The Global Warming Superstars


25 October 2021: Military Coup in Sudan is reported

1st November: World leaders agree to stop deforestation.

A map of Africa showing the incidence of military coups since 1952 reveals that the Sahel is where they happen, the region where climate change has been biting hard for three thousand years. Sudan has had 35 attempted takeovers, a handful of them successful. In 1983 I took my first proper job, teaching English in El Fasher, the provincial capital of Darfur. On the surface it was a peaceful dusty settlement where nomadic camel-herding tribes from the north came to trade with farmers from the south. The souk was a colourful and exciting place full of noise and people. You could buy snakeskin-sheathed knives and hippo-hide whips, drink tiny shots of thick sweet coffee and test-ride camels. I loved it. But dangerous currents of ethnic hatred were not far below that surface and were gathering strength as desertification put pressure on all communities. That southward drift of the desert was not being blamed on global warming in those days - in fact, scientists were debating the possibility of a new Ice Age brought on by atmospheric pollutants. No, the Sahara's relentless expansion was generally ascribed to over-population and over-grazing. It seemed obvious to me at the time that goats were the main culprits. Everywhere you went there would be a gang of them attacking some poor shrub that was clinging to life. Every settlement had a circle of devastation that stretched to the maximum distance a herd of goats might wander in a day. To stop desertification, I would say at the time: cull goats. It was an easy conclusion for someone not dependent on them.

We rode north on top of a truck filled with sacks of onions, myself and a fellow teacher, Steve. The route was across a stony desert, heading out of El Fasher, a sprawling town built around a dry riverbed that would, so people said, sometimes run with water although we had never seen it happen. Ever since arriving at El Fasher's secondary school, I had been staring at the maps of Darfur, examining the mountainous country to the north, the Meidob Nills, a mysterious area where Wilfred Thesiger had shot lions only fifty years before. The maps (made in Thesiger’s time) were pinned on the wall of my bedroom and I'd lie on the rope-strung bed, swatting flies and imagining vestiges of forest in deep shady canyons where lost populations of fabulous birds and beasts still roamed. I was 22 years old and escaping Mrs Thatcher's Britain. I was driven by some deep-seated urge to get as far away as possible from her small-minded and mean-spirited world.

The dirt track was not easy. Youths were employed by the driver to leap off occasionally and throw metal ladders under the wheels to save us from getting sand-bogged. If the soft ground extended, they had to grab the ladder as it emerged from the rear wheels, sprint to the front - through that same treacherous ground - and chuck the ladder back down. Meanwhile the truck would be rolling and plunging like a galleon in a storm, everyone on top clinging on. Someone pointed out a huge bird, a bustard, standing motionless as if heat-stricken. Every now and then we would pass a few houses, simple mud cubes with a sun shade out front. If they were occupied, there would be a few desperate thorn trees in the process of being devoured by goats. More often they would be ruins and there would be no trees at all. Once we saw a woman carrying a large water pot on her head, miles from any possible water source. It was almost impossible to imagine how anyone could squeeze a life from such a desolate environment, but in places there would be patches of cultivation, a few lines of bright green plants, sorghum probably. None of us knew that these small slivers of hope were not destined to come to fruition: Darfur was entering a terrible drought that would destabilise the entire province. What I did see confirmed what I thought about desertification: that tree-chopping and goats were responsible. But what could anyone do? The nights were bitterly cold and food needed cooking, especially tough old goat meat.

The last settlement marked on my map was Malha and it was there we arrived after dark. We rented two beds at a building that optimistically called itself a hotel and for dinner dunked pieces of flat bread in glasses of red sweet tea. In the morning, leaving our bags, we set out for our goal: a volcanic crater we had heard about, a few hours walk away. By the time we were climbing up the scrubby desert towards the rim of the crater, the heat was already merciless and I felt desperately tired, far more exhausted than I might have expected.

There were trees here, a few ragged acacia thorns, every one of them bearing the scars of both humans and animals: all leaves and twigs removed to a height that goats could reach, then several stumps of boughs that people had cut for firewood. In places were suggestions that there had once been a substantial forest here. The Sahara is full of such signs of previous life: the massive timbers in a hut roof, the dusty fragments of an ostrich egg, the fossils, the tortoise shell hung from a branch, ancient rock art or inscriptions that show a lost world of trees and animals - in time I would see all of these. It is the same story further afield: in Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. I have sat in many arid wastelands and stared at rock reliefs showing hunting scenes or parades through luxuriant jungle. The oldest man-made structure on earth at Gobekli Tepe in Eastern Turkey, dating back over 10,000 years, has massive stone reliefs of tigers leaping and boar charging. Similar scenes are repeated in Persepolis, reminders that the impact of humans has been gathering pace ever since the dawn of agriculture.

On the crater rim we looked down into a perfect bowl, then scrambled down a couple of hundred feet. In the centre a few camels and goats were drinking from deep pools of purplish water. Their owner warned us not to drink too. "It is poison for humans."

By this time my head was spinning and I had severe stomach cramps. I hurried off behind some rocks. The climb out the crater became a nightmare. Steve became concerned and went ahead, saying he would get back to Malha and try and find a vehicle. When I finally got back up to the volcanic rim, I fainted and fell over, cracking my head on a rock. The sun soon roused me. I staggered down the slope into the shade of a thorn tree and lay down on my back, falling instantly asleep.

I have no idea how long I was there. Weird dreams flitted through my head, something about winged hyenas and giant birds.

I was jolted back to life by a jet of warm liquid hitting me in the face. I opened my eyes expecting to see the branches of the thorn tree, but instead there was something bristly, hanging inches above me, plus a powerful musky smell. It took a few moments to re-orient my brain. I was looking at was a goat's udder hanging over me and a tough work-worn hand squeezing milk at my mouth. I opened up and swallowed. Eventually the goat got bored and stepping on my chest, ran off. I sat up and felt better. I did not know at that moment, but I was suffering the first of many bouts of dysentery.

The farmer who had saved me had a cheeky grin that I can still see. He handed me more milk in a tin cup. I drank it all. Nothing had ever tasted quite so good. The goats milled around, standing on their rear legs to reach a few dry twigs from the tree. I handed back the cup, then the farmer chased off down the hill, lobbing stones at wayward animals. I felt weak, but much better. The milk had brought me back from a bad place. I'd been saved by a goat. From then on I no longer blamed desertification on goats. I said it was a lack of decent fences.