The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

by William Atkins


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Winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year (UK)

"William Atkins is an erudite writer with a wonderful wit and gaze and this is a new and exciting beast of a travel book."—Joy Williams 

In the classic literary tradition of Bruce Chatwin and Geoff Dyer, a rich and exquisitely written account of travels in eight deserts on five continents that evokes the timeless allure of these remote and forbidding places.

One-third of the earth's surface is classified as desert. Restless, unhappy in love, and intrigued by the Desert Fathers who forged Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, William Atkins decided to travel in eight of the world's driest, hottest places: the Empty Quarter of Oman, the Gobi Desert and Taklamakan deserts of northwest China, the Great Victoria Desert of Australia, the man-made desert of the Aral Sea in Kazkahstan, the Black Rock and Sonoran Deserts of the American Southwest, and Egypt's Eastern Desert. Each of his travel narratives effortlessly weaves aspects of natural history, historical background, and present-day reportage into a compelling tapestry that reveals the human appeal of these often inhuman landscapes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385539883
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/24/2018
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.43(w) x 9.53(h) x 1.27(d)

About the Author

WILLIAM ATKINS' first book, The Moor, was described as a 'classic' by the London Observer and shortlisted for the Thwaites Wainwright Prize. He is a former editorial director of Pan Macmillan UK, and his longform journalism has appeared in the Guardian and Granta. In 2016 he was a recipient of the British Library Eccles Prize. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


It was the night of the blood moon. The term was coined by Bible Belt millenarians who believed the phenomenon—a lunar eclipse when the full moon is at its perigee, therefore magnified and pink—portended Armageddon. Joel 2:31: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” The timing was just good fortune but it turned out I’d have among the best views on earth. In my ignorance it was its redness I anticipated as much as its bigness or for that matter the fact that it would be eclipsed, and so when it rose into view, more embers than blood, I was disappointed—as disappointed as one can ever be by a new-risen full moon.

By the time I’d rehydrated my noodles and poured my daily half-beaker of wine, the moon had returned from grey-pink to its customary white, like a fingertip pressed against glass, and every cactus and every shrub, and the strawbale cabin, had generated a hard exclusive shadow. It seemed to me that the chief characteristic of night in the desert was not darkness but this light that was not the sun’s.


The cabin stands on a ridge above the San Pedro River sixty kilometres east of Tucson, Arizona. It is a one-room structure about three metres by five, with a door facing north-east. In each of the other three walls is a single window, screened with mesh against insects. It’s nice to open the windows to the evening breeze, but during the day they stay shut to keep out the heat. The interior walls are thickly plastered, bumpy and cracked. The floor is packed earth laid with two rugs heavily nibbled by mice. Furniture: a cabinet for cooking utensils, a folding steel cot and mattress, a pine table and matching chairs, and an iron-banded trunk a century old, containing Mexican blankets, batteries and a first-aid kit and dozens of candles. The table resembles an altar. On it, most of the time, stands a storm lantern and a bottle of screw-top Cabernet Merlot ($8.99, Trader Joe’s).

Each of the four windows (there’s one in the door) gives onto a hillside thick with mesquite, paloverde, creosote bush, ocotillo, prickly pear, barrel cactus, and saguaro, the region’s characteristic cactus, the cactus of cowboy films. It is the saguaros’ giant candelabra forms that break the line of each hillside and provide landmarks. The tallest for kilometres stands beside the cabin. From the south-west-facing window you can see the Rincon Mountains, with the Little Rincons before them, dropping down to the San Pedro Valley, and the few dwellings of the Cascabel community ten kilometres away. When the sun rises behind me, a blade of light drops from the distant peaks of the Rincons, down the foothills and towards me across the alluvial plain, until slowly, like a lava flow, the threshold where light meets shadow approaches the cabin—and then: there! The warmth as the sun’s rays touch the back of my head and my shadow is thrown down long before me.

From a hook fixed to a rafter-end I hang a kettle of water on a bungee each morning, and by 6 p.m. it is hot enough for a shower. On the cabin’s opposite side, where there is more shade, lies the two-hundred-litre drum that provides all my water, raised on a bed of rocks and protected against the sun with a jacket of wire-strung saguaro ribs.

The ridge separates two washes (dry, except after cloudbursts): one is broad and shallow, the other is deep and narrow and what they call an arroyo. The ridge rises to the north-east—halfway up this hill, about thirty metres from my door, is a double wooden frame into which two identical square boards are slid, each painted white on one side and on the other red. Every evening, before my shower, though I don’t always remember, I walk up the hill along a path marked out with rocks on each side, and slide out the boards, flip them over, and slide them back into the framework. From the ridge near his home down near the San Pedro, my friend Daniel checks each morning with his binoculars, if he remembers; if the boards do not change for a day or two, he’ll come and make sure I’m okay.

There are a few books here: a natural history of the Sonoran Desert and a book about the dangerous animals of the region, every one hair-triggered, you’d be forgiven for inferring, to sting you, bite you, maul you, or char you with its fiery breath. My own contribution is a paperback facsimile of John C. Van Dyke’s 1901 book The Desert. It describes a man’s journey, alone, into this desert, the Sonoran, a journey made chiefly in 1898, though its precise course is unclear. He was an accomplished art historian, but trust Van Dyke’s guidance at your peril. Here he is, homicidally, on the subject of food and water, for instance: “Any athlete or Indian will tell you that you can travel better without them. They are good things at the end of the trip but not at the beginning.” Rattlesnakes he describes as “sluggish.” He shoots grey wolves in California, where there were no wolves, and eulogises the purple flowers of the saguaro, which are white (though the fruits are red). Alerted to certain errors by a well-meaning desert ecologist, he graciously acknowledged the mistakes, promised to correct them in future editions—The Desert had a long life—and so far as is known made no effort to do so. A note appended to the manuscript of his autobiography spells out his aim: “to describe the desert from an aesthetic, not scientific, point of view.”

I no longer sleep inside but, after my sunset shower, drag the cot out to the clearing in front of the door, where I am not disturbed by the lizards in the roof—or, more accurately, where the noise they make is subsumed by the larger racket of the desert at night. I lift each of the bed’s feet and slip containers of water under them—tin mugs, a wooden saucer, a saucepan—to keep conenose kissing-bugs or scorpions from joining me. I position the two chairs beside the bed, one at the foot, one alongside my head, and stand lanterns on them. In a row on the ground between them half a dozen candles are stationed. In the mornings the hardened wells around their wicks are black with flying insects. Within this lit perimeter I sleep more easily than I have for months, which is not to say deeply. Waking in the night to the buzzing of cicadas or the yapping of coyotes, I experience a weight of tranquillity that has the quality of a quilt. It might be the peace of the dying.

Most afternoons, as the warmth first intensifies like an oven preheating, then levels off at a temperature that permits nothing but sitting in the cabin’s shadow cowled in a wet scarf, I try to remember how the song goes:

High on a hill was a lonely goatherd . . .
One little girl in a pale pink coat heard . . .

This is my main afternoon work: to remember the words. And day by day, one by one, they return to me, though it’s a year since I last heard the song, coming from a cracked Samsung smartphone on the edge of the Worst Desert on Earth, while to the north a massacre was happening.

1. The Desert Library

The Empty Quarter, Oman

It seems a long time ago. The woman I’d lived with for four years had taken a job overseas. I would not be going with her. The summer before, in the name of research, I’d spent a week with a community of Cistercian monks on the edge of Dartmoor in south-west England. I attended each of the abbey’s sacred offices—matins at 5:45 a.m., lauds an hour later, Mass at 8 a.m., vespers at 6 p.m., compline at 9—and took meals in the vaulted refectory. As the days passed, each office became indistinguishable from the next. I’d sit at the high open window of my room, looking out from time to time to follow the swallows as they spiralled over the cloister roof. When the bell tolled, I would put down whatever book I was reading, and go alone down the long stone staircase, three flights, and wait in the chapel for the twelve monks to enter, one by one, and take their places along the walls on either side. I stood at the back and listened to their plainsong.

It was in the monastery library that I became aware of the connection between Christian monasticism and the desert. I would make a pile of books and carry them up to my small room, and spend the time between offices reading. I learned about the Desert Fathers, the third-and fourth-century solitaries of Upper Egypt, and the first of them, St. Antony. Antony was born in AD 251 in Upper Egypt, the son of a wealthy Christian family. At the age of nineteen, following the deaths of his parents, he happened to pass a church and hear the words of Matthew 19:21: “If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor.” Antony obeyed and put his younger sister in a nunnery. To give up your possessions, to remove from your life those you love: these are a monk’s first acts, but they might also be described as consistent with grieving.

Artistic depictions of St. Antony—“the Star of the Desert”—fall into two categories, each illustrating a central scene in the saint’s life: the first shows him in his nineties meeting the dying St. Paul, having walked fifty kilometres from his cave on the other side of Egypt’s South Galala Mountains. It is this scene that Velázquez’s St. Antony Abbot and St. Paul the Hermit depicts: the dying saint, his beard whiter than his companion’s, sits on a rocky outcrop, hands fused in prayer, while Antony looks on in awe. Just above their heads a raven descends with a loaf of bread.

The bird appears in every image of St. Antony and St. Paul, and its presence alone identifies the human figures. The other scenario in which St. Antony is depicted shows an early, more tumultuous period in his life and is much more common on account of its imaginative potency. Having left his home, the young man retired alone to a hut in the desert—but it wasn’t far, hardly the true desert at all, just a place outside the village walls. There he was besieged by the devil’s temptations: memories of his former comforts, his abandoned sister, the promise of money and glory, and above all the “spirit of fornication.” Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych of c. 1500 depicts an army of grotesques crowding its central panel; in the left-hand panel the saint is being rendered away by a squadron of airborne frog-demons; in the right he sits reading, trying to ignore the nude sylph half-concealed in the bole of a dead tree.

He travels still further into the desert, deeper into the devil’s domain, like a military scout preceding an invasion. At Pispir, close to the eastern bank of the Nile, he takes up residence in an abandoned fort. When, in Athanasius’s account, his friends visit with bread they hear wrestling and yelling from within: “Go from what is ours! What do you even in the desert?” But when he emerges, Antony is “neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with demons, but . . . just the same.” By now he has become an iconic figure and must fend off acolytes as well as demons. He travels deeper still into the desert, until he reaches the place that would be his home for the rest of his life: the foothills of the South Galala Mountains.

This story of a step-by-step progression into oblivion, from the lush Nile floodplain to the arid interior, became a model for others wishing to renounce society. According to St. Athanasius, “cells filled with holy bands of men who said psalms, loved reading, fasted, prayed, rejoiced in the hope of things to come, laboured in almsgiving and preserved love and harmony one with the other.” These communities in turn inspired the establishment of Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in Europe.


I started accumulating a library of desert travelogues, mostly by nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century travellers. I read them without system or coherence, least of all geographical. I was impelled by a sort of urgency, as if ransacking their pages for the code to deactivate a bomb. Sometimes I’d resort to Deuteronomy:

He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness.

T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—was quoted so ubiquitously that it was barely necessary to own a copy of his first-hand account of the Arab revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But his fellow Arabists—Charles Doughty, Harry St. John Philby, Wilfred Thesiger, and especially Bertram Thomas—joined the heap. A single book, one voice alone, was insufficient to hold my attention for long. It was a modern disease. I’d wake up in bed or on the sofa, ringed by half a dozen old books, each splayed face-down at the point where I’d moved on or nodded off, primed for the next round. As bedfellows went, they were a shabby, irascible, not-always-likeable bunch. Even among the women, the metaphor of sexual conquest was near-ubiquitous: time and again the feminised desert was unveiled, exposed, vanquished and finally penetrated. My bedding was dusty with dried binding-glue.

It was in this way that I came to think of all these accounts as a single narrative: the deserts of the world as one. It wasn’t an unprecedented approach.

In his translation of The Arabian Nights, I found a footnote by Richard Burton reporting that the “Desert Quarter” in the original Arabic was given as “Rub’a al-Kharáb,” which he believed alluded to “the Rub’ al-Khali or Great Arabian Desert.” In rhetoric, Burton explains, “it is opposed to the ‘Rub’a Maskún’, or populated fourth of the world, the rest being held to be ocean.” Charles Doughty, in the Old Testament prose of his 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta, writes that, in Arabic lore, “two quarters [of the world] divided God to the children of Adam, the third he gave to Ajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog), the fourth part of the world is called Rub’a el-Khaly, the Empty Quarter.”

I had to remind myself that “the desert” was more than a metaphor. For geographers, deserts are simply places where the average annual rainfall is less than 250 millimetres, and where precipitation, by rain or fog or dew, is exceeded by potential evapotranspiration (loss of water through evaporation and the transpiration of plants). The Aridity Index gauges this ratio as P/PET and this formula is used internationally to define the four categories of “drylands”: Hyper-Arid, Arid, Semi-Arid, and Sub-Humid. Collectively these areas make up more than 40 per cent of the world’s surface. The model desert journey is a progression from the sub-humid to the hyper-arid—from the Nile to the “Inner Mountain,” as the South Galala Mountains were known to the Desert Fathers—and it was this centripetal tendency that interested me. French travellers in the Sahara in the nineteenth century sought what they called le désert absolu. In the Vitae Patrum, the collected sayings and biographies of the Desert Fathers, published in the seventeenth century, we learn of the paneremos (Gr.): at once the place of uttermost lifelessness, and the locus where the desert’s identity was most purely asserted, and that point furthest from the periphery. Polar explorers have another term: the Pole of Maximum Inaccessibility. This it seemed was the ultimate objective of every desert traveller: the axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 The Desert Library: The Empty Quarter, Oman 5

2 Field Of Thunder: The Great Victoria Desert, Australia 53

3 Troublemakers: The Gobi Desert and the Taklamakan Desert, China 101

4 Bastard Sturgeon: The Aralkum, Kazakhstan 157

5 Between Great Fires: The Sonoran Desert, USA 201

6 Matter Out Of Place: The Black Rock Desert, USA 235

7 The Inner Mountain: The Eastern Desert, Egypt 289

Acknowledgements 329

Bibliography 331

Index 343

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