A wide-ranging travelogue, covering eight deserts, interspersed with historical accounts of desert geography and travel.
Making up one-sixth of our planet’s land, deserts have fascinated writers since the dawn of Christianity, a group that includes Atkins (The Moor: A Journey into the English Wilderness, 2014), the former editorial director of Pan Macmillan UK. A lucid observer, the author chronicles his travels through the world’s most arid lands, ruminating on their history, natural history, ongoing conditions, and mostly discouraging future. Viewing the world through British eyes, he makes a beeline for the first of his eight deserts, the great Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia and Oman, a destination of the author’s most flamboyant countrymen, from T.E. Lawrence to Harry St. John Philby, whose paths he has tried to follow. Next up is Australia’s Great Victorian Desert, still partly off-limits as a result of 1950s British nuclear tests and home to a large Indigenous population ejected from their lands to accommodate the tests. No one was ejected from the Kyzylkum Desert in central Asia, but the population was impoverished as Soviet irrigation emptied the Aral Sea. American readers will enjoy the absence of depressing news from Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, and they will also find an account of the nostalgic wackiness of the Burning Man festival. In the Great Sonoran Desert to the southwest, thousands of migrants have died trying to reach the United States. Atkins describes activists who set out water and provisions deep in the desert and the vigilantes and Border Patrol agents who destroy them. Each section begins with a detailed map to help situate readers in the region.
The book doesn’t contain an underlying theme, and Atkins learns most of
his history and science from books, but he has an acute eye and delivers
unrelated but satisfying journalistic accounts of the world’s hottest, driest