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A passion for the desert.

Byline: Lisa Kaaki

"Desert Songs" is about a woman's singular passion for the desert and the life of the desert nomads. Arita Baaijens decided in 1990 at the age of 34 to quit her job as an environmentalist. More than money and security, she wanted to live her life to the full. Abandoning a cushy life in Holland gave her a sense of freedom and the assurance that she had nothing more to loose. That same year she went for a 400-kilometer trek across the waterless desert between the oases of Farafra and Kharga in Egypt. This dangerous journey was a trial of strength because to survive in the desert, one must be prepared to give up everything and face fear and panic.

Baaijens was amazed to see how fast one got used to one's new life but she readily acknowledges that her life in the desert was far from romantic: Going through week-long sandstorms, discovering that camels had run off and getting lost too. She rode about 35 kilometers per day and her bland diet consisted of pasta, rice, mashed potato powder or fish soup. Yet she found the harsh existence far more satisfying than joining the rat race to earn more money.

"Those experiences changed me forever. The moments of happiness also had a decisive influence on the rest of my life. Pure bliss was occasioned by such seemingly unimportant things as the rising and setting of the sun, a miracle I never got used to."

Arita's first experience with desert nomads took place in Sinai: "I admired the fact that they could make a living in such a human-unfriendly environment. That they could find their way without a compass, and that they seem to need little to lead a meaningful life. Coming from a city, I also liked the fact that nomads only carry the things they really need. It reminds one of what is really important in life. And that isn't much: A fire, water, food and good company" she explains.

Her attraction to the desert nomads also includes a fascination for camels, so perfectly suited to their surroundings. The camel is the only mammal with oval shaped blood cells. When the body cells absorb fluid from the plasma, making the blood more viscous, oval blood cells slide through the animal's veins, ensuring that organs and brain continue to function.

Arita acknowledges that she is no match for the nomads when it comes to the care and treatment of camels but she has nevertheless learned how to cope with many problems: Mending broken saddles, repairing torn camel soles, dressing wounds, giving injections and even pulling baby camels into the world. "In the desert, ingenuity is the hallmark of a master. The true professional is conspicuous not for his tools, but for the lack of them," she says.

For more than two months she traveled alone with her camels from the oasis of Farafra to Abu Simbel. The photographs of this journey reflect the changing landscape of the desert with its sand streaks, chalk hills, dunes, mountains, gravel plains, rock clefts, gorges and valleys. They also show us vestiges from bygone civilizations: Roman tollhouses, forts, old graves, ancient windshields and rock art.

Besides the description of her desert expeditions, Arita Baaijens has written a section on desert travelers which include two women: Alexandrine Tinne and Rosita Forbes. The little known Alexandrine Tinne has much in common with Arita Baaijens. She was not only Dutch but, at a young age, she inherited a fortune and decided to abandon a life of luxury for a life of adventure. At the time of her premature death, at the age of 33, she was preparing to cross the Sahara.

Arita was able to meet the French scientist Theodore Monod (1901-2000) who mapped the Majabat-Al-Koubra, some 250,000 square kilometers of desert in Western Sahara and the formidable Wilfred Thesiger (1919-2003) famous for having written "Arabian Sands," his awesome account of his journey across Saudi Arabia's famous Empty Quarter. Like Thesiger, the author mourns a way of life which is fast disappearing especially since the arrival of GPS. This satellite navigation system has opened up the desert to motorized expeditions. The ancient caravan routes are now crisscrossed by a network of car tracks.

"Desert Songs" is an ode to the desert, the inspiring story of someone who has lived in the desert and truly loved it. Arita Baaijens is hoping to leave for Mauritania this winter to travel with a trade caravan. Although she has moved on and embraced other regions of the world, she is currently organizing an expedition in Siberia and she admits that the decision to take leave of the desert for good is one she cannot make: "The desert is terrible and cruel and yet so lovely that sometimes the heart is too small to encompass its beauty."

Copyright: Arab News 2003 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Oct 9, 2008
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