Not many people live here because there is little water and those that do, gravitate to the few sources of this precious life giving fluid dotting this sea of sand and scrub. Yet, the place has an all pervading lure for if one has not witnessed the spectacle of the sun rising and setting across the rolling dunes or the full moon bathing the scene in cool white light, one has not savoured the beauty of nature at its best. As one drives across the area, one suddenly bursts into vast expanses of hard baked tarmac like stretches of what must at some time been beds of water bodies. Driving across these dahars is like driving on an aircraft runway. Scattered across these dahars are long dead shells of tiny creatures that must have thrived when there was water here. Once in a while, this dry empty land is drenched with a rain shower. It is then that it comes to life in an explosive burst of life and colour. As if by magic, the dunes are clothed in a riot of flowers, which disappear in the space of a day, leaving the desert landscape as bare as before. Many species of wildlife inhabit this area and one is apt to see brown and black partridges and road runners sprint across the desert tracks as one drives along them. Wild hares and jackals appear frequently in the glare of headlights at night and an occasional deer can be spotted amongst the scrub. There was however a time, when this was a populous deer habitat, but indiscriminate hunting for venison and in some cases unforgivably callous shooting with sophisticated weapons reduced the population to almost zero. Snakes and lizards abound in the sparse shade offered by shrubs, as do scorpions and a wide range of beetles including the one known as bir bahuti. These beautiful, tiny scarlet coloured, velvet textured insects come out in large numbers after the rare rain showers that occur in the area. This then is the desert belt that stretches from Southern Punjab in the North to the Ran of Kutch in the South, along the border with India. In the upper part of this belt lies Cholistan - home to the rare Houbara Bustard and the legend of the Peeloo. I first heard about the Peeloo on one of my regular trips to this area and put it aside as a figment of imagination. The name, however, kept cropping up in conversation frequently as I sat under the hot shade of my hosts thatched abode, partaking of his meagre yet wonderful hospitality. The gracious old man even managed to get hold of a sickly looking character, with burn like scars on his body, who by his account had been attacked by the Peeloo and survived. Here then, is the tale of what may well be one of the greatest terrors of this desert world. The cool nights of the desert entice many dwellers to just spread a cloth on the soft sand and drift into the sleep of the weary. In some part of the night, what looks like a thin six-inch long sandy coloured piece of rope, comes to life and sets out on its deadly foray. This is the deadly serpent known to the locals as Peeloo. The creature snakes its way up the sleeping body till it reaches the face. It then positions itself to direct a stream of deadly venom into the oft open mouth of the person, who dies a horrible and painful death by sundown of the following day. On discovery of a Peeloo strike, the locals quickly dig a hole in the sand and fill it with fresh dung. The bitten person is then buried in the dung up to his neck facing east. As the sun climbs into the sky and the heat mounts, the unfortunate wretch is slowly cooked inside the pit. At sundown, when the victim is taken out, his skin has rotted and peeled, leaving a raw mess, but miraculously the dung and the heat have neutralised the toxin and the man survives to tell his story. I dont know whether the Peeloo is real or just a fireside tale, but my host insists that it is true. As far as I am concerned, the desert is a strange place with creatures that baffle imagination, who knows what lurks ominously under the sand waiting for the night to fall, so that it can claim its prey. n The writer is a freelance columnist.