Image by Justin Foulkes / bananapancake.com
An essay on the subject of deserts, commissioned by Lonely Planet for a forthcoming book.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Since the dawn of time, deserts have been part of the human experience.
Mighty empires have been raised in them, and bloody battles fought over them. Faiths have been tested in them, visions glimpsed, epic tales told. These are the lands of the djinn and the rainbow serpent, of the mirage, the sphinx and the scarab beetle. They inspire fear and awe in equal measures.
For millennia, humans have been drawn to these wide-open spaces in search of the sense of freedom, solitude and spirituality they offer. And though they’re tough places to survive, they’re not devoid of life: ecosystems exist in the desert that can be found nowhere else on planet earth.
“I have always loved the desert,’ wrote the adventurer, pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. ‘One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, something gleams…”
It’s time to embrace the emptiness.
Close your eyes, and imagine a desert. What do you see?
A sea of shifting sands, perhaps. Undulating dunes. A white-hot sun. A featureless horizon stretching out to every corner of the compass.
Alright, then. So here’s a question: can you name the world’s biggest desert?
Simple, you reply. The Sahara. Has to be. No doubt about it. Everyone knows that. You can bet your camel on it.
Well, you might be rather surprised to hear that the world’s largest desert is actually nowhere near the equator. It’s freezing cold, not scorching hot. And nowhere in any of its 5.5 million square miles is there a speck of sand to be seen. Because, my overconfident quizzing friends, the greatest desert on planet earth is actually at the bottom of the world: the Antarctic, which is large enough to swallow 1½ Saharas and still have room to spare. The Sahara isn’t even the second largest: that belongs to the Arctic, which at 5.4 million square miles is roughly 2 million square miles larger than the Sahara.
Surprised? Well, don’t feel too bad. You could ask that question 100 times, and 99 people would probably give you the wrong answer. But it goes to show that our mental image of what a desert should look like, and what a desert actually is, are often very different things indeed.
To illustrate the point, here’s a follow-up. How much of the Sahara is sand, do you think? Nine tenths? Three quarters? It can’t be less than that, can it? Well, in fact, it’s less than a third. The vast majority of the Sahara – some 70% – is gravel.
There are plenty of reasons why our popular image of the desert isn’t as accurate as it should be. Cinema has a lot to do with it. Who can possibly think of a desert without instantly picturing a dashing, sun-burnished young Peter O’Toole, ghutra flying, framed against a panorama of golden dunes? Films like Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, Indiana Jones and Ice Cold in Alex have helped define the desert in our popular imagination. And since very few of us have actually spent much time in a desert, we rely on popular culture for our reference points. It’s only when you actually visit a few deserts that you realise how wildly diverse, and different, they can be.
Some, like the Antarctic and the Arctic, are icy and bitterly cold. Others, like the Australia’s Great Sandy Desert and Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali, are sandy and scorching hot. Some, like the Atacama Desert in Chile, are high enough to give you altitude sickness; others, like the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia, are below sea-level.
The desert has a close cousin, too. We call them plains. Like deserts, they come in many shapes and sizes – as uplands, steppes, plateaus, savannahs, floodplains, tundra and grassy prairies. Some were carved out by lava flows, others gouged out by floods or eroded by wind and weather.
There are deserts and planets on every continent on the planet, and they can be found at pretty much any longitude you care to choose. And they are abundant: collectively, deserts and plains cover approximately a third of all the land on earth.
“The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love. You think that strange perhaps? Well, the beauty of the ugly was sometime a paradox, but today people admit its truth; and the grandeur of the desolate is just paradoxical, yet the desert gives it proof.”
John Charles van Dyke, The Desert
But it would be a mistake to think that just because they are numerous, all deserts and plains are alike. Each of them has its own ecosystem, providing a habitat for a unique population of plants, insects and animals. No desert or plain looks quite alike another; they’re as distinct as the world’s forests, oceans or mountains, each one its own little world-within-a-world. Equating one with another is as pointless as comparing an English oak wood with the Amazon rainforest, or the Dead Sea with the Pacific Ocean.
So let’s get our definitions straight. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
our word for desert comes from the Latin desertus, or ‘left waste’. In scientific terms, a desert is defined as an arid landscape – specifically one which receives very little precipitation (the geographical rule of thumb for a desert is precipitation of less than 250 mm, or 10 inches, per year). So when we imagine a desert, we should actually be thinking of dryness, not dunes; we should be picturing a lack of water, rather than an abundance of sand.
Similarly, the English word for plain derives from the Latin planus, meaning ‘flat’.
And if there’s one chearacteristic that all plains share, it’s their flatness. All plains are flat. Really flat. Flat-as-a-pancake flat. Unlike deserts, however, plains are generally fertile rather than arid. Nutrient-rich, mineral-heavy soil washed down from mountains or deposited by rivers often ends up on plains. This makes many of them ideal for agriculture – especially cattle-farming and crop-growing. Thanks to the rich grasses that tend to grow on them, plains are also often blessed with an abundance of game animals, meaning that, for humans and predators alike, they usually offer good hunting. If deserts are the world’s dustbins, then plains are its bread-baskets and butchers’ counters.
So now we know what deserts and plains are, scientifically speaking. The next question to consider is why you’d would want to go anywhere near one.
Because most right-minded people don’t really relish the prospect of spending any time at all in the desert, or in the middle of a plain, for that matter. Even fewer would contemplate devoting their hard-earned holiday to them. There’s a part of us, buried somewhere in our collective psyche, that instinctively recoils at the very idea. There’s something about the blankness of them, the wildness, the lack of civilisation. There’s a nagging sense that these are places that people are not really meant to be.
Simply mention the word desert, and we feel a frisson of dread in the subconscious. Our brains conjure up a nightmare slideshow of cracked lips, shimmering mirages, empty billy cans, carrion birds wheeling over piles of bleached bones. Deserts and plains are, we feel, one of the few corners of the world where Mother Nature still holds sway. Here, far from manifesting herself as a benevolent force, she may in fact not really be on our side after all – but may actually be actively plotting to bring about our demise, whether under the claws of a hungry lion, the scrape of a vulture’s talons, the agonising sting of a scorpion or the searing heat of the desert sun.
In many ways, humans have spent much of their existence dreaming up ways to escape from the brutal struggle for survival these kind of places promise. Ceiling fans, swimming pools, air-con and refrigerators – what are these if not symbols of mankind’s mastery of his environment, his ability to conjure comfort even in the most unforgiving of climes? Just look at Dubai, for heaven’s sake: a city literally raised from the parched sands of the Arabian Desert, where you could spend your entire existence living in air-conditioned, dehumidified, refrigerated luxury, and never even clap eyes on a sand dune unless you so desired.
But throughout human history, there have been many cultures that have not avoided these places, but actively made them their home. From the Bedouins and Tuaregs of the Sahara to the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, from the Blackfoot, Comanche and Cheyenne of the North American plains to the nomadic yak-herders of the Gobi Desert, wide-open spaces like deserts and plains have provided a home for people since mankind first came down from the trees.
It’s no coincidence that the oldest civilisation on the planet is a desert people. For approximately the last 65,000 years, Australia’s indigenous tribes have eked out an existence in the harshest landscape imaginable, forming an intimate knowledge and deep connection with it. From the depths of the Simpson Desert to the crocodile-filled creeks of the Northern Territory, Aboriginal tribes have ranged over every inch of the Australian continent. They weaved legends around it, and told stories about it, using oral history and rock art to pass on their knowledge through the generations: what animals to hunt, which plants and fruits to harvest in which season, and most importantly, how to find the all-important mikiri (native wells) which provided them with a reliable supply of fresh, drinkable water.
They survived because they understood a fundamental truth. In a truly wild place like the desert, if you try to fight your environment, you will always lose. Instead you must study it. Learn from it. Embrace it. And, above all, respect it. In return, if you’re worthy, it might reveal some of its secrets: old, deep truths about the world, the cosmos, and our place in it; tales from a time when the planet was still young, and humanity wasn’t even a twinkle in Mother Nature’s eye.
It’s surprising how many of the world’s cultures associate wide-open spaces like the desert with spiritual revelation. The aboriginal rite of passage known as walkabout, in which young men went out into the desert to commune with nature and search for their inner selves, took place in the desert. In Christianity, many moments in scripture play out against a desert backdrop – from the burning of the bush to the devil’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In Islam, the prophet Muhammed was raised in the desert by a Bedouin family, and its holiest city, Mecca, was founded in the fabled Desert of Paran. In Judaism, the holy book of the Torah was given to Moses in the desert after the Israelites’ forty years of exile. And in ancient Egypt, the desert was quite literally the realm of the divine – a place where deities dwelt, and the dead departed on their journey into the afterlife.
What is it about these places that inspire transcendent moments? For the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who spent much of his life exploring the deserts of Arabia, it had to do with the desert’s ability to strip away the distractions of life – its trivial routines, petty worries and material concerns.
“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization,” he wrote in his travelogue Arabian Sands, published in 1959. “A life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. I had found too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquillity was to be found there.”
For Thesiger, the austere environment and unforgiving climate allowed him the freedom to learn truths usually obscured by the trivial concerns of everyday life. In other words, in the emptiness of the desert, he discovered the space to find himself.
Ironically, however, the desert was also a place where he found a connection with other people. In another memorable sequence from the book, he recounts his experience of desert hospitality at the hands of a group of nomadic shepherds.
“I remembered other encampments where I had slept, small tents on which I had happened in the Syrian desert and where I had spent the night. Gaunt men in rags and hungry-looking children had greeted me, and bade me welcome with the sonorous phrases of the desert. Later they had set a great dish before me, rice heaped round a sheep which they had slaughtered, over which my host poured liquid golden butter until it flowed down on to the sand; and when I protested, saying ‘Enough! Enough!’, had answered that I was a hundred times welcome. Their lavish hospitality had always made me uncomfortable, for I had known that as a result of it they would go hungry for days. Yet when I left them they had almost convinced me that I had done them a kindness by staying with them.”
Rather like his fellow desertophile T.E. Lawrence, Thesiger also found something rather surprising in the desert: a sense of his own shared humanity. With the nomadic tribes of Bedouins and Berbers, he forged bonds which were to prove far more lasting and meaningful than any he made in more hospitable climes.
For other writers, it was the lack of people that made the desert meaningful.
In the early 1960s, the writer Edward Abbey – best-known for his counter-culture classic The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975,in which a group of conservationists wage ‘eco-tage’ in an effort to save the planet – spent two seasons as a National Park Ranger in the deserts of southeast Utah, living alone in a weather-beaten trailer, walking the trails, observing the wildlife, watching the sunrise and sunset, and occasionally attending to his ranger’s duties. He collected his experiences into a lyrical memoir, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.
“The desert says nothing,” he wrote. “Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”
“It seems to me,” he continues, “that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna; life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered around in sparseness and simplicity… The extreme clarity of the desert light is equalled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
For Abbey, the desert became the ultimate symbol of the wilderness: a place where he could truly escape the trappings of civilisation and reconnect with the essential truths of nature. In the desert’s blankness, Abbey rediscovered his capacity for awe: the ecstatic thrill of experiencing something infinitely greater than himself, where human concerns pale into meaninglessness against the greater story of nature. The desert doesn’t care whether he is there, or isn’t there. The desert just is.
As Abbey realised, the desert’s wildness and immutability explains much of our enduring fascination with it. In a world where so much of the planet has been tilled, farmed and furrowed, deserts stand out as one of the few places man has yet to tame. In the desert’s emptiness, Abbey glimpsed a vision of what a world without man might look like. As the French writer Honoré de Balzac, put it: “In the desert there is everything, and nothing. God is there, and man is not.”
Maybe this is why post-apocalyptic stories are so often set against a desert landscape. Somehow, Mad Max just wouldn’t have the same hallucinatory, hyper-real quality if it weren’t backdropped by the dust storms and red dunes of the Australian outback. In the desert’s nothingness, these tales remind us, even the greatest of civilisations are soon scrubbed out – like the gardens of Babylon, or the pyramids of Egypt, or the temples of Mesopotamia, man’s most magnificent works are swallowed up by the sands soon enough.
The emptiness of deserts and plains are unsettling for many people, but for others, it brings benefits. Devoid of streets, towns, parking lots and shopping malls, deserts and plains are blessed with minimal light pollution, which makes them fantastic for stargazing. There’s a reason so many of the world’s observatories are located way out in the middle of nowhere, as far away from people as possible.
Out here, the night sky reveals itself in all its galaxy-spanning glory. Stars, nebulae and constellations normally hidden from view become visible in the stygian gloom, allowing astronomers – both amateur and professional – to peer out into the deepest, darkest corners of the universe. At the McDonald Observatory on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, weekly ‘star parties’ are held throughout the summer, allowing ordinary folk to gaze through telescopes into the mysteries of the cosmos. For city-dwellers accustomed to a perpetual sodium-yellow glow, seeing the night sky in full star-spangled clarity comes as nothing short of a revelation.
Deserts suggest another type of space tourism, too. Short of stepping onto a passing flying saucer, they’re about as close as humanity can get to stepping onto the surface of another world.
The rugged terrain and crater-pocked surface of the deserts of Nevada, Texas and Arizona made them the perfect testing ground for the Apollo moon landings; much of the essential machinery which enabled the Apollo astronauts to explore the moon, from jet-packs to moon buggies, was put through its paces in the desert environment. And as preparations are made to send the first manned mission to Mars, the desert continues to play a crucial role in space science; pioneering companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have used the very same deserts to test the technologies which, one day, will allow the first human to set foot on Martian soil. And while most of us won’t ever visit another planet, we can at least imagine what it might feel like simply by spending some time in our nearest neighbourhood desert. It’s as near to an extra-terrestrial experience as you can get without actually leaving planet earth.
Many people think we’ve had close encounters of a different kind in the desert. Sightings of UFOs and flying saucers are frequently made in these wide-open spaces – most notably the Roswell incident in 1947, in which an alien craft supposedly crash-landed in the desert of New Mexico, before being hushed up by a mass government conspiracy.
Deserts, according to conspiracy theorists, are the perfect places to hide things you don’t want people to see – a sentiment symbolised by the infamous Area 51, a super-secret military testing site where, it’s said, the Roswell craft and its alien crew were taken after their crash landing.
Alien visitors or not, the truth is that the desert already has quite enough weird and wonderful life-forms of its own. In the deserts of Namibia, there is a lizard which does a disco dance to avoid burning its feet. In the deserts of Mexico, there is a bird called the roadrunner which can run at more than 20 miles per hour. In the dunes of the Sahara, there is a viper with a horned head, a fox which uses its giant, saucer-like ears to dissipate heat, and a weird rodent called the jerboa which looks like a cross between a mouse, a gerbil, a jackrabbit and a miniaturized kangaroo.
And that’s just the fauna. Desert flora has been forced to evolve into all manner of freakish forms to survive in the harsh environment. There are plants that can survive on less than a teaspoon of rainfall a year, and others that only bloom once every couple of decades before giving up the ghost. There are spiky plants, and sprawling plants, and bulbous plants; plants that can throw out their spines, plants that look like giant baseballs, and plants that have learned to devour insects. The Namibian desert is home to what is said to be the world’s toughest plant, Welwitschia Mirabilis, which can survive up to five years of drought and still somehow have the stamina to live for centuries (the oldest specimens are thought to be around 1500 years). Equally tough is Selaginella Lepidophylla, the Rose of Jericho, a native of the Chihuahuan desert, which is said to be able to survive near-total dessiccation before miraculously resurrecting itself at the first hint of rain.
It’s not just the animals and plants of today that make the desert fascinating for students of nature. They are also portals into the past. Many of the world’s richest fossil sites are located in deserts and plains, from the Morrison Formation and Hell Creek Formation in the US to Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs and the Dashanpu Formation in south-central China. The dry desert environment provides the perfect medium for preserving ancient fossil remains, and the desert has yielded countless palaeontological discoveries – including the first diplodocus, unearthed in Morrison, Colarado in 1877; the ‘Fighting Dinosaurs’ fossil of a Protoceratops and Velociraptor, discovered in the Gobi Desert in 1971; and perhaps the most famous fossil of all, Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old human unearthed in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1974.
Deserts and plains ask us to contemplate time in other ways, too. The fact that so many of these areas are rich in fossil fuels and mineral deposits reminds us that once, long, long ago, these landscapes looked very different to today. Some were cloaked in tropical forest or fertile wetland. Others were submerged beneath deep lakes or temperate seas. Scooping up a handful of desert sand is literally like an exercise in time travel: as you watch the particles flow through your fingers, it’s mind-boggling to think that long ago they might have formed part of a mighty mountain, flowed along an ancient river-bed, or sat at the bottom of a long-dead ocean. Deserts and plains immerse us in deep time; by visiting them, we voyage billions of years into the past, into a much more ancient incarnation of the planet we call home.
Ironically, they also intimate a vision of our future. In a warming world where the climate is spiralling out of control and many species are struggling to adapt, deserts provide a warning of the consequences of our inaction. As the planet heats, the desert reminds us of what the parched, denuded world of the future might look lie. As forests burn, lakes dry up, and rivers disappear, the desert is what creeps in to take their place.
We’ve seen it within living memory. In the early 1930s, a combination of over-cultivation and drought ravaged the Southern Plains of the United States from Texas to Nebraska, creating a vast region known as the Dust Bowl. Crops failed, livestock perished and millions of people were forced to abandon their farms, creating one of the largest migrations in human history (an event described in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath). Rain eventually returned by the late 1930s, but it was a warning sign of what can happen when we take nature for granted.
Or consider the bison. When white settlers arrived in the New World, it’s thought that there between 30 and 60 million of these gentle giants roaming across the great plains of North America. By the 1880s, mass slaughter had caused their numbers to dwindle to just a few hundred. Although conservation efforts have brought them back from the brink of extinction (current estimates are around 250,000, mostly in private herds), the great bison herds that once roamed freely across North America will likely never be seen in such numbers again.
We’ve abused these places in worse ways, too. On July 16, 1945, in a remote part of the Jornada Del Muerto Desert, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, 230 miles south of Los Alamos, the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Trinity Test. It exploded with the force of approximately 21,000 tons of TNT, marginally more than the Little Boy bomb that was later dropped on Hiroshima, sending up a vast mushroom cloud 40,000 feet into the atmosphere. It was the largest explosion mankind had ever seen, and heralded the dawn of the Atomic Age.
The bomb’s creator, theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer, recoiled in horror at the terrible power he had unleashed on the world. A keen student of Hindu mythology, watching the explosion prompted him to recall lines from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death,” he said. “The destroyer of worlds.”
After the end of the war, Oppenheimer devoted much of his life to limiting the fallout from his invention, lobbying against the development of the H-bomb, and working to oppose nuclear proliferation as chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. It was as if, gazing out at the mushroom cloud rising over the Los Alamos sands, Oppenheimer experienced his own desert revelation: now that mankind possessed the power to obliterate itself, it must learn how not.
Perhaps Oppenheimer realised something else in that moment, too: the power of the desert to endure, its ability to outlast the most destructive force. A-bombs, asteroids, apocalypses: the desert has seen them all before. It was here long before us, and it will be here long after the last of us is gone.
Humanity desperately needs to be reminded of that sometimes.
Maybe that’s why the desert is more important now than ever.
How to find water in the desert
First of all, look out for any birdlife, animals or foliage, which often indicate a hidden water source; clefts, canyons, gullies and depressions are good places to look. If you can find a tree, you can collect water by placing a plastic bag over a leafy branch; as the plant transpires, water collects on the inside of the bag.
Alternatively, you can make a solar still by digging a hole and laying a sheet of plastic over it, anchored with rocks and a pebble in the centre to create a dip. Solar energy will evaporate moisture from the ground, which will condense on the underside of the plastic and can be collected in a receptacle underneath.
Whatever you do, don’t drink water from a cactus; the fluids are high in alkalis which will induce stomach cramps and damage your kidneys. Squeezing water from animal dung is also possible in an absolute emergency – although it will taste foul and may carry disease, so it should definitely be a last resort.