Diving into the Dunes

Enter the heart of the Sahara with a meteorite hunter

On the one year anniversary of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Harriet Davies explores the real dunes of Sahara, hunting the most expensive and out of this world treasures on the planet – intergalactic space rocks

Think of a desert.

You might picture a dry, lifeless, dusty land.

Now type ‘desert’ into a gif or emoji icon generator. The same image appears (as well as some lost cakes). You know the one, the sand dunes often used to describe not the desert, but something being dry or alone. It’s true the desert is partially covered by sand dunes, but this is only correct 20% of the time.  

Most deserts are covered by ‘eolian deflation’, which is essentially the wind battering the ground until it exposes loose gravel. It consists predominantly of pebbles with occasional cobbles, and can even be covered by ice or lakes.

They can even be some of the coldest places on Earth, like the polar caps of Antarctica.

The driest desert lies on the coastline of Chile, a terrorised terrain, which every now and then is flooded by rain, the other 99% It’s used as a testing ground for scientists, a way to study the potential landscapes of Mars, to assist in unsurfacing life on the Red Planet.

In October 2022, it is one year since the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The moody adaptation of the book was the most successful film in Dune film history, after Alejandro Jordorosky’s attempt never saw the light of day – and David Lynch disowned his own version. It’s a weight off the shoulders of the film industry that’s clearly been looking for a successful reworking for decades. 

Part One left us teetering on the edge of the desert. October 2023 will see the release of Part Two, in which we will see how they tackle the potentially problematic white saviour character, and romanticised depiction of the desert. We have been introduced to the ‘The Fremen’ – aka the desert people. We are yet to find out what comes out of Villenueve’s desert, what life rises from the sand, and what forms the people take. 

At this midpoint between the two release dates, it feels like a perfect opportunity to explore a real desert, the Sahara desert, which in Arabic really does mean desert. The largest in the world, it spans across Morocco and Algeria all the way to Tunisia. A vision of a familiar desert that is ever growing, it feels somehow ‘safer’ or more accessible to explore and has become a hunting ground for a special kind of rock. A rock that can be worth a great deal of money. A rock that people are willing to risk danger to hunt.

Meet the meteorite hunter

“Morocco is known for meteorites. More than 50% of the meteorites that are in international museums or international laboratories were found in Morocco…” 

This is Abderrahmane Ibhi, a Professor of Geology at Ibn Zohr University, and the founder of the University Museum of Meteorites and research centre in Agadir, Morocco. It opened in February 2016. If you’re going to ask anyone about the Sahara, it’s him. 

“I love the desert because I love astronomy. The night in the desert is fabulous for stargazing. It is dark blue with stars shining in the spectacle. You can see constellations, meteors, shooting stars, and even distant galaxies if you have binoculars or a small telescope.” he says

Ibhi, like Morocco, is consumed by the Sahara. He explains that it’s a startling barren wilderness of volcanic masses, gravel plains, great ergs, and an ever-shifting “sand sea”. It never looks the same and you can get easily lost among the moving landscape. 

“When you work in the desert, it can be stressful after two weeks or so because you get tired of the silence. You rarely meet anyone, unless you live next to a nomadic family and you can talk with the children, with the women. But there’s still a lot of stuff going on in the desert. You can see kinds of animals or plants that you’ve never seen before.”

Although lacking rain, deserts are surprisingly biodiverse and take up almost 30% of the entire world we live on. The population of the Sahara desert is 2.5 million people, sounds like a lot, but with a land mass close to the size of the USA, it’s pretty low. 

Ibhi has been working on volcanic rocks and the composite of terrestrial and lunar basalt for years. 

“I was particularly interested in extraterrestrial rocks, especially chondrites, which come from asteroids, because they are weird. They remain stationary and do not move. This museum helps us a lot in their conservation, for our children, and for teaching and scientific research,” he says.

He wants to preserve the meteorites for the museum, and use them for education and research purposes. But, to halt the purchase into private collections, and the drain of such an amazing resource from Morocco, he has to be the first to find them.  

Nothing in the world causes more people to step into the Sahara than after a meteorite falls over Morocco, known as the best place in the world to search for these intergalactic rocks. 

“The first was found in water in the Antarctica desert, at the South Pole. Japanese engineers who work in the oil field found black rocks on the ice. By analysing it they found that meteorites can easily be found on the ice,” Ibhi explains. 

Meteorites can be found anywhere, you could even find one in your back garden. There is no magnetic pull or strange phenomena that brings them towards deserts. One case in 2020 saw a meteorite hurtle through an Indonesian coffin maker’s house in the middle of the night. However, tracking down rocks in a highly-populated dense landscape isn’t the easiest job. Researchers can learn so much about the asteroid belt that it makes these hunts worth it, and the Sahara desert holds secrets that make Morocco a hunting ground like no other.

Ibhi has been trying to figure out

why Morocco is such a hotspot.

He puts it down to three key points…

Firstly, the type of desert: “The desert has a dry climate, it’s hot there with little humidity, which conserves extraterrestrial rocks. These rocks are formed in an environment that doesn’t have much oxygen, so they oxidise and remain longer. It is well known for meteorites because to find them, you need a hot desert type and Morocco is more than 50% desert. But that is not the most important criterion, because many other countries have deserts,” the meteorite-lover says.

Which brings us to his next point, the political stability of the country: “Number two is the most important – it’s our political stability and security. In Morocco you can travel in the desert, there will be no problem. Not like our neighbours in Mauritania, Mali or Algeria, where it’s not easy to work in the desert for weeks.“

Driving to the border of Morocco and Algeria, it looked exactly the same on both sides, desert. Although the conflict has halted, in some areas between the two lands you can easily misstep on a landmine. There are mixed reports of the legalities of hunting for meteorites within its borders, but what is known and generally accepted, is that it is not welcomed, and those who do hunt across the borders keep it hidden. 

“ All the meteorites collected by the Algerian nomads return to Morocco. Nomads have no limits, they have no passport or nationality. In Mali and Mauritania also they are interested in the trade of meteorites but are late. Morocco is very advanced in this collection of meteorites, and very well known for it now, especially in its desert. Without a stable country, there are plenty of thieves and criminals who can endanger people in the desert, “ Ibhi says.

There are plenty of thieves and criminals who can endanger people in the desert.

Although the number of nomads in recent years has declined, you can still find small communities (very small) travelling the Sahara, and making it their home. The desert can be an unforgiving place, but the sight of a nomadic tent can be one of true relief. They’re a place of music, shelter and food. It also makes them one of the best resources for hunting down rocks.

His third reason why Morocco is such a hotspot? The value of meteorites – they are very expensive. “You know, in the desert there aren’t a lot of things to do, so young Moroccans, especially the goat herders, have got into the habit of looking for meteorites to sell them.”

Due to their rarity and the amount of information that can be within, the price of meteorites has skyrocketed. The most expensive sold on record was the springwater meteorite, which sold for 511,000 US$. If you then place this economic gain in the landscape of the Moroccan economy, especially the small towns on the edge of the desert, you start to understand why everyone wants to hunt them down. A little context, the typical basic wage in rural Morocco is MAD 2,249 per month, around 233 US$.

“The meteorites are small within a huge desert. It is very tiring to look for them,” Ibhi adds. 

“Finds are very rare, because it is a very rare phenomenon. Some are very expensive, like the one found in the Tata region. They are the most expensive in the world. People thought it was an ordinary meteorite. But I explained to about 20 nomads that it is an extraordinary rock because it is volcanic. It has a fusion crust. For volcanic meteorites, the only source is Martian meteorites. Their price goes up to very high sums. Someone sold me a small piece of it for a reasonable price. I don’t sell meteorites. If I were a merchant, I couldn’t have a museum.”

But there’s one more reason… hype.

Everyone has a story about meteorites. The most famous being the Martian meteorite of Tissint, the scattered pieces were collected for months. I had a guide who spoke of a man who had sold his house for very little, who later found out the stone he used to prop his door open was a very large, very expensive meteorite. These stories have spread, and many people know exactly what they are looking for and how to find them…

“When there is a fall, the Arabic telephone works very well, many people come to look for them, but not everyone manages to find them. That’s why they are expensive. In the stony desert, it is impossible. With a metal detector, you can find a meteorite that contains iron, and the nomads are used to it now. There is no pollution in the atmosphere, so they see things well, unlike us. We’re not used to telling the difference between rocks. They have eagle vision and see them easily. They got used to it, and overcame this problem.”

An Arabic telephone is the passing of messages from person to person, and when there’s a meteorite, word travels fast. Ibhi hires nomads to help him hunt and preserve the meteorites for the museum. He figured that Nomads aren’t drawn to the pollution of large cities and due to spending long periods of time in the desert, they can see things that no-one else sees. 

However, with such a high demand for meteorites across Europe, museums and scientists are willing to pay a pretty penny, Ibhi’s quest to hold onto the meteorites in Morocco and study them is not an easy feat, which is why he has to be the first to find them. 

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My first experience with a meteorite was in Artis Planetarium, Amsterdam, a heavy metallic meteorite encrusted in volcanic rock. It would have cost a fortune. Holding one is something otherworldly, and yes it was found in Morocco.

“We now have a large network of autonomous people looking for meteorites,” Ibhi explains. “Some try to bring them back from elsewhere, from Algeria to Morocco, because it has become a platform for selling meteorites. There are two types: those called ‘finds’ found at random and which have been there for a long time; and the just-fallen ‘falls’, whose fireball in the sky was seen recently.”

Sometimes thousands of people come to look for them with their metal detectors. “In the past six years, there have been 28 falls recognised worldwide, with more than eight falls in Morocco,” he says.

The phenomenon of thousands of people descending on the desert is caused by just that, fallen meteorites. People travel far to hunt for the meteorite, which could bring a small fortune to one lucky hunter. This isn’t always guaranteed, but it’s worth it if the right type of rock hits the atmosphere of the Earth and is catapulted down to this specific section of the world.

So what happens when thousands of people descend on the desert?

“It’s a funny phenomenon in the sky, and cities 500 or 700 km away can observe the phenomenon. Even the nomads have telephones and have corners where there is a network to communicate with each other and get the message across. They have an old Range Rover to bring water, fetch camels, etc. We then see hundreds of 4x4s, large groups, sometimes thousands. Last fall in Tissint, there were thousands of people there. It’s funny because normally there is no one. When there is a fall, life arrives. Food stalls are set up as traders come to sell meat and fruit. People take advantage of the situation and bring back food to supply the market which is rapidly setting up in the desert.” 

Once a hunt begins, no-one stops until a meteorite is found. People charge into one section of the Sahara that is normally totally without life – in an economic hunt. With this comes markets and a supply chain of goods and services to support those on their way into the desert. It creates its own micro-economy. 

The desert is demonised as barren land, but also romanticised with the idea of its proximity to the stars, a connection to the peace and stillness of the landscape. When a meteorite falls to Morocco, these images are disbarred and the desert turns into a real life treasure map. One where the map is literally provided by the stars. It doesn’t matter which side of this search you fall on, it’s how well you can deal with the desert, and the patience you have to keep looking. 

Astrologists have an upper hand when it comes to measuring the trajectory of falling meteorites. However, never underestimate the ability of those who know the desert, they have the skills to thrive and eyes like no other. With knowledge of science and the desert on his side, Ibhi has been successful in finding six of the eight meteorites in the past year.

The race is on. These rocks bring out a different side of the desert as local goat herders, nomads, astrologers and travellers from all around the world try to grab their little bit of the sky…

or at least sell it. 

I love the desert because I love astronomy.
The night in the desert is fabulous for stargazing.

What’s so good about this?

Due to the scarcity and value of meteorites many end up going to the highest bidder, staying hidden in private collections. Abderrahmane Ibhi is fighting to preserve and maintain these rare rocks, for the people of Morocco, and use them as research and education tools. Deserts across the world are expanding, and learning from them can only be a good thing.

Sahara desert landscape photos by Harriet Davies and @MaxGayler

Meet the writer

Harriet Davies is a podcast and film producer focusing on untold underground movements and hidden culture. A curiosity to leave no stone unturned was ignited by her studies in history, while also working alongside groups like Sites of Resistance, a grassroots level organisation redistributing information to empower marginalised classes. After winning the Best Audio award for her piece, ‘The Story of a Skinhead’, at Telling Tales festival, she worked as a producer for Blackline Productions, and later as a producer for Passport Podcast, telling stories from across the world and celebrating the intricacies of international subcultures. To find out more, visit her website, here.

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