Justin Marozzi

Lone and level sands

When William Atkins and his girlfriend parted, he set off to explore eight of the world’s fieriest deserts, from Oman to the Taklamakan

Lone and level sands
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The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

William Atkins

Faber, pp. 416, £

Here’s a treat for desert lovers. William Atkins, author of the widely admired book The Moor, has wisely exchanged the dank, wind-lashed chill of Britain’s moorland for eight of the world’s fieriest deserts, from the Empty Quarter of Oman and Egypt’s Eastern Desert to the Taklamakan in China and an unlikely stint at Burning Man in America’s Black Rock Desert.

It’s not entirely clear what prompted these particular journeys or this specific quest. We learn in the second sentence that a long-standing girlfriend has gone to live and work abroad and Atkins is not going with her; so perhaps a retreat into the desert is the wholly appropriate response in a travel writer searching for new territory to furrow. After a flurry of desert travelogues (Lawrence, Doughty, Thesiger, Philby, Thomas et al), he reckons that the ultimate objective of every desert traveller is ‘the axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite’. And off he goes to Oman.

Atkins is amusingly down on adventurers, whom he considers a ‘new breed of fanatic: rangy, large-toothed guys seeking not knowledge, or even territory, but novelty, managed suffering, “experience”, material, sponsorship’. He is far more interested in the desert as a concept, its history and culture, and the mostly fraught, frequently fatal interaction between the indigenous inhabitants of these wild places and those outsiders who have come to explore, civilise, appropriate and all too often desecrate them.

He has certainly put in a lot of research at the dune face. He explains how the grains of sand in the Empty Quarter are composed of quartz whose ‘rind’ of ferric oxide imparts that unmistakable, reddish tinge. He is also a lover of camels, which means he passes one of the desert’s most important tests with flying colours. ‘It is the imperiousness of camels that people dislike; and it is that imperiousness — that they will not be cowed and cannot be humiliated — that I love.’ Well put.

He is particularly good on Australia, musing on how, unlike the desert monotheisms that ‘tip their heads skywards, seek divinity in the heavens’, the indigenous Anangu ‘know that it is the land — the ground beneath their feet —where the creative spirit resides’. This makes it all the more tragic that the nuclear tests carried out by British and Australian scientists in the1950s and 1960s should have effectively killed their ancestral homeland.

More gloom awaits the author in Kazakhstan, where he explores the new Aralkum Desert, created by the retreating Aral Sea, victim of the ruinous Soviet river-draining experiment to grow cotton. I remember Muynak, a threadbare, tuberculosis-haunted town on what was once the southern shore of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, as one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. Thankfully, a shot of self-deprecating humour relieves the gloom. Atkins’s arrival in Almaty coincides with the World Weightlifting Championships, so that among all the giants in tracksuits ‘at the public baths it was possible to feel diminished’.

In the Sonoran Desert on the American border with Mexico, Atkins becomes more political and preachy, and the writing a little precious. Sitting down with illegal migrants outside a church in Tucson, he hands out cigarettes and ‘cans of San Pellegrino lemonade’. It feels a bit selfconsciously virtuous and unselfconsciously transactional — your story for treats — while the chichi Italian brand sounds a dissonant note.

The story comes to a close after a blast of Burning Man madness in Nevada, where Atkins, engagingly, just wishes he could ‘lie somewhere quiet and read a book’. Fortunately, he maintains his observational powers, which are put to good use recording cock-lollies (cast from a man’s penis), ‘shirt-cocking’ (wearing shirts without underwear) and the assorted, drug-addled exotica of your typical Burning Man exercise in decadence and abandon — or ‘radical self-reliance and radical self-expression’ as the organisers put it.

There is a final, more austere sojourn in Saint Antony’s monastery in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, where Atkins reflects on the desert as a place for withdrawal, none so complete as that of the cave-dwelling saint who was forever pursued by crowds of salvation-seeking acolytes.

A brief word on the jacket blurb. While all publishers indulge in a bit of showboating on the cover — a soupçon of exaggeration is forgivable in the interests of books flying off shelves — the claim that this author ranks alongside ‘greats like Newby, Chatwin and Morris’ is over-enthusiastic. Leave that sort of comparison to others.

Atkins is a gifted and interesting writer, with a deft turn of phrase and an original mind. He uncovers the many guises of the desert with much imagination, insight and wit. There is a lot of good material here, but at more than 400 pages his book does feel too long. Sometimes, as the desert often reminds us, less is more.