‘I have always loved the desert,’ wrote aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. ‘One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams.’
Four years ago I decided to make a series of excursions to the deserts of the world. I wanted to understand the real nature of these places that are so shrouded in symbolism and myth. My journey would take me from an ancient monastery to a nuclear test site, via some of the world’s most challenging environments.
Eastern Desert, Egypt
Below the mountains that flank the Wadi Araba, which runs between the Nile and the Red Sea, lies the Monastery of St Anthony – the world’s oldest Christian monastery. It was in a cave nearby that the first of the so-called Desert Fathers, St Anthony, resided in the third century. Thousands followed him into this fierce landscape in search of God. I spent two weeks with the Coptic monks, successors of St Anthony, who occupy the monastery today, living a life of sparsity that echoes the surrounding landscape.
Gobi Desert, China
In 1901, British missionary Mildred Cable arrived in the Gobi Desert. With her associates, sisters Francesca and Evangeline French, she spent the next 15 years ‘gossiping the gospels’, as she put it, while crossing and re-crossing the vast desert. Following in her footsteps, I travelled from the fort of Jiayuguan on the Great Wall – the ‘gateway’ to China’s arid northwest – to the city of Dunhuang. Nearby are the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, hundreds of ancient caves dug into a desert cliff, each one opulently decorated with Buddhist wall paintings.
Empty Quarter, Oman
Few deserts have been as feared as the Empty Quarter, or Rub’ al-Khali, a sea of immense red dunes that occupies a third of the Arabian peninsula. British explorer Bertram Thomas described it in 1931 as ‘the last considerable terra incognita (unknown land)’. While those who went after him – Harry St John Philby and Wilfred Thesiger – may be more renowned, Thomas was the first Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter. Travelling by Land Cruiser and on foot, I experienced a small taste of the hardships he and his successors underwent.
Deserts have often been used as hiding places for humankind’s darkest secrets. In the Great Victoria Desert, 300 kilometres north of the Great Australian Bight, lies one of the most notorious locations in modern Australian history. Maralinga is where Britain tested its nuclear bombs in the 1950s and ’60s. In the run-up to the tests, the indigenous Anangu people were expelled from the region; those communities continue to suffer the consequences of their land’s contamination. While most of the site has been cleaned up, there are still areas that cannot be entered safely.
Black Rock Desert, US
In Nevada’s Great Basin lies one of the largest flat expanses on Earth, the playa (an ancient dry lakebed) of the Black Rock Desert. It is here that one of the world’s biggest parties takes place. Burning Man is part music festival and part anarchic jamboree that brings some 70,000 people to the hot and dusty playa each August. In its noise and chaos, Burning Man seems the antithesis of the tranquillity of the monasteries of Egypt. But the desert has always offered liberty from social restrictions, just as it did for the Desert Fathers in Egypt 1,700 years ago.
William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places is published by Faber & Faber