Desert Songs - First Chapter

Arita Baaijens

Excerpt comes from Desert Songs, which is the extraordinary story of one woman's lone quest in the harsh but beautiful desert. Arita Baaijens gave up her job as an environmentalist nearly twenty years ago, and has been exploring the deserts of Egypt and Sudan with her small camel caravan ever since. In Desert Songs she recounts her passion for the desert, the place she loves and fears. On one level Desert Songs reads as an ode to camels, vistas and horizons, nomads and exploration. On another it is a story about an inward journey, a rite of passage. It is about leaving the world you know to venture into the unknown where you discover your true strength. How strong are you when there's no backup? Where do your limits lie? Baaijens sets out on a voyage of self-discovery and unrelenting physical trials to find the answers. The experience changes her forever.

Arita Baaijens Desert Songs Cover
Arita Baaijens
Arita Baaijens

Chapter 1. The desert my home

For many years the desert had been a painting I gazed at with longing. My brief forays into the Sinai Desert did not count. What I was looking for was something larger and emptier, a continent, say, with vistas and horizons, freshly laundered skies, and abraded earth. A place I could disappear into for months without anyone noticing.


In the autumn of 1988 dream and reality came together. Bringing up the rear of a modest cortege of camels, I stepped out of the small Egyptian oasis known as Ain Tinin and straight through the frame of the painting, feeling very much like Alice in Wonderland. Still half dreaming, I followed the swishing camel tails, trudging across the powdery chalk sand into which I sank up to my ankles. It didn’t bother me when – to put me to the test – my German guide marched for hours without a break. As I chewed on a piece of dry bread, my gaze was drawn to hills that resembled caterpillars and sickle-shaped sand dunes that seemed to embrace the desert.


It was a fairy-tale setting of blindingly white limestone rocks and sand dunes I loved to roll down. Occasionally I found the odd fossil or flintstone arrow, and I scoured the rock face in search of scratched symbols. I revelled in the desert wind and the spare, virgin landscape, still untouched by modern man because this desert was simply too large and too arid and too frightening.


I was serenely happy, but the same could not be said of the man who held my fate in his hands. I had spurned the advances of my desert guide, and I would have to leave the caravan. But how could I leave? I had embarked on this adventure with the inner conviction that it was going to change my life. That’s why I stayed, hoping for a cease-fire, for peace of mind, so that I could enjoy the silence and the beauty of the desert undisturbed.


A month later I was so emotionally exhausted by all the arguments and slanging matches that I decided to return to civilization. I spent the last evening alone, so that I could take leave of the desert in peace. A full moon appeared from beneath the earth. Its majestic contours rose above the sand dunes as it glided regally skywards. The stars paled in comparison. Never had I seen the moon at such close quarters. Never had I imagined that its round face could be so large, and shine so compellingly.


I hardly slept that night, and not only because of the full moon. For a moment I toyed with the idea of trekking into the desert on my own. But the very thought frightened me half to death! Navigation was not my strong suit.


The next day I followed the camel tracks to the camp of my guide. He was enthusiastic about my somewhat vague plan to go it alone: ‘That’s exactly what I would have done in your place’ He gave me directions, a map, provisions and a camel. I could leave the following day. That was just a bit too fast for me, and maybe it was for that reason that he offered to follow me at a distance, in case I missed a water well. ‘I’ll manage just fine with a map and a compass,’ I said, with more bravura than I actually felt.


In fact, I very nearly missed the first water well, and I did miss the next one, after which my camel ran away and my watch stopped working, which meant I couldn’t calculate the distance I had already travelled.


Peace and quiet were in short supply. Mabrouka missed the other camels and bellowed from dawn to dusk, while the desert presented its most hostile face. I saw the magnificence of the black-powdered chalk hills and the sand traces, but my stomach churned at the thought that somehow I would have to find my own way.


I asked myself why I was courting danger when there was no need to. No one expected anything of me, and it wasn’t really much fun on my own. The only time I was actually happy was in the evening, when Mabrouka sat quietly by my feet and the stars twinkled.


During the day, the sun forced me to keep walking. It was then that I had to make my decisions. But what difference did it make whether I headed for one hill or the other?  It all seemed totally senseless. At home in Holland I got up when the alarm went off, I kept my appointments, exercised regularly several days a week, and on the weekends I went out. My whole life was governed by the expectations of others, and now that I had to fill the minutes and hours myself, I was at my wit’s end.


The worst part was that I no longer knew who I was, now that there was no one around to laugh or cry with me, or take exception to something I said or did. The person I thought I was proved to be no more than the sum of what others thought of me. In this social vacuum, my old persona faded away. My identity disappeared – suddenly, without so much as a by-your-leave.


As I put one foot in front of the other, I wondered whose voice I was hearing in my head. Who or what was determining my actions? Where were my thoughts coming from and where were they going? My sense of space and time altered. Sometimes minutes went by during which my head was totally empty of thought: I was one with the sun and the camels, and everything was fine just the way it was. But as soon as a wisp of thought floated by, the clock started ticking again. Then I was conscious of the passing of time and cause and effect; conscious of a stone in my shoe, and the camel walking next to me. I saw the world as a magic trick and my mind as the magician who could make things disappear and reappear at will.


After a stay of three months in Egypt, I returned to Holland, to that austere polder landscape where human lives are governed by the minute hand of the clock. My desert journey had left me with more questions than answers. And when I tried to pick up the thread of everyday life again, I knew that something had changed forever. My office job and my social life no longer held any attraction, and when I got home after work I was happy to sit for hours at a time, just staring in front of me. The walls receded and in my mind’s eye I saw the spot where my soul was still wandering. I missed the horizon, the caress of the wind, fussing around with camels, and the languid rhythm of life.


In the desert I had toyed with the idea of giving up my job. The life of a nomad had appealed to me, but now I realized that here in Holland I was encapsulated, protected. As an adventurer, I would be placing myself outside society. Which is all well and good when you’re young, but how would I cope as I got older? What would become of me if I gave up everything? The longer I thought about it, the more unreal the plan seemed.


But a year later, after my second desert journey, all doubts disappeared. During a stay of several months, surrounded by sand and rocks, I discovered that the longing for solitude and a life on the edge had not been an illusion. Heat, cold, thirst, discomfort, and exhaustion did not bother me, and giving up my resistance to things I had no power to change had a beneficial effect on my spirit. My life now centred solely on camels and on finding water. The world beyond simply did not exist. It was glorious to walk for hours on end, occasionally looking back to check on the camels. As they plodded on, the simple bobbing of their heads encouraged me. Thoughts came but quickly evaporated. More often, I thought about nothing at all and was happier than I had ever thought possible. What difference did it make that I still could not put into words what drove me to the desert? A longing cannot always be explained, but it is still there, like the sun, the moon and the stars. The anxious voices that had plagued me when I was in Holland gradually fell silent. I saw myself as an elderly lady, with a lovely home, a car in the garage, and a healthy bank balance. While money and security are not unimportant, the crucial question was: ‘From my vantage point in the lap of luxury, how would I look back on a life that had not been fully lived?


Having decided to quit my job, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I was free as I had never been before, simply because I had nothing more to lose. Never again would I allow myself to be fenced in by convention and false certainties. From now on, I would rely on the voice of my heart.


It is in the desert that Nature shows us its most uncompromising face. The magnificent play of shadows, the comforting flood of light, and the gold glow of the sand are there, of course, but only when the sun is low on the horizon. During the hours in between, the sunlight is hard and unflattering, and it is then that the desert reveals its cruel side: equally beautiful, but disquieting.


The desert kills where it can, and the instinct for survival infuses us with courage and vitality. Face to face with danger, the blood is fired up, the eye becomes keener, and blunted senses come to life again. It is no longer possible to rely on routine, and there is no time to worry about futilities. To survive in the desert, you must be prepared to give up everything, and this is a trial of strength which involves facing up to hard facts. How strong are you when there’s no back-up? Can you handle fear and panic, or do the demons in the furthest reaches of your mind get the upper hand? Where do your limits lie? This is precisely what I intended to find out on my third desert journey, in the winter of 1990, the year I quit my job.  There was a good chance that the 400-kilometre trek across the waterless desert between the oases of Farafra and Kharga would end in disaster. And yet I was not weary of life when I made my decision. On the contrary. Facing up to the challenge of death was a way of overcoming my fear of life. Somewhere deep inside I knew that if this journey was successful, I would never be afraid of anything again.


‘November 10, 1990. The caravan threads its way through the hills. Perfunctorily I record my course changes, noting how many minutes I’ve walked in a certain direction. After weeks of plodding, I no longer trust my notes. The map is a meaningless scrap of paper, and terms like open sand plain and rough limestone plateau say nothing about the moonless landscape around me. The desert where I felt so much at home for all those years now offers no solace. It wrings from me sweat and blood. My head is empty, and my body, too. Gatifa regularly collapses and the last link with reality seems to have disappeared. I don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow. Nothing exists except the here and now.’


When I wrote these words in my diary, the point of no return was already behind me. Standing on the ragged edge of a limestone plateau with two exhausted camels, I had looked down to see an oasis. I could have gone back then, but I turned around and headed for the sand dunes, dragging the camels grimly behind me, down one dune and up the next.


Gatifa was close to exhaustion, and I was in pretty bad shape myself. But there could be no question of giving up. My fate was bound up with this journey: I could not face a life without certainty or security until I knew how strong I was. Giving up now would endanger my future. It would also be tantamount to moral suicide.


Some people may find it hard to believe that a person is willing to die for an idea. And yet there was considerable truth in my reasoning, as witness all those myths and legends about heroes who voluntarily undertake a perilous quest with no regard for their own safety.


The journey into uncertainty symbolizes the transition to adulthood, a rite of passage which no longer arouses much interest in the Western world. On the surface, at least, for primeval urges are universal and the veneer of civilization thin.


During that journey I laid to rest panic, fear of death, and my own madness. Those experiences changed me forever. The moments of happiness also had a decisive influence on the rest of my life. Pure bliss was occasioned by such seemingly unimportant things as the rising and setting of the sun, a miracle I never got used to. Or a cool breeze that dried the perspiration on my forehead, the sight of dreamy camels just outside my night camp, the horseshoe of saddle bags that formed my ‘house’ wherever I set up camp. So little was needed to evoke a deep sense of contentment. At night I sometimes crawled out of my sleeping bag and walked across the sand, shivering with cold, but blissfully happy because I was one with the glittering stars, the immeasurable space around me, and the cool sand underneath my feet. The emptiness, the silence, the surrender to what there is, the awareness that I am everything and nothing: at moments like this insights came to me that were gone again a minute later. But they had left their mark, for my heart overflowed and my head seemed about to explode.


It is amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to a new life. I was now a bird of passage who became impatient as soon as the leaves began to turn, heralding the arrival of autumn. When at night the winter constellation of Orion wafted across the Amsterdam sky like an over-sized butterfly, I began counting the days and looking forward to my reunion with the camels. Every winter I explored a different white spot on the map, searching for old, forgotten caravan routes, rock engravings, and temple ruins. Not only were these explorations exciting, they also served to structure the months I spent in the desert.


I was on my way before daybreak, and I greeted the sun with one eye on the map and compass. I seldom spent two nights in the same place: the journey is more important than the arrival. The caravan covered a distance of some forty kilometres a day, and loading and unloading involved lifting hundreds of kilos. On arrival, I tended to the camels, set up camp, lugged heavy water barrels and feed bags, and slept under the stars. After calculating the route I’d travelled that day, I updated my diary and was dead to the world by seven o’clock.


I do not want to romanticize my life in the desert. It is a harsh existence with at least as many lows as highs. There is no enjoyment involved in battling sandstorms for days or even weeks at a time, discovering that the camels have run off, or listening to the plaintive bellowing of animals that are hungry or thirsty. I do not feel particularly brave standing on the edge of a cliff face that I know I must descend, even though I’m not sure how and the camels are rearing in terror and crapping all over everything. And yet it is infinitely more satisfying to take on the elements than to join the frantic rat race to get ahead in your chosen profession.


The outside world I was so eager to escape from caught up with me a few years later. Deep wells and ribbons of asphalt in the furthest reaches of the Egyptian desert were the forerunners of large-scale agricultural projects. Even more far-reaching was the arrival of the GPS, a satellite navigation system that turned the desert into a playground for motorized tourism. Naturally, I know that the desert is not mine alone. And yet I cursed them, those newcomers who treat the desert as if it’s disposable, something that provides a brief moment of enjoyment and is then discarded. The untouched landscape and the old caravan routes are now covered by a network of deep car tracks: incurable open wounds, above which hang the lingering overtones of gasoline and sun-tan oil.


The desecration of everything I held dear drove me to Sudan, where war and violence keep tourists at bay. In the largest country in Africa, I found a home among nomads who tend camels: proud, freedom-loving men and women whose shrewd gaze is always on the horizon.


The transition from an uninhabited to an inhabited desert was significant. I had to get used to the invisible eyes that followed my every move, and the dangers that lurked all around me.  Raids and shootings were an everyday occurrence in Sudan, and it was not always safe for me to travel on my own. Least of all in the state of Darfur, in the far west of Sudan. Even before the war began in 2003, the area was made unsafe by the presence of bandits, who first emptied their guns and then demanded the spoils. In North Kordofan a single armed escort had been  sufficient, but in Darfur I was accompanied by two body-guards and the elderly desert guide Yussuf Gamaa, who also served as a chaperone. The men were extremely courteous, but it was clear that they did not take my desert experience or navigational skills very seriously, and my sense of curiosity puzzled them. In fact, the idea of someone travelling through such territory purely out of curiosity is incomprehensible to a nomad whose life hangs permanently by a thread. My companions soon forgot why they had been hired, and while I was interested in rock carvings, the ruins of old cities, and a salt lake in the midst of a sand sea, they couldn’t wait to leave Darfur behind them. I had to fight for each new destination, and as the weeks passed I found myself losing my temper more and more often, something which the Sudanese regard as a serious transgression. In other areas, too, the cultural differences were considerable. Where the nomads had to contend with severe limitations in the area of food, water, health care, education and employment, I lived in a land of plenty, and was accustomed to thinking ahead in order to preclude risks. But there was no way of avoiding the dangers inherent in life in Sudan. There was no insurance policy that covered bombs, lack of rain, epidemics, and military coups. In a crisis you turned to family or to Allah. There were no other options.


Mentally, my fellow travellers and I weren’t even on the same planet, but I did feel a genuine kinship with my desert guide. It was as if I was closer to a man like Yussuf, who had known famines and once lost his whole camel herd during a drought, than to the upwardly mobile young people in my own country. And as far as danger is concerned, the chances of being caught up in a gun battle were no greater than the likelihood of being involved in a traffic accident in Amsterdam.


That’s how I felt about Darfur when the rule of law and conflict mediation were still functioning. It was only when war broke out, shortly after my last journey,  that I realized just how much was going on beneath the surface.


Travelling through Sudan, I sometimes longed for the solitude of the Egyptian desert. And yet back in Egypt, I missed the camaraderie, talking around the fire, and the chance meetings with nomads. But regardless of whether I was in Sudan or Egypt, more and more my thoughts were returning to those early years in the desert. The intensity of life, the obsession, that all-or-nothing feeling, had disappeared for good. I realized that I no longer travelled because I had to, but out of habit. It was a painful discovery. And yet the loss of my obsession marked a new beginning. The desert had finished with me. It was time to move on.


In the meantime, I have spread my wings and embraced other regions. But the decision to take leave of the desert for good is apparently one I cannot take.

Desert Songs is a journey through time: an ode to my camels and to the desert, which for twenty years has been my home. 


Arita Baaijens
Arita Baaijens - photo: Victor Bentley

I gave up my job as an environmental biologist many years ago, since when I have trekked the Egyptian and Sudanese desert every winter with my camels. Since 2007 my focus has shifted and I now explore southwest Siberia, where I travel on horseback. Planned for 2013: Expedition Search for Paradise, a year long circumnavigation of the Altai mountains in China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. As an author, photographer and radio-producer, I regularly report on my travels.