I love deserts. Of all the ecosystems and landscapes, I have always felt the closest affinity to the desert. While I have trekked among hills and mountains, and have enjoyed the sea and seashore, it is the desert that makes me feel at once ‘at home’ as it were.
My introduction to the desert dates back many decades.
As a young trekker I was a member of a group called the Delhi Mountaineering Association. One year, the mountaineers decide to descend from the mountains and explore a new terrain and undertake something that was hitherto unexplored. The result was the Desert Expedition—the first-ever attempt (then) to cross the Thar desert in Rajasthan on foot. Eight strangers (5 men and 3 women, including yours truly), sharing a common urge to explore and discover, came together to embark on a two-week journey that touched each of us in so many different ways, and left behind indelible memories.
The walk commenced from the little village of Sam, about 44 km from Jaisalmer. This is where I had my first sight of the dunes rising from a sea of sand in the morning sunlight–a curious composite of the ripples of the ocean with the majesty of the mountains. And from here walked, our motley band of adventurers; day after sunny day, dusty winds, clinging bhurats (prickly thorns). From the sand, through the unending vista of flat arid miles stretching to the horizon, stopping to quench our parched throats with mathira the juicy wild melons, and communing with our accompanying camels. The utterly comforting feel of sleeping on the sand, under the canopy of the Milky Way, lulled by the unbroken sounds of silence. A unique bonding over seven days and 190 km (every inch traversed on blistered feet!), that left me deeply in love with the desert.
While I have not been able to go the desert as often as I would like to, serendipitously the desert has made its way into my life from time to time.
I am often reminded by my erstwhile boss that the only credentials that started me on my career as an environmental educator, was the fact that I had been on that desert expedition! My work in environment led me to study and understand (rather than only experience) the different ecosystems. When I had the opportunity to develop a teaching-learning manual on Deserts, I plumbed the depths of literature on the subject and was awestruck by the fascinating facets, incredible adaptations, and the innumerable strands that weave together create a vibrant ecosystem in a seemingly lifeless terrain. What was once intuitive was bolstered with intellect.
More serendipity! A collaborative project with Abu Dhabi, and an equally ardent desert lover transported me (after so many years) into a desert again—the Arabian Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali in Arabic). Being amid the immense dunes and endless stretches of sand, was like homecoming. I would never have imagined this, all those years ago in the Thar.
And then, a trip to Ladakh to experience the cold desert—that I had only written about till then. So different–the starkness, the skies, the silence, and the sheer scale, and yet similar. Nowhere but in the desert have I felt this with such intensity.
My heart lies in the desert. Sadly I may not be able to recreate these experiences if I tried now. The once remote sand dunes of Sam are now a tourist hot spot. The dunes and dune life of Rub al Khali are being decimated by the sport craze for off-road vehicles zooming across the sand. The fragile cold desert ecosystem of Ladakh is being snowed under with overtourism. Deserts are disappearing, and no ‘development’ scheme can ever recreate them.
Ironically while the real deserts are under threat, human activity is leading to transforming non-desert areas into arid lifeless regions through the process of desertification. June 17 is observed as The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought to promote public awareness of international efforts to combat desertification.