Tristan Gooley, Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation and the Royal Geographical Society, has led expeditions in five continents, climbed mountains in Europe, Africa and Asia, sailed small boats across oceans and piloted small aircraft to Africa and the Arctic. He has walked with and studied the methods of the Tuareg, Bedouin and Dayak in some of the remotest regions on Earth.
I talked to Tristan about the Dakar Rally navigation and some of the insights and tips from the native desert people about how to orient yourself in the sea of sand.
Tristan, is it true that the same desert can look very differently during different times of the day?
Absolutely. In 2009, I was in the Libyan Sahara and went for a night walk with two Tuareg guides. We traveled for some two or three hours, and then they asked me whether I knew where I as. I told them I didn’t. They then pointed at the ground and I realize there were footprints – our footprints – in the sand. “We were here two hours ago”, – the Tuareg guides said.
They knew this because they followed the moonlight, which had changed the way the desert looked like.
We understand landscape through light and shade. So if the light changes, he landscape will change, too, and once you have observed it, it can be a great natural navigation tool.
What are some of the natural navigation methods of the Tuareg?
It’s very hard to get them to explain it. It’s not because they are secretive, but because it’s so fundamental to them they find it difficult to describe. If you’ve been riding a motorcycle for years and somebody asks you how you do it, it would probably be a little hard to explain at first, too, because you just have this physical muscle memory and you do not consciously think about the motions any longer.
It’s the same with the Tuareg: they don’t think about how to navigate the desert. They just do it.
So for me, the only way to learn about their methods was to observe them. And their desert navigation reminded me a lot of Polynesian ocean navigation. The islanders there do not have just one reference point or landmark, they simply move from one familiar area to another. Everything is constantly moving. It’s a little like if you knew A part of town and C part of town, but part B in between was unfamiliar to you. If someone dropped you straight into part B, you would have a tough time navigating. But If you were in part A or C, you could quite easily cross B and connect the two familiar parts.
It’s similar in the desert. The Tuareg use the sun for direction and move from one dune system they recognize to another. While the wind in the desert is constantly changing the landscape, the big dune systems are moving very slowly, so they are more recognizable and can be used as landmarks.
What can the color of the sand tell you?
The sand can be very helpful. It’s a geological indicator: as with any terrain, if the color of the land changes, you know everything is about to change. For example, as the ground changes from granite to sandstone, the soil, mud, and the plants will change with it.
If the color of sand changes, you are moving into a different geology and it can tell you that you are getting onto higher or lower ground, and whether it’s soft or hard. For example, if the sand is red, that means it has more iron oxide. That tells you it’s heavier, so the ground will be harder, and the sand will behave differently in the wind.
However, it would be dangerous to definitely say that color X means soft ground or color Z means hard ground. There are many other factors at play, so this is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule.
What about those ripples and patterns in the sand – some Atacama Desert natives say you can tell a lot about your location just by observing them?
During my expeditions in the Sahara, I remember stopping my car on the road and observing how the road was breaking the flow of the wind and the lighter, white sand was on one side, whereas the heavier red sand remained on the windward side of the road.
The way wind forms patterns on the ground can be an amazing way to tell direction. If you find a rock in the desert, you notice that heavy sand will blow in a different direction than light sand.
It’s like with water: when waves hit an obstacle, like an island, for example, certain patterns are formed, and water flows differently. You can use that to discern depth, direction, and treacherous currents. Same with sand and dunes – wind forms certain patterns and if you observe them, you can tell a lot about what the terrain is like and where you are. Every rock, every tuft of grass is an obstacle that forms those patterns and you can use that to see the direction of the wind.
Once you start spotting those patterns, you can use them as a compass.
The Dakar Rally navigation is extra tough because you have to follow a roadbook and race at the same time. Are there any fast tricks to read the desert?
Observation and practice. We can learn a lot even in a short period of time. When a pilot drives or rides over a section that is particularly tricky, he or she will subconsciously remember what the terrain was like, what the ground color was like, what the landscape was like around it, and instinctively avoid it the next time.
But again, there are no hard and fast rules here. You can’t just say, if the sand color is this, expect that, or if the shape of a dune looks like this, there is a drop off behind it. Desert navigation and especially natural navigation takes time and observation.
What to do if you get lost in the desert?
Before you go into the desert, always keep in mind your “handrail”. This can be anything: a road, an edge of town, a mountain ridge in the distance, a dune system – some sort of a line that you have kept in mind. This way, whatever happens, you will be able to find your way back.
For example, if you have left the road that ran from East to West and you headed North and got lost, all you need to do is use the sun and head South, and eventually, you will find that road – your “handrail”. A “handrail” like this is much easier to find than a single spot.
Any wilderness survival guide would tell you that the first thing to do, when you’re lost, is to calm down. We make bad decisions when we panic, so the first thing is to give yourself a few minutes.
If I’m ever unsure, I like to pick up a rock and feel its sides. Which side is warmer, and which is colder? This can tell me some rough direction of South and North. But more than that, the very physical act of picking the rock up, feeling it, and deciding which side is warmer forces my mind to focus on a simple, practical task at hand.
Just use this rock trick if you’re lost. It will give your brain a practical task, calm you down, and from there, you can start making a decision about your situation.