15 of the world's greatest deserts

Hot, cold, sandy, salty, empty, enormous, desolate, biodiverse – the planet’s driest places come in many shapes and forms but will always blow you away

Deserts have called out across the ages to explorers and adventurers, from Lawrence of Arabia to Levison Wood. There’s something about the vastness; the idea of great oceans of sand without an end in sight. Often far from signs of civilisation, these are immense places where it can feel like time is standing still, even as the sand shifts around us, transforming the landscape grain by grain. We go to the desert to find ourselves, the saying goes, to take a deep breath and contemplate existence. Or you can just zip around on a quadbike if you prefer.

Deserts cover more than a fifth of the earth’s land area and are found on each of the seven continents. Sahara, Kalahari, Atacama… these are names that evoke reverence, inspire awe. But there’s more to deserts than bone-dry sand and scorching sun. Defined as a place that receives less than 25cm of rain per year, a desert can range in nature from semi-arid scrubland to giant lakes of sparkling salt, from craggy canyons to the ice and snow of Antarctica. In fact, only around 20% of the world’s deserts are actually comprised of sandy plains.

Also contrary to popular perception, deserts aren’t lifeless, empty spaces. More than a billion people live in and around deserts, adapting to the sometimes challenging conditions, just as numerous animals – lions, meerkats, snakes – have done.

And from camel rides to horseback adventures, from 4WD expeditions to hot air balloon flights, from visiting ancient cities to gazing at the stars, the experiences available in deserts are as endless as their horizons.

1. Namib

Meaning ‘vast place’, the Namib runs for 2,000km along the Atlantic coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. It is the world’s oldest desert – at least 55 million years old, although some think it could be as old as 80 million – and contains some of the largest, most impressive sand dunes on the planet. The Namib is also one of the world’s driest deserts. But there is life here, including cheetahs, klipspringers, leopards, hyenas, bat-eared foxes and even desert-adapted elephants and lions.

One of the most remarkable sections is the Skeleton Coast, a wild 500km stretch of Namibia, best visited by flying in to one of the region’s exclusive camps. Further south, the expanse encompassed within Namib-Naukluft National Park is home to ostrich, gemsbok and rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra as well as the salt-and-clay pans of Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, where the combination of red dunes, white earth and dead trees delights photographers.

Top experience:
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are must-sees. You can visit by car or 4WD. Or explore the surrounding desert by mountain bike or e-bike for a more up-close and personal view of the dunes.

2. Gobi

Mongolia’s Gobi (‘waterless place’) is an arid region covering almost a third of the country. Overall, it’s a cold desert, although temperatures veer between extremes. As well as pockets of dramatic dunes, there are low mountains, valleys, cliffs and seemingly endless dusty steppe where you might be walking in the footsteps of Genghis Khan’s hordes.

In fact most of the Gobi isn’t sand; the grandest dunes are at Khongoryn Els, in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. Other highlights include Bayanzag (aka the Flaming Cliffs), where prehistoric remains including dinosaur eggs, bones and petrified trees have been found, and the canyon and ice fields of Yolyn Am valley, where you can explore on foot or horseback and stay in a traditional ger camp.

Top experience:
Keep your ears open as you climb up the 300m-high dunes at Khongoryn Els, which are also known as Duut Mankhan (the ‘singing sands’). When explorer Marco Polo passed by this way, he heard eerie noises coming from the dunes, which he believed were spirits; actually, the strange ‘music’ is created by the wind – when the breeze gets between the grains it causes them to vibrate and hum.

3. Kalahari

The Kalahari is the southernmost desert in Africa and, at around 930,000 sq km, covers much of Botswana, as well as parts of Namibia and South Africa. Temperatures oscillate between very hot and sometimes frosty, but life persists – species found here include desert-adapted Kalahari lions (renowned for their black manes), cheetahs, leopards, mobs of meerkats, rare African wild dogs, oryx, kori bustards and spotted hyena.

One of the highlights of the Kalahari is the Makgadikgadi Pans, the remnants of a long-gone super-lake that’s now the largest salt pan in the world. Here, you can explore on foot, by 4WD or quadbike, hang out with elephants, ostriches and bulbous baobab trees, watch southern Africa’s biggest wildebeest migration, visit sacred islands and spend time with the San people, who have mastered the art of desert survival.

Top experience:
A few meerkat mobs in the Makgadikgadi Pans have been semi-habituated to the presence of humans, enabling very close encounters. Head out on an early morning game drive to witness these curious, characterful creatures as they begin to emerge from their burrows to forage for grubs.

4. Sahara

Meaning ‘the greatest desert’ in Arabic, the Sahara stretches 9.2 million sq km across northern Africa, taking in 11 countries – from Morocco to Egypt – and framed by the Atlantic, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It’s the largest hot desert in the world (only the cooler Antarctic and Arctic are bigger), with daytime temperatures that can reach over 40°C.

Far from all sand, the Sahara is largely rocky hamada plateau. It’s also cut through by the Nile and Niger rivers and ruptured by mountains – 3,415m Mount Koussi, an extinct volcano in Chad, is the highest point.

Much of the region is wild indeed but there are plenty of easier-to-access areas where you can sample desert life. For instance, trips into Morocco’s slice of the Sahara head out from the villages of Merzouga and M’Hamid, both a simple day-long bus ride from Marrakech. Or try Egypt, to combine ancient pyramids and fortresses with Jeep adventures into the White Desert and a visit to the Roman city of Amheida (the ‘Pompeii of the Sahara’). Or overland to southern Tunisia to the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the world’s largest sand seas.

Top experience:
Journey to Morocco’s Erg Chigaga or slightly remoter Erg Chebbi dunes to ride camels, bash over the soft sand by 4WD and camp out under the stars.

5. Arabian

The Arabian Desert is intimidating. Sprawling across most of its namesake peninsula, it’s the world’s fifth-biggest – a hot, hostile, sand-subsumed expanse. A region to enter at your peril.

Within this sits Wadi Rum. Forever linked to British army officer TE Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), this valley in southern Jordan – also known as the Valley of the Moon – is the Arabian at its easiest to experience. Here, nomadic Bedouin tribes who’ve roamed here for eons can still be found, some now leading tours amid the sand ridges and otherworldly rocks.

Wadi Rum is a giant playground, where you can camel-trek, horse-ride, quadbike and mountain hike – Jabal Umm ad Dami, Jordan’s highest peak, is here. You can also find petroglyphs, rock art and ruins from the prehistoric Nabatean civilisation. Or simply sit for a while and soak up the timeless landscape.

Top experience:
It depends whether you like sedate sightseeing or more of an adrenalin rush. For the latter, a 4WD or quadbike tour of Wadi Rum provides plenty of excitement. But it’s hard to beat staying at a Bedouin camp for a night or two, to watch the sun set on the desert and sleep under the stars.

6. Antarctic

Covering 14.2 million sq km, the world’s largest desert doesn’t look how most people might imagine. Rather than a hot sea of sand, the Antarctic Desert is the coldest place on the planet, a white, wintry wonderland of ice and snow. But low levels of precipitation (average annual rainfall at the South Pole is just over 10mm) classifies it as a desert nonetheless.

As well as being dry, Antarctica is also pristine, with glaciers and snow-covered mountains surrounded by crisp skies and a luminous ocean. You won’t find many people here, other than researchers, but you will see thousands of penguins (gentoos, chinstraps, Adélies) as well as elephant and leopard seals, whales (including humpbacks) and dolphins. Expedition cruises voyage to the continent, which include Zodiac excursions, shore landings and beach hikes.

Top experience:
Some cruises also offer the chance to kayak through Antarctica’s quiet waters, taking in the glaciers, the ice floes and the stillness, and – with luck – getting close to some of the remarkable wildlife. For the brave and experienced, it’s even possible to scuba dive, immersing yourself in a completely different world.

7. Mojave

The Mojave is the smallest and driest of the four major North American deserts. Occupying parts of California and Nevada, with smaller chunks in Arizona and Utah, it is a landscape of rugged mountains, low valleys, dry lakes, enormous skies and high drama – it’s little surprise that many movies have been shot here, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kill Bill and, oddly, Bogart’s Sahara. It’s named after the indigenous Mojave people, and petroglyphs and rock art are still visible across the region.

The Mojave encompasses three protected areas. Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest spots on earth and a place of unexpected diversity. Joshua Tree National Park is where the Mojave meets the Sonoran, and is known for its rock climbing, cacti, nature trails and the big yuccas that give the park its name. Mojave National Preserve, meanwhile, is a place of singing sand dunes, cinder cone volcanoes, long-abandoned mines and spring wildflowers.

Top experience:
Drive through Death Valley, via highlights such as Mesquite Flat dunes, Zabriskie Point (an eerie lookout) and Badwater Basin, North America’s lowest point.

8. Tabernas

Hang around in Spain’s Tabernas Desert long enough and you might end up as a movie extra. Since the 1950s this protected area in the southerly Spanish province of Almería in Andalucía has served up locations for films from The Magnificent Seven to Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. But it’s the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, including Sergio Leone classics like A Fistful of Dollars, that really put it on the map.

Spain’s ‘Wild West’ is the only inland desert in Europe (though technically it’s only a semi-desert), hemmed in between the mountains of the Sierra de los Filabres and Sierra de Alhamilla. It’s a surreal, lunar-like place, streaked with canyons, cacti, scrub, dunes, fossilised remains and barren hills, and home to eagles, snakes and lizards. While you’re here, pay a visit to hilltop Castillo de Tabernas, a ruined Moorish castle.

Top experience:
Reenact scenes from the silver screen. Travellers can visit many of Tabernas’s film locations and movie theme parks, including Western Leone (built by Sergio), Oasys Mini Hollywood and Fort Bravo.

9. Chihuahuan

The Chihuahuan is the largest desert in North America, covering nearly 502,000 sq km, from the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas and Nuevo León into the south-west US states of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. The Rio Grande (known as Rio Bravo in Mexico) flows through it, helping create the third most biodiverse desert in the world: the Chihuahuan contains more than 3,500 plants, including a quarter of the world’s cactus species, as well as mountain lions, wolves, black-tailed prairie dogs, mule deer and 300 species of birds.

Within the USA, you’ll find a handsome chunk of the Chihuahuan within Big Bend National Park in Texas and the nearby Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens. On the Mexican side, the Samalayuca Dune Field, south of (unsafe) Ciudad Juárez, is a lively spot for sandboarding, motocross, ATVs and other adventure sports. While you’re in this part of Mexico, hop aboard El Chepe to ride through the Copper Canyon, one of the greatest train journeys in the world.

Top experience:
Take a hike. There are plenty of options, especially in Big Bend, from short walks along the edge of the Rio Grande into Santa Elena Canyon and along the nature trail at Rio Grande Village to more epic adventures, such as Emory Peak or along the South Rim.

10. Simpson

The Simpson Desert extends across 176,500 sq km of Australia (an area equivalent to 68 Luxembourgs), from the far north of South Australia, near Lake Eyre, into the Northern Territory towards Alice Springs and east into Queensland. Despite being only the fourth-largest desert in Australia, the Simpson has the longest parallel dunes in the world: more than 1,100 rows of sand ridges, some 200km long.

Australia’s Aboriginal people have lived in the Simpson for at least 5,000 years, as proven by archaeological finds such as stone tools and bone fragments. Today it’s possible to visit communities still living here, to learn about their culture. In Rainbow Valley, an area of striking cliffs and bluffs 100km south of Alice Springs, you can take a tour of rock art and occupation sites with an indigenous guide.

Change could be coming to the area. South Australia hopes to create the country’s largest national park: the Munga-Thirri–Simpson Desert National Park. If the proposals pass through Parliament, the expanded protected area would be 3.6 million hectares in size, more than a million hectares larger than Kakadu in the Northern Territory, Australia’s next biggest park.

Top experience:
The tallest of Simpson’s parallel dunes is Nappanerica, or Big Red, located in Queensland. At 40m high, it’s a fun challenge for 4WD adventures. Time it right to be at the top for a memorable sunset.

11. Sechura (Nazca)

Did aliens visit the Sechura Desert? One of the many theories about the Nazca Lines – the mysterious massive marks scored into the arid topsoil hereabouts – is that they’re landing strips for interstellar travellers. More likely, however, is that they’re proof of the incredible feats that humans will undertake.

The barren Sechura lines the coast of Peru, from its northern border down to Nazca city. Here lie the Lines, a set of huge geoglyphs – rectangles, triangles, spirals, plants, animals, human figures – imprinted into the desert floor by the Nazca people as far back as 500 BC, for reasons unknown. There were thought to be 70-or-so shapes, although satellites and drones have recently discovered more.

The city of Nazca is the regional hub. While here, visit the Cahuachi pyramids and well-preserved mummies at Chauchilla Cemetery, and sandboard down the Cerro Blanco dunes.

Top experience:
The UNESCO-listed Nazca Lines can be seen from various hills and highpoints, but aerial tours give a better overview. Small planes glide over the artworks including the Hummingbird, Hands, Spider and ‘Astronaut’; longer flights take in the newly discovered Palpa Lines too.

12. Thar

The Thar Desert spreads for around 238,00 sq km, with 85% seeping into parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana in India and the other 15% running into Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces. Compared with many of the world’s deserts, the Thar is highly populated: 40% of Rajasthan’s population live within this region. The desert is also home to a range of wildlife, including species rare elsewhere, from blackbuck and Indian wild ass to caracal and Bengal fox.

The colourful cities of Rajasthan – Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaipur and especially Jaisalmer – are good jumping-off points for desert adventures. A trip might include overnight camping beneath the stars with traditional Rajasthani song and dance performances, camel rides, 4WD dune bashing and tours of medieval villages.

In Pakistan, Thar highlights include visits to handicraft workshops, villages, dunes and temples around Mithi (capital of the Tharparkar District).

Top experience:
It’s hard to beat the calm of camping out in the desert; Jaisalmer is a good place to book a multi-day trip. Active sorts might fancy parasailing – pulled by a vehicle, you’ll float 300m above the ground, gaining
a different perspective on the Thar.

13. Salar de Uyuni

True desert or not, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is certainly one of the planet’s most striking dry places. It is part of a prehistoric lake that once covered much of south-west Bolivia but evaporated and left behind several salt pans. Yes, here it’s all about salt rather than sand, a glistening-white world so bright you’ll need sunglasses to avoid being blinded by the light.

Across the flats local men dig out slabs of salt that, among other things, are used to construct salt hotels. There are vast deposits of lithium here, too, sought after to power phones, laptops and electric cars; hopefully, the race to extract this much-in-demand resource won’t destroy this incredible place.

Tours by 4WD cross the peak-flanked Salar. Many visit Incahuasi, an island of cacti-covered volcanic rock; fewer go to Fish Island, which you can climb up for excellent views. It’s also worth visiting the nearby Train Cemetery, where old locos rust on the pan.

This is a fascinating place for photography, not only for playful perspective shots, but also mirror images of ground and sky during the months when a thin layer of water covers the surface.

Top experience:
For real thrills, a motorbike tour of Salar de Uyuni is unbeatable, giving you the freedom to take in remote places that standard tours don’t reach. But if you don’t fancy that, simply relish standing on the Salar as the pink-purple light of sunset brings out the hexagonal patterns and makes the whole place glow.

14. Atacama

It’s hard to feel further removed from the fulsome rivers, icy glaciers and green valleys of Chilean Patagonia than amid the red, rocky, arid Atacama. Up in the far north of the country, this desert is the driest place on earth; there are places here that have never recorded rainfall or where rain falls on just one or two days a year.

The old adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama is the main base from which to explore the surrounding Martian-esque landscapes on foot, by 4WD or by mountain bike, including aptly named locations such as the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Mars. Also nearby are volcanoes, geysers, flamingo-flocked lagoons and salty hot springs (enjoy a surreal float in Laguna Cejar).

The lack of humidity and light pollution also makes Atacama one of the best places in the world for stargazing. The ALMA observatory, one of the most important astronomical projects in the world, is built high above the desert.

Top experience:
Although not quite as powerful as ALMA’s, many hotels in the region have their own impressive telescopes; some also offer astronomy tours. Even if you don’t want an official tour, be sure to head out at night, lie back, look up and soak it all in.

15. Karakum

The sparse, sandy Karakum Desert swallows almost three-quarters of little-visited Turkmenistan, and it can seem an inhospitable place. Indeed, the Karakum’s biggest attraction is known as the Gates of Hell...

Also known as the Darvaza gas crater, this site near the village of Darvaza was created (according to some reports) in 1971. Soviet engineers were drilling for oil when they hit natural gas; the earth collapsed, forming large sinkholes. In an attempt to burn off any poisonous fumes, they set the gas on fire, thinking it would burn out in a matter of weeks. It’s been burning ever since.

The Trans-Caspian Railway, which follows the path of the Silk Road, skirts the southern edge of the Karakum. It passes through Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, and Merv, one of the oldest and best preserved Silk Road oasis cities. Also worth a visit are the UNESCO-listed ruins at Konye-Urgench and the surreal, colourful rock formations at Yangikala Canyon.

Top experience:
The Gates to Hell are the burning heart of this desert,
so a trip to see the crater is a must. It’s a bumpy, remote, off-road ride; be sure to visit at dusk or later, when the fire is most vivid. Just don’t get too close to the edge.

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