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We arrive in the desert during a sandstorm, with the world misty and white and blurred. Through the clouds of swirling sand, a lone oryx eerily appears, watches us intently, then vanishes, swallowed up by the landscape. "Did you see that?" someone asks. "Or did I imagine it?"
Deserts are always filled with so much emptiness, it's sometimes hard to know what's real and what isn't. The absence of every distraction that clutters modern life can be overwhelming; it's little wonder the human mind so often starts creating mirages to fill the space.
But this time, that oryx was real, and the storm, which has now left fresh dunes of soft sand piled waist-high against the walls of our lodge. This is the Namib, one of the earth's great deserts, as well as its oldest. Stretching 2000 kilometre along the Atlantic coast of the southern African country of Namibia, it pushes into Angola to the north, and South Africa to the south.
It is said to be around 80 million years old and is home to the world's last truly nomadic desert cultures, and to only the hardiest of wildlife. It's also a truly stunning place, a living breathing landscape that defies all expectations.
For some, it is a terrible beauty; one that can so easily wipe out footprints and bury signs of human habitation as casually as a sudden rise – or drop – in temperature, and a wind pulsing in from the ocean. For others, like me, it's exhilarating.
It's something about those great empty panoramas where the only landmark is the curvature of the earth. It's those clear night skies where the stars light up the world, and you're suddenly aware of your own blinding insignificance. And it's the simplicity of a world racheted down to a struggle for water and food, and the purity and honesty of a life stripped bare.
Singly, these all offer the peerless promise of adventure, wilderness and romance. Together, they add up to one of the most special of experiences. For deserts are magical, mystical places that never fail to surprise. Whether they're in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America, Australia or Antarctica – technically the driest desert on the planet with so little rain – they can be thrilling, mesmerising and inspiring, and each in a completely different way.
And while the earliest explorers returned home – if they were lucky – with terrifying tales of loneliness, hardship, thirst, hunger and often unfriendly locals, these days travellers can explore deserts, such as those below, each of which I have experienced, in great comfort, safety and wonder.
NAMIB DESERT, NAMIBIA
The Namib is truly the great-great-granddaddy of all deserts. Vast, mostly uninhabited and with scenery that ranges from stony plains ringed by towering mountains, to seas of rippling sand and some of the largest and most spectacular dunes in the world, it's a far greater treasure than all the diamonds that lie beneath.
At the pale pink and burnished ochre sand dunes of Sossusvlei, near the coast south west of the Namibian capital, Windhoek, our guide asks how much life we can see. We shake our heads: nothing. He frowns.
"You have to work harder in a desert to see the life going on everywhere," he says. "You look once and you see nothing. You look again and ..." He crouches down on a sand dune and levers up with his pen a tiny trapdoor of sand on the surface.
Then he digs down with his hands. A few minutes later, a spider as big as his hand leaps out of its hiding place towards us. He listens to our screams with ill-disguised satisfaction, then points out the tracks on the sand of that dancing white lady spider, as well as a golden mole, a dune lark, a Cape hare, a scorpion, a shovel-snouted lizard, a scaly-feathered finch, a desert mouse.
The dunes are lined up like an army of advancing soldiers. Some march purposefully forward, while some swirl elegantly towards the sky and others rise steeply from the plain. There's a trail of people walking up Dune 45, but we move on to the one called Big Daddy and set off along its ridgeline.
After an hour of plodding higher and higher, we start wondering how we'll get down again. The guide points casually down the sheer slope to our right. "You walk or run or roll down," he grins. We laugh, thinking he's joking. He's not. Gingerly holding hands, we end up walking down, sinking deeper into the sand with every step, sending a flood of sand before us down on to white salt and clay pan at its foot.
It's an experience repeated a few days later on a dune at another location, Serra Cafema, up north on the Angolan border. This time, we start trudging down the sheer face when we hear a plane fly over, and again and again. Except it's not a plane. The snarl of jet engines we thought we heard were simply the signature of the "roaring dunes": the hollow echoing bellow of sand rubbing over sand.
That sand is an absolute kaleidoscope of colour throughout the 81,000-square kilometre Namib. In parts, like along the Skeleton Coast to the north – where Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in the series, was recently filmed – it's bleached white, ghostly and pale. In others like around Damaraland further south, it's a pale, frosty pink. At other spots it's a deep burnished gold, while up at Etosha further east, the landscape is often a dazzling white and grey.
Invariably, those colours provide a wonderful backdrop to the wildlife all the way through, from the desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, oryx and ostrich to the wealth of birdlife, including flamingos, even seals where the desert sands meet the coast.
DON'T MISS The sand dunes at Sossusvlei; quad-biking across the mountains and dunes of Kunene; visiting the traditional cattle-dung huts of a Himba village in the middle of absolutely nowhere and wondering how on earth they manage to survive there.
ESSENTIALS Fly to Namibia with South African Airways from Perth to Johannesburg, and then connect to Windhoek. The Classic Safari Company has a range of itineraries to suit different interests and budgets. Phone 02 9327 0666; see classicsafaricompany.com.au; flysaa.com/au; namibiatourism.com.na.
The writer was a guest of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways.
WADI RUM, JORDAN
I'm lost in a Lawrence of Arabia reverie as my camel glides across the rose sands of the glowing desert of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Craggy cliffs, or jebels, tower to either side of me, the plain sweeps majestically on in front and, on a second camel beside me, sits a dashing Bedouin tribesman, all flowing white robes, fluttering headdress and sparkling dagger tucked safely into his sash.
He holds up a hand, and I endeavour to pull up my camel. I wonder what's happening. Are we now close to the small cairn carved with a likeness of T.E. Lawrence that's a must for all visitors to this area? Has he seen danger ahead? Or is there yet another magnificent sight he wants to draw my attention to?
It's then I notice: he's on his mobile. While the desert is still pretty much as it was in Lawrence's day, nothing can stop progress marching on for the traditional inhabitants of this protected area, nicknamed The Valley of the Moon.
But it is often only convenience that's been introduced, with phone coverage, 4WDs to travel in, and the odd flushing toilet. They do barely interrupt the more traditional wonders – the banks of sand to scramble up, great rock formations to climb, caverns to explore, gorges to walk through, the camel transport and that beautiful pink tinge to the landscape to marvel over.
For a relatively compact desert, an hour and a half from Petra, the World Heritage archaeological site, there's a great deal to see, including petroglyphs and archaeological remains and there's also great trekking, along with the camel rides.
But perhaps the most fascinating time spent in Wadi Rum is the chance to commune with the Bedouin. They run a variety of desert camps, from large-scale formal accommodation to a series of boutique tents actually inside the 74,000-hectare protected area, with a shared bathroom a short stroll away across a dune.
Meals are each an event, with carpets spread over the communal tent floor, and everyone eating off silver trays laden with stews cooked in underground pits, soups, dips and meats. Often there'll also be singing and dancing and story-telling, usually outside, under the stars of the clear night sky.
"We're simple people," says my host and guide, Obeid Naser Al-Amamreh. "We like to talk and we like to laugh. This is our home, we know the spirits of this place. We'll never leave, but we like to show visitors how we live how we've always lived."
DON'T MISS camel riding across the Wadi Rum; listening to the night desert sounds from the simple tent; trying to remember the words of the Australian national anthem before an appreciative Bedouin audience.
ESSENTIALS Fly to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways from where there are daily connecting one-hour flights to the Jordanian capital Amman. Obeid Naser Al-Amamreh can pick up from Amman and also runs tours to Petra, the Dead Sea and Aqaba. Phone +962 795 840672; seewadirumtrips.net
SIMPSON DESERT, AUSTRALIA
I'm sitting on top of the tallest sand dune in the biggest sand dune desert in the world, looking out over a vista filled with long, perfectly parallel sand dunes – more than 1100 apparently – and I haven't had to leave Australia to experience it. We have a selection of some of the choicest deserts on the planet, and yet most of us leave travel in our own backyard till last.
I'm looking out at what looks like an endless ocean of fiery red waves, as the sun slowly slips down past the horizon. Simply stunning, and only a 40-minute drive from the Queensland outback town of Birdsville.
The 176,000-square kilometre Simpson is only Australia's fourth-biggest desert, yet it's certainly its most dramatic. Those burning red dunes are a desert-lover's delight, while there are few better events than pre-dinner drinks on one of the ridges of the 40-metre high Nappanerica Dune, or Big Red, watching a sunset. The Simpson crosses into Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, and is steeped in the history of the country's first pioneers.
Going to see it is a joy for 4WD-ers, for those on one of the many tours available of central Australia, and for others who take the shortcut and fly into Birdsville. The town itself is a frontier oasis in the far south-western corner of Queensland, trembling on the edge of the Never-Never, where four of the most barren deserts on the globe all end – the Simpson, Sturts Stony Desert, the Tirari and the Strzelecki.
"It's a place of real extremes," says Nell Brook, who lives there with her husband, David, a third-generation cattleman from the area. "If you don't respect the desert, and don't value it, it will probably swallow you up. But we feel very blessed to live so close to nature, and to be able to appreciate its beauty."
DON'T MISS Drinks at the Big Red; driving The Outback Loop, which links the Birdsville Track and the Strzelecki Track with stops at the Birdsville Hotel and the old Innamincka Hotel; visiting the Dig Tree of the fateful Burke and Wills expedition
ESSENTIALS Most people who visit the Simpson drive in 4WDs as part of a big outback trek, but you can take an organised driving or plane tour, or fly from Brisbane to Birdsville via Rex. See rex.com.au; queensland.com
SAHARA, NORTH AFRICA
After six nights sleeping under the stars, and on the sands, of the Sahara, I was ready for a break. The next village, I was reliably informed, had a small inn. I was excited. It wasn't so much the prospect of a real bed; it was more the thought of a shower. The inn-keeper was welcoming and carefully presented me with an old Coca Cola bottle filled with water. I was bewildered – until I understood this was my allocation for washing for the next night and day.
That was over 30 years ago and these days the facilities tend to be a lot more sophisticated in the world's biggest desert. Covering a quarter of the African continent, it stretches from the Red Sea to the east and Atlantic to the west, from the High Atlas Mountains of the north down through Sudan to the south.
But still you treasure the smallest of joys. Catching sight of a group of Tuareg tribesmen dressed in vivid indigo-blue astride galloping white horses through the Ahaggar mountains of Algeria. Clambering up towering sand dunes. And spotting desert roses, the pink rosette clusters of crystals and sand.
Now, the best place to experience the Sahara is in Morocco, the traditional home of camel caravans setting off to traverse the sands. Just a one-day bus trip from Marrakesh, Merzouga is a great base for exploring Erg Chebbi, a wonderful array of sand dunes.
DON'T MISS An overnight desert excursion that gives you the chance to sleep under the stars; sitting around a fire admiring the clear night skies; climbing some of the dunes.
ESSENTIALS Emirates flies to Casablanca, and there are plenty of flights to Errachidia, just 120km from Merzouga, or book the trip via a company like The Classic Safari Company. See emirates.com
THAR DESERT, INDIA
After pushing your way through the teeming streets of Delhi, fighting off the touts to pay your respects to that monument to love and peace, the Taj Mahal, and battling the crowds in Rajasthan, the desert comes as blissful relief. Mind you, the 320,000sqkm Thar Desert, shared between India and Pakistan, with India having the lion's share, is quite unlike many of the other world's great deserts. For a start, it's the most densely populated desert on earth and, in parts, it's actually rather less a study in beautiful serenity, and rather more a scruffy, unkempt extension of its nearest cities.
My favourite desert entry point, for instance, is far from its most scenic. Just outside the "Golden City" of Jaisalmer, it's mostly thorn scrub but the magical part is looking back at the stunning fortress, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rising from the flat plains up the dizzying cliff face. Further in, however, it does become more picturesque, with sand dunes beginning and camels careening around to see them.
And if you happen to catch a desert festival – that's an exceptional time. A riot of colour, noise, rich fabrics, snake charmers and camels dressed up for the occasion. It's India at its mad best.
DON'T MISS Looking out for glimpses of the mysterious Tuareg; sundowners on the dunes; evenings of song from desert tribesmen.
ESSENTIALS Fly to New Delhi with Singapore and then either hire a private driver for a trip to Rajasthan, or book a complete itinerary through a company like The Classic Safari Company. See singaporeair.com
FIVE MORE DESERT-LOVERS
JON MUIR, ADVENTURER
Australian adventurer Muir was first person to walk across the continent of Australia without resupply or any external support. His films and books include Alone Across Australia.
"Deserts are so clean and pure and simple with sublimely big expanses of sky. They're extreme, with an otherworldly feel, but they have a subtle beauty and you have to be wide open internally to get the most out of each experience. I've travelled on foot through a lot of deserts, and finding water has always been really special, especially when you desperately need it! In the Tirari, Australia's driest desert in its worst drought, I was devastated to find an old waterhole dry. But then I looked up and saw water coming from a rock, and that was the most exquisite feeling of elation. The desert can have you in total dejection one moment and in utter joy the next. It's all about the extremes."
ANDREW JACKSON, VISUAL EFFECTS EXPERT
Jackson is the visual effects supervisor on Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in George Miller's series that was filmed in the Namib in 2012. The film is expected to release this May.
"The Namib Desert locations were amazing – dunes, rocky canyons and mountains – and all within two hours of our base in Swakopmund [Namibia's second city]. I fell in love with the desert landscape. We were almost disappointed when we saw plants as we loved how stark and bare it looked. I like the description 'the earth stripped bare'. It's as though the desert magnifies every experience and everything you encounter. The sand dunes are almost like creatures, too. They move around and change so much. It's a remarkable place."
RICK SMOLAN, PHOTOGRAPHER
National Geographic photographer Smolan travelled with Robyn Davidson on her epic 2700km desert camel trek, recently made into the movie Tracks. His latest photographic book is Inside Tracks.
"As an American, beauty was lush green rainforest. But I remember going into that desert and it was as if I'd been wearing sunglasses my whole life and I'd taken them off and everything was so clear and vibrant. The intensity of that light! Before, I'd seen the desert just as a backdrop to a gorgeous girl on an exotic trip. Then I realised it was full of life and colour and plants and beauty, with the topography changing every three miles. And in an Australian desert you have an hour or two of ghost-like twilight after the sun goes down that's mesmerising. I remember one night around a campfire with Robyn looking up and seeing 60 sets of eyes looking at us through the darkness. I thought I was hallucinating. But they were emus who'd appeared from nowhere."
ROLF DE HEER, FILM DIRECTOR
De Heer has spent a lot of time in Australian desert landscapes, making films such as The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country, which has just won the Film Critics Circle of Australia's Best Film and Best Director awards.
"There's always such a feeling of history in our deserts, a kind of evolutionary anthropological history. There's also an unspoiltness about the desert that thrills. It's edgy but generally embedded with great beauty. It's wondrous to see how Aboriginal people particularly have great skill in surviving in those deserts, something we don't have. I was recently taken up to Innamincki near where Burke and Wills perished. When you get there, you understand why that happened. My God! The intensity of their undertaking in such a harsh environment ... extraordinary!"
TIM COPE, ADVENTURER AND GUIDE
Australian Cope spends most of his life travelling, or writing books and making films. His latest book is about his three-and-a-half year trip by horse from Mongolia to Hungary, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads.
"Kazakhstan's Betpak Dala, which means 'starving steppe', is not the iconic desert we all think of but it is perhaps my favourite. High on a dry plateau of moonscape rock, salt lakes, and scant vegetation, it is a cold, arctic-type sea of ice and snow in the winter that plummets to -40 degrees and in the summer is rendered a waterless oven with no shade to speak of. And yet it is also a veritable garden to those few who have inhabited it over the centuries. Here, I came to understand that in a world of scarcity, of relative deprivation, the smallest things can mean the world. In a world of urban abundance, by comparison, the small things in life are rendered meaningless."
FIVE MORE GREAT DESERTS
Is one of the driest places on earth yet one of its most amazing sights are boiling geysers springing from the sand, and warm pools of spa water. It feels the strangest sensation to be bathing or even cooking an egg on the water there, but that adds to the bizarreness of the whole desert experience.
ARABIAN, MIDDLE EAST
One of the biggest stretches of sand in the world, the best countries to see it in are the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Choose your time carefully. In the summer the winds can make it like sitting in front of a hairdryer blasting sand into your face.
KALAHARI, BOTSWANA, NAMIBIA AND SOUTH AFRICA
Ranging from semi-arid land to sand to seasonal wetlands, this is the desert with perhaps the greatest concentration of wildlife, including lion, leopard, cheetah, antelope, ostrich and wild dogs, and a wide range of birdlife.
CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO AND THE US
This is possibly the desert we're all the most familiar with since so many TV series and movies are set here, either in the border region or in Mexico where filming is cheaper. Scrubby with lots of grasses and shrubs, it's the home of the magnificent Sierra Madre mountain range.
Surprisingly, the continent containing the South Pole region is technically a desert since it receives the least amount of rainfall and, at almost twice the size of Australia, it could arguably be considered the world's biggest. It's a stunning sight, 98 per cent covered in ice, but choose your time to visit; its record temperature is -89C.