Deserts - Life in the Furnace Human Planet


Deserts - Life in the Furnace

A look at how the eternal quest for water brings huge challenges - and ingenious solutions - for millions of people in the driest places on Earth.


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Transcript


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Only one creature has carved a life for itself in every habitat on Earth.

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That creature is us.

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All over the world, we still use our ingenuity

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to survive in the wild places,

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far from the city lights, face to face with raw nature.

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This is the Human Planet.

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Deserts are the hottest and driest places on Earth.

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They cover one third of the land surface.

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Some never see rain.

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We can survive two months without food...

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..yet only a few days without water.

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As babies, we spend nine months surrounded by fluid in our mother's womb.

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But birth pushes us out of this luxurious water world.

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GRUNTS AND CRIES

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BABY CRYING

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From this point on,

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life for every child of the desert is defined by the quest for water.

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Yet somehow, in this brutal land,

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an incredible 300 million people survive.

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These are their remarkable stories.

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The Sahara is the biggest desert on the globe.

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It is the size of the United States,

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and its arid interior can unleash the mightiest sandstorms on the planet.

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Ferocious winds whip up billions of tiny sand grains

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into massive walls...

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..reaching more than 5,000 metres into the air,

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ten times the height of the Empire State Building,

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covering areas the size of Britain.

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Battling through this sandstorm in Mali is 16-year-old Mamadou.

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He's a cattle herder who left home three days ago

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on a mission to find water for his cows.

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It's a huge responsibility on his teenage shoulders.

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He must endure the fury of the desert alone,

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but there's an even bigger challenge ahead.

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He's in a race against the biggest land animal on Earth -

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African elephants.

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This desert herd is also desperate for water

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because Mali is gripped by drought.

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It's 40 degrees Celsius.

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Most of the water holes are already dry.

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Only one place for 80 kilometres will still have water...

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..Lake Banzena.

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And this is where both the elephants and Mamadou are heading.

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BIRDS CHATTER

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If Mamadou keeps up a fast pace, he'll reach the lake by morning.

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But only 50 kilometres behind him are the greatest nomads of the desert.

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ELEPHANTS SNORT

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Elephant matriarchs guide the herd,

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following an incredible mental map of all the water holes

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to be found in an area of tens of thousands of square kilometres.

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Acacia trees give them just enough fuel to keep walking,

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but they can't rest, day or night.

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But, for Mamadou, nightfall means he has no choice but to stop.

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Meeting elephants in the dark could be fatal.

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INSECTS CHIRPING

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COW MOOS

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A hurried breakfast is the little precious milk

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Mamadou can get from his cows.

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It keeps him one step away from dehydration.

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But he's got to get going.

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The elephant herd have walked through the night, making up ground.

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COWS MOOING

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HE CALLS OUT

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Finally the end is in sight for Mamadou.

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But he walks straight into trouble.

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Not only have the massive elephant herd beaten him to the lake,

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but they're also blocking his access to the water.

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RUMBLING GROWLS

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GROWLING

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Mamadou knows the elephants could charge,

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so he is careful not to get too close.

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RUMBLING GROWLS

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It's an uneasy truce while he works out how to break through.

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GROWLING

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Suddenly an elephant charges his cows.

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TRUMPETING

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Mamadou fights back, but armed only with sticks,

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it's a battle of David and Goliath.

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SHOUTING

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ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING

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HE SHOUTS

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Mamadou's courage has managed to shift over 50 elephants.

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Luckily, conflicts like this are very rare.

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Finally Mamadou drives his cattle towards the life-giving water.

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The elephants move off and find their own part of the lake.

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ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING

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At last, they too have an opportunity to drink...

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..and even play.

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It will be two months before there's any chance

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of rain replenishing the water holes,

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so Mamadou's struggles will go on.

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But in one part of the desert,

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a shrinking water supply leads to a surprising opportunity.

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Hundreds of kilometres away, along the Bandiagara escarpment,

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the sapping 40-degree heat has sucked the life

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out of the rivers of Dogon country,

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leaving only isolated pools

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stuffed with stranded fish.

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The Dogon choose this moment for a desert fishing festival.

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GUNSHOT

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GUNFIRE

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Thousands of competitors are drawn to Lake Antogo,

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including Dialo, who's been coming here for 30 years.

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It's a matter of pride for him to catch a fish.

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On any other day, fishing is strictly forbidden in this sacred water.

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In this way, the elders protect an important food reserve

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well into the dry season.

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But today the community have a chance to catch a symbolic last supper.

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The banks are filling up quickly.

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The atmosphere is tense.

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Dialo has found a good spot.

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But now he must wait since Antogo has its own unwritten rules.

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The ceremonial chief chants a prayer to chase away evil spirits.

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He wears a fish trap, believed to protect the words as they are spoken.

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This is Dialo's once-a-year chance.

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BELLS CHIMING

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GUNSHOT

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The free-for-all quickly becomes a fishing frenzy.

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They thrust their baskets down to trap the fish.

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Dialo has caught one, but there's no time for politeness.

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After just 15 minutes, there's nothing left,

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and the chaos subsides.

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Dialo is successful, but exhausted.

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Back at home, his proud catch of fish becomes a final feast for his family

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so they can survive the last days of the dry season.

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Far to the east of the Bandiagara,

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it takes immense navigational skill just to find water.

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These Tubu women must venture across the vast sand seas of the Sahara

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in search of a miniature well just one metre square.

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It will mean the difference between life and death.

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They call this place the Tenere - the land of nothing.

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It is featureless, scorching and unreliable.

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Foni is a Tubu woman who can find her way to water without a map or a compass.

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She's brought her daughter, Shede, only ten years old.

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The well they seek is still three days' walk away.

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This is the toughest journey they'll ever face together.

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They undertake this perilous journey for food.

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They must cross 240 kilometres just to get to market

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to trade camels for supplies that will last them six months.

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This caravan is only women and children,

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since, for the Tubu, it's the women who are the great navigators.

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To the untrained eye, a dune is just a dune.

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But Foni can tell which ones to trust in a place where nothing stands still.

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Smaller dunes shape-shift, moving with the wind,

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making them unreliable.

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But larger dunes, towering over 60 metres, are more stable,

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revealing signs of a much bigger picture.

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Over thousands of years,

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prevailing desert winds have blown dunes into long, parallel ridges,

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the only landmarks for the travellers.

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The Tubu look to the sun and the ridge line to work out which direction to go.

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Then they count each ridge to know how far they've gone.

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They've been walking for ten hours in the blazing sun.

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They must rest.

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They make their camp out of a single sheet, and ration their water.

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CAMEL GRUNTS

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The camels' share is mixed with oats, while the women drink sweet tea.

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They rise early, before the sun gets too hot.

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They only carry enough water to get to the well,

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so the pace they travel is key.

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This specialist understanding of the desert is fast disappearing.

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Today only a few hundred Tubu women possess the knowledge.

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Foni believes that by teaching Shede

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she can keep it alive for another generation.

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When darkness falls,

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Foni also teaches Shede how to read the night sky.

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CHATTER AND LAUGHTER

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For now, at least, they know they're on the right path.

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CAMEL GROWLS

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It's day three.

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Today they must find the well.

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While packing up, Foni decides Shede is ready to take charge.

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CAMEL GROWLS

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But the well is so hidden

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that even if she's only a few hundred metres away, she could miss it.

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CAMEL GROWLS

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She sets them off in the right direction,

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aligning herself between the ridges ahead and the sunrise to the east.

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For some children Shede's age, just ten years old,

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finding their way to school is challenge enough.

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But Shede has to find her way 20 miles across the bleakest landscape on Earth.

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But with her mother's guiding words echoing in her head,

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she strides forward.

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After a gruelling 12-hours' riding, the tenth ridge is finally in sight.

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The lonely bush in the dip of the dune marks the valley of the well.

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Shede has found the only well for 80 kilometres around.

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She's made her mum proud.

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Finally, Shede can water the camels.

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With their thirst quenched, she washes off three days of dust.

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SHE GIGGLES

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Now they've got water, they'll make it to market,

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but they're still weeks away from finishing their journey.

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Not all deserts are swelteringly hot.

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The Gobi in Mongolia is a desert of extremes.

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Lying far north of the equator,

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here scorching summer highs plunge to freezing Arctic lows.

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It's February, minus 20 degrees Celsius,

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and the few wells people have are frozen over.

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But, amazingly, water appears here as snow.

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The snow doesn't fall here.

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It's blown over 3,000 kilometres from Siberia.

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And these bitter winds mean it never settles for long.

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So Ganbold and his twin-humped Bactrian camels

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must chase the snow towards the mountains where it lingers.

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This rare snow is a lifeline.

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It's so important,

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he and his family have set up their winter camp in the foothills.

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But he's taking a risk.

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His herd, including pregnant females,

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are now in the hunting grounds of a voracious desert predator,

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and they like nothing better than newborn camel flesh.

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Gobi desert wolves roam over thousands of kilometres.

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Their keen sense of smell helps them shadow the herds at a distance.

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If Ganbold drops his guard, they'll attack.

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He returns to camp to hear that his son has interrupted a wolf attack.

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One sheep has been killed.

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BLEATING

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As evening falls, an icy dust storm builds.

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GROWLING

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In the warm tent, wolves are the only topic of conversation.

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At midnight, Ganbold checks his pregnant camels one last time.

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He suddenly realises his prize female is missing

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but, with the storm, they can't look for her until daylight.

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Come dawn, the search is on to find out what has become of her

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and her unborn calf.

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Ganbold musters his friends.

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It's a race between them and the wolves.

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They find tracks.

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Ganbold heads to the highest ridge, and the scale of his task becomes clear.

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More fresh tracks.

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GUNSHOT

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They've seen off the enemy,

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but is the camel nearby?

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Finally, they see a shape.

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Ganbold's beloved camel is alive.

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And she's given birth.

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But the calf isn't moving.

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Tchoo! Tchoo!

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CAMEL GRUNTS

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To his great relief, the calf is breathing.

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HE SIGHS

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Ooh! Ha-ha-ha!

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Only a few hours old, the calf is too weak to walk back to camp.

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So Ganbold gives it a lift.

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CAMEL SQUAWKS

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His son rushes out to help

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and his other boys meet the latest addition to the herd.

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BOY LAUGHS

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Ganbold gives thanks for his good fortune.

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Unlike the Gobi, there are some deserts where water never exists.

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In the Chilean Atacama desert, some areas are as desolate as the surface of Mars.

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This is the driest place on Earth.

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Here people have been inspired by nature to conjure water from thin air.

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Cactus flowers are a source of food for the guanacos,

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the wild camels of South America.

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But these cacti are also the key to their water supply.

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They're covered in furry lichen, which traps any moisture in the air.

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Orlando has taken inspiration from the cacti's natural solution.

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With his friends, he erects a vast net six metres high.

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The net's mesh is designed to mimic the lichen hairs,

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because in this coastal strip of the Atacama desert

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they have a lifeline to moisture - the Pacific Ocean.

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Here, cold sea currents cool the hot desert air

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and produce huge fog blankets.

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The fog is sucked ashore...

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..and sweeps over the cacti...

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..and also Orlando's nets.

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When the fog hits the cacti, it condenses onto the lichen hairs,

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which capture the precious water.

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In no time, the cacti are dripping with dew.

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On the nets, the fog does exactly the same.

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Drop by precious drop, this miracle water is channelled to a reservoir.

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Each day, these magical nets produce nearly 500 litres of water...

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..which allows Orlando to nurture a few plants in the sand.

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But he has bigger ideas.

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This is just the latest innovation

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in the eternal human quest to find water in the desert.

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Around the world, signs are etched in the landscape.

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Scars show where water used to flow.

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7,000 years ago, the Sahara was crossed by a network of rivers and lakes,

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which disappeared as it turned to desert.

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Yet, in this now barren land, some of this water remains

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deep in rocks underground.

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In Ba'amar, central Algeria,

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their extraordinary skill is to tap into this ancient water.

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CHANTING

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But you have to know how to harness it.

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Mafourdi is 70 years old, and committed to a life in the desert.

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Every morning after prayer, the men head off to find water.

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With stubborn devotion and very simple tools, they have dug a well.

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It's taken them six months to carve out a shaft through the desert rock.

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Only now are they ready for their most dangerous mission.

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As the oldest and the most experienced, Mafourdi climbs down alone.

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It's a sheer nine-metre drop.

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At the bottom lies knee-deep water in hand-dug passages.

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Mafourdi knows they are vital to keep the water supply flowing.

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But many men have been buried alive down here when the walls have collapsed.

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The water seeps from the rocks themselves.

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Mafourdi has released it from thousands of years trapped in the rock.

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This ancient water

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is all that's left of the rivers that used to flow across the land above.

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But one well isn't enough.

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The real trick is to connect several wells

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and create an underground channel of water.

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Mafourdi's neighbour, Abdullah, has also been digging a well

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for the last six months.

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Today's the day they're going to join up.

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But Abdullah must leave Mafourdi.

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Joining the tunnels is the most dangerous part.

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With so much earth removed, 30 foot of rock could collapse at any moment.

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It would crush Mafourdi, with no hope of escape.

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Back at the surface, Abdullah prays for Mafourdi.

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HE CHANTS PRAYER

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Finally, Mafourdi has broken through.

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But will the walls hold?

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PRAYING

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This new channel is just part of a much bigger system.

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Every generation for the last 700 years

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has been digging new wells and connecting them up.

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There are over 800 wells here now,

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channelling water 60 kilometres under the desert floor.

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The passages are cut so that the water continually runs slightly downhill.

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When it reaches the surface, it's divided up

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to sustain a village that otherwise wouldn't exist.

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With his share of the water, Mafourdi has created an oasis to grow date palms.

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And this attracts all sorts of surprising visitors.

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Once you have a permanent water supply, anything's possible.

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In America's state of Nevada,

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Las Vegas pushes desert living to the extreme.

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It breaks all the rules.

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It is one of the fastest growing cities in the US,

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using more water per person than almost anywhere else in the world.

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Is this humanity realising an impossible dream?

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Or is it just a neon mirage?

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The deserts of the world are littered with ruins of boom-and-bust civilisations

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where the water ran out.

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Petra in Jordan was an ancient city which once had an aqueduct system

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delivering 40 million litres of water a day to 20,000 people.

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For most desert dwellers, life revolves around the meagre rains.

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Only with rain can they hope to survive the next blazing year.

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But in Mali, desert rains are anything but reliable.

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Some years, they don't come at all.

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CHATTER

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If they do, the villagers know they come violently,

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so they must make their granaries watertight.

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CHATTER

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The rains are preceded by sandstorms,

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so now people watch the skies, waiting for a rampaging wall of dust.

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At 50 kilometres wide, and advancing at a speed of 100 kilometres an hour,

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the sandstorm engulfs the village in minutes.

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But people know this darkness is ultimately a good sign.

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Finally the rain is unleashed.

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15 centimetres falls in 20 minutes,

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turning the desert into a network of streams.

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Having waited all year, it's suddenly a moment to rejoice.

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CHATTER

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In deserts across the world, rains transform the landscape.

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This is the one moment when life is no longer about the quest for water.

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The pressure's off.

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For the Wodaabe people of Niger, West Africa,

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this is their window of opportunity for love.

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COWS MOOING

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When the rains are good enough,

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they can abandon their normally isolated lives.

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There's enough food and water to support a few hundred Wodaabe

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coming together for one of the most extraordinary gatherings

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of fertility and flirtation in the world.

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In this hive of activity is Djao.

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He's walked 80 kilometres to be here for a contest called Gerewol.

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It's a courtship dance for sex.

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Winning means he'll get a new lover.

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This year is special.

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It's the first Gerewol after six years of drought,

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so expectations are running high.

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Djao is already married, and his wife Tembe is here, too.

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Indeed, this festival is full of married couples.

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Wodaabe culture allows both men and women

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to set aside their marriage vows without stigma for these few days.

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Tembe is up for a fling herself.

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BABY GRIZZLES

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But she knows her husband is also a great catch.

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TEMBE LAUGHS

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But, for this flirting contest, it's the women who choose

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and, surprisingly, the men who dress up.

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Djao's beauty, dancing and singing will be scrutinised.

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His big performance is just hours away.

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The men decorate themselves with coloured clays from the desert...

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..with the crushed, charred bones of egrets for their black lipstick,

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and with perfumes from desert plants to make themselves irresistible.

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It's time for Djao to face the music.

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CHANTING

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CHANTING

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The men come under close scrutiny from an opinionated crowd.

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CHANTING

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As one line of dancers leave, Djao steps into the arena.

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He's desperate to be chosen by one of the three girl judges

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for a night of desert passion.

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CHANTING

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The girls are looking for specific things.

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He must keep great poise, like an egret.

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He must show his teeth, flutter his lips and sing from his throat.

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He must dance in time

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and use his shoulders to keep his position in the line.

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CHANTING

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The pressure's on for Djao.

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Any slip now, and he'll lose what he's waited seven years for.

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After five hours, it's the moment of truth.

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All three judges approach to choose their champions.

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The first walks up the line

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and, with a subtle gesture, indicates the man of her dreams.

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But she doesn't choose Djao.

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Neither does the second.

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Nor the third.

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Djao has missed his chance.

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His best efforts weren't enough to win a lover.

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It'll be at least a year before he has the opportunity to dance again.

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Tembe is looking for Djao.

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Many new couples are hanging out,

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but at least Djao and Tembe still have each other.

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So the men and women disperse, some with new lovers, some with old,

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but all have been touched by the flush of fertility and community

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before they return to the isolation of the desert.

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Deserts are landscapes of brutal simplicity.

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They provide so little and demand so much.

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But, with courage,

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with endurance and intelligence...

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..with devotion and ingenuity...

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..desert people have found ways to conjure life from so little water.

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GUNSHOT

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Against the odds, they have turned a life of thirst into a thirst for life.

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The only way to reveal the truly epic nature

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of the Tubu women's Sahara crossing was to film from the air.

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The best tool for this job was a Cinebulle -

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a hot-air balloon with a small motor.

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But temperamental technology and cantankerous camels

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combined to make this the hardest desert shoot of all.

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It took three days of hard driving

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before cameraman Toby Strong and the crew could reach the women and start filming.

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SHOUTING

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Driving in the desert, it's so difficult.

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You've got all these ridges, troughs.

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The guys are going down stuff like this and we're getting stuck all the time.

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That means everyone stopping, everyone out.

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It's frustrating, but it's the nature of the beast. We're here in the desert.

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They reach the launch site and start assembling the Cinebulle.

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Dany Cleyet-Marrel designed it specifically for filming.

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With only a small engine, it flies best in the cool morning air

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with no more than a light breeze.

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This is my first time up in a... in a Cinebulle.

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I've got two friends, two cameramen, who've been up in this.

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The first one, they crashed into a tree,

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and on the second occasion, that caught fire, the actual engine.

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What I think we're gonna do is go up,

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and I might have lied a little bit about how heavy I am,

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so we might find out that he needs a little more gas.

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Kind of a bit of test flight, like that.

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But the camels haven't read the schedule and they've gone to the four corners.

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Every night, the camels are released to search for food.

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So, each morning, it takes time to round them up again.

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OK, we have to go, we have to go. It will be too late after.

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When the camels are finally ready,

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Toby and Dany set off to film the women loading up.

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But the shoot doesn't go well.

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What happened was, the balloon took off,

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the butane gas has been cold overnight, and the burner was cutting out.

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They almost came down within the women and the camels.

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And then the balloon came down, bounced, took off again,

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completely freaking out the camels.

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So not a very good start to the morning.

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-TOBY:

-We lost the burner four times,

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plummeted down over the camels, the Tubu women and the kids.

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Obviously, freaked them out. Freaked me out a little bit.

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So that wasn't great on the first flight.

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After a few more flights, Toby becomes acutely aware of the wind.

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-TOBY:

-Working with Cinebulles is almost exactly like a boat.

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You've got the wind going in that direction

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and, although the Cinebulle's got a motor, you can't really go against the wind.

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So you've really only got one pop at each shot.

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Difficult with the wind.

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-TOBY:

-We're fighting the wind, engine's revving and there's vibration and shake.

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I've only got a very limited arc to pan around.

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So there's a huge amount of skill involved from Dany

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and the guys on the ground getting the camels going the right way.

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So it's a massive logistical operation.

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In the beginning we had a problem with the gas,

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and after, a problem with the wind.

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But tomorrow will be better.

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HE CHUCKLES

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The next day, after an early flight, they face another problem.

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The Tubu women don't hang around for the crew to pack up the Cinebulle.

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They only have enough provisions for a normal trek across the desert,

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so the team has to play catch-up.

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-TOBY:

-We've no idea where our camels have gone.

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There's 25 camels out there. You'd think we'd find them, but it's not...

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you know, you look around and it is just like an ocean with a gentle swell.

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So we're just driving round peak to peak, seeing if we can spot them.

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Good news, we've hit the main caravan route,

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which is a bit like... bit like the M6,

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and even better news, there's a few groups of camels coming this way.

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The boys, with better eyes than I, say they think that this is some of our group,

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so it's good news.

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With the camels in place,

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Toby and Dany at last see the opportunity for getting some really good shots.

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-DANY:

-Not so bad.

-TOBY:

-It's nice.

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I think we've got some nice shots.

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And then at the end, we went up really high,

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and to see the whole desert opened up was extraordinary.

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That was a good flight.

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They've had some success, but the biggest challenge lies ahead -

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filming the women's arrival at the well.

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But on a dusty night, the stars of the show go missing.

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-TOBY:

-We've just been using our big spotlight as a beacon,

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because three of the women and six of the camels

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couldn't make it into camp tonight

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and here in the desert, there's a very good chance of people getting lost.

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Thankfully, it worked, so everyone is safely into camp for the night,

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which is brilliant news.

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It's only when the sun's gone down

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that Toby has time to deal with a domestic problem.

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We brought out 30-odd cases from England.

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One bag didn't turn up, and that bag was my clothes.

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So, couldn't wait for it, had to come into the desert,

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and that is why I'm washing my shirt quite regularly

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in, er...my allowance of water.

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None of this goes to waste. This water will be used for... for tea tomorrow.

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No, it won't.

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The next morning is the most important one.

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The women are due to arrive at the well

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after days of navigating across the desert.

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It's crucial that Toby gets shots of them arriving,

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but, as usual, there are difficulties.

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The logistics involved of finding where the well is

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and then driving the whole way round so as not to get any tyre tracks.

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Dany having to guess where the wind's coming from.

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The whole logistical operation of getting right here, for this point, is enormous

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and we've just about managed to get it right.

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We're all here, we're ready to go.

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The wind is perfect. Dany got it spot-on.

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And the camels are maybe 45 minutes away. So, it's... it's massively frustrating.

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Now it's absolutely perfect. No camels.

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Yet again, the camels have gone off foraging in the night,

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then, at last, as the sun rises, they appear over the horizon.

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Everything comes together.

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The women and the camels are ready,

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and, with no wind, Toby is able to move around them in the early light,

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capturing a magical scene.

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As the women close in on the town of Fachi at the end of the trek,

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the crew can finally relax, with their problems behind them.

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Nice. It was a very, very nice flight. Nice light. Good speed of wind.

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We've got a problem.

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I thought we landed far enough away from town to be out of everyone's way.

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But lurking to the horizon... and there are hundreds of specks

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running this way. I reckon we've got three minutes

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before we're completely engulfed.

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I think Dany's off to, er... intercept the hordes.

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DANY SPEAKS FRENCH

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Those kids must be so excited.

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I think Dany's got a bit of a treat for them.

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WHOOSH

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To the delight of all, the crew have triumphed against the odds...

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and the stubborn camels.

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CHEERING

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Email [email protected]

0:58:480:58:51

We can survive for weeks without food, but only days without water: it is the essential element of life. Yet many millions of us live in parched deserts around the world. In the second episode of Human Planet, we discover how the eternal quest for water brings huge challenges - and ingenious solutions - in the driest places on Earth.

Battling through a sand storm in Mali, Mamadou must get his cows to a remote lake but desert elephants have arrived first. Can he find a safe way through the elephant blockade? Alone for weeks on end, Tubu women and children navigate the endless dunes of the Sahara. How does young Shede know where to find the last oasis, three days walk across the sea of sand? At the height of the drought we witness a spectacular frenzy: two thousand men rushing into Antogo Lake to catch the fish trapped by the evaporating water. When the rain finally arrives in the desert it's a time for flowering and jubilation - and love. The Wodaabe men of Niger put on make-up for an intoxicating courtship dance and beauty contest and the women pick the winners.


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