No. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature
by Charles F. Hutchinson
"Damn!" exclaimed Riguelle, waking his passenger, Antoine de
Saint-Exupéry. Flying off the coast of West Africa to avoid the
Sahara's heat, the pilot had just lost his engine. He was high
enough, though, to reach land and put the aircraft down "safely,"
losing both wheels and a wing in the process. The aircraft that
accompanied them could only take Riguelle and the mail onward.
That left the fledgling pilot Saint-Exupéry alone with the wreck
among the dunes on his first day in Africa.
To further complicate matters, warring Arabs in the region recently had killed two airmail pilots. Thoughtfully, Riguelle and the other pilot left him with a sidearm, five clips of cartridges, and the advice to "shoot anything and everything you see."
Thus is Saint-Exupéry introduced to the desert in Wind, Sand and Stars. Like many of us, rather than being terrified he is smitten:
"I walked to the top of a sand hill and looked round the horizon like a captain on his bridge. This sea of sand bowled me over. Unquestionably, it was filled with mystery and danger. The silence that reigned over it was not the silence of emptiness but of plotting, of imminent enterprise. I sat still and stared into space. The end of the day was near. Something half revealed yet wholly unknown had bewitched me. The love of the Sahara, like love itself, is born of a face perceived and never really seen. Ever after this first sight of your new love, an indefinable bond is established between you and the veneer of gold on the sand in the late sun."
Saint-Exupéry's experiences in the deserts of West Africa were very much on my mind in 1986. Unlike Riguelle, our Belgian pilot, Phillipe Granjean, murmured only "uh, oh" when he looked at the fuel gauge of our Piper Cherokee. We had just finished an aerial photographic survey of agriculture on the Mauritanian side of the Senegal River, and I had begun to doze on the jumble of equipment in the back of the plane. Phillipe had been concentrating on finding the villages we wanted to study and had underestimated the amount of fuel it would take to get back to the airport in Kaedi. There was an auxiliary airport nearby, but it was in Senegal and relations between the two countries were strained. With no other option, however, we covered our cameras and their large mounts with clothing and landed, feeling like spies.
Unsmiling soldiers from the neighboring army base met us suspiciously before the aircraft engine had stopped. Giggling children swirled around the plane, poking through the open cargo door through which we photographed, coming close to uncovering our cameras. We were more than a little concerned when the soldiers took us to the commandant of the base. An imposing figure, he appeared in a cap with "Snap-On Tools" printed across the crown, happily proclaimed that he had just returned from six months' training at Ft. Hays, Kansas, and promptly offered us Coca Cola. We gratefully accepted.
There was no fuel at the airport, so Phillipe set off in a rented truck to fetch some from Kaedi, a good distance and an unfriendly international boundary away. We couldn't leave the plane and I won the privilege of sleeping in the front. The plane was rocked gently by the warm wind. Lying uncomfortably across the two seats, I watched through the canopy as the occasional shooting star fell to earth. As Saint-Exupéry had put it:
"I had become the witness to this miserly rain from the stars. The marvel of marvels was that there, on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human consciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected."
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