The desert: an immense sky above, a vista of land receding miles into the distance. Rocky outcrops, with here and there the strata exposed to reveal the fearsome folding and crushing of their formation long ago. Salts glistening on the surface of land and rock. Intense light and heat shimmering above the land, reverberating in the air. Colours changing through the day from deep reds, browns, orange to bleached and drained in the glare of the sun. And all around: silence.
Exhausting or exhilarating, the desert is never neutral.
If at first it seems barren and lifeless, a closer look reveals astonishing signs of life: shrubs hugging the ground, trees superbly adapted to survive, insects buzzing around ephemeral flowers, tracks in the sand that reveal the presence of foxes and other fauna, droppings that show camels have passed this way.
In Egypt’s eastern desert last week, driving inland from the Red Sea towards the South Galala Plateau, we found plants revived after recent rains. Along the side of the road, in shallow depressions in the sand, clinging to more sheltered spots in the lee of the outcrops, numerous plants were thriving.
Among our find was a treasure trove of desert hyacinths (Cistanche tubulosa). Unmistakeable in shape and form, the hyacinth has no chlorophyll and lives by tapping into the roots of neighbouring plants:
Other plants included grasses, and – as far as I could tell – members of the daisy and nightshade families. Among the insects, we came across a dragon fly…
Trees – notably acacias – were few and far between, but they appeared as heroic figures in the landscape:
One tree, the elegant umbrella thorn (Acacia tortilis, subspecies tortilis), with its distinctive spreading crown, cut a lonely figure in the distance:
Meanwhile, close to the desert hyacinths, we found tracks in the sand. How tantalizing!