National Geographic

Lines in Sand

North of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 21°48'46" N, 39°3'16" E

It is night. I hear Mohamad Banounah praying: “. . . بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم . . . ”

He is bent at the waist, circling my sleeping bag, walking backward through the dark. Is it a joke? Some type of dance? Is he suffering from heatstroke? No: It is an improvised blessing. My Saudi guide, a compact, effusive, methodical man, a desert survival expert, a wildlife photographer, a retired military officer, is dragging a stick through the sand. He is drawing a circle around my tarp—invoking the name of Allah, the Benificent, the Merciful, for divine protection. It is our first camp in the desert of Arabia.

We have walked two days out of the vast port city of Jeddah: more than 60 miles atop sidewalks sterilized by the cauterizing rays of the sun. Behind us: the jostling dreams of 3.5 million slumbering urbanites. Ahead: the long, austere, salt plain of the Hejaz coast, a white ramp that leads 700 miles north to Jordan—a strip of Saudi Arabia not traversed by an outside traveler on foot since the days of Lawrence of Arabia, and not walked by Saudis at least since cars began bumping down old caravan trails in the early 1940s. And already, we are lost.

Jeddah’s suburban fringe is a maze, a scribble of plans, a palimpsest. The desert is sprinkled with fortress-like mansions. It is slashed by new fences, walls, power lines, roads that go nowhere. Thousands of mounds of dirt pimple the landscape: a spreading sea of landfill, evidence of a massive building boom. (All of Saudi Arabia is a construction site.) We are zigzagging toward a rendezvous with our two cargo camels. Tomorrow, they will be trucked to an empty crossroad. We must find them. But tonight we are tired. (Banounah has collapsed under his mosquito net.) I switch off my headlamp and close my eyes. I press my ear to the sand. I am listening for the hoof beats of wild ibexes, for swarming herds of gazelles, for the wind raking through a lush savanna. Instead, what I hear is Jeddah. The city emits a long, continuous, mechanical sigh into the night.

When the first humans wandered out of Africa, they stumbled into a paradise.

After fording the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that divides present-day Djibouti from Yemen, they encountered a green, green Arabia. No desert is eternal. Water once sparkled here: Rivers ran to the sea, chains of lakes glistened in the interior. There were marshes, flocks of birds, open woodlands. A thousand centuries ago, the notorious Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula was a Serengeti.

A quiet golden age in Arabian archaeology is now unveiling that ancient world. Stone tools that look remarkably like those littering northeast Africa were discovered here recently. These finds have effectively doubled the record of Homo sapiens in the Arabian Peninsula, pushing it back at least 106,000 years. These data are reshaping the traditional “out of Africa” dispersal theory. Our great, primal journey across the globe—the ancestral trail that I am following—may be far older than we think. Moreover, one long accepted pathway of earliest migration out of Africa, north up the Nile Valley into the Sinai and beyond, is now being challenged by genetic studies. DNA markers in living populations instead point due east: From Africa we spread first to Arabia, and then onward into southern Asia. The peopling of Europe appears to have originated from distant India, not the Middle East.

“Both routes could be correct,” says Abdullah Mohammed Alsharekh, an archaeologist at King Saud University in Riyadh. “The record of human expansion has big gaps. Humans went everywhere, chasing resources—water, animals to hunt, plants to eat. We didn’t walk in straight lines. We radiated. We scattered.”

At dawn Banounah lights a miniature stove. He boils two miniscule cups of tea.

Morning tea in the desert 'burbs. The line in the sand is Banounah's prayer circle. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Morning tea in the desert ‘burbs. The line in the sand is Banounah’s prayer circle. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We scatter north of Jeddah. We radiate along the tangents of roads, fences, piles of junk, searching for our two camels—for our new cameleer, a stoic Sudanese named Awad Omran. We scan the ruptured horizon.

“Craaaazy!” Banounah says in bewilderment.

Hours later, sopping with sweat, we give up. We call our camel support team. We summon Awad. We send our GPS coordinates: a business college marooned in the sand barrens. They drive to us. Our camels, Seema and Fares, stare skeptically down, with their enormous jet eyes, from the back of the truck. Like all camels, they expect the worst. The truck’s cargo winch fires up.

The world’s first walkers had no maps. I try to imagine this.

Our original journeys across the world featured no preplanned routes, no shortcuts, no destinations. The very concept of “destination” had yet to be invented. Each virgin horizon unfolded with an open-ended question: Where next? Having no preconceived places to go, the Stone Age pioneers were, by definition, never lost. We might be able to remember this feeling, but we cannot have it again.

Fares, our big bull camel, growls like a dinosaur when he is lowered to the sand in a sling.

Fares airborne at the camel rendezvous. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Fares, airborne and grumpy, at the camel rendezvous. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Being lost, I think, must be a modern affliction. It requires a collapse of personal geography. And herein lies a paradox. As our species becomes more successful, more populous, we fracture the world into ever tighter panoramas—into countries, provinces, towns, neighborhoods, streets, houses, rooms, “private space.” In this way, a proportionally larger share of the planet becomes alien, exotic, threatening, unknown. Today, we take up residence in our navels. We forget: The entire world is ours. We possess it. It is ours to move through. The anxiety of becoming lost in it—the jail-yard lifer’s fear of losing sight of his cell—is another unhappy side effect, like bad teeth, of sedentary life.

A few Saudi friends have come to say goodbye north of Jeddah. They bring our last cool water for miles. We snap photos. We wave. We set off.

I consult my GPS. A reflex. I remind myself: The people who discovered the world were going nowhere.

Navigating Jeddah's booming margins by GPS. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Navigating Jeddah’s booming margins by GPS. Photograph by Paul Salopek

There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    July 24, 2013

    Your narrative and photos give the reader of “sense” of being with you. Though not being there, your attention to detail and insights on the history of the areas you travel help to bring the reader into your journey.
    Stay safe! Looking forward to your next posting.

  2. barbara
    July 24, 2013

    beautiful, as always. reads like holy scripture, from the arabian desert. i send blessings too, from the shores of lake michigan…

  3. LeAnn
    July 24, 2013

    lovely reading.

  4. al kalk
    July 24, 2013

    Thank you for this wonderful post on my birthday. May you find wonderful things on each of your 7 birthdays during this walk, and all the days in between.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 26, 2013

      I don’t normally measure out my passing days in this way, Al Kalk. (I lean more toward the old Lakota winter count method.) But thank you for your kind wishes. And may you enjoy a rejuvenating and joyous birthday.

  5. mohammad tarawneh
    July 24, 2013

    No, human lived in Arabia millions of years ago not 100000 years.

  6. Darliss
    July 24, 2013

    Love your comments about how we have set tiny little zones for ourselves. The world is too big and beautiful and the people so wonderful to cutout of life

  7. Michael Sean Comerford
    July 24, 2013

    This story radiates.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Very kind, Michael. A bit of war corresponding advice: Be careful with selfies. What you pose with canbe used against you.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Very kind, Michael. A bit of war corresponding advice: Be careful with selfies. What you pose with can be used against you.

  8. Linda Hoernke
    July 24, 2013

    Wonderful writing…I so enjoyed reading this post. Words like “destination” take on a new meaning…thank you again!

  9. Gary Boivin
    July 25, 2013

    This may well be the driest phase of your journey, until you get to the Atacama, near the tail end. The idea of sidewalks in the desert is fascinating, but only augments the already ferocious heat.

    • Paul Salopek
      July 26, 2013

      This may explain why the daytime sidewalks were so spookily empty. We saw fewer than 20 people on foot over the course of 60 miles of urban hiking. At night, though, people start venturing outside their air-conditioned buildings. Life in summertime Jeddah is nocturnal.

  10. yalew bekele
    July 25, 2013

    Really wonderful naration and thankyou paul salopek. i wonder how our ancestors crossed the red sea and/or the indian ocean on thier way to the arabian peninsula because at that time ships were not discovered

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Sea levels were about 200 feet (70 meters) below current levels in the late Pleistocene. Undersea surveys show that this may have exposed an archipelago that was swimmable—at at most, navigable by raft—between islands. Still, an astonishing impulse, wanting to cross to distant shores.

  11. Parvez
    July 25, 2013

    Very, very Interesting!

  12. David J
    July 25, 2013

    That Stone Age pioneers were never lost is an idea to chew on. That they were “pioneers” is another.

  13. Michael
    July 25, 2013

    Delightful…….I look forward to each new dispatch, with great anticipation.

  14. HikerBob
    July 26, 2013

    You Walk is so fantastic to me, this one couldn’t be more captivated by the adventure, and the historical background being presented, and most of all by your acute descriptions that make my imagination dance.

  15. Linda Laursen B.
    July 26, 2013

    So good to see a new post, Paul–a most brilliant and thought-provoking one. Rethinking a whole lifetime of cultural and familial indoctrination on the concept of “destination” will require some effort on my part. But I’m going to give it a bit of a try. Stay well. And hydrated. Scritches behind the ears to Seema and Fares from me.

  16. HikerBob
    July 26, 2013

    happy birthday al kaulk

  17. James Janega
    July 29, 2013

    Lovely, Paul. Still with you.

  18. Melissa Ney
    July 30, 2013

    Thank you Paul. That post particularly struck a chord with me. I had a minor adventure in my 20’s in the north of England and Scotland. I was at the tail end of working abroad there but from the U.S. No schedule, no reservations. Just assisted by a Britrail pass. I remember thinking, “If I get on the wrong train, what will it matter….I will still see things I’ve never seen before.” When the tracks ended, I eventually footed it. Fortunate to meet kind people with good advice. The further from civilization I wandered, the further back in history I went but I never felt lost.
    Really enjoy your posts. Best wishes on your journey.

  19. Bilal
    August 1, 2013

    May the blessings of Ramadan shower upon you during your journey !!!

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Thanks, Bilal. Ramadan kareem.

  20. Gerry de Wit
    August 2, 2013


  21. Vic Aplin
    August 3, 2013

    “Like all camels, they expect the worst.”
    One of the many gems in this narrative.

  22. Cynthia Sexton
    August 18, 2013

    Thank you for this delicious soulful nutrition. My 11 and 13 year olds girls and I will be walking with you. This is a great gift. Your free invitation to join you in attentiveness at a time when distractibility seems to have become life’s goal might just change their futures… Your words dance as well as the best Whirling Dervish

  23. George Okoh
    August 22, 2013

    I really love your thoughts about the whole world being ours without the possibility of been lost. The “separateness” in our age is the cause of all strifes and wars in the world today

  24. Win Grace
    August 28, 2013

    Your thoughts about the whole world belonging to us brought back the memory of another’s words when seeing the tiny dot of earth between the rings of Saturn. They said just imagine, all the living things that have ever lived, and those living now and those yet to come are all contained in that tiny dot of planet earth as we whiz through space! (Paraphrased by me…) It is an amazing place where we’re living. Thanks again for sharing some of those places I will most likely never see!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 2, 2013

      Glad to have you traveling along, Win.

  25. Jody M Clark
    December 7, 2013

    Marvelous comparison between first walkers and yourself.

  26. Al McDowell
    January 22, 2014

    Currently reading CS Lewis “Mere Christianity” on moraiity–what struck was the sense of morality by a native Ethiopean–hence all pervading, Following with interest your journey

  27. Deborah
    February 23, 2014

    Beautiful reflection!! Thank you.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.

Related Posts

Asphalt Prison

“We can’t walk that way.” “No? What about over there?” “No.” “Over there?” “No. Mushkela”—problem. ...

The Eddy

A sodden dusk. We walk into the small market town soaked, muddied, dizzied by an ...


We walk to the lowest point in the world: 1,378 feet below sea level. The ...