I fell in love with deserts on a a trip to the southwestern United States in the summer of my 8th grade year. Prior to that, my travels were largely confined to the northeastern seaboard, exploring the stone walls and cobble shores of New England and the salty rocks of Maine. In the canyon lands of Utah, Arizona's Painted Desert and the cliffs of Mesa Verde, I marveled at weeks on end without a whiff of cloud, and horizons so vast that both ends of a freight train were at all times plainly visible. I find comfort and hope in the mere fact of not simply persistent but resilient life in these stark, inhospitable places.
I spent nearly four years in southwest Africa, where the diversity of arid habitats encompasses dark red sand dunes 300 meters high, salt pans of blinding white, and a rugged escarpment of table mountains where semiprecious stones can be gleaned like seashells from the dry riverbeds. There are places along the poetically named Skeleton Coast that receive less than 50mm of rain annually and where many plants and animals get the moisture they need from the heavy fogs that roll inland from the upwelling Benguela current. There are rivers here that break through to the sea in flood only once a decade, yet with riparian belts of leadwood and camelthorn that sink their thirsty roots to tap the water that still lies beneath.
The world's great monotheisms - Islam, Judaism and Christianity - were born of deserts, which cannot afford to be profligate with their deities or resources and where the only absolutes are the certainty of all-encompassing heat, and thirst and the necessity of adaptation. In times of drought, when the margin of survival is wafer thin, a pregnant Oryx gazelle may reabsorb its fetus rather than bring it to term. This animal contends with heat in extraordinary ways, raising its brain temperature 5 °C warmer than its body core during the day and then cooling down at night. The Oryx at left was still alive when I took this photo and is drinking water from my hat. It became trapped between the double line of a cordon sanitaire between the large communal cattle herds of northern Namibia and the commercial farmland to the south. It allows Namibia to export its meat to the EU disease free, but is a death trap for wildlife. This animal, as you can see from its visible ribs, was in terrible condition when we came upon it and managed to run it down and pull it through the fence to freedom. It may have gone weeks without water, and was probably too far gone when we discovered it.
Still, deserts are alive, and have supported life of remarkable variety and resilience. This giraffe was one of over 50 we recorded on a game count in the Klip Rivier section of ≠Khoadi //Hoas Conservancy in northwest Namibia during one afternoon in 1997. I had no telephoto lens on my camera. This giraffe simply stood and observed us as our 4 x 4 clambered over the rocky trail before it as we explored this remote desert Eden. Endemic Hartmann's mountain zebra negotiated the steep walls of the river canyon as we continued our journey, and there was leopard spoor at several of the waterholes.
People have lived in Namibia's deserts for tens of thousands of years, as an abundance of petroglyphs and rock paintings attest. It has been called "a prospector's Paradise and a miner's Hell." Historically, the human settlements in this desert were as heavily reliant on the few natural water sources as contemporary communities are on their deep boreholes today, and local herders share with wildlife the requirement to shift pasture when the rains fall elsewhere. I have seen these stony rivers come to life after heavy rains, and each time it was as if the great, muddy heart of the desert had thrashed into life to pump its dry arteries into brief and spuming flood. I have seen the bones of the earth laid bare. I have not heard the terrible voice of the Lord in a burning bush but have no trouble imagining a desert producing such wonders. 1/3 of our water planet is desert, after all, and far from lifeless.