Desert (dreamstime.com)

Desert travel guide

Sometimes the most interesting place to be is nowhere. In the middle of nothing. Surrounded by emptiness. Welcome to the desert

That’s what deserts do: remove so many of the elements of ‘life’, revealing a blank canvas. And what’s amazing is how much nothing there is.

Whether among the vast sand seas of the Sahara, the arid valleys of the Atacama, the Red Centre of Australia, China’s chilly, desolate Taklamakan or even Antarctica’s dry expanses, deserts have the power to capitvate.

And they’re rarely as lifeless as you’d imagine: rodents and lizards scuttle and slither, insects chirp and camels (dromedaries in north Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and even Australia; bactrians in Mongolia) lollop.

The peoples who call deserts home are also fascinating: the ‘Blue Men’ – Tuareg – of the Sahara and Sahel; the Uighur of western China; the native Americans of the USA’s south-west; and of course Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, who’ve roamed the arid lands for tens of thousands of years.

But how to make something in nothing? There are countless opportunities for exploration in the world’s parched wildernesses. Exploring the Australian Outback isn’t for the fainthearted, but well-equipped 4WDs can head off down the Birdsville or Oodnadatta Tracks through the Red Centre, or along the Gibb River Road through Western Australia’s gorge-riven Kimberley.

Jaisalmer, the fairytale citadel on the edge of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, is the starting point for an Indian adventure – camel safaris delve into the dunes, passing ancient cenotaphs and remote villages.

The Sahara can be approached from so many angles – camp with Berbers at the desert’s western edge in Morocco near Merzouga, Zagora or M’hamid; explore old caravanserais at Ghadames in Libya; listen to the sounds of the Tuareg at the Festival of the Desert near Timbuktu in Mali; or drive among the bizarre rock formations of Egypt’s White Desert.

Chile’s Atacama Desert is arguably the world’s most arid – sandwiched between the Andes and coastal ranges, there are places in the Atacama which have never seen rain in recorded history. But around the desert are geysers, ancient petroglyphs and craggy outcrops – saddle up to horseride the Valley of the Moon for spectacular views at the desert’s eastern edge.

There’s more to deserts than sun, sand and solitude – fill your canteen and strike out into the emptiness.

Top 10 desert experiences

  1. Take a camel safari – Cross India’s Thar Desert from the romantic Rajasthan fortress of Jaisalmer
  2. Listen to the sounds of the Sahara – Discover the Festival of the Desert in Mali
  3. Stay in traditional felt gers in the Gobi – Camp in yurts in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert
  4. Climb Dune 45 – One of the smaller but shapelier dunes around Sossusvlei, Namibia
  5. Drive a 4WD through the Outback – Steer your own 4WD along the Gibb River Road in Western Australia’s Kimberley
  6. Visit native American pueblos – Meet the locals in the tiny villages of the New Mexico desert, USA
  7. Roam the expanses of Wadi Rum – Join a company of Bedouin tribespeople in Jordan's rugged interior 
  8. Drive across the Kalahari in Botswana – Keep a sharp eye out for hyenas, lions, meerkats, giraffes, warthogs and jackals
  9. Watch the sun set in the Valley of the Moon – Explore Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest  in the world
  10. Visit the pyramids of Meroe in Sudan – See the ruins of the ancient city on the east bank of the Nile

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