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Visiting all Deserts to be the Most Travelled Indian

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The Sanoran Desert in Southern USA.

All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian

By Nitin Gairola

In my last few articles, I took you through my initial days of world travel from 2007 to 2012. These were first to relatively developed cities and towns but later moved to wildlife experiences, particularly in Africa. This is what got me hooked to the idea of seeing the natural world, a lot more than the political world of countries.

The golden sands of the Sahara.

Also, as I mentioned in one of my earlier articles, I knew I would not be the first Indian to visit all countries of the world, as this landmark had been reached by 2 Indians with Indian passports and 1 more Indian but with an American passport. So, with that, I focussed on the natural world of deserts (i.e. hot, cold & polar deserts), forests (rain, tropical, temperate & boreal forests), grasslands and tundra. These 4 (i.e. deserts, forests, grasslands and tundra) are the 4 types of terrestrial biomes or living landscapes of Earth and the 5th biome type is the marine biome (i.e. oceans, seas and all other water bodies such as rivers, lakes, etc.)

Mars like enviornment on the Atacama Desert.

So, my first mission to stake the claim of the ‘Most Travelled Indian of the Natural World’ was by visiting ‘All Deserts on Earth’. I figured that, today, anyone (with enough time and resources) can visit all countries by taking flights to their capitals, besides we have the option of world cruises which stop at coast side tourist destinations. In either of these, do you really go into the interiors or under the skin of a destination? However, to reach deserts and forests you have to take the road or other land and water-based transportation and not accessible flights and cruises, so the crowd naturally thins out. To visit these places, you have to plan well and tolerate a few hardships, even if you have sufficient resources. That is in fact the reason why this has not been done before. If it were easy, it would not be a record, but would be like any other holiday.

Flying men in the Syrian Desert.

In my case, while my mission was deserts, I didn’t know of this mission till much later when I had seen and stepped on quite a few of them. It all had very humble beginnings, however, with my first desert being (you guessed it), our own ‘Thar Desert’ in Rajasthan in December 2011. As strange as it may sound for a person wanting to be the first Asian and Indian to see all deserts of the world, I had not stepped on my first desert till the age of 31 in 2011.

Death Valley-Hottest place in N.America

The 2nd one followed a month later in January of 2012 when I went to the UAE and like millions did the mandatory desert safari with dune bashing that ends in the traditional song and dance show inside a tented ground. So, as you can see, the start was quite ordinary with all the touristy stuff you can imagine (think 30-minute camel rides to get a ‘feel’ of the desert). But my truth was that I didn’t get ‘a feel of the desert’ at all in these trips. It is around this time I got into wildlife in a big way and deserts took a backseat with jungles and grasslands taking centre-stage in my world travels.

A desert drawing adventure seekers.

It was not until May 2014 that deserts came back in my life and this time the bug bit me deep. I had gone to Morocco in North-West Africa and the Sahara Desert in the far east of the country was too hard to resist. There I saw the vastness of this sandy desert but in truth I just saw one small part of the largest hot desert on Earth (why I say largest hot desert is because Antarctica is also a desert but a cold one, and it is by far the largest desert on Earth).

Hot volcanic vents in Chile

After this, the wheels were in motion and my travels took me to the Great Australian Deserts, the Atacama Desert in South America (driest hot desert on Earth), the Syrian and Arabian deserts in the Middle East, the Great Kalahari in Southern Africa, the 5 deserts of USA and Mexico, the Patagonian Desert in Argentina & Chile amongst others. All this is not to mention that I visited the 2 largest deserts on Earth, both, of which are cold deserts. These are the 2 polar deserts of Arctic and Antarctica, with Antarctica being my latest.

Uluru-The iconic symbol of Australia.

I will delve into a bit of science of these desolate desert ecosystems, since this has become my passion project along with other natural world biomes that I had mentioned. Going into absolute fundamentals, a desert is a place of very low precipitation, usually less than 10 inches or 25 cm of rainfall in a year, and is definitely not always a hot or sandy place as we tend to think of them. Having said that, most of the deserts are hot deserts with a few being cold ones (The Gobi in Mongolia or The Great Basin in USA) and 2 of them being the polar deserts that I spoke of).

Nitin on the Arctic Desert.

This is one of the dominant ecosystems or biomes of our home planet with deserts covering 30% of the planet’s land surface area, which is almost equal to the forest cover on Earth as well. There are a total of 33 significant deserts which are at least 50,000 square kilometres in area and the list of these is easily searchable on Google when you type ‘deserts of Earth by area’ (the Wikipedia list can be checked).

Nitin on the cold Antarctica Desert.

It must be said that these biomes of desert and forest are not ones with constant or permanent boundaries, but keep changing their size over long periods of time. Currently, deserts globally are expanding in a process called ‘desertification’ and forest cover is reducing in what is known as ‘deforestation’. One of the reasons for the expansion of our deserts is climate change or global warming, whereas for deforestation it is the clearing of more and more forests for farmlands to feed our growing population.

In the coming weeks I will take you though some more science and culture of these fantastic landscapes on Earth which at times look like some alien planet. This is simply because deserts appear so devoid of both animal and plant life and this lack of life is the defining feature of all planets on our solar system except our Blue-Green home.  Deserts are a major passion of mine and if we understand these places and their inhabitants, we can possibly understand solutions to stop further desertification. And, if for nothing else, I love the deserts for their sheer desolation, solitude and a silence that is simply not found anywhere else on our living planet.

(Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and, in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.)