Deserts (26.03.14)

Ironically, after my last World Water Day blog posting, and as I depart for a trip to southern Africa today, the northern hemisphere springtime always makes me think of deserts. Probably because some of my favourite deserts are relatively close to Europe and are reaching the perfect time to visit.


As the spring equinox passes (20th March), the northern deserts are warming, thereby allowing visitors a chance to enjoy the period between oh-so-cold-nights and searingly-hot summer days. For example some of my favourite travel memories are of trips into the Sahara and Arabian Empty Quarter at this time of year.

Nomadic Thoughts have for many years arranged trips, of all standards of comfort, into a variety of worldwide desert locations. Whether travelling by foot, camel or 4×4 the overwhelmingly grand landscape, defining silence and outer-space black night skies hit you the moment you enter open country desert terrain. Akin to mountain trekking in the colder, wilder regions of the world, entering a vast and unforgiving desert induces in me an over-riding sense of fear. This is in the main due to feeling so out of my normal environment … which I guess is British: wet-n’-green-n’-stormy. Even if there is no impending storm, wild animal threat or navigation issue, the sheer size and power of the desert can be as all-consuming as seeing a dark and powerful weather-front approach from above a mountain’s snow line, or from a bobbing ship deck on the high seas.

This feeling of mortality in a desert allows me to appreciate on the one hand what life there is above and below ground, and on the other, how differently time appears to behave when one is left alone in such hostile, yet beautiful landscape. An hour can feel like a day, and a day like a week.


Over the years I have been fortunate to have travelled in many deserts, at many different times of year, thereby touching on a variety of differing environments. If I had to choose, I would say that the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter was the most extraordinary for the sense of stepping back in time. Nicki (my wife) and I travelled from Marib (birth place of the Queen of Sheba) to the Eastern end of the Hadhramaut Valley under the guidance and protection of the local Bedouin. Whilst their machine-gun-stand pick-ups doubled as teatime shade catchers, it was when travelling further into the desolate Empty Quarter, with its camel caravans and desert customs, that we began to understand the desert people’s everlasting sense of tradition and history. Something which is so often missing from today’s modern Arabian Peninsula skyline.

The coldest and most unforgiving journey was crossing the Gobi Desert in late November from Tibet to the automatous Silk Road regions in Western China. I remember the icy wind cutting me in two, whistling across the frozen sand as I stepped from the battered vehicle I was travelling in, to the pile of rocks that doubled up as a toilet.


The warmest I ever felt in a snow-clad desert was at 4,900m above sea level when a Tibetan trucker, with whom I had hitched a lift, stopped at 3am in the morning to usher me down off the road to a hot spring. The two of us stripped and dived into the most beautiful hot spring I have ever experienced. The only problem was, since night-time temperature was below -20, the water on my head froze as I dressed myself with chattering teeth. The truck engine was kept warm by a blow torch, ominously positioned under the engine.

The most beautiful sand dunes I have seen were in the Sahara, both far below the aeroplane I was in, as well as up close during the magical dawn and dusk sunshine hours.

Desert temperature changes are like no other. The first time I slept out in the open desert I remember waking up with half my face frozen and the other half soft and warm, thanks to the freezing Sinai night giving way to warm desert dawn.

The most alone and exposed I have felt was when Nicki & I trekked unguided between and around some of the enormous Wadi Rum mountain areas in southern Jordan. Although we had a clear view of mountains that looked no more than 400m away across the open valley, we had to remind ourselves that they were in fact nearly ten miles distant, and well and truly out of reach. We had to fight the desire to cross the beautiful desert void, as a person fearing heights has to fight the desire to jump off a cliff. As we walked, covered from head-to-toe against the heat, for hour after hour, our sense of being lost was magnified tenfold by the deafening silence of the desert, and the realisation that we were the only living things above ground in unimaginable desert heat. Our twelve hour walk became one of the most exciting and rewarding we have ever experienced.


The most spectacular sunrise – from Wahiba Sands, Arabia. Offering an array of colours due to the high dew levels, being in such close proximity to the sea.

As it is I am now flying to South Africa today, where I will connect with a flight to the Okavango Delta in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. The extraordinary thing with the Okavango is that it is unique, a true Garden of Eden amidst one of the largest semi-arid sand savannahs in the world.

So no prizes for guessing when my next blog posting will be from. I’ll let you know how unforgiving it feels.