Shifting Sands: In the Wind

Continued from
Olduvai Gorge: Way the Hell Back in Time

Tanzania’s Shifting Sands are two crescent-shaped, bizarrely magnetic dunes in the midst of a long stretch of dusty desert. The sands blow slowly forth, around and back again as though pushed by tides, always holding their shape, never explaining themselves.

The air around them crackles with a strange energy, the vista is seemingly endless, and while there’s nothing else really here per se, there’s a strange pull that wants you (and the sands themselves) to stay.

Meandering up from Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge along a dusty, bumpy, forlorn and empty road, we suddenly arrived at the start of the Shifting Sands. A collection of small plaques, placed in decade increments, shows that these mysterious drifts migrate just about 17 meters a year, always within the same small area.

Our motley little crew — me, Adam, a wee and long-married couple from Scotland, and our safari guide, Erick — rumbled up to the largest dune, creaked out of the truck and as instructed, clambered to the soft and slanted top. We all stood there in silence, surveying our strange domain. I mean, what do you say to a crescent-shaped mound in the midst of a badland? Looking around at this bone-barren landscape, I was merely amazed that it could sustain the occasional tree. 


With our safari companions, a septuagenarian couple from Scotland celebrating their 50th anniversary

But then I racked focus…and saw a small boy wrapped in a red cloth, a young Maasai herder, walking our way.

Where had he come from? And what was he doing out here all alone? I scanned the horizon a half-mile behind him and finally spotted his adult companions, loping along slowly in a hazy shimmer without any cattle. In the glowing heat of just about noon, this was a heck of a time to be out for a stroll.

As the sands scattered and rearranged themselves, the young boy climbed the dune and lingered at its edge. I smiled at him. He stared back, expressionless. He kept one wary eye on Erick, who actually isn’t the type of guy to make trouble for anyone. Then the boy looked off in the direction of his older friends/brothers, squinting into the sun.

Erick mentioned aside that Maasai guys sometimes approach tourists seeking payment to have their photos taken, and we all expressed surprise. Where do you spend money around here, we wondered? Seriously, it was so barren and quiet that we could hear the sand rippling beneath our feet. Erick asserted that weekly markets might crop up nearby, or herders might walk the 20 some-odd miles to the next largest town to see what was for sale. Oh, we said, each of us trailing off, barely able to comprehend a 20-some-odd-mile walk in the African desert to save our own lives, much less buy dry goods.

In almost the same moment, Erick announced that lunch would be on the only hill in sight…just over there. He took the truck and the Scots, and we hoofed it to join them. And you know how things look a  lot closer until you start walking towards them? That’s the hill, all right. Peppered with spectacular white quartzes, at least it was a journey with a bit of sparkle. And not just from the sweat.

Lunch above the Shifting Sands, &Beyond Africa-style

Our meal was as splendid as any other prepared at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, but there’s something undeniably decadent about settling into a canvas chair overlooking a 3 million year-old wind-snaked sand dune, nibbling on a green bean salad and not having anywhere else to be, for once. Strange little birds and lizards darted out from the thorny bushes clustered on the hilltops. By the time the older Maasai guys reached us — only to stand around and pretend not to stare, as if we were all packed into a crowded nightclub — the Shifting Sands far below had probably moved an inch or two. 

Then the wind changed direction, whistling at our heads in the baking heat, and it was time to go. I picked up a single piece of quartz, smiled at Adam, and put the rock in my pocket as a totem.


See also
Olduvai Gorge: Way the Hell Back in Time

Ngorongoro Crater: Africa’s Amazing Hobbit Shire
Ngorongoro Crater: Survival of the Fittest
Ngorongoro Crater: Way Beyond the Rim
TWT Travel Binder: Tanzania

My Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta series
Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa
Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There
Logistics of an African Safari

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