When you think of deserts, the first thing that probably comes to mind for many is scorching heat, utter desolation and images of parched travelers crawling over a huge sand dune toward an imaginary oasis. Yet modern amenities such as sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicles, GPS units and air conditioning have turned even the most inhospitable deserts of yesteryear into potential vacation spots. Desert adventure tours have grown in popularity in recent years, offering travelers relatively inexpensive access to unique hiking, trekking, camping and wildlife-viewing opportunities. Of course, photography buffs and astronomers in search of dark skies can find plenty to be excited about as well. Here are five breathtaking deserts offering cool adventure tours.
5. Atacama Desert, South America
Known as one of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama Desert offers nature, nearby access to the Chilean wine scene and, surprisingly, a world-class astronomy scene. The European Southern Observatory operates three separate sites in the Atacama, with guided tours available. Despite the lack of rain in the Atacama, wildlife and flora can be found there, along with ancient archaeological relics and unique geological features. The desert has become a popular destination for trekking and hiking.
4. Sahara Desert, Africa
If you’re looking to experience a desert adventure and all that North African culture has to offer, then look no further than the Sahara Desert. Numerous adventure tour options are available in the Sahara; the only question is where to begin your journey. Start out at the Tunisian seaside and take a 4×4 trip to the more inland desert destinations. Morocco is another country you can incorporate into your trip while exploring the Sahara. It’s loaded with exotic cultural experiences, fantastic food and access to all the desert you can handle. If Egyptian temples are more your thing, you can explore this desert after a Nile cruise as well.
3. Gobi Desert, Asia
A cooler desert due to its location, the Gobi Desert covers parts of China and much of Mongolia. Camel trekking is a popular adventure there, and wildlife-spotting tours to catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard and Bactrian camels in the wild are a great way to experience Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. One of the more notable features of this desert is the Khongoryn Els, known as the singing sands. Another point of interest is the Great Gobi National Park, home to the last remaining Gobi bears in the world.
2. Australian Outback
Few places evoke such a feeling of mystery as the desert of the Australian Outback. Whether it’s the aboriginal tribal history, the expansive quiet of the natural desert or the laidback lifestyle of the Australians themselves, booking an adventure in the Australian Outback appeals to many. So if searching out tribal rock paintings, taking a flight over the rock basin of Wilpena Pound or hanging out in any number of rustic pubs eating alligator sausage appeals to you, then consider a trip to the Australian Outback. One of the most popular destinations is Flinders Ranges National Park, with its impressive array of fossils and spotting opportunities for the unique wildlife — think kangaroos — usually associated with Australia.
1. Kalahari Desert, Africa
When it comes to desert adventure travel, the Kalahari is tough to beat. Be sure to catch the singing sands at the Witsand Nature Reserve, and ride down a dune or two on a sandboard while you’re there. The Kalahari is also one of Africa’s finest stargazing spots, so adventurous astronomers should feel right at home. For those who thrive on visiting unspoiled ecosystems, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, one of the national parks in South Africa, is a must-see site. Bring your binoculars for a day of birding, or take off on a 4×4 eco trail to see as much of the landscape as possible.
One More: Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert easily wins the “best amenities in a desert” prize with its access to gambling and decadence in the famous Sin City (a.k.a. Las Vegas). It’s also a hop, skip and a jump from the California coast, making it an easy weekend getaway for the Beverly Hills crowd in search of rustic camping in Death Valley National Park or wildlife spotting in the Mojave National Preserve.