Whether it’s the ‘Empty Quarter’ or the Gobi, Geographical rounds up tips for desert expeditions
Desert environments are usually abandoned, but there does seem to be a desert type who thrives in the desolation. ‘I think you are another of these desert-loving English: Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing,’ says Alec Guinness as King Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia. An impressive list, and RGS–IBG heavyweights St John Philby and Wilfred Thesiger were still to come.
If you want to become another of these desert-lovers take some advice from the experts before taking a dip in the sand (we have advice for cold deserts, too)...
Briony Turner has carried out fieldwork in Botswana and Tanzania into land use and water resources. She is a director at climate change charity RESET:
Get to grips with the fauna and flora before you go. It’s important to know what’s poisonous, what’s not, and what can be a source of water/sustenance. If in a survival situation, you are going to rely on vegetation for firewood. Damaraland is one of Namibia’s most beautiful desert regions. Within it, an area near a small town called Uis has been put on the map because early in the 20th century a group of travellers from the north, who were crossing the desert to the ocean, stopped for the night and used nearby branches to prepare the fire for their evening meal. The wood they used was dead euphorbia bushes, which are highly toxic. The toxic smoke poisoned the food and the whole group (16 people) died in their sleep.
Never underestimate the stupidity of intelligent people. On one occasion at a lodge I was helping out in Namibia, we were taking a group of employees of an extremely health and safety conscious organisation (to the point where we were walking in the desert and they had to wear hard hats) hiking over the property. Needless to say, these employees were extremely well briefed in desert health and safety. Yet one of them decided to lick a plant and not just any plant, but a euphorbia. The one saving grace of being so remote was that when it occurred we were at the top of a canyon so at least we had mobile phone signal to call for help. Always have antihistamines to hand!
Don’t think medical emergencies only arise from the surroundings. A friend who has taken many desert trips had to quickly apply his knowledge of how to reduce damage to eyes from cobra venom when a battery attached to the solar power set-up in camp exploded spraying battery acid into one of his eyes. He flushed it with water then kept it immersed in milk (if there’s nothing else to hand, urine is an option).
Sam McConnell has led over one hundred teams in desert environments including the Namib, Kalahari and the Eastern Sahara. He is currently Chief Leader for the British Exploring Society for three expeditions to Namibia:
In most respects planning an expedition to a desert environment is easier and less costly than say the Arctic as there is no real need for specialist equipment and clothing. Importantly you should make sure your clothes are all natural; cotton, silk or linen – especially your undercrackers, as chaffing in the nether regions can become an issue. While in the desert water and shade are everything. Your route will be dictated by these two factors and your mornings march is going to be the most important as you have to get to shade by the heat of the day.
Jason Ingamells owns Woodland Ways where he is a bushcraft and survival instructor. He has extensive desert travel experience and leads various expeditions and training in both desert and savannah environments:
With modern transport infrastructures, desert travel is becoming more and more accessible to all. You can get a cheap flight from the UK to Morocco, hire a car and be on route to the Sahara within a couple of hours... but this doesn’t mean that it is any less dangerous. Getting caught out in a desert environment can cost you your life, so the key is to plan properly. Should something happen, shelter and plentiful water are going to be key priorities for you. Plan around this. Your body can cope with drops in temperature a lot better than it can with an increase, so prevent this heat accumulation at all costs by sheltering from the sun and keeping hydrated.