One thing was apparent throughout the journey to Erg Chigaga – there is certainly a lot of sand in the desert. To make conversation, Dylan informed Mustafa (our Berber guide) that we do not have enough sand in our country. Back in Malaysia, river sand is an expensive raw material that is in high demand in the construction industry, and many a crooked businessman and shady politician have profited handsomely from the illicit trade in this scarce commodity.
Mustafa was noticeably perplexed at the notion of there not being enough sand, and understandably so, what with having spent all his life living on the edge of the Sahara. He mulled over this for a bit. Then in a stroke of brilliance, he suggested, “let’s export sand to Malaysia!”
Dylan (and Sara too, probably) was stunned at Mustafa’s deft application of lateral thinking. Why, this boy was bright like the desert sun! Surely the Moroccan government would be only too glad to get rid of all this excess sand, what with the problem of desertification and all. Our friend Mustafa and us would become very rich indeed if we could work something out.
Mustafa adjusting his headgear in the middle of a mild sandstorm as we were parked in front of Mt.Tagine
We fell into a contemplative silence once more, observing kasbahs, date palms, the occasional flock of Barbary sheep, and more sand as our vehicle zoomed across the desert.
Observing a flock of sheep
Then Sara had a bright idea of her own. “We have a lot of excess water in Malaysia”, she said (this is true: it always seems to be flooding in some part of the country; many Malaysians bathe twice a day and have their maids wash their cars once a day; and one state government is even providing potable water to households free of charge).
On the other hand, there is an apparent shortage of water in Morocco.. at least in the desert regions (this is also true: deserts by nature experience moisture deficit, i.e. they lose more moisture than they receive; and by Mustafa’s estimation, it rains 3-4 times a year in Zagora, with each rain event lasting around 5-10 minutes).
“Let’s export water to Morocco!” Sara exclaimed, beaming like the desert sky.
Distribution of non-polar arid land (Source: USGS website)
So when we arrived at Erg Chigaga, we immediately set about conducting preliminary tests on the engineering properties of desert sand in view of its potential application to the Malaysian construction industry.
Conducting a mass particle velocity test
The test results showed that the desert sand at Erg Chigaga consists of clayley particles, likely derived from sedimentary rock of Pleistocene origin. As such, while there is a fair chance of finding the odd fossil or two here, the chances that desert sand will be of any value in Malaysia are not all that rosy. The Malaysian construction industry relies on hard silica sand to make concrete that is suitable for multi-storey apartment blocks and other sorts of skyscrapers. Clayley desert sand, on the other hand will not make great concrete, although it would make good mudbricks when combined with a bit of water and straw.
There sure is a lot of sand at Erg Chigaga
But we are not perturbed. With a bit of imagination and a good marketing strategy, kampung kasbah houses could become the rage. “Cool in the day, cool at night”. “Biodegradable, reusable and environmentally friendly”. “Cheap and good”.
Artist's impression of a kampung kasbah house
Now, what is the best way to transport Moroccan sand to Malaysia, and Malaysian water to Morocco?