When the English become eccentric, they do so thoroughly. Ralph Bagnold, (1895 to 1990), was a British army officer based in Egypt before the Second World War. In his spare time he and colleagues drove out of Cairo in precarious early vehicles, and explored the vast Western Desert developing new navigation and driving techniques in the process. Most people thought the desert impenetrable, and to some extent it was. There were no maps, no tracks, and few oases.
During the war, Axis forces operated mostly on a narrow coastal strip, where there were a few roads. The desert to the south was as impenetrable as the subconscious. Except to Bagnold, who was asked to found and lead the Long Range Desert Group, one of the most successful special forces units of the period, emerging from the desert a thousand miles behind enemy lines, collecting intelligence and rendering the roads doubly dangerous to the enemy.
If challenged, they would retreat back into the desert where they could not easily be followed, a desert so huge and so strange that one of the LRDG trucks, abandoned in the Libyan desert during the war, was recovered in 1983 and now sits in the Imperial War Museum in London. Because the desert is so dry, it is still in surprisingly good order.
At the same time, Bagnold studied and wrote about sand dunes and how they are formed and shaped, leading to his publication of “The physics of blown sand and desert dunes”, which became a classic text, and was even used by NASA when planning moon landings two decades later. Bagnold was one of the few people to achieve the rank of Brigadier, and to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and win many other scientific awards.
So it was a real pleasure to walk and ride over dunes in the Sahara, and to feel something of the attraction they must have exercised on Bagnold, who has always been one of my heroes. The dunes have a silent majesty. The nights are very cold indeed, but by nine am on a February day, the sun has warmed them up. They are fatal to the unwary, they are beautiful, they are shifting, their patterns are intricate and precise.
Overnight their surfaces refresh and, even in an area where tourists now venture a few hundred metres into the Sahara on trains of camels, there are no footprints left in the morning to disturb their strict abstract geometry.