A selection of my favourite books with a desert setting.
This instalment of Armchair Travel brings you a selection of the best reads that capture the arresting beauty of arid landscapes and the unique challenges for those who live in or travel through them. Including riveting accounts of adventures, classic travelogues, and fictional works that bring deserts to life, there’s something for all interests.
Read on to find inspiration for planning your next travel adventure, or just explore the desert sands without leaving the comfort of home.
Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger
Written in the 1950s , this is an account of the five years Thesiger spent with nomadic Bedouin camel herders crossing and re-crossing the Rub al Khali, the desert known in English as the Empty Quarter, a huge part of what is now Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. With the subsequent discovery and extraction of oil in the region, this is a rich document of a vanished world, a record of a way of life on the cusp of change recorded in lyrical prose. Thesiger was one of the last of the old-school explorers, and his writing also reflects the thrill of reaching places where few have been before, remote from the reaches of the modern world, as well as relishing the hardships and privations of the undertaking. A classic of travel writing.
Traversa – Fran Sandham
Recent adventurers face a challenge their historic precedents never did, a greater awareness and knowledge of the more remote regions of the globe mean there’s nowhere “new” for them to explore, or more importantly to entertain those at home with their tales on their return. Sandham embarks on a 5,000km solo trek from the Skeleton Coast of Namibia across southern Africa to the Indian Ocean coast of Tanzania, and on to Zanzibar, recounting his experiences with self-deprecating humour as he provides historical context to the route. Refreshingly he also interrogates the futility and frivolousness of his endeavours and acknowledges the fears that the whole sweat-drenched, blistering, sun-baked venture may have been a perfect waste of time.
The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut – Freya Stark
In 1934 Stark set out from Aden to follow the ancient frankincense routes of the Hradhramaut Valley on the edge of the Empty Quarter, aiming to be the first westerner to locate the lost city of Shabwa, said to be the citadel of the fabled Queen of Sheba. Stark was already a noted explorer, having undertaken several challenging treks in what is now Syria, Lebanon and Iran, receiving recognition for her writings from the Royal Geographical Society, and fluent in Arabic, and captures the essence of the time and place in superb detail. This book is the first of three written about her time spent in Arabia, and deeply immersed in the culture and history of the region.
Skeletons on the Zahara – Dean King
The wreck of the US brig Constitution on the desolate Atlantic coast of the Sahara in 1815 is just the starting point for this harrowing true tale of disaster and survival, blending accounts from survivors with the author’s experience retracing the journey of the crew after their capture by nomads. That crew members survived the deprivations of the desert hinged very much on the character of the ship’s captain, James Riley, and how his quick-thinking courage and tenacity enabled the endurance of the crew through extremes of starvation and dehydration which pushed them to their physical and mental limits.
Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey
Written over the seasons Abbey spent as a ranger in Arches National Park in Utah in the 1960s, this is a passionate and poetic reflection on finding nature, solitude and wilderness in the American southwest against the encroaching presence of humanity, which went on to be a key text in the environmental movement, much like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He captures the outstanding beauty of the desert and the terrifying indifference shown by nature which stokes our deepest fears, with the unfiltered range of personal reactions of a conservationist. However, Abbey as a person is hard to like, veering from enraptured and fervent to salty and cantankerous, a contrarian driven in equal parts by heartfelt emotion and anger, which will polarise readers of this book.
Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Desert Flower – Waris Dirie
Dirie is a remarkable individual, and this short autobiography is an insight into the nomadic Somali culture in which she was raised. She writes of the closeness to nature in her childhood, of the hardships and beauty of life on the edge of the desert, and talks candidly of the experiences of sexual assault and FGM that shaped her young life. Barely in her teens, she escapes an arranged marriage to an older man, fleeing alone across the desert to Mogadishu, from where, illiterate and destitute, she makes her way to London. Scouted by a fashion photographer, her life takes a new route, via the catwalks of the world, to an appointment as a special ambassador to the UN. The second part of Dirie’s autobiography, Desert Dawn, details her return to Somalia in the late 1990s, a failed state wracked by civil war, to reunite with her family 20 years after her escape.
Dune – Frank Herbert
Yes, it’s a work of science fiction set on a distant planet in the far future, and an epic one at that, but the setting of the desert world of Arrakis is fearsomely realised. The climate is terrifyingly hostile, water so nightmarishly scarce that all moisture expelled from the body is captured and recycled. But the depths of the desert must be navigated to extract an essential resource, spice, taking characters into the realms of monstrous creatures and an indigenous culture for which Herbert draws heavily on depictions of the Bedouin by Lawrence and Thesiger.
Come, Tell Me How You Live – Agatha Christie Mallgowan
Of course, you’ll recognise the familiar first names of the author, well known for her masterful locked room murder mysteries, but this is a memoir of Christie’s time living in northern Syria in the 1930s. Her second husband, Max Mallgowan, led archaeological expeditions on behalf of the British Museum in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, ancient Mesopotamia, and Christie joined him on excavations, documenting digs and cataloguing artefacts. The writing is light and charming, and though some views are very much of the colonial era, it gives an insight into expedition life that’s filled with appreciation for people both present and past.
Tracks – Robyn Davidson
In 1977, Davidson undertook a remarkable near solo 1,700 mile trek across the deserts of Western Australia, from Alice Springs to the ocean, accompanied by four camels and a dog, and joined at times by Mr Eddie, an elder of the Pitjantjatjara people, and periodically by National Geographic photographer Nick Smolan. The first part of the book details the preparation and learning process Davidson throws herself into after her arrival in Alice, and her experience of the macho Outback culture she finds herself in. The remainder covers the expedition and her time with the indigenous people of the desert; descriptions of the natural environment she moves through, the relationship she has with the camels, and her personal conflict at having to share her undertaking with an audience.
The lunatic idea was, basically, to get myself the requisite number of wild camels from the bust and train them to carry my gear, then walk into and about the central desert area.Robyn Davidson, Tracks
Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Saint-Exupéry is best known as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), a set text familiar to many students of French, but he was also a pioneer of aviation, flying airmail routes between Europe, North Africa and South America in the 1920s and 30s. Whilst attempting to set a record for a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crash in the Sahara, surviving the impact and facing a drawn-out death from dehydration while lost in a sea of sand. This slim book recounts his experience, and meditates on the human condition, combining powerful, lyrical storytelling with observations on love, beauty, adventure, life and death. In my opinion, this is as near perfect as a book can be.
Do you dream of visiting the desert? Which books with a desert setting would you recommend to me?
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