According to local legend, evil spirits whisper names to disorient travelers and drag them into danger, singing through the moaning tons of the sand dunes. From beneath footsteps and car wheels, a deep roaring tone comes from the sand. The sound has been compared to the low note of the didgeridoo or a low-flying plane. In the 1200s, Marco Polo, in his journeys through the dunes of China, said he was struck by "the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments," and also "of drums and the clash of arms."
The phenomenon is caused by the vibrations of the grains of sand as they fall on top of each other. The study of it is new, however, and physicists debate the model that most accurately describes the mechanism. Thirty locations worldwide, including ones in China and the US, have singing sand, but none, experts say, has as pronounced and mellifluous a sound as the giant dunes in the south of the United Arab Emirates. This area is known as the Empty Quarter and stretches into Saudi Arabia.
Local guides - who you will need if want to avoid getting lost in the tessellating sands, which can bewilder and quickly kill visitors - can take you to see and hear these mysterious dunes.
Know Before You Go
Drive from Abu Dhabi or Dubai south toward Liwa. The dunes surround the city, which is made up of small buildings along the edges of the desert. You'll likely go with a guide from another city or meet him at one of the hotels in Liwa.
- Hear recordings here: http://www.nymoon.com/pubs/desert/singingsand/
- Read about the science here: http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080804/FRONTIERS/746076430/1036/NEWS
- Watch it in action here: http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080804/ONLINESPECIAL/958187693/1036/NEWS