Cover image for Sahara : a natural history
Sahara : a natural history
De Villiers, Marq.
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Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Company, [2002]

Physical Description:
326 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
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QH195.S3 D4 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In the parched and seemingly lifeless heart of the Sahara desert, earthworms find enough moisture to survive. Four major mountain ranges interrupt the flow of dunes and gravel plains, and at certain times waterfalls cascade from their peaks. Even the sand amazes: massive dunes can appear almost overnight, and be gone just as quickly. We think we know the Sahara, the largest and most austere desert on Earth--yet it is full of surprises, as Marq de Villiers reveals in his brilliant and evocative biography of the land and its people.

"If you traveled across the United States from Boston to San Diego, you still wouldn't have crossed the Sahara," writes de Villiers, painting a vivid picture of this most extraordinary place. He charts the course of Atlantic hurricanes, many of which are born in the Tibesti Mountains of northern Chad, and offers a fascinating disquisition on the physics of windblown sand and the formation of dunes. He chronicles the formation of the massive aquifers that lie beneath the desert, some filled with water that pre-dates the appearance of modern man on Earth. He marvels at the jagged mountains and at ancient cave paintings deep in the desert, which reveal that the Sahara was a verdant grassland 10,000 years ago--a cycle that has been repeated several times.

Woven through de Villiers's story is a chronicle of the desert's nations and people: the Berbers and Arabs of the north; its black African south, whose ancestors peopled the greatest empires of Old Africa; and the extraordinary nomads--the Moors, the Tuareg (the famous "blue men"), and the Tubu--who call the desert home today. Illuminated by the eloquent written testimonies of past travelers, Sahara is a glittering geographic tour conveying the majesty, mystery, and abundance of life in what the outside world thinks of as the Great Emptiness.

Author Notes

Marq De Milliers is the author of six books on travel, exploration, history, & contemporary politics, including "Into Africa: A Journey Through the Ancient Empires" & "White Tribe Dreaming", his award-winning memoir of growing up in South Africa. He lives in Nova Scotia.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

"The desert seems a strangely living thing," de Villiers and Hirtle write, "a shifting, capricious, willful entity, obliterating all in its path." Their engrossing study will bring the Saharan landscape to life even for those who have never set foot in a desert. The authors describe, in vivid detail, the ever-shifting dunes, the overwhelmingly violent sandstorms, and the omnipresent flies, mosquitoes, and scorpions that pester travelers and residents of the Sahara. Once a thriving grassland, the Sahara's population growth wore down the natural resources of the land, resulting in the desertification of the area. The arrival of Islamic warriors in 1050 C.E. hastened the change and brought Islam to the population. Religious wars sprang up, and the powerful kingdoms battled among themselves. Focusing primarily on Mali, Niger, Chad, Algeria, and Libya, de Villiers and Hirtle trace the countries' history up to the present day and describe in detail the cultures, such as the Tubu and Tuareg, that call the deep, most formidable areas of the Sahara home. Insightful and intelligent, this fascinating book will appeal to anyone with a curiosity about the world's largest desert and the people who inhabit it. --Kristine Huntley

Publisher's Weekly Review

After navigating the physical and political properties of the world's oceans, lakes, rivers and aquifers in his last book, Water, Canadian journalist de Villiers is back on (very) dry land in this new volume but his writing is every bit as fertile. Co-written with Hirtle (with whom he also wrote Into Africa), the book is part travel memoir, part history lesson and part archeological dig, bringing to life the stark landscape of the earth's largest desert. The first half describes how sand dunes take shape so suddenly and travel, wavelike, so quickly; why stands of petrified forests developed; and how relatively mild shifts in the earth's ecosystem and weather patterns transformed the once-verdant grasslands of a mere 10 centuries ago into today's austere environment. The book's second half discusses the ebb and flow of great cities and civilizations along both the northern (Berber and Arab) and southern (black African) edges of the desert, as well as the Moor, Tuareg and Tubu nomads who roamed between them. It also details trade patterns and tribal groupings that have existed over many centuries and takes the reader on a contemporary camel-powered salt-trade caravan. Though this book doesn't have the political urgency or current-events hook of Water, the authors' evocative blend of reportage and concise historical overview makes it a fine read for both armchair travelers and those interested in natural history. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

South African-born de Villiers (Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource) and Hirtle (his coauthor on Into Africa: A Journey Through the Ancient Empires) offer a thoroughgoing account of the world's largest desert. They include a complex history (both natural and human), as well as a look at the complicated ethnology and present-day life of the various tribes (Tauregs, Berbers, Moors, and Tubu) that have adapted to this incredibly harsh climate. On occasion, the authors tend toward the overly dramatic ("mountains as black as a sinner's heart"), and the organization seems a bit complex and convoluted, but chapters on the Sahara's natural history and modern conditions as well as a fascinating account of a caravan crossing the desert make this a worthy purchase for larger academic and natural history collections. Tim Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Vast but not empty, sand strewn but also rocky and mountainous, the Sahara is largely unknown to North American biologists. Names like Boubacar al-Moctar dit Wantam (to whom the book is dedicated) tangle the tongue and spark the imagination. Of course, Timbuktu is there, but who among us can name another Saharan oasis? The Sahara is instantly recognized as a geographical place name, but that is about all. De Villiers's maddening but seductive book wanders through the Sahara--maddening because so little information is given; seductive because it evokes the vastness and monotony of the Sahara by asking the reader to fill in the empty spaces with conjecture. It calls itself a "natural history," but there is very little nonhuman biology mentioned. Nevertheless, that somehow seems appropriate. Even with so little written specifically about the Sahara, it is hard to recommend this book to the first-time researcher who is looking for just facts and a few photographs. For the professional, this understated survey creates a desire for more technical reporting, but its description of the vastness of the Sahara will remain unrivaled. General readers; faculty and researchers; professionals; two-year technical program students. G. Stevens formerly, University of New Mexico

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Idea of the Desertp. 1
Part 1 The Place Itself
Chapter 1 In a Geographer's Eyep. 9
Chapter 2 From the Distant Pastp. 38
Chapter 3 The Sand Seasp. 55
Chapter 4 The Windsp. 76
Chapter 5 The Surprising Matter of Waterp. 90
Chapter 6 The Massifsp. 126
Chapter 7 The Tenacity of Lifep. 142
Part 2 And the People Who Live There
Chapter 8 First Peoplesp. 159
Chapter 9 Empires of the Sunp. 172
Chapter 10 Route Mapsp. 203
Chapter 11 White Gold, Yellow Gold, Black Goldp. 223
Chapter 12 Adepts of the Uttermost Desertp. 238
Chapter 13 Life on the Roadp. 264
Epilogue: The Sahara as Homep. 289
Notesp. 293
Bibliographyp. 305
Indexp. 311