The desert was noisy when I awoke.
This was a surprise. Despite the tough conditions, and the constant fear that some desert animal would decide that the moist, warm confines of my sleeping bag was something they'd like to share, most mornings I woke to near-silence from the desert. I slept well there, and I appreciated it. This morning though, there was noise, and (in terms of the desert), lots of it.
I dressed first, in the tight confines of the bubble tent, and then opened the zip-door cautiously. More than once I'd found that the wind could mound sand up against the door that needed to be pushed away before I let it in and effectively drowned myself in the dry. There was nothing up against the door this morning, and so I opened it fully and stepped out.
There was nothing to see around me except that small outjutting of rock amidst the sand that I'd picked to anchor the tent against. Golden brown sand rolled away as far as the eye could see, mounding and floundering like frozen ocean waves, and a relentless cerulean sky met it at the horizon and then stretched back overhead. On the strange days when the sky and the sand both seemed cast of the same strange leaden colour and I couldn't tell where the horizon was it was easy to believe that I was trapped in some gigantic snow globe, waiting to be picked up and shaken. But from all around a steady clicking came, like sticks tapping against rock, rhythmic and compelling. As I stood listening, I realised that there was a quieter counterpoint as well, a dull thudding almost like a drum-beat, that carefully picked its way between the clicks. For a moment I was intrigued, and then I was wondering what the meaning of it was.
Because if there was one thing I'd learned from my time in the desert, it was that everything has a meaning, but it's vital to know which meanings are the important ones.
I packed the tent away quickly, drinking water for breakfast and deciding to worry about food later on. Until I learned what the noise was I wanted to be able to respond quickly to it, and eating in a place where further food was scarce was not the best way to be alert and reactive.
There was nothing to help me know where it was coming from, no matter how I tilted my head and moved around the hard surface of the rocks it seemed to always be coming from all sides of me. Finally I tried tilting my head upwards to see if it was coming from there, and even that didn't help. So I struck out, pretty much at random. After the night, without a compass, there was no way to know if I was going the same way as I had been the day before. I'm sure there must have been whole days where I spent my time traipsing backwards and forwards along my steps, not knowing that I kept reversing my path. The sand was still cool where my feet sank into it, though the surface was becoming warmer and the air was still fairly pleasant. I gripped a bottle of water in one hand, and strode on.
It was definitely less than an hour later when I stepped onto a flagstone that I'd not seen until my foot struck it. As soon as I was stood on it fully the sounds resolved themselves, unsurprisingly coming from along the flagstoned path that I could now see poking out here and there from underneath the sand. The sounds seemed to have more coherence now as well, the clicks could be distinguished into three separate sounds, and there was a musical quality to them, as though insects had decided to have a party using themselves as the instruments. For a moment I was overcome with the urge to laugh at the thought of cockroaches partying.
I stepped off the flagstone and the sounds became a repetitive clicking again, with a dull counterpoint that was hard to follow. I looked down, then knelt down and cleaned the sand from the flagstone. Everytime I touched it the music became clearer, and the whole sensation was like having a blanket pulled off and dropped over my head at a bizarre concert. The cleaned flagstone was square-cut and looked dressed, but someone, or someones, had carved all kinds of graffiti into it. Most of it made no sense, some of it made sense but only because of the time I'd already spent in the desert. That graffiti worried me most, as it made me realised how long I'd spent out here now.
And the last piece of graffiti I found was the most interesting, and the most cryptic. It was a deep-carved arrow with ragged edges, as though whoever was carving into the rock was enormously strong and had done it in three single strokes with some massive knife. Above the arrow, in similarly grooved but far smaller letters was the legend, "This way to Lake Hali."