Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 16

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Saudi Aramco World
dust carried by the
wind only makes
the sight more sur-
real. All through
our stay here, I hear
the wind—touch
it, feel it and even
smell it.
For the Chadians,
another wonder
has seized their at-
tention: Cellphone
coverage. There is a
tower nearby, and
now everybody in
the expedition is
calling and text-
ing back home to
N’Djamena, the
capital.
The sun is set-
ting as we tour our
first lake, Uma, in
Ounianga Kebir,
which is comprised
of four lakes. A
man is leisurely
dousing himself just
off the sandbar that
splits this salt lake.
The water color is
red, an effect of the
algae
Spirulina pla-
tensis
, which covers the lake in a layer as thick as 15 centimeters
(4") in places. It stinks. This, Kröpelin explains, means there has
been little wind for a few weeks prior to our arrival. “If there
is wind, they don’t smell,” he says. But neither the smell, nor
the sight of a man swimming in the Sahara, astounds nearly as
much as the croaking of a frog.
It’s a living reminder of the era of the Green Sahara, known
as the African Humid Period, which lasted roughly from
11,000 to 5000 years ago, but here at Ounianga, it is still, in
effect,
going on. This frog is a survivor, a biological relic of
the once-vibrant life of the North African savannah—now the
scorching Sahara—where elephants, giraffe, hippos, antelopes
and a wild ancestor of domestic cattle called aurochs once
made their homes.
W
e make our campsite on the hillside above
Lake Boukou, in the second cluster of
lakes, called Ounianga Serir (“Little Ou-
nianga”), about 50 kilometers (30 mi)
east of the Ounianga Kebir lakes
.
Boukou
is a freshwater lake, surrounded by palms and colored deep
blue, half-covered by green reeds that somehow complement
the Martian landscape of massifs and drifting dunes.
We camp in the open, and at three a.m. I’m startled by five
jackals surrounding my head, a meter away. It’s as if they are
debating which part of me each one might grab first. I scare
them off, go back to sleep and later wake to a glorious sunrise.
All is silence. The orange sands, the massifs, the lake: All shim-
mer in the morning sun.
On the walk down to the shore, I’m distracted from that
“There are salt lakes in deserts worldwide, but freshwater lakes you just don’t have,” says Baba Mallah,
physicist and director of Chad’s national scientific research center. Standing on the shore of the reed-covered
portion of Lake Boukou, he explains that the reeds retard evaporation, and together with replenishing seepage
from the aquifer below, the lake water stays fresh.
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