Elton John once boasted he could find a shop in the Sahara. But deserts are not about retail opportunities. The hottest, driest parts of the world are home to some of its most impressive sites and are becoming increasingly popular with tourists
Elton John once boasted he could find a shop in the Sahara. But deserts are not about retail opportunities. The hottest, driest parts of the world are home to some of its most impressive sites and are becoming increasingly popular with tourists

Just what is a desert?

Deserts, it will come as no shock to learn, are arid: "a desolate or barren tract with little or no water" is one dictionary definition. One third of the earth's surface is officially classed as desert ­ and if there's less than 12 inches (30cm) of rain a year where you live, the scientific community probably has you down as a desert nomad. There's a complication with Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic tundra, all of which technically fall under this definition, but the most common view of desert zones has less to do with icy chills and much more to do with blazing heat, sand and camels.

How is a desert created?

Hot tropical deserts, found within the area 30 degrees north and south of the equator, occur where hot dry air, which has previously dropped its moisture as rain elsewhere in the tropics, flows over the land. Examples include the Sahara, which takes up most of North Africa; the Arabian peninsula; India's Thar Desert; the Kalahari in south-west Africa; and the Great Sandy and Great Victoria deserts in Australia.

However, for various climactic and geographical reasons, you can have "cold" deserts as well. Mongolia's Gobi and China's Taklimakan deserts are dry because they're so deep in Asia's interior that moisture-bearing winds cannot reach them, yet temperatures fluctuate wildly from -40C in the winter to 40C in the summer. The Atacama Desert in Chile is desiccated by a high-pressure zone in the Pacific that makes it one of the driest places on earth, but the average summer temperature is only 19C.

Lastly there are rain shadow deserts, which are sheltered by bordering mountain ranges. California's Death Valley in the Mojave Desert is one such region. Temperatures here sometimes exceed 51C, assisted by the fact that the land is below sea level.

Isn't this all a bit extreme?

That's the whole point. Travellers have never had so much opportunity to sample the rigours of the desert while remaining relatively safe and comfortable. Life is tough here, but just as cacti and camels (see panel opposite) have evolved ways to cope, so have humans.

Water ­ or the lack of it ­ is the key. From the Bedouin of the Sahara and Arabian Desert to the cattle herders of the Gobi, survival has meant knowing where to get water when you need it. The living certainly isn't easy, but it does have the benefit of not being crowded: deserts can't support much in the way of human population, with the Sahara averaging one person per square mile, and the Gobi about the same, all clustered around a few river banks and oases. The harshness of life in Australia's interior explains why the vast majority of its population is now concentrated on its verdant shores. Yet the Aboriginal population inhabited areas of the Great Sandy Desert for over 30,000 years.

For the modern desert tourist, life needn't be too arduous: adventure travel companies offer desert treks to cater for most levels of stamina. Anyway, a bit of chafing atop a grumpy camel is a small price to pay for the jaw-dropping beauty you'll experience on a desert holiday.

Jaw-dropping beauty? Aren't deserts just lots of boring sand dunes?

Aside from the fact that deserts are as likely to be made up of salt flats, gravel, clay or rock as sand, you couldn't be further from the truth. A tiny sample of the world's driest regions throws up the Pinnacles Desert of Western Australia, which is punctuated by 30,000-year-old limestone pillars (the remains of an ancient forest); the stunning rock formations eroded by the wind and sand of Egypt's Western Desert; the fossilised remains of dinosaurs in the Gobi; Uluru (Ayers Rock), one of the leading tourist attractions in Australia; Arizona's Grand Canyon; the salt flats of the Atacama; the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan. And don't write off sand dunes until you've seen Morocco's seemingly limitless Dunes De Teraf or the world's highest sand dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia. Impress your friends by telling them that the grains of sand in deserts are rounder than those found on beaches as a result of the strength of desert winds.

What's the best way to see the desert?

It depends on what level of comfort you crave ­ or, more accurately, the amount of discomfort you are prepared to tolerate. The softest option is to fly to San Francisco or Las Vegas, rent a car, drive to Death Valley and come home again. For a fully air-conditioned experience, Thomas Cook Holidays (01733 418100, www.tcholidays.com) can arrange a two-week trip to California and Nevada from £535 per person including flights and car hire. But most people want to get closer to the desert.

Organised tours travelling in small groups are probably the safest option, and trips can involve riding camels or horses, or remaining in the comfort of an air-conditioned four-wheel drive. Similarly, a luxury tour operator will probably provide four-star accommodation in neighbouring towns, with day trips to and through deserts. For the ultimate desert experience, however, a lengthy camel trek with nights spent camping out under the stars is hard to beat. One added benefit of an organised tour is that local guides know the weather better than most.

The very hardy could also try hiking: the Desert Survivors club ( www.desert-survivors.org) organises trips to the deserts of Southern California, Nevada, Oregon and Utah for its members (for an annual fee of $20) and offers expert tips on desert walking, survival and minimising impact on the environment.

When should I go?

All deserts ­ because of the clear skies that keep them hot during the day ­ get extremely cold at night, so you'll need a four-seasons sleeping bag wherever your camel trek takes you. Tour operators will avoid trips to the desert in the hottest seasons, which, for the Sahara and Arabian deserts, means roughly June to August. The Namib Desert is best avoided from December to March, its warmest months, while June and August is the best time to visit the Gobi and not get frozen or burnt to a crisp. The Atacama Desert is at its least unpleasant from April to September.

What's the biggest desert in the world?

The "Sanddaddy" of them all is the Sahara, which takes up a whopping 2,100,000 square miles of the earth's surface. That's about 25 times the size of Britain. The Sahara runs from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Nile. It includes parts of southern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. It's expanding, too, with 250,000 square miles of desert being added to its scope since 1940.

Getting into the Sahara is a matter of first choosing where you'd like to start. Morocco is a popular destination, with routes into the country's Southern Desert taking you to the northern fringes of the Sahara itself. Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007 www.travelbag-adventures.co.uk) offers an eight-day "Desert Adventure" to Morocco. It includes time in the souks of Marrakesh, a journey into the Atlas Mountains and three days of camel trekking in the Southern Desert with Berber tents for £659 per person, including flights, starting in October.

The company also offers a "Saharan Odyssey" 15-day trip through Libya via jeep to the Akakus Mountains for £1,399 per person including flights, starting in September.

Alternatively, the sands of North Africa can be approached via Egypt: Explore Worldwide (01252 760 000, www.exploreworldwide.com) offers a six-day extension to its 10-day Nile Felucca package, taking in a camel and jeep trek to Egypt's Western Desert for £710 per person plus an £80 local payment.

Tunisia is another possibility and is a must-see destination for Star Wars fans (the desert scenes at the beginning of the trilogy were filmed there). Anyone taking a package holiday to Tunisia will not be able to avoid being offered an excursion to the area.

If you prefer to make your own way across the Sahara, Sahara Overland by Chris Scott (Trailblazer, £19.99) is a good place to start.

Are South-West Africa's deserts as easy to explore?

The Kalahari, which forms most of Botswana and extends into Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, only just qualifies as a desert. It's more accurately described as a "thirstland" because of the lack of surface water everywhere except the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world, and home to vast numbers of game and birds. The Namib in Namibia is best known for the vast dunes at Sossusvlei. Exodus (020-8673 0859, www.exodus.co.uk) runs a 20-day "desert, wilderness and wetlands" overland expedition using four-wheel drives, taking in the Kalahari and Namib deserts, for £1,520 including flights, camping and all meals. Dragoman's (01728 861133, www.dragoman.co.uk) four-week "Bushlands, Kalahari and Namibia" tour offers horse-riding in the Namib desert, and a trip through the Kalahari, as well as white-water rafting on the Zambezi (if all that sand gets too much), for £945-£1,050 per person, plus a £320- £340 kitty.

But I don't want my holiday to be a cultural desert!

There's been a spectacular lack of imagination shown in naming deserts ­ "Sahara" translates as "desert", as does "Gobi". The Great Sandy Desert speaks for itself. But desert culture, while less obvious, certainly exists. The Bedouin (the term means "desert dweller") of the Sahara and Middle East have a reputation for being friendly and accommodating, possibly because their neighbours don't pop in for tea all that often. In the Bedouin tribal system, the camel herders of the Sahara are seen to be the grandest, while the goat herders of Iran and Jordan are regarded as being rather déclassé. Their patriarchal society, revolving around a head of a clan, or sheikh, and their practice of living in tents, is still going strong, despite a gradual move to a less peripatetic existence.

Meanwhile, the San of South-west Africa's Namib desert were the region's first musicians: their instruments mimicked the sounds made by animals. Many of their descendants still live as "hunter-gatherers", with no permanent dwellings at all. The nomadic tribes of the Gobi live in the same way, spending time in temporary dwellings called yurts.

The common thread here is movement: architecture fans may well leave the desert disappointed, but lovers of art will find plenty to admire in more portable objects such as ornate jewellery and clothes. There's also prehistoric rock art in the Sahara and the Australian deserts, tribal dancing, ancient story-telling traditions... and if you're still having trouble imagining the cultures you may encounter, imagine Omar Sharif riding out of the heat haze in Lawrence of Arabia.

Can I go on location to his Arabia?

T E Lawrence himself described the Wadi Rum desert area in Jordan as "vast, echoing and God-like", and Jordan is one of the best places to gain access to the desert of the Arabian peninsula. The cheapest access is probably to get a charter flight to Eilat in Israel and cross to Aqaba in Jordan (but check possible closure for both Jewish and Muslim holidays, and at times of political tension).

From Aqaba there are buses to Wadi Rum, where you can sleep in ­ or on ­ a cheap hotel. One luxurious option is provided by Steppes East (01285 651010, www.steppeseast.co.uk). Its tailor-made 10-day tour of Jordan includes four-star accommodation, a trip to the Dead Sea and a visit to Wadi Rum. Prices start from £1,400 per person including flights.

Alternatively, much of the Lawrence of Arabia story is based in Syria. Abercrombie and Kent (020-7559 8620 www.abercrombiekent.com) 10-night "Land of the Caliphs" driving tour, including a stay in Damascus, a tour of the Holy Land's Crusader castles and a trip to the Roman-era city of Palmyra through the Syrian Desert. Prices start at £1,499 per person.

Sticking with the Middle Eastern theme, the Iranian desert should give you a taste for camel caravans and Persian carpets. Various operators offer trips ranging from Abercrombie and Kent's 10-night "Pearls of Persia" tour for £1,770 per person including flights, to Travelbag's identically titled 15-day tour for £1,299 per person.

And if I prefer my deserts to have cowboys in them?

Head for the south-west of the USA and Southern California. Here a strip of desert comprising the Great Basin, the Mojave, the Sonoran and the Chihuahua deserts runs from North Mexico all the way up to Southern Oregon. A flight to Phoenix (non-stop from Gatwick on British Airways, or, more cheaply, via another US airport) will put you in prime position to rent a car and explore some magical landscapes ­ helpfully interpreted by Stetson-wearing park rangers. The western part of Saguaro National Park, north-west of Tucson, boasts an amazing sweep of the archetypal desert cactus, with an engaging collection of guided tours by rangers.

The Nevada-California area may lack the mystery and remoteness of the Sah- ara, but it more than makes up for its relative urbanity by being prime cowboy country. So if tumbleweed, big cacti and leathery men with six-shooters are your thing, this is the place to come.

Perhaps the most stunning natural phenomenon in the North American desert region, and certainly California's "hottest" tourist destination, is Death Valley, part of the Mojave Desert, which forms the lowest part of the United States (nearly 300 feet below sea level). Further south the Sonoran Desert also comprises the Yuma and Colorado deserts ­ here lie the Grand Canyon and several Native American reserves, including that of the Navajo.

Explore Worldwide (01252 760000, www.exploreworldwide.com) offers a 15-day "Indian Lands" trip for £1,135 per person, plus a local charge of £170; the trip includes time on Indian reservations. American Adventures (01892 512700, www.americanadventures.com) runs a similar 10-day "Canyons and Indians" trip for £493 per person including camping and all park entrance fees, but excluding flights. Travelbag's "Canyonlands" trip lasts for 14 days and costs £999 per person including flights.

What about something a little cooler?

The Atacama, a high-altitude desert in the border region of Chile and Bolivia, keeps fairly cool during the day (and very cold at night), and is notable for being home to condor, puma and flamingoes, as well as shimmering salt flats and bizarre rock formations ­ all set against the glorious backdrop of the Andes.

Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108, www.journeylatinamerica.com) offers an eight-day "Vizcacha" tailor-made itinerary to the Atacama. Prices start at £2,805 per person, including all flights, full board and guided tours. Excursions include horse riding, hiking, mountain biking and a visit to the El Tatio geysers and Moon Valley, so-called on account of its lunar appearance.

The Gobi desert in Mongolia is less predictable in terms of the seasons: freezing in the winter and boiling during the summer, so you really need to pick your moment. But you'll see wild camels, gazelles and thousands of birds ­ and Yolynam Gorge is so deep that it often retains glacial ice inside it throughout the summer. The Imaginative Traveller (020-8742 8612 www.imaginative-traveller.com) offers a 15-day "Grasslands to Gobi" trip, including a camel trek. Prices start at £1,599 per person excluding flights but including all accommodation and excursions. Trips run from June to August.

What about something with a little more colour?

Try the Thar desert in India's Rajasthan region, where you can stay in the "Golden City" of Jaisalmer before taking a camel trip into the desert to the Sam sand dunes, where the sunsets are spectacular. If you happen to be stopping off in Rajasthan anyway, local camel tours are on offer from most of Jaisalmer's hotels. Exodus's 17-night "Rajasthan Desert Adventure" tour includes the chance to take a camel trek into the Thar desert, as well as touring Udaipur, Jodhpur and the Taj Mahal. Prices from £1,248 per person including flights, accommodation and most meals.

Alternatively, visit Australia's "Red Centre" to see Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga), a collection of red domes that rise 200m taller than The Rock itself. Bridge the World (020-7734 7447, www.bridgetheworld.com) offers a five-day four-wheel drive camping safari from Alice Springs which costs £245 per person and includes all meals and camping, but excludes flights; at this time of year, you can fly to Alice for around £650 return from the UK. The Australian desert region ­ comprising the Simpson, Great Victoria and Great Sandy ­ is vast. Companies such as Austour (00 61 3 9770 2145 www.austourtravel.com) and Aussie Adventure Holidays (00 61 8 8924 1111, www.aussieadventure.com.au) offer an array of excursions, including "Desert Wanderer" packages.

And something tougher?

China's Taklimakan Desert is one of the world's largest sandy deserts. It also boasts the lowest land point below sea level in the world, at -500ft. This area ­ the Turfan Depression ­ can reach 46C in the summer and -52C in the winter. A serious desert for the seriously dedicated, as its unusually descriptive name suggests: "place from which there is no return".