Sun, sand and heat are the basic recipe for any amazing desert but like any creative cook, Mother Nature reaches for the spice to make things extra nice. These 10 desert delights are most definitely a treat for the eyes, though being stranded in any one of them might not be to your taste.
Kebira Crater Field, Egypt and Libya
Archaeologists over the centuries have wondered where the ancient Egyptians came by the beautiful yellow-green glass found in their most exquisite royal jewelry. The answer, it seems, is outer space… by way of a huge meteorite that blasted the Sahara sands into glass many thousands of years before the pyramids were a glimmer in Pharaoh’s eye. Out in the trackless wastes where the borders of Egypt and Libya meet lies an eroded crater and around it; pebbles, nuggets and boulders of translucent glass created when the interplanetary visitor slammed into the sands, instantly vitrifying them.
(images via: JAXA)
It’s estimated the Kebira Crater Field – more than one crater has been discovered – is about 28.5 million years old, with the largest intruder measuring about 3/4 mile (1.2 km) across. The energy released must have been in the order of 100,000 megatons.
Fraser Island, Australia
“If you were marooned on a desert island…” now what’s up with that? All those Crusoe types didn’t have much of a “desert” to contend with (beyond the beach, anyway), just the opposite in fact: lush tropical vegetation, forests of palm trees and so on. Where are the real desert islands? One candidate is Fraser Island, just off the eastern coast of Australia near the city of Brisbane. At 76.5 miles (123 km) long, Fraser Island is the world’s largest “sand island”. It does boast rainforests but they grow in sand, not soil. The surrounding seas are said to be rife with hungry sharks and deadly jellyfish, so you’d might as well stay on shore… listening to your selection of Desert Island Discs.
(image via: Elvis Payne)
What an actual Desert Island might look like – taken in or around Dubai by Elvis Payne, this timeless scene of a lone palm on a blindingly white sand beach gives one pause… and gives one minimal shelter from the searing Persian Gulf sun.
Monument Valley, Utah, USA
Any Hollywood Western worth its oats was filmed at least partially in Monument Valley. Situated on Utah’s southern border with Arizona near the Four Corners, the area is resplendent in contrasting shades rust red and blue-gray derived from different layers of rocks eroded over millions of years. Even in black & white, the valley is magnificent – some of the more spectacular buttes have been named, The Mittens, the Totem Pole, the Eye of the Sun and the Ear of the Wind arch.
(image via: Flickr: Nature’s Best)
Monument Valley is located on the Navajo Nation Reservation and the Navajo name for the valley is Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks). Though extensively eroded by wind and water, the iconic buttes and mesas in the valley look much the same today as they did when the ancestors of the Navajo first set eyes on them many millennia ago.
Atacama Desert, Chile
Sheltered from the rains by the Andes and influenced by coastal inversions created through interaction with the chill Humboldt Current, Chile’s Atacama Desert is widely recognized as being the driest desert in the world – 50 times drier than California’s Death Valley! The regions extreme aridity has allowed mummies left by the ancient Incas (including “Miss Chile” above) to exhibit a remarkable degree of preservation.
(image via: A Byte of News)
The Atacama may be both isolated and hostile to humanity, but that doesn’t mean it remains untouched by the hand of Man… literally. This monumental sculpture of a human hand rising out of the desert sands was created by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrazabal and stands 11 feet tall. “Mano de Desierto”, or Desert’s Hand, is located about 46.5 miles (75 km) south of the city of Antofagasta, Chile.
Namib Desert, Angola and Namibia
Hundreds of miles south of the Sahara lies one of Africa’s oldest and most beautiful deserts, the Namib. Like the Atacama, the Namib Desert‘s exceptional dryness results from an offshore cold current that induces the constant descent of dry air. Currently the Namib receives a mere 1/2 inch of rain annually and it’s been this way for the better part of the last 55 million years. The Namib is in many ways a “living desert”, constantly changing its appearance due to huge roving dune fields driven by howling desert winds.
Where it meets the South Atlantic ocean, the Namib is often obscured by thick, impenetrable fogs that bring some moisture to the hardy plants and animals that live there. The fogs have also been the bane of seafarers for centuries, leading to innumerable shipwrecks and the forbidding name, Skeleton Coast.
Tabernas Desert, Spain
A desert, in Europe? It’s not only more likely than you think, it’s actually there, in Spain. The Tabernas Desert in the Spanish province of Almeria is cut off from humid winds off the Mediterranean Sea by several long mountain ranges and receives a searing 3000 hours of sunlight annually. The area receives about an inch of rain every year, most of which arrives in the form of sudden downpours that have caused picturesque erosion and rugged badlands.
(image via: Cuellar)
The Tabernas Desert has often been used for location shooting of so-called Spaghetti Westerns including The Magnificent Seven and Sergio Leone’s 1966 masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
(image via: Trekearth)
Far north of Almeria in the province of Navarre, Las Bardenas Reales is another Spanish desert so distinctive that it’s been selected to be a UNESCO World heritage site.
Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia
The Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter, is one of the most forbidding deserts on earth. Daytime temperatures approaching 131°F (55°C ) and sand dunes towering 1,100 feet (330 meters) high make the Empty Quarter no fit place for man or beast.
(image via: Platform Zero)
The Rub’ al Khali was not always such an extreme environment and in ancient times a series of desert oasis’ allowed trading caravans to traverse its wide open plains. Rumors of “lost cities” have echoed through time and several have been found using high-tech imaging equipment aboardthe Space Shuttle and NASA’s Landsat satellites. One such city is Ubar, the “City of a Thousand Pillars”, estimated to have thrived from 3,000 BC until the first century AD.
Khongoryn Els (“Singing Sands”), Mongolia
The Singing Sands of Khongoryn Els are located in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in southern Mongolia. The dunes really do “sing” – the movement of trillions of tiny sand grains against one another under pressure of the wind results in sounds variously described as roaring, booming, barking and even squeaking. The sound is only audible under certain conditions with the size & roundness of the grains, the humidity of the sand, and the sand’s silica content being the most relevant.
(image via: 123People)
Khongoryn Els isn’t easy to get to – which is part of their attraction – and the area is home to rare wildlife such as the Gobi Camel and the snow leopard.
Death Valley, California, USA
No post on amazing deserts would be compete without mentioning Death Valley. Aptly named for its lack of water and sweltering heat – the temperature at Furnace creek reached 134°F (56.7°C) in 1913 – Death Valley is the lowest point in North America and the second-lowest in the world.
(image via: George Bell)
The depth of the valley produces a convection oven effect on hot days with superheated air becoming trapped within the valley and circulating into any shaded areas.
By all accounts the most mysterious part of Death Valley is The Racetrack, a flat dry lakebed that features dozens of “sailing stones” of various sizes at the ends of tracks sometimes hundreds of feet long. The tracks are sometimes straight, occasionally sinuous and in some cases reverse themselves. These aren’t mere pebbles either: one sailing stone, dubbed “Karen” by researchers, weighs over 700 pounds!
Antarctica’s Dry Valleys
Deserts, technically, don’t have to be hot; just dry. A series of valleys near Antarctica’s Ross Sea have been virtually ice-free for 2, 3, perhaps 12 million years! On “warm” summer days, glacial rivers flow into ice-covered lakes, freeze solid at night, then flow again the next day. Mostly though, ice and snow sublimates directly into the exceedingly dry air blowing out of central Antarctica; to the point where glaciers dry out before reaching the sea. These so-called “katabatic” winds have sculpted rocks in the Dry Valleys into bizarre shapes somewhat resembling the arches and hoodoos of much hotter deserts. The Dry Valleys are so unlike more typical earthly environments that researchers consider them suitable analogs for studies of Mars.
(image via: Virginia Butler)
The extreme dryness of the air and the lack of rain or snowfall in the Dry Valleys acts to preserve any organic matter for startlingly long periods of time. Freeze-dried by the katabatic winds and then slowly sandblasted away, the corpse of the seal above will someday be worn completely away though that could take thousands of years!
Our planet is blessed (or cursed, depending on one’s point of view) with an abundance of deserts, each offering unique environments and scenic vistas that are in many cases, out of this world. The 10 amazing deserts described above are, to mix metaphors, just the tip of the iceberg and you can expect a future showcase to disclose more of the hot, the dry and the sandy!