sábado, 3 de noviembre de 2012

Sailing the Dunes

A photographer sets out to fly over the world’s most extreme deserts, guided by the shifting sand.

 

Text and photograph by George Steinmetz
 
 
I got my first lesson in the physics of sand dunes in 1998 on an expedition into the Sahara. In order to take aerial photos in this remote part of the world, I had learned to fly a motorized paraglider, one of the lightest and slowest aircraft in the world. It weighs a little under a hundred pounds; its top airspeed is 30 miles an hour. And it has no wheels.
I mastered new skills to fly (and land) the paraglider. But there was one I hadn’t realized I’d need to survive the Sahara: reading sand dunes. Just as the sailor watches whitecaps for the sudden squall, I had to learn to anticipate the invisible currents of air that created the dunes. If I wasn’t paying attention, I could get caught in turbulence—or even a fatal downdraft.
The Sahara is traversed by endless rows of dunes called barchans. The word means “crescent-shaped dune” in the Turkic languages of eastern Europe and Central and northern Asia. I had become intrigued with them while reading a book by Ralph Bagnold, a British Army officer who pioneered motorized travel in the Libyan Desert in the 1920s and ’30s. Bagnold described barchans as life-forms—they move, multiply, maintain structure, and adapt to their environment. I thought they might be interesting to photograph from above.
But first I had to reach the dunes. I traveled to the region with France’s Alain Arnoux, a champion of motorized paragliding. I was counting on him to help me fly safely. Getting to the barchans took us four days in a four-wheel drive, traveling from N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, to the far north. The sand that makes up the dunes had traveled too, migrating west from Egypt and Sudan. We were guided by an old French map that depicted the dunes as right parentheses, all pointing into the wind.
I did not realize the difficulties that awaited. Nor did I realize the allure of dunes. Once I started flying in the desert, I came under its spell and began what turned out to be a 15-year project to photograph the world’s most extreme deserts.
When we got to the Mourdi Depression, my traveling companion had bad news. Shouting to be heard over the gale, Alain told me there was no way even he could fly in such wind. So we drove out into the middle of the broad stony basin until we found a 50-foot-tall barchan to give us some shelter for the night.
We awoke before dawn. The wind on the dune crest had died down to a breeze. I took off at sunrise, running down the windward slope of the dune. After gaining 500 feet, I felt like an insect flying over an enormous conveyor belt in a croissant factory. The barchans stretched to the horizon as they combined, separated, and spawned progeny.


DASHT-E LUT IRAN

RUB AL KHALI SAUDI ARABIA

PACIFIC COAST PERU

BADAIN JARAN CHINA

PACIFIC COAST PERU

SAHARA CHAD

RUB AL KHALI SAUDI ARABIA

WADI HAZAR YEMEN

SAHARA ALGERIA

NAMIB DESERT NAMIBIA

SAHARA MAURITANIA

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