It was 12.25am on Christmas morning when my cellphone rang.

Had Father Christmas lost his way? Was my son, in Kenya at the time, being mauled by a lion and ringing for help? I answered it.

"Hello Jeel," said a deep voice, vaguely familiar.

"Um, hello.. who is this?" I mumbled.

"It is I, Ali... I am in the Sahara."

He was also calling me on my global roaming number. Telecom must love me.

They might also like to take note that cell coverage in parts of the Sahara seems decidedly better than it is in parts of rural New Zealand.

"When you come back Sahara?" he inquired.

"Inshallah, next year," I told him, not adding aloud that I was hoping to keep several sand dunes in between us.

Ali (not his real name) told me he was standing on top of a sand dune while a group of Turkish tourists took photographs.

I could picture the scene because, although I wasn't keen to meet up with my caller any time soon (for reasons that will become clear later), it had been love at first sight for me and the Sahara.

The word Sahara comes from the Arabic word for desert and when you stand on a dune while the wind sifts through the sand it seems the perfect description.

The Sahara is the world's second-largest desert (Antarctica is the biggest) and its sands sweep into 11 North and Central African countries.

I had my first unforgettable encounter with the Sahara in Libya.

The Libyan Sahara is one of the driest parts of this vast desert that covers an area almost as big as the United States. In a good year it might receive 2cm of rain.

The chances of any of that minuscule amount of rain falling on the day I stepped barefoot into the sand was remote.

A few wisps of cloud promised nothing but the occasional shadow skudding across the dunes.

I was travelling in a four-wheel-drive driven by Sa'id and with guide Mahmud riding shotgun.

Beside me was the man who really did have a gun, although he refused ever to show me or even to confirm he was carrying one. He was our tourist policeman - a prerequisite for every tourist group of more than eight travelling in Libya.

With us were another five vehicles - the cook and his mate in one, and Kiwi travellers in the rest.

I might have been the leader and Mahmud the guide but there was no doubt who was really in control: Ali, the six-foot plus Tuareg in blue robe and white turban.

He looked more West African to me but he assured me he was from the nomadic pastoralist Tuaregs.

I wondered a little uncharitably if he'd decided that being a Tuareg gave him greater allure among visitors.

Our entourage stopped at the top of the first crest of dunes. The drivers flopped down in the shade of their vehicles while we surveyed the Sahara.

The desert undulated away into the shimmering distance like a sea of sand frozen in time. The sun threw deep shadows along the sinuous ridges.

We drove on, our vehicle usually taking at least two runs at the steeper sand dunes. Each time, Sa'id would lean forward, kiss the steering wheel and urge his 4WD on.

It was only later that I found out that it was no coincidence his cellphone burst into life each time this happened.

Ali, the ultimate Alpha Male, apparently got on the phone each time any of his drivers failed to make the top of a ridge on the first try and blasted their incompetence. They also got a barrelling if they dared let their vehicle get even slightly ahead of his.

When we stopped again a slight breeze was blowing the sand. It moved so gently the dunes seem to shimmer and sand spiralled across the slopes in lazy curls.

I handed around a box of fresh dates. Ali took one, looked at me over the top of his sunglasses and said smoothly: "Next time you come for longer and we sleep in the desert", before listing a range of extra activities not usually listed in guidebooks.

I chose not to understand.

"I don't think my groups are quite ready to sleep in the sand," I said, "Have another date."