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Surviving the Sahara
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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The "Deadly Road"

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By John HarePhotographs by Carsten Peter

Fifteen-hundred miles (2,400 kilometers) of heat, cold, hunger, and evil spirits. The team's only hope: their steadfast camels.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

As we plodded along, the scrub around us jumped and shimmered in waves of heat. This and the imagined end of a Ti-n-Toumma horizon made the endlessly unfolding plateau seem irreducible—like dry bone. The blue of the sky was veiled in a hot, white haze, and a vindictive sun smote down on the hard-baked earth and frizzling sand, evaporating sweat before it left our pores.

Occasionally a tiny spiral of dusty chaff would start beside the track, dance along a yard or two, and then die down, before springing up again and whirling off into the bush with widening coils. Once more it would collapse, then suddenly rear up and come swirling down on us. From rustling murmur it grew to a rushing, crackling roar, hurling up in its vortex leaves and twigs and small stones amid a thick cloud of dust. Down it would descend, filling our ears and eyes and nose with prickling sand—spitting hot breath into our faces—and then it would dance off into the desert again, swaying and thrashing, just like a living thing, leaving us parched and gasping for breath.

After three weeks the sun-baked land of the burr abruptly gave way to towering sand dunes. We had reached the Great Erg of Bilma. At this point we were acutely conscious that we were, at last, in real camel country. We had slipped into a part of the world that mercifully the internal combustion engine had failed to conquer. In places the going was very soft, and although the camels sank hock deep into loose powdery sand, they struggled on, snaking around, up, and over the dunes, grunting when the uphill going was difficult and surging forward on a downhill slope. The baggage camels were all tethered together in a long line. As they descended the steep slope of a dune, Adam, who is no more than five feet (two meters) tall, ran up and down the line urging them forward to ensure that the caravan kept an even pace. If it didn't, a tethering rope would snap, and the whole caravan would fall apart, causing us to halt while ropes were readjusted and retied.

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Learn what it takes to keep a camel caravan going in this online journey across the Sahara, narrated by John Hare.


Send a friend a sea of sand with this e-greeting of a camel caravan.


From a space observatory to the curve of a camel's hip bone, this month's images will wow your desktop.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
We all know that camels store water in their humps, right? Wrong. The humps are actually large deposits of fatty tissue from which camels draw energy when food is scarce, allowing them to go for up to a week without eating. When a camel uses this reserve energy supply, the hump becomes flabby and shrinks, and can even flop from its standing position to hang down the camel's side. Once a camel is given proper food and rest, the hump generally returns to its original size within a few days.

So where do camels store water? Mostly in their bloodstream, with some water circulating in the stomach and saliva. Camels normally go without drinking for about a week but have been known to go more than 50 days without water, causing them to lose up to a third of their body weight. But with the ability to drink up to 40 gallons of water at a time, camels quickly rehydrate.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about camels is that they first evolved in North America, not Africa. Fossils found in North American deposits date the first members of the Camelidae family to roughly 40 million years ago. Camels are believed to have crossed land bridges linking North America to Siberia some three million years ago, eventually moving south and west into Asia and North Africa. (Other members of the Camelidae family traveled south, across the isthmus of Panama, and evolved into the llama and vicuña.) Why camels disappeared from North America remains a mystery.

— David Brindley

Did You Know?

Related Links
Wild Camel Protection Foundation
Learn more about author John Hare's Saharan crossing and his research on wild Bactrian camels in the Gobi desert.

The A-Z of Camels
Find a bevy of interesting facts about our humpbacked friends at this site.

Society for Libyan Studies
This British organization offers loads of information about Libyan archaeology, history, linguistics, and natural sciences, in addition to other useful website links.

Libya: An End to Isolation?
Learn how Libya stepped out from behind a veil of international isolation after 30 years. Now it's shedding its terrorist image and reaching out to the world. 

Sights & Sounds of Libya
View a slide show of Reza's images, and listen to author Andrew Cockburn as we peer behind the veil.


Clutton-Brock, Juliet. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ham, Anthony. Libya. Lonely Planet Publications, 2002.

St. John, Ronald Bruce. Historical Dictionary of Libya, 3rd ed. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.

Vischer, Hanns. Across the Sahara: From Tripoli to Bornu. Edward Arnold, 1910. Facsimile edition, Darf Publishers Ltd., 1995.


NGS Resources
Herndon, David. "Morocco: Freewheeling with the Berbers in the Atlas and Sahara," National Geographic Adventure (July/August 2000), 78-83.

Jones, Finn-Olaf. "Morocco by Camel," National Geographic Traveler (March 2000), 128-140.

Langewiesche, William. "Sahara," National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 106-108.

Coulson, David. "Preserving the Sahara's Prehistoric Art," National Geographic (September 1999), 82-89.

Steinmetz, George. "Riding the Wind: Photographing the Sahara From Aloft," National Geographic (March 1999), 34-39.

Webster, Donovan. "Journey to the Heart of the Sahara," National Geographic (March 1999), 2-33.

Englebert, Victor. "I Joined a Sahara Salt Caravan," National Geographic (November 1965), 684-711.


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