Friday, May 7, 2010

Deserts are not deserted

Only yesterday I was telling a friend about my adventures into the great Namibia Desert along the Skeleton Coast of Atlantic, emphasizing in particular how I am not too fond of the deserts during the day since cold places are essentially my home. I thought she was an ocean and mountain person like me, but she surprised me by confessing that she is equally enchanted with the deserts of the world since they too are boundless and immensely beautiful and redolent with life – not that she had visited any, besides Thar in India. That set me thinking and I soon realized that though not among my favorite places on Earth, I have walked through parts of several of the world’s largest (area wise) deserts and have had a firsthand encounter with their diversity, flora and fauna, spectacular beauty, with the burning sun of day and the frozen moon at night. While my mind thus wandered retracing those forgotten voyages across the arid lands, I recognized that I too was fascinated with deserts as much as I am with the mountains. Deserts are among nature’s most spectacular spectacles and often neglected or held in fear due to ignorance. Despite the sand a desert landscape is far from monotonous and it is full of life. My outdoor survival skills and experience encompass deserts too and hence I thought of telling you all about the deserts that I have been to and also to highlight how each one of them are unique and different from each other even when they are similar and identical in several ways. For the sake of brevity, I would only touch upon the deserts that I have been to and are within the 25 largest deserts in the world.

Essentially a desert is a place that is unusually arid and moisture free and does not see precipitation (rain) beyond the barest minimum and in some cases none at all. Broadly all deserts have been classified as Polar, Cold winter, subtropical and cool coastal. As the names suggest, the Polar deserts are those found only in Antarctica or in the Arctic Region, Cold winter ones are those found in high latitudes, subtropical are those bound by the tropical latitudes while cool coastal are those that are along the coast and hence largely affected by sea breeze and ocean currents. Due to the different regional influences, these deserts vastly differ in terms of flora and fauna and landscape. Now let’s put on our hats and sun-creams and pack in our bottles of cold water and aka Dr Livingstone (who first walked through the Kalahari) get going.

Antarctic Desert

Believe it or not, the world’s largest desert is not Sahara but the Antarctic Desert that covers a mind-boggling area of around 13,829,430 sq km. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent on earth. With less than 200 mm annual average precipitation along the coast and much less inland, the entire continent of Antarctica is therefore considered a desert. This desert is covered with an enormous sheet of ice that thickens to more than 3.5 km at the geographic South Pole. Some parts of the trans-Antarctic mountains are free of ice and so are some of the coastal areas, mainly in the Chilean peninsula. Being so cold and dry it does not breed any indigenous flora except some mosses, liverworts, algae and fungus. Indigenous fauna are few microorganisms while few mammals like whales, penguins, seals and squids survive on the marine life for food along the coastal waters. During winters they too go away except Emperor Penguins who breed during the winters. Antarctica is an amazing land and countless articles and books have been written on it and may be a separate post or a book on my voyages through this cold desert would ensue my pen, but for today suffice it to say, that this is one desert I absolutely love and wouldn’t mind returning to time and again. During my two trips here, I managed to ski to the South Pole and also climb several summits including the highest mountain of the continent.

Arctic Desert

With an area of roughly 13 million sq km, the entire area of Arctic Desert is one of the regions on Earth that is more like a home for me and it is the second largest desert in the world. It essentially covers Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and if you have been following my journeys around the globe, you would by now know that I have been to this region countless times and have done many expeditions. The Arctic is mainly the area lying north of the Arctic Circle and it averages a precipitation (all in the form of snow) of not more than 50 cm annually. Most of the glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic are found in Alaska and Greenland and it mainly comprises of massive ice sheets and ice bergs across the Arctic Oceans and the bordering seas. The land that is not permanently snow bound is either tundra or permafrost and hence doesn’t breed any large trees. Only small shrubs like dwarf shrubs, graminoids, herbs, lichens and mosses are found in the cold summers while in the winters everything is buried under the deep snow. The animal life includes Arctic hare, reindeers, lemming, and caribou, Arctic fox and wolf, wolverines, ermines, and arctic ground squirrels. The polar bear is also a dangerous predator who should be given the widest berth if you find one in your vicinity. They look cute and cuddly only in the movies. There are also many birds and marine species thriving in the colder regions. Sea life include seals, walrus, and several species of cetacean, baleen whales and also narwhals, killer whales and belugas. The region also has a large indigenous population primary among them the Innuits who are found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the Siberian tribes. Arctic desert is a place meant for fairy tales and legends, myths and mysteries and each of my trips here have been an unforgettable one. Many of these tales have already been told somewhere within this blog so won’t repeat them but suffice it to say that a part of me permanently resides somewhere in the Arctic. If you can, you must go there at least once and who better than me as your guide.

Sahara Desert

The third largest desert in the world covers an area of around 9 million sq km and it is a subtropical desert running through the African nations of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania, Libya, Mali, Niger, Morocco and Sudan. It almost equals the size of Europe and is often called the greatest desert on earth. I first encountered the Sahara during my African adventure when I was 18 that almost got me killed a number of times that I now prefer not to recall. On that epic voyage I walked through the Saharan regions of Tunisia, Mali and Morocco and later returned to the Dark Continent to take up the Saharan trail through Algeria, Chad, Egypt and Niger. In doing so I have been through a vast tract of this breathtakingly beautiful desert land. It is bounded by the Atlantic to the west, by Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean to the north, and by the Red Sea to the east. Several mountain ranges dot the Sahara like the Aïr Mountains, Ahaggar Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Tibesti Mountains, Adrar des Iforas, and the Red Sea hills. The highest peak of Sahara is Emi Koussi, (C 3400 m) and no I haven’t climbed it. Nearly three million people inhabit the Sahara, mostly around the oases or the river valleys and they are all berber tribes like the Tuareg and Moors. Among the main cities in Sahara, Timbuktu in Mali is perhaps the most famous due to the eponymous idiom in English language. And yes, I have literally been to Timbuktu. Nile is the most prominent Saharan River. The vegetation is mostly grass and savanna while the fauna includes the Dromedary Camel, goats, scorpions, lizards, sand vipers, wild dog, fox, ostrich, addax antelopes, Saharan cheetah and gazelle. Though abundant with life, among all the non-Polar deserts, Sahara is the least colorful. Even its flora and water bodies mostly reflect the brown surroundings. The nights are of course beautiful and the moon, as it glides over the cold sand can make you feel as if you are in a lunar land.

Arabian Desert

I have only skimmed the fourth largest desert in the world hence I won’t dwell over it in any details. Running through the countries of Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Yemen it covers an area of around 2.3 million sq km. This is also known as hyper-arid desert since it is extremely dry and sees less than 35 mm per annum of rainfall. Like any desert the days are burning hot while the nights are freezing. Amazingly during the winters the temperatures can drop below zero and ground frost is not uncommon. The desert land is dotted with deadly quicksand that often claims victims. In such extreme environment only desert-adapted species can survive like gazelles, oryx, sand cats and spiny-tailed lizards and it has little biodiversity. Due to human intervention and loss of habitation, species like striped hyena, jackal and honey badger have now become extinct from this desert.
As the name suggest, almost the entire community living in and around this desert are Arabic people with most of it falling within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia. In terms of features it is least diverse and interesting of all the deserts and perhaps for the same reason, it is also a place that I am not keen to visit again.

Gobi Desert

The fifth largest desert in the world has a special place in my heart and it is none other than the cold winter desert of Gobi. With an area of around 1.3 million sq km it will be impossible for me to cover Gobi in this life but I have traversed through a large tract of this incredible land. From Mongolia it runs into China and to the north it is girdled by the Altai Range of mountains and to the south by the Tibetan Plateau. Gobi primarily differs from other non polar deserts in its rocky features that by far exceed the sand. Being high up north and at an average elevation between 900 – 1500 m above msl, snow patches and frost are common on the dunes of this cold desert. Winter temperatures can fall as low as 40 deg C below zero, which is just the way I like it. The Silk route originates through Gobi and it was during my voyage to retrace the silk route that I walked and rode Bactrian Camels through Gobi for days together, befriending the Kazakh people and other nomads and gypsies along the way. Gobi has substantial diversity in flora and fauna with animals like gazelle, polecats, Bactrian camels, Mongolian wild asses and sand plovers. The sand dunes and spectacular rock formations and the salt pans and lakes populate Gobi and along its water bodies one can find some of the finest migratory birds flocking from other regions on their migration path. I have been to Gobi several times and each time it’s the colors that have fascinated me. Lunar landscape comes to mind readily while you watch the sun rise and set across the desert steppe. Don’t be surprised if a wild ass is silhouetted against the setting sun. With high and snow covered mountain ranges surrounding Gobi it’s totally my kind of desert. As one travels through this region one can’t help but recall the bloody battles of the Mongolian invaders as they rode their horses brandishing bloodied swords and cadavers of their victims. When the moon rises across the Gobi, it radiates in its silver glow making the dunes and the rocks come alive in a drama that refuses to die even after years. Do visit Gobi, if you can, you must. No worries, the genes of Genghis Khan doesn’t live there anymore and Mongolian people are among the most hospitable in the world.

Kalahari Desert

Covering large chunks of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, Kalahari literally means ‘a waterless place’. At under a million sq km it is the sixth largest desert in the world. I have been through all the three countries that Kalahari cover and have always loved its red soil. Kalahari is perhaps the wettest desert too since it used to be a wetland before and even now receives substantial amount of precipitation. It grows many fruits and vegetables like melons, cucumber, tomato etc and is house to big game animals like giraffe, lions, hyenas, warthogs, jackals, antelopes, and many species of birds and reptiles. Bushmen live in Kalahari in bush thatched roof huts who are primarily hunter-gatherer and still today hunt with bows and arrows and spears. Tourism has increased outside traffic into the desert and now Europeans and Americans too can be found living in Kalahari. Most bushmen are from Khoikhoi and San tribes while Bantu is the most widely spoken tongue.
Patagonian Desert

The very name would tell you that this is among my most loved and visited regions on Earth. I love everything about the Patagonia, the land, the people, the animals, the vegetation, the seas and the rivers. I must have been to the Patagonia at least a dozen times, doing some of my most reckless and therefore exciting climbs, losing friends and gaining new ones in the process. It is the seventh largest desert in the world and the largest in the American continent as a whole. Covering an area of around 670 K sq km it is a high and cold desert covered with enormous ice sheets, glaciers, and mountain massifs, endless steppes, twisting canyons, lakes and vistas beyond my capacity to capture in words. It runs mostly through Argentina in a north – south orientation with just the tail falling into Chile and it starts from the base of the Andes and is bound by the Atlantic to its west. It sees long winters of around 7 months and mild summers the rest of the year. It is a cold desert in the true sense since most of it is snow covered rather than sand. It is also one of the windiest places on earth and the landscape is sculpted by wind in unimaginable shapes. The dry and cold desert does not harbor much life, yet we can find guanaco, rhea, mara, pygmy armadillo, weasel, puma, gray fox, iguana, burrowing owl, etc and small shrub lands. I really love the twinkling blue lakes that dot the desert and that you can suddenly find across some high ridge or in a tiny little hidden nook. A must visit for all desert and nature lovers.

Karakum Desert

Now jumping five places in between, we land on the 13th largest desert in the world that is entirely within the borders of another favorite place of mine, Turkmenistan. As agreed before, I would only cover those deserts out of the largest 25 that I have personally been to, so we skip Great Victoria (Australia), Syrian (Syria), Great Basin (USA), Chihuahuan (Mexico, USA), and the Great Sandy (Australia). Karakum covers nearly 70% of Turkmenistan and through it runs the world’s longest irrigation canal – Kara Kum Canal. It’s a cold winter desert and is sparsely populated and rarely sees rain. The Caspian Sea lies to its west while the Aral Sea enfolds to the north. To its south lies the Hindu Kush range of mountains and it has the Balkan mountains within. No animals other than domesticated camels and goats or mules are found in Karakum. Some of its oases grow cotton. The people are hardy and rough as their surroundings but soft and friendly from within.

Taklamakan Desert

Standing at 17th position Taklamakan falls in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Surrounded by the majestic Kunlun Mountains to the South and Pamir to the west and Tian Shan Mountains to the North, Taklamakan has been known for long as a part of the ancient silk route. I too crossed this desert during my silk route adventure. Measuring around 270 K sq km, the silk route girdles from its south and north, skipping the central part that is far too arid to support any life or habitation. Presently a highway built by China runs through it. Indigenous animal life is almost non-existent and so are any kind of flora. Mostly inhabited by the Uyghur people Taklamakan is still one of the mysterious places on earth with many hidden ancient civilizations buried deep within the sand. Presently most people cross it across the highway in landcruisers.

Thar Desert

Next in line comes the Thar Desert that is divided between present day India and Pakistan. It’s a border area, highly sensitive and strategically important to both the nations. Being from the Armed Forces I had an easy access to this desert and places to stay. Besides the sand dunes Thar has considerable amount of hills of Aravalli and grass land that harbor an impressive biodiversity of animals and plants. Indian gazelle, blackbuck, wild ass and great Indian bustard are predominant as are many reptiles and snakes. Birds flock the water bodies and many communities of human habitation live and thrive in Thar. It’s a subtropical desert that is full of life and human existence and is a place worth visiting if you are in India. Thar inhabitants are mainly engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. Crops and grains are grown in patches while domestic animals are found in every village and towns in Thar. Eco tourism is on the rise and is a considerable revenue earner for the region. The desert festivals organized regularly in Rajasthan are fun to experience as suddenly the sand dunes spring to life with music, dance, puppetry, camel race, etc.

Atacama Desert

Skipping the next two places, we now zip across the world and land at this beautiful desert of Atacama, which among many things has the world’s highest volcano of Ojos Del Salado. It ranks 21 in the list and is a cool coastal type desert. Measuring around 105 K sq km and covering northern Chile, it is also the driest desert in the world with only 1 mm of annual rain. In my opinion Atacama is also the prettiest (if one could use this word for a desert) desert in the world. I have been there only once and am longing to return some day. Atacama has many features that are not found anywhere else in the world and have similarity to the soil and land of Mars. It has been used extensively for movies and NASA also carries out its Mars related experiments and trials in Atacama. It doesn’t have any flora or fauna, nothing can survive the arid atmosphere. Tourism is gaining popularity as we are discovering the beautiful lakes and colors of Atacama. It is truly an out of the world place. The emerald lakes and snow covered mountains that run through Atacama doesn’t look real or earthly at all. It has mineral deposits and sedimentations that often turn the sands and gravel plains into myriad hues of blue and green, violet and crimson. Plonk in the middle of the desert lies the village of San Pedro de Atacama at an elevation of 2000 m next to an oases. Nature is at her best in Atacama, and for sure it must be in your list of places to visit before you die.

With that we conclude our desert journey. And as you have seen these deserts are far from deserted places. My friend was absolutely right, I should not have biases within nature since I am essentially a nature worshipper and die hard lover. So here’s to you my friend. May you enjoy this post as much as any of my other readers.


  1. Quite an enchanting and in-depth post of the various spectacular deserts u have experienced! :-)

    These journeys and your words sometimes makes me cringe but i do enjoy them so keep writing and make me dream...

    thanks satya, did enjoy it as much as your other posts!

  2. I did not realize there were so many deserts, facinating article Satya! Thanks again!
    I have been in the Arabian (Is that off Jordan?) where I hiked to the the monastery the most beautiful nights and sky full of stars!! Joshua Tree in California Usa,I often go there to star glaze, saw a beautiful tortoise there!

  3. Satya, would have been great if you had added pictures of your desert expeditions.

    As usual, loved reading it.

  4. Amazing energy in you to write so well ...everytime i see your blog, I feel there is so much to see