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William Langewiesche
Excerpts from Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert
(Pantheon, 1996)

From Chapter Fifteen:


They were husband, wife, and five-year-old boy, driving an old Peugeot sedan for resale in Burkina Faso. At first their trip went fast, from Algiers through the northern oases to points south. Eventually the pavement ended. They were prepared to spend nights in the desert, but the driving was slower than expected. They were encouraged when they arrived in Tamanrasset. After resting there, and refueling, they pushed on, planning three days to the border with Niger. They tried to follow Addoun's markers, but many already had disappeared.

Partway to the border, as the desert descended into the great southern flats, the Belgians took a wrong turn. When they understood their mistake, they still had plenty of gas, and they set out to retrace their route. This was not easy, since the ground was hard-packed and rocky. But getting lost was part of the adventure, a memorable game for carefree Europeans. We know this because the woman later wrote it down. People dying of thirst in the desert often leave a written record. They have time to think. Writing denies the incredible isolation.

Hear William Langewiesche read this passage (in RealAudio 2.0):

  • Part One (2:45):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

  • Part Two (3:05):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

    (For help, see a note about the audio.)

  • The Peugeot broke down. The Belgians rationed their water and lay in the shade of a tarpaulin. The rationing did not extend their lives; they might as well have drunk their fill, since the human body loses water at a constant rate, even when dehydrated. The only way to stretch your life in the hot desert is to reduce your sweating: stay put, stay shaded, and keep your clothes on.

    The Belgians hoped a truck would come along. For a week they waited, scanning the horizon for a dust-tail or the glint of a windshield. This was in a place, more or less, where the maps still insist on showing a road. The woman felt the upwellings of panic. She began to write more frantically, filling pages in single sessions. The water ran low, then dry, and the family grew horribly thirsty. After filtering it through a cloth, they drank the car's radiator fluid. They had arrived at the danger stage.

    Water is the largest component of our bodies, but we have little to spare. In the hottest desert we lose it, mostly by sweating, at the rate of two gallons a day while resting in the shade, or four gallons a day while walking. We are hardy animals. Because our sweating keeps us cool, we function well in extreme heat as long as we replenish that water loss. If water is available, we naturally maintain our fluid content within a quarter of a percent. But what happens when the supplies run out?

    Thirst is first felt when the body has lost about 0.5 percent of its weight to dehydration. For a 180-pound man, that amounts to about a pint of water. With a 2 percent loss (say, two quarts), the stomach is no longer big enough to supply the body's needs, and people stop drinking before they have replenished their loss, even if they are given ample water. This is called voluntary dehydration, though it is hardly a conscious choice. Up to a 5 percent loss (about one gallon) the symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, flushed skin, irritability, increased pulse rate, and mild fever. Beyond that lie dizziness, headache, labored breathing, absence of salivation, circulatory problems, blued skin, and slurred speech. At 10 percent, a person can no longer walk. The point of no return is 12 percent (a three-gallon deficit), when the tongue swells, and the mouth loses all sensation. Because swallowing becomes impossible, a person this dehydrated cannot recover without medical assistance. In the Sahara it may take only half a day to get to such a condition. Now the skin shrinks against the bones and cracks, the eyes sink into the skull, and vision and hearing become dim. Urination is painful, and urine is dark. Delirium sets in.

    As the body dehydrates in a hot desert climate, a disproportionate amount of water is drawn from the circulating blood. The blood thickens, and finally can no longer fulfill its functions, one of which is to transport heat generated within the body to the surface. It is this heat that ultimately kills. The end comes with an explosive rise in body temperature, convulsions, and blissful death.

    After the radiator coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too. Call it petroposia. Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off the battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help. They also drank their urine. She reported that it was diffficult at first, but that afterward it wasn't so bad.

    The boy was the weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation, they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. The boy could no longer swallow. His name was Maurice. His parents killed him to stop his pain. Later, the husband cut himself open and allowed his wife to drink his blood. At his request, she broke his neck with a rock. Alone now, she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again. She regretted only one thing -- that she had not seen Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. Those were her last lines. She had lost her mind, but through her confusion must have remembered the ease of death in the movies.

  • Return to The Desert Extreme: An Interview with William Langewiesche

    Copyright © 1996 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.