In northern Brazil the wind has shaped a wonderfully strange world of sand and water. Our author sets out to explore Lençóis Maranhenses on foot
Moacir Brito gently sways in a hammock suspended from the roof timbers of his hut. Contrary to appearances, he is not sleeping; instead, he is listening to the wind that mysteriously rustles in the palm fronds that cover his roof and which whistles through the windows, “I can hear the movement of the sand,” says Brito, a wiry man in his early fifties. His face is weather-beaten, his grey hair curly. “The grains of sand are constantly in motion, they softly rub against each other, bounce off obstacles.” I try to concentrate, strain my ears and hear … nothing, complete silence. Obviously, only the locals who have lived in the desert for long enough can hear the marching steps of the dunes.
Moacir Brito and his wife, Rosedete, have lived in the oasis Baixa Grande for over 30 years, surrounded by gigantic dunes, around a six-hour walk from civilization. The landscape around him is constantly changing, assuming a new guise every day; the wind chisels away at the desert, shaping it and shifting the lagoons. The wind gives the dunes legs to walk on. Some can wander up to 20 meters a year. At first glance, it appears a hostile environment. But not for Moacir. “There is quite simply no more beautiful place on earth,“ he says. “The skies in the morning! Here, a man can sense infinity.”
There are many large deserts with high dunes all over the world. But Lençóis Maranhenses, as this strip of land along the Atlantic coast in the Brazilian state of Maranhao is called, is truly unique. The gigantic sand box, which covers an area of 1550 square meters, shouldn’t really be here as the rainfall in this region is almost twice the volume of London – and 3000 times as much as in the Sahara. It is precisely this contrast which gives the region its unrivalled beauty. Year in, year out the sand and water engage in a battle for supremacy. In the rainy season, between December and June, the valleys between the dunes fill with rainwater, creating hundreds of green-blue ponds, crystal-clear water holes and large lagoons, some over 200 meters long and more than three meters deep. At the beginning of July, after a season with plenty of rain, many of the lagoons have converged and rivers like the Rio Negro cut a path through the dunes.
If you want to truly savor the beauty of Lençóis, the interplay between the sun and the clouds, the wide expanses and the solitude, you need to go into the desert and cross the dunes. A fit hiker will need around three days for the 75-kilometer walk. Barefoot through sand and water, in the searing sun and with abrupt, heavy showers, this walk is an ordeal, but it also comes with a rich reward: the desert of Maranhao is a surreal world, full of magical landscapes that are ever-changing and enduringly fascinating. We start in Canto do Atins, a small hamlet by the beach. The previous day we arrived here in a jeep and stayed with Luzia Diniz Santos, who runs a small restaurant and rents out hammocks to hikers. There are four of us: a German, a Frenchman, a Venezuelan – and our guide, Jefferson.
Our alarm clocks ring at four in the morning, as we need leave early in order to arrive before the worst of the day’s heat kicks in. We scramble up the first dune – and spread out in front of us is the crazy work of the wind: Thousands of dunes of varying sizes and heights, an entrancing game of geometric patterns, perfect ovals, softly undulating serpentine dunes and lines are straight as an arrow – all shaped by the laws of aerodynamics.
Walking is difficult: my feet sink into the sand – time and time again I laboriously drag them out again. After a few hours I can feel every single tendon, the soles of my feet ache and blisters are forming on my toes which are constantly being rubbed by sand. The sweat drips down my forehead, and not even the strong wind can dry it. I stagger under the weight of my backpack, which contains my heavy camera equipment and two liters of water.
At last, we arrive at a large, breathtakingly beautiful lagoon and leap in. After our exertions the water feels amazing: it is crystal-clear and swarms of tiny, silvery fish dart about and gently nibble at our feet. Here and there, a water lily bobs on the surface. The people who discovered this region gave it the name Lençóis, because the bleached-white dunes with the intricate patterns of valleys and ridges reminded them of a crumpled bed sheet. For many years, it was a mystery why and how the desert had formed. The explanation is surprisingly simple: two large rivers carry sediment out to sea, which is then washed back inland by the action of the tides and the waves. The sun dries the deposited sand particles, the constant easterly wind blows them up to 55 kilometers inland and piles up the sand. Along a coastline of 70 kilometers this results in the formation of high dunes.
In the early afternoon we arrive in Baixa Grande, the home of Muaci and Rosedete Brito. Their farm is like a small clearing in the sand, surrounded by evergreen bushes and trees. In the shade of a giant cashew tree stands a low, whitewashed house with a palm frond roof. It’s small but there’s enough space for a kitchen. The Britos have added a second hut, made of wooden planks, logs and palm fronds, with a dozen hammocks for tourists. The number of visitors has been increasing steadily for several years. “Our dunes are famous all around the world, now,” says Rosedete proudly. “In the rainy months we have tourists every week. We even had some Russians!”
Moacir switches on the generator to cool the drinks in his refrigerator. I jump under the shower in the middle of the yard. My fatigue gradually washes away, only the soles of my feet still ache. But does it matter?
As I scrub up, the preparations for supper are in full swing. Moacir has slaughtered a chicken, Rosedete has lit a fire in the kitchen. Rice slowly cooks in a large pot; on the next ring small white beans are gentling simmering in coconut milk. The chicken is cut into pieces, fried in oil and then briefly sautéed. After an hour the local specialty is ready: Galinha Caipira.
The Britos have created a miniature paradise here – but one which is under threat: “That dune over there is coming closer every year,” says Rosedete, pointing at an old field which is already half-covered by sand. “In another three or four years we’ll have to pack our belongings and rebuild the houses somewhere else.” The sun rises at just after five in the morning; the clouds form dramatic stacks in the sky, the people on the beach cast long shadows. We have been walking for around an hour now, past two lagoons full of tiny, darting fish. Although the two ponds dry up every year, somehow the fish manage to survive. Some species are believed to dig deep into the mud and sand and survive the dry period down in the damp depths.
The sand beneath my feet is constantly changing; sometimes it is fine and as light as icing sugar; a little further on it is coarse, heavy and gritty. In places it collapses like snow in the spring and you sink in up to your ankles, in others it is firm and hard. There are areas where deep grooves cut through the sand, exposing colored layers that look a little like the typical stripes in sandstone. Elsewhere, you can see regular colored patches and patterns that look almost like marble. Then we spot a herd of goats, a sure sign that we are approaching the second oasis, Queimada dos Britos. Approximately four dozen people live here, all descendants of Manuel Brito, who settled here around one hundred years ago. He was a starveling from the state of Ceara, possibly on the run from the law – but his great-great grandchildren are reluctant to go into any great detail.
Next morning we again set off very early. Nothing disturbs the silence in the dunes, except for the ever-present wind. I try to forget about my aching bones and stomp on in a robot-like trance. In the distance we see a strip of green vegetation; slowly, it becomes thicker and wider: We have made it, and are exhausted but exhilarated.