Needles, haystacks: the search for an iPhone in a mountain of sand

My dad sometimes calls me ‘golden balls’ on account of my frequent good fortune in life. It’s not an unreasonable moniker; for instance, I’ve backed the winner in four of the last seven Grand Nationals, with zero knowledge of horse racing.

Huacachina, an oasis in the Peruvian desert

Sometimes this good fortune balances out my, erm, more careless tendencies. Earlier this year, I lost my wedding ring after playing hockey, having dropped it beside the pitch. After futilely trying everything to find it, a week later it turned out that a guy who played in the game after ours had picked it up, and happened to be in transit through my town with my wedding ring in his bag.

I write this just a few hours after my golden-balls fortune has struck emphatically yet again.

Travelling from Lima to Nazca, we stopped off for a day in the desert oasis town of Huacachina, near Ica, Peru. While a bonafide tourist trap, Huacachina is postcard-picturesque with its clear-green lake, sprouts of palm trees and encircling sand hills. We stayed at Desert Nights Ecocamp, complete with our own private bed-hut, a swimming pool with swim-up bar (and craft beer on tap!), and free buffet breakfast. A scoop for £17 each.

Slope from left side
The sand mountain above Huacachina from the west; you can see people running down the slope from the top

We soon noticed that lots of people were clambering up the huge sand hills surrounding the oasis. We decided to follow suit and catch a desert sunset from atop the tallest of the hills – let’s call it the ‘sand mountain’. It was only a couple of hundred metres high, but tough work on sand! After half an hour of toil we made it to the top, and revelled in the scenery as the sun sank into the horizon.

The next day I decided I would go up again to take some pictures in full sunlight. Looking back I really don’t know why I took my phone in my shorts pocket, as I had my camera for snaps and there’s no signal or wifi on the hills.

Ica view.jpg
View out to Ica from the top of the sand mountain, with the sand sloping down to Huacachina on the right

At the top, the mid-afternoon sky was flawlessly clear, serving up some of the best views of the journey to date. While snapping away, I saw that quite a few people were running headlong down the steep face of the sand hill rather than walk back down the long way. The slope looked precarious from above, but was cushioned by soft sand.

I decided to give it a go. And of course completely forgot I had an iPhone in the shallow pocket of my swimming shorts.

Down I bounded, speed increasing and grin widening as I went. In twenty seconds I was at the bottom. Fulfilled, I trotted round the oasis back to the camp. I put my hand in my pocket… shit.



“I need to go back up the sand mountain…”


“I think lost my phone running down the slope…”

“You idiot.”

I hurtled back round to the foot of the sand mountain muttering fuck, fuck, fuck… I can’t believe this has happened already… I think I may have knocked someone’s ice-cream over on the way.

Back up slope
Staring up the sand mountain into the burning sun

I knew I had precious little chance of finding it. While it was most likely it had come out of my pocket on the run down, I couldn’t be certain. The huge slope loomed formidably above and I couldn’t remember my route down – I had zigzagged to the bottom amid my glee. To make things worse, more and more people were streaming down, spraying sand everywhere as they came.

I realised that I would only have a short window of time if I had any hope at all of finding the phone, and so I couldn’t walk the long way – I had to scramble up the slope. The sun was at peak heat and the sand scorching. My calves screamed as I ascended, and my mind ran through the implications. We were leaving for Nazca in a few hours, so too late for someone to hand it in. I was two weeks into a new one-year contract. I’d need to call Three from Peru to block the number. A replacement would cost a fortune. No more Whatsapp. No more Instagram. Basically a tumult of first world problems.

Half way up, I saw three guys come flying down from the top in a shower of sand. I wanted to shout, “you utter cockwombles, don’t do that, you’re going to bury my phone!” Instead I put on my best British politeness and asked, “I don’t suppose you saw an iPhone on your way down, did you?” They hadn’t.

I was caked in sand, beetroot from the sun’s glare and drenched with sweat when I reached a few metres below the summit. I shouted to some people above if they’d seen a phone; again no luck, but they offered to have a look about.

Back at the poolAnd then I saw it. Half an inch of gadget, just a single corner, poking out of the sand just five metres from the top. I crawled across, plucked it out and dusted it down; sure enough, I’d found my iPhone. If one more person had come running down it would probably have been buried forever. Sheer elation and relief.

I half-ran, half-danced back to the ecocamp, high-fiving people as I went. “You look ridiculous,” Lisa informed me as I arrived back at the pool. I shrugged and ordered celebratory cocktails.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.