A Journey Across the Desert

Published July 11, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

William Langewiesche wants his prose, clearly, to reflect the terrain; spare, tough, conjuring Large Statements. "The revolutionaries had learned to do without," the Atlantic Monthly correspondent writes, from Algiers. "I thought they had learned to love the rain. I saw the desert on them." "Sahara Unveiled" has its moments -- one learns much -- but it is nearly ruined by this affected Bwana-man's-man tone. Typical example: "I drank a slow bitter coffee, and to the surprise of the men beside me took it without sugar." Or this: "After a strong man dies, cowards may forget that once they needed him." It's as if Camus wrote for the J. Peterman catalog.

As with all travel literature, one must decide if the guide's personality damns the trip. Paul Theroux is mean-spirited, Bruce Chatwin ethereal, and Langewiesche humorless. But he is good at meeting people, good at condensing vast amounts of history into clipped, informative sentences, and fairly good at keeping himself out of the story -- which makes the Hemingway-speak a bit easier to take. Langewiesche expertly schools us on the nomadic tribe of the Tuaregs, for instance, and how they robbed camel caravans (piecemeal, targeting the stragglers first). We learn that scorpions can go a year between feedings, or how dunes form in different shapes, some like starfish, or that the Sahara's evaporation rates are the highest in the world -- twice those of the Californian and Australian deserts. As our guide nicely puts it, "In the Sahara it is not only the ground but also the sky that is thirsty."

His travels take him from Algeria in the north, down through Niger, east through Mali, and over to Senegal. "The desert teaches by taking away," writes Langewiesche, and some of the book's best parts concern such lacks. The passages about the effects of thirst are chilling, even practical. (In case you're stuck in the desert, sit under your car for shade, and don't move to avoid sweating; when desperate, drink radiator water.) There are fine set pieces on why Timbuktu undeservedly became storied, how villagers contend with encroaching sand (by breaking the windows of their houses, so the walls won't cave, so the house will be standing when the sand drifts in another direction), and how the invention of the camel saddle was as crucial to the Sahara as the wheel everywhere else.

There's even the obligatory tight spot, wherein Langewische is abandoned by two incompetent guides near some remote cave drawings. "My chances were small," he concedes, "but I would walk at night and keep walking until I died." One does not begrudge him the true terror of his experience, of the awe-ful Sahara, of the deprivations he encounters throughout his travels. But one also wishes our hero didn't posit himself thus; too often, "Sahara Unveiled" invites parody.

By Katherine Whittamore

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