Neatly divided into areas of the world where vast deserts are found, the concise biographies of great explorers who were the first to venture on to the ‘desert’s dusty face’ are inserted into their respective areas. There are wonderful quotes; from Wilfrid Blunt’s description of the Great Nafud Desert in Saudi Arabia as the colour of ‘rhubarb and magnesia’, to Lady Blunt’s assertion that ‘a Persian riding a camel is the most ridiculous sight in the world’. Blunt was the great uncle of Anthony Blunt, the Cambridge spy, whose co-traitors included Kim, the son of another great Arabian explorer, Harry St John Philby. Spying was also an occupation of the extraordinary Gertrude Bell, who combined ‘high intelligence and political skill with archaeology and masculine vigour, tempered by feminine charm and a romantic spirit’.
There are 64 entries in all and many of the excellent photographs, maps and line drawings have come from the archives of the RGS-IBG. In the Gobi there is Nikolay Przhevalsky, who rode unflinchingly and imperiously through the harshest desert where he discovered the wild horse and the wild camel. There’s Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein and those remarkable missionaries, the French sisters who, with Mildred Cable, wrote movingly about the Gobi. Hedin filled in numerous blank spaces on the map and was a prolific author penning nearly 50 books based on his own best-selling recipe: ‘A generous helping of descriptive writing, add a spattering of derring-dos, pepper with historical asides, baste liberally with meetings with the high and mighty, finally, top off with one near-death experience.’
Then there was Stein, who to one reviewer ‘had all the allure of an Edwardian chartered accountant’ and is known to the Chinese to this day as ‘the great robber’. Yet he became an outstanding desert archaeologist and discovered many ancient cities in the desert sands of the Taklamakan and the Desert of Lop. My personal fascination is with the Australian entries: Sturt, Stuart, Eyre, Warburton, and Wills, whose achievements were quite outstanding in the face of horrific conditions.
“‘The plain spread out before us like a gloomy sea, we were attacked with swollen and ulcerated gums, violent headaches, pains in the limbs... skin over the principle muscles became black,’ wrote Charles Sturt.”
For Peter Warburton, meanwhile, there were ‘fly-blown camels whose sores had to be emptied in a pint pot.’ McDouall Stuart became the first to trek from Darwin to Adelaide, and who never lost a man on his expeditions. While Edward Eyre displayed an enlightened view of the Aborigines: ‘It is most lamentable to think the progress and prosperity of one race should be the downfall of another.’
Sandstorms are a common theme. During one ‘the camels all huddled for protection,’ writes Lady Blunt, ‘with their long necks stretched out and heads low, tags and ropes flying... all seen through the yellow haze of sand which made them look as though walking in the air.’ As for the Bactrian camel, ‘It is a slow, heavy beast, but with muscles like steel and amazing powers of endurance which carry it through extremes of heat, cold, hunger and thirst such as no other beast of burden could stand,’ wrote Cable.
The great deserts of the world hold a compelling attraction for a rare breed of explorers who are ‘unwise and curiously planned’. Once under the spell of that seemingly infinite arena of sand and stone, many are helplessly hooked. It is an arena where the sun burns down relentlessly during the day, to be replaced at night by a hauntingly beautiful backdrop of brilliant stars. Where the moon shines with a light which softens the austere outline of rocks and hills and casts a diffused greyness over the desert sands.
‘The desert is the breathing space of the world, and therein one truly lives and breathes,’ wrote Arthur Weigall. This is a fine tribute to those who ventured into and were seduced by the clean, breathing spaces of the world.