A human being can perish so easily in the desert. To slightly mix metaphors, it’s like being underwater, holding your breath. Sooner or later you must come to the surface. Sooner or later the desert survivor must drink, he must drink to survive. How does he find his way to water? His way out? How does he escape the certainty of a waterless death in the desert? He follows tracks. He follows any track he can find, any prints, any marks, any alem (stone markers) even the strange wavering line left by rootless dry bushes, windblown and rolling like tumbleweed in a Western. Man is a track following creature. He will follow any track, even the wrong one, to his death- or lucky escape from the burning hell, the inferno that is the desert without water.
You see it early on, driving with others. “Oh there’s a track,” you find yourself saying, pointing it out as the double line of tyre tracks unspools across faultless curving dunes. I’ve been with very very experienced drivers. They all succumb to the fond idea that the track maker must know more than they do. But chances are the track maker is just as ignorant. That doesn’t matter. The tracks are there- follow them. Westerners, Easterners, Bedouin- we’re all the same. It’s universal- see a track and follow it. Why? Because we’re followers by nature? Because we might meet the trackmaker? There is a slight practicality- if the tracks suddenly squidge out, show signs of the driver having been stuck we have a warning. But the comfort is psychological rather than real. You usually find out pretty soon that sand is too soft. And good drivers avoid areas that are risky- the tops of flat dunes, the dells and dips between boxed in dunes, also the reverse: the strange hard wave like forms of sand that look soft but are actually very hard and bumpy. Knowing this is probably as much as following a track- but still we follow. It’s psychological. Of course it’s nice to make tracks too, be the first. And its GREAT when there are NO TRACKS and you’re on a camel. Then you know you’re the first person – for a while at least- and the tracks you leave make far less impact than car tracks, though I’ve followed camel tracks weeks old across the kind of surface that fills with fine windblown sand ensuring the footprint remains. A car track is more obvious but camel tracks, with footprints alongside are also easily followed unless avoidance of people is sought. I don’t know why we do it, it’s pat of being human- following the crowd even when it’s a crowd of one.
The two people who never followed tracks in my presence were a Bedouin and an Egyptian army officer. Both knew the desert very well, both were excellent drivers. Both were cocky, probably thinking they were the best drivers around. Both were used to being the person breaking ground, making the route (though plenty of leaders follow tracks). The army officer told me that first he followed tracks, then he used a sun compass, now he uses GPS. But GPS allows some leeway and what happens is that you pick up a track that is going your way and you follow it. Then when it wavers off course you correct and drive on your own, of course looking out for new tracks. When you find one you follow it, repeating the procedure. The Army officer didn’t do this. He went his own way. And so did the Bedouin- once the general direction was decided.
I think it’s worth thinking about. We probably act like this in all walks of life. Even when we know the way, the right way for us, we look for someone else to follow, someone who may not know the way any better than we do.