starters, on wheels. The 29,000 Siwis are extremely devout and conservative Berbers.
An exception in Egypt, they only marry within their own tribe. Women are shrouded in a black, full-body shroud, whether walking across the road, holding their children or being carted away by their husbands on the back of a two-, three- or four-wheel vehicle. Beautiful water nymphs don't frolic like this in the "Bath of Cleopatra," but boys do have fun. Siwa is situated on an underground aquifer, a freshwater lake, and the water bubbles up everywhere. And not just for the fun things. Artificial canals run through the city and new pumping stations must be installed constantly and maintained.
Natural water-drainage is impossible because of the extreme depth of the underground lake. The "Coronation Hall of Alexander the Great," who came to consult the oracle and took the mysterious response to his grave, along with the abandoned old town of Shali, are among the historical high points. As though made of sugar, the houses dissolved decades ago during a heavy rainstorm that lasted a mere 30 minutes. A place of ghosts and dust.
Agriculture has always been an important economic factor for the oases in the Libyan Desert. In fertile Siwa, most of all, dates and olives. Mathem Ahmed explains. We cut the clusters with these machetes. The blades are hard and have sharp teeth. If we take this piece here, it cuts, instantly. The blade must be very sharp.
Once the knife is set, you pull it up. This is how you have to cut it, so that the clusters fall as a whole from the palm and then, God willing, we gather the dates. Something you can only do in bare feet. The feet of the Siwi must be tough. Walking barefoot in the fields helps and covers the feet with calluses, so they can stick to the palm branches. [narrator] It is November.
This month, they will work hard in the palm garden. The ripe dates have to be harvested and sorted before they are processed and packaged in factories. They take a break for lunch together. The men have brought food from home and enjoy the view of the salt lake.
The garden where we are now belongs to Haji Mohamed Mataam. God have mercy on him. He is our father. We are seven brothers and we are right in the middle of the date harvest. [narrator] And while the men get back on the palms, the waiting drivers recuperate by taking a little nap. After the workers have left, visitors arrive at sunset, the magic hour. Hamdi, Mahmut and Naser carefully load up our cars.
You cross into the most famous of all deserts, the Sahara, today with a four-wheel drive. The last caravan of traders passed this way more than 30 years ago. Outside the town center, we pass more lakes and swamps. They skillfully catch the wastewater and recycle what doesn't evaporate or become too salty. Besides the main source of income, farming, they are betting on tourism since the construction of the desert road.
Eco tourism, a niche market, has become popular worldwide and the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry. We leave town in a convoy. A car by itself would be too risky. The driver might be stuck, the mobile phone may not have service, and no one just happens to drive by.
The control points, once set up to help caravans with crossing the Sahara, have been nothing more than political check points for a long time. Farafra is quiet. No real center, few restaurants, barely any cafés. Surprisingly, however, there is a museum. Badr, a resident artist in the oasis, tirelessly changes and modifies his building. He created it to showcase his work.
He carves from olive and palm wood, shapes sculptures made of soft sandstone, creates figures with clay and paints with sand. In addition to international exhibitions, Badr also invites students and tourists to attend workshops. Without exception, he finds his materials in the desert. [speaking Arabic] I learned sand painting from experience. I like to try out new materials. Previously, I only painted with the four most common colors found in nature, brown, white, black and yellow.
But when I went into the desert and discovered the full palette of colors in sandstone, I collected it and brought it back. All colors are natural, except for blue. I use white sand and blue oxide to make blue. [narrator] The sand paintings of Badr and other artists will remain with me on my journey. Badr draws his inspiration from everyday life in the oasis. Farafra is a family village.
Life takes place behind the thick walls or out in the desert. Only men appear in the public life of the town. [speaking Arabic] These are all people I know from the oasis.
You can see them as figures as well as in the painting. These people are well-known. This is Sayyed Abu Haouasch, and this one is called El Akreesh. This is Sheikh Kamal. This is Abu Dschubran.
And this is Sheikh Mabrouk Abu Ali, he is the grandfather of Hamdi. [narrator] Hamdy's brother, Saad Muhamad Ali, invites us. He's out there in the New Valley, a region where water was found by deep drilling. He bought a considerable tract of land and built cooling pools for the hot water bubbling from the ground.
In a few months, the first wheat will sprout. He shares the pleasure of the hot spring with family and friends. [speaking Arabic] At first, I was the one who drove into the desert. But I've found that I'm a better businessman, the one who can sell, show the goods and talk. Hamdy made it more fun to plan the desert tours and to conquer the desert, and knows how to find his way.
Sometimes, tourism can go well for a year and stop the next year. So I came up with the idea of agriculture. You should always have a Plan B. So, I decided for agriculture, because in Farafra there are only two sectors, agriculture and tourism.
I have applied with the mayor of Wadi Gedid for investment aid of 1,000 feddan and 1,038 acres to build a farm with modern irrigation systems and organic farming. [narrator] Saad has studied in Austria and Germany. Music at first, but then the homesick student changed to agriculture. How could the visionary have guessed back then that he would find enough water for agriculture? Even in the '80s, the desert was regarded as worthless territory. Meanwhile, 12,000 settlers from the Nile Delta followed the call of the government and settled in the New Valley Project. Like most men in the Near East, Saad feels committed to tradition.
But he has lived in Europe. Can he reconcile the two ways of life? More than that, the "Lord of the Oases" also helps us to understand how life is lived in Farafra. I love my children, I love my parents and I love the whole family. We all live together, three brothers and their wives, my mother, and all our children live in one house to this day. I love living with the whole clan. I don't like individualization, that "every man for himself."
For me, it's most important to share life with each other, to get involved with my family. There is a proverb that says, "One hand alone cannot clap. But two hands can make a noise." [narrator] Although the new tourism businesses continue to support the traditional division of labor within the family, the women, parallel to food preparation, are taking their first steps outside. Every morning, 20 to 30 women meet in the NGO at Taheya Elwy.
A portion of the profits flow back into the women's organization for continued education and training, reading and writing, hygiene and health care. Self-organized, they are not yet beyond the control of men, but they manage to avoid taxation by the authorities. [speaking Arabic] I am excited with the changes in our country. Yes, I'm glad. Because now it is possible that my daughter can do what I could never do before. Among the Bedouins, a girl could not go out of the house or travel.
When you work at home, you're imprisoned inside four walls. You see no one except those who specifically come to visit you. [narrator] The teacher Mufeda Mabrouk adds...
And we have the advantage that we can earn something in the organization, and that we learn something we can do in the future, if we have to stay home, which benefits us and increases our income. -We're happy when we meet. -Yes, then we can see each other. We talk and eat together. Everything we do together, we are among ourselves. Money is not everything in life. [narrator] Mobile phones stand ready to serve as the new keys to the future.
The changes that this means of communication have enabled seem to me greater than the influence of television in the '60s. But to understand the Sahara, I have to travel back into its past. The 13 selected for our desert safari dromedaries, the one-humped Arabian camels, complain vociferously about the separation from their herd and their children.
I learn that it's the females that carry our loads. That there is only one stallion in the stable to sire the entire next generation. Egyptian Bedouins don't ride their camels. In nine days, I am told, we would reach the next oasis, Dakhla. In the Sahara, haste plays no role.
"If you hurry, you only hurry to your death." And "You will reach your destination with camels too." In the meantime, the animals of our little caravan have gathered together. Hamdy, the Lord of the Desert, tries to acquaint me with the remnants of the nomad way of life. [speaking Arabic] The relationship between the Bedouin and his camel is a strong, stable and close relationship that has traits of human friendship. For a Bedouin, a camel is everything in his life.
But there are other, non-Bedouins, who butcher camels and even eat them. I, myself, could never slaughter a camel and eat it. The camel is my friend, my soul. My life in the desert is closely connected with the camel. [speaking Arabic] I find my way in the wilderness by understanding it as part of nature.
There are certain large rocks, there is the sun, the direction of the wind, if the wind blows from the north... There are a few marks and signs here and there, but mostly I'm moving, thank God, driven by instinct and my own inner feelings that tell me whether I'm on the right trail. [narrator] Does the sand also help? Its consistency? Its taste? Why is the sand yellow? Trace elements of iron, almost all "impurities," are encapsulated in quartz and reflect the light so that only the wavelength of yellow is visible. Does the size of sand grains also play a role? In the days ahead of crossing the desert slowly, I'll be able to philosophize about it. The sun dives into a sea of sand, in a true spectacle of color from yellow and orange, in the Libyan Desert.
Tomorrow morning, it will rise again over the Nile. In between lies a cold night, with wind constantly blowing, nothing but sand and stars all around us. [drumming and singing] [narrator] I ask Hamdy what his feelings are in the desert.
He doesn't want to answer while he's cooking. He notices that I'm cold and asks me to get closer to the open fire, a yellow light blazing in the darkness of the desert. [drumming and singing] [narrator] Some of the men are up before we are. And before they think about themselves or the animals, they thank Allah by praying to Mecca. There is something touching about it, something that's stronger than just a religion.
It is the unity of being in nature. Three out of the four great world religions were created here in this desert. [speaking Arabic] The Bedouin life is simple. Life itself should be easy, for a man may live with little. But that's the difference between people in the city and Bedouins, the people of the desert, who can survive on very little. I start the morning with joy, because that makes me strong, and the day will go well.
Besides, what more could a man wish for when he looks at the desert? In the city, you want a bigger house, a car, a plane ticket... You want, want, want. Here in the desert, a man wants nothing.
You look around and see the sunrise and sunset, the stars and the sand dunes and nature. So then life is so simple, you don't need anything. A bit of food, water.
[narrator] Our Western idea of "living well today, but wanting a better life tomorrow" doesn't find much resonance with Hamdy or his Bedouin colleagues. The good life, in the here and now, is enough. Indigenous people who use the environment, but don't excessively exploit and destroy it won't shake our belief in progress, but we can learn from them.
Our camels wander on. It is this steady, hypnotic rhythm that fascinates us. We guide them, but I'm sure they would find their way just as well alone, following the unseen path of their predecessors. We follow the well-worn and fading footprints of people who have traveled this way for thousands of years. Once again, I find the equivalent of the landscape in the sand pictures. The blurred lines, the lack of focus.
What from a distance looks steep and sharp-edged looks soft and diffused up close. The sand is constantly in flux. For protection, dark, heavy particles, often slate, have covered the lighter quartz and limestone. A fascinating desert pavement has developed over long periods of time, which can be destroyed in seconds. At the sight of the tracks, I'm glad to be journeying with the caravan. We go on through the dunes that rise and fall like waves of a stormy sea.
From a distance, despite our 13 camels, we are only small dots in the middle of a huge, yellow sand desert. How much effort it takes to build a house every night! A beautiful house. A windbreak with a fireplace, mattresses and carpets. I admire my nomadic friends, the fervor with which they assemble and disassemble a shelter. How much time each day is lost doing this? For Mahmut Attala and his brother, Naser, it is neither a loss nor difficult. It's just a part of daily existence.
[speaking Arabic] We like the work. We love everything here. That's why we don't feel tired or any resentment. Then there are others we spend our time with here. We're a team, and for us it's not hard work, it's something that makes us happy. As for me, I know this life since I was a child, and I've always been on these expeditions. I am accustomed to having everything I need with me.
If anything is missing, it's like something is missing from us. The food, the mattresses, the drums, the harp, singing and all the fun, that's life in the desert. [narrator] During the night, our small nomadic village gives us the illusion that there is life out there.
The fire has warmed and illuminated the place. When we depart tomorrow and the wind has blurred the hollows in the sand, the site will revert to insignificance. And again, we walk on these grains of sand that were once big rocks, abrasion by continued erosion.
Here my concept of time gains a totally different dimension. Fossilized impressions of mussels in the rock remind us that millions of years ago a great ocean heaved and fell in this desert. Fossils of sand dollars are scattered like treasures from the past in the gray-yellow sand. And snow-white limestone and cretaceous sediments are assumed to be the last vestige of a shallow sea.
Bones, some with fur and hair, warn how dangerous the trail can be. The immense "nothing" is scary. What if a sandstorm blows in, visibility is zero and the seconds tick off waiting for drinking water? What if the sand is too loose to continue the trek? When you have time, you can fill in the picture.
A sudden change in the landscape. A shiny, metallic rock surface. Millions of iron pyrite splinters and pyrite surfaces. Mountains dusted with pale-yellow powder sand.
Landscapes that seem surreal. Our road is difficult, but incredibly beautiful. On the eighth day, my enthusiastic pace slowed. My feet hurt, and yet I want to continue. My guides have an idea. ["On The Camel's Back" by Visa] [narrator] A narrow gorge, the only pass in the ancient caravan route, leads from the Karafish Mountains to the next oasis, Dakhla.
Then, finally, after many long and grueling days, the lush green oasis lies below us. Our camels pounce on the first fresh green shoots and leaves, and Hamdy and I enjoy the natural shade of trees. I have grown quite fond of Scar, but now it's time to say goodbye. In the hotel of Saad and his brothers, we find shelter and a cozy, family-run, eco-friendly tourist business. Dakhla is sheer beauty.
An oasis in the form of a one-street town, it is 50 miles long. Seventeen sub oases are strung together. Amid the ruins, I run into Bushra Radi Yosof, who has a television, refrigerator, a wife and children, amid the ruins. [speaking Arabic] There are no neighbors, no one. We are the only ones here.
Since the earthquake, long ago in the '60s, no one has built or torn down anything. I saw how people moved away and settled away from here. But I have never seen anyone come back. We have settled here, and don't want to leave this place. We like the simplicity, the calm, and could never leave this place, not even if someone out there would give me a villa. [narrator] The "Guardian of Ruins" lures me through the crumbling mud walls of his domain.
I follow him. The silence of a morgue, home of the dead. [speaking Arabic] I come up here to shoot pigeons. Hunting has been my hobby since I was little.
What I shoot is not for sale. It comes home to the table. I hunt here, and if a stranger comes, I ask him where he wants to go and where he comes from. And if he doesn't come from here, I have to ask him about the reason for his visit, nothing more and nothing less. [narrator] Is Bushra's loneliness up here to be understood as a reflection of his social isolation? They are Copts, surrounded almost entirely by Muslims.
A fast car now replaces our slow camels, but it is much more prone to break down. While the padded soles of the camel feet, which were like soft leather, gently touch the surface of the sand, the wheels of the car dig in here and there. Our team is constantly busy lowering and raising the tire pressure, as only a soft tire makes it on the fine desert sand. For me, it's all the same. How do our drivers know when the surface is soft or hard? Would I, if I were clueless behind the wheel, get hopelessly stuck? The jagged rocks cut our tires brutally, but also the frequent tire changes can't spoil the mood of our tour guide, driver and cook. Ain Seru is a mini-oasis on the road to the White Desert.
The bubbling, cold, fresh water used to be a popular stop for caravans. Today, the uninhabited oasis with the English name "Magic Spring" attracts tourists. [speaking Arabic] If I'm the tour guide, I am responsible.
But this time, I have the feeling I'm coming along to play, as if I was really making a normal trip. I'm always happy when we move from one place to another. Even if I spend two or three months here, I don't get bored. People say, "It's too hot for you. You are young.
There is no television, no this and that." "I'm happy," I tell them, "Come and see. My TV is the world around me. Come and see it for yourselves." [narrator] Mahmut is also active for environmental protection in the White Desert. He trains guides and drivers to not use a fragile site as a dump or a racetrack. The White Desert was discovered for tourism only 30 years ago.
In 2002, it was declared a national park. A bizarre world of dazzling white limestone sculptures, as though shaped by hand and arranged in poses. Cones, domes and cathedrals as remnants of ancient cities. Or even a chicken, heads, dwarves.
[drumming and singing] Our last night, we find shelter in a cave. Hamdy places candles in wall niches to illuminate the dark. Naser and Mahmut get out their instruments one more time. [speaking Arabic] For me, music is for the quiet moments in life. For peace of mind.
Through music, I forget all my worries. I enjoy sitting in the round and the happiness. I don't like the silence in the stillness. We have discovered our music together.
Of course, I remain his big brother, but the collective music-making prevents any cramping of our relationship. Between older and younger brothers there is sometimes shyness and timidity, so they don't normally sing for each other. We both prefer the "fresh air" life. And as the saying goes, "On the carpet, everything is permitted!" [narrator] The singing goes on for hours.
Glasses with sugary tea are emptied, filled and emptied. Stories are sung. Our journey across the Sahara has come to an end. The airplane carries my body home fast. But my soul still lingers in the magic and the rhythm of the yellow desert dream.