The sounds of sand dunes

31st October 2003 at 00:00
John Stringer reveals the challenges and joys of teaching the primary science curriculum in the Middle East

Climbing to the crest of a desert sand dune, I heard: "You simply must slide down. It is the most amazing experience. Now sit down and push off."

Following my host's advice, I tobogganed from the dune's curving peak.

Beneath me, a million sand grains shifted and slid. And the most extraordinary thing happened. The whole dune began to hum and resonate, its bowl making a deep roaring sound. The movement of the sand grains had generated vibrations that were amplified by the natural loudspeaker shape of the dune and my slide had become a deafening experience .

Throughout the Middle East, there are international primary schools teaching national curriculum science to children from many nations. Look into a school and you might imagine yourself in any multicultural primary in the Home Counties. But look out of the window and you may see a minaret, the souk or an oil well in the desert.

Teaching in these schools is challenging to your imagination and inventiveness, especially in natural history. There are inner-city schools in Britain that will complain that they have no natural environment to speak of, but theirs are rich surroundings compared with a school circled entirely by sand that winks with glass fragments from bottles hurled from passing cars. How in these circumstances do you teach about adaptation to the environment?

If you teach in Bahrain or Qatar, the only available outdoor plants are those that have been planted in the school garden. If you want to compare and contrast environments, you may be making comparisons with plants neatly set out on a street roundabout. Animals are even harder to come by. You will not see many birds, except for carrion eaters, and your best example of an animal adapted to its environment is the camel.

It's difficult to teach about the weather, too, in a place that has no seasons, only a climate - weather records seldom show much variation. But teaching about the heavens has remarkable advantages, because unless you're in the light-polluted cities, the sky at night is ablaze with stars. You could even forgive the Moon for not resembling the pictures in the books from the UK. Instead, crescent-like, it lies on its back. And the Sun doesn't sink so much as drop from the sky, so that one moment you're in daylight and the next it is night. But next time you're faced with sources of sound, you may be restricted to buzzers and bells and musical instruments. It is unlikely that your children will be listening to a sand dune.


Deserts aren't simply hot, dry and sandy. They are inhospitable places where a cloud of stinging sand may whip across at any moment, finding the sensitive parts of your face and head. Camels are adapted to survive these conditions.


Camels perspire very little, and only after their body temperature has risen to 6 degree C above normal. They do not pant like dogs, which lose both heat and water together.

Stinging sand

Camels have a double row of long lashes to protect their eyes, and ears lined with fur to filter out sand.

Soft sand

Camels have two toes on each broad leathery foot. The hard skin protects the foot, and their feet spread to prevent sinking. Camels walk with a rolling gait because both left legs, and then both right, move together.

Hunger and thirst

Seven days without water beats even David Blaine. A camel can survive on thorny scrub, seeds, dried leaves and even its owner's tent, losing up to a quarter of its body weight without harm.


The camel's hump is not a water source, but a mound of fatty food reserve that flops when empty and returns to vertical when replenished.

Life cycle

A camel lives up to 40 years, although it may only work for the first 25.

Baby camels can walk almost from birth, keeping up with the camel train and escaping predators. Camel milk is rich and sweet, high in potassium, iron and vitamin C. Its warm frothiness is an acquired taste.

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