Native Eye’s Favourite Desert Adventures

For some, it’s mountains. Others find their passion in rainforests or exploring the world’s great cities. For us at Native Eye, we have a penchant for the desert. There’s nothing quite like looking out over an endless, sweeping horizon, a train of camels trailing in the distance, with the knowledge that there are no other people for tens of miles – wilderness at its most extreme.

From the vast Sahara to the lesser-known high-altitude deserts of the Andes, there are a wealth of exceptional desert adventures just waiting for the intrepid traveller. These are lands where few people tread, packed full of extraordinary landscapes, from towering sand dunes to wind-eroded mountains and rock pinnacles. In these strange times of Covid-19, deserts offer the ultimate in remote travel and social distancing.

For those of yearning to get away again, having been starved of travel for the last six months, we’ve compiled a list of our top ten desert adventures – perhaps a little more off the beaten track than most, as you might expect. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of Thesiger, exploring the ‘empty quarter’ of Arabia, meet blue-robed Tuareg tribesmen in the Tassili n’Ajjer, or look for Bactrian camels in the Gobi Desert, there’s something here for all those who hanker for the solitude of the sands.

Ten of the world’s best desert adventures

1. The Trou au Natron – Chad

Desert adventures in the Trou au Natron
Desert adventures in the Trou au Natron

The Trou au Natron sits within Chad’s majestic and austere Tibesti Mountains, in the far north of the country. Driving through the desert, there is no clue of what awaits until you are almost on top of it and the ground opens up to reveal a vast crater, 7km in diameter and 1km deep. The bottom of the crater glitters white, a product of the salt pans that lie on the floor, and dark volcanic cones rise from within.

The Tubu people use the crater for grazing their livestock and gathering salt, but it’s a pretty harsh environment, with hot springs bubbling and a temperature that is several degrees higher at the bottom than at the rim.

How to get there?
Untamed Tibesti

2. Darwaza – Turkmenistan

Desert experiences with Native Eye - the Darwaza crater
The Darwaza crater

The 60-metre crater of Darwaza is one of the most unusual sites in Central Asia, a vast opening in the earth where natural gas has been set alight and has been burning for more than forty years. This was originally a site where Soviet geologists drilled for gas – not knowing what to do when the drilling rig collapsed, they set it alight for fear that poisonous gas would seep into the atmosphere and contaminate a nearby settlement, expecting that it would burn itself out in a matter of days. Dozens of fires burn inside the crater, some of them with flames up to fifteen metres high.

How to get there?

Total Turkmenistan
Silk Road Explorer
Central Asia Encompassed

3. The pyramids of Meroe – Sudan

Pyramids of Meroe - Sudan - Desert adventures with Native Eye Travel
The necropolis of Meroe

Rising from the sands, the pyramids of Meroe are an impressive testament to a civilisation long disappeared from Sudan. This former Kushite capital on the banks of the Nile was once a residence of the king and occupied from around the 25th Dynasty in Egypt. Until the fall of the Kushite rule in 4th century AD, kings and queens were buried here and the city prospered from trade along the Nile.

There are around 100 pyramids throughout the Northern and Southern Cemeteries, each with its own funerary chapel and walls fully decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the king’s life and offerings to the gods. Although there is a clear resemblance between the pyramids found here and in Egypt, those at Meroe are much smaller and were constructed unusually, by digging tomb chambers directly into the rock below and then building the pyramid above. This allowed them to be constructed much more quickly and with less manpower.

Watching the sun set over the pyramids, casting long shadows and making the sand turn a deep golden hue, is one of Sudan’s most memorable experiences, and a desert experience par excellence. Check out our Pictorial journey around Sudan following a recent trip to the country.

How to get there?
Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs
The Nile Valley and Western Desert

4. The Tassili n’Ajjer – Algeria

Tassili n'Ajjer - Algeria - Desert adventures with Native Eye
Tassili n’Ajjer

The Tassili n’Ajjer is one of the most beautiful parts of the Sahara, nestled in the south-east corner of Algeria. The word ‘tassili’ refers to pinnacles of eroded sandstone, shaped by millennia of wind and abrasion, while the Ajjer are one of the twelve Tuareg tribes, who have traditionally made their home in this area.

This is a land of golden deserts, huge rocky outcrops, dramatic arches, huge pinnacles of basalt and bright blue skies. Many people call this the largest open-air art gallery in the world on account of the concentration of cave paintings and engravings in the region. Highlights of the region include the gorge of Essendilene; located in a strange lunar landscape of great geological interest, this site has one of the most important groupings of prehistoric cave art in the world. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from 6000 BC to the first centuries of the present era. The geological formations are of outstanding scenic interest, with eroded sandstones forming ‘forests of rock’.

How to get there?
Algeria – Jewel of the Sahara

5. Lac Abbe – Djibouti

Desert adventures with Native Eye Travel - Lac Abbe
Lac Abbe

There can be few places in the world like Lac Abbe and it holds the distinction of being one of the most desolate places on our planet. Situated on the border between Ethiopia and Djibouti, this vast salt lake is surrounded by hundreds of limestone chimneys, some up to 50 metres high which emit sulphurous gas into the air, and its shores are inhabited by the nomadic Afar people who use the lake to gather salt. The lake is also renowned for its birdlife, with flamingoes, pelicans and ibis among other species to be found here. It is difficult to put into words such awe-inspiring scenery – this is jaw-dropping on a grand scale.

How to get there?
Djibouti and the Danakil Depression
The Horn of Africa

6. Mangistau region – Kazakhstan

Mangistau region - desert adventures in Kazakhstan
Camping on the Tuzbair salt pan – Mangistau

A vast region in western Kazakhstan, Mangistau is almost off the map as far as tourism is concerned yet is one of the most incredible parts of the country. Isolated by its remote location, this is a land of superlative landscapes, vast deserts, imposing mountains and ancient pilgrimage sites still frequented today. Access is by 4WD only – there are no real roads throughout the region – and the going can be tough at times, but this is more than compensated for by the sheer sense of true exploration. Some of the more unusual sights of the area include Torysh, a vast field of spherical rocks that resemble giant cannonballs, and the salt marshes of Tuzbair, shimmering in the relentless sun.

How to get there?
Hidden Kazakhstan

7. The Empty Quarter – Oman

The Empty Quarter - Desert adventures in Oman
The Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest sand desert, stretching from Oman through Saudi Arabia and into the United Arab Emirates. Characterised by enormous rolling dunes, some as high as 150 metres, stretching as far as the eye can see, this is a quintessential desert landscape that is as beautiful as it is austere – one of the world’s quintessential desert adventures. The region is home to Bedouin who manage to eke out an existence around the few oases, and is also home to a surprising amount of wildlife. Immortalised by the travels of Wilfred Thesiger, a journey into the empty quarter offers a superb opportunity to experience desert wilderness.

Check out our blog on Thesiger and other great explorers.

How to get there?
Arabian Desert Explorer

8. Madain Saleh – Saudi Arabia

Madain Saleh -desert experiences with Native Eye
Madain Saleh

Far less well known than Jordan’s Petra, the city of Madain Saleh was also built by the ancient Nabataeans, and become their second, southern, capital. A magnificent site with tombs hewn out of rocks, it became Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 but as you might expect receives a fraction of the visitors of Petra.

The Nabataeans began as pastoral nomads, raising their sheep, goats, and camels in the desert as so many other Arabian tribes have done through the millennia. The real cause of the success of the Nabataeans, however, was control over much of the spice trade. Frankincense, myrrh, and other spices from southern Arabia were brought up to the north along trade routes to be purchased by the Greeks, Romans Egyptians, Phoenicians, and others around the Mediterranean and in the Near East. The Nabataeans built their empire as the middlemen, and Madain Saleh was a crossroads where the major north-south incense route intersected a road from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

How to get there?
Saudi Arabia – The Forbidden Kingdom

9. The Puna – Argentina

Desert adventure in the Puna, Argentina
Desert adventure in the Puna

With high altitude deserts and high mountain passes, the Puna in Argentina’s northwest is raw wilderness at its best.

Puna Jujeña, the remote Altiplano of northern Jujuy, is characterised by expansive salt flats, herds of guanacos and lagoons speckled with pink flamingos. In places, Puna Jujeña is punctuated with large Quebrada-style chapels and dotted with tiny indigenous, mud-brick hamlets. The pampas of this region are bordered to the east by jagged peaks and outside the small village of Tres Cruces in the north of Jujuy lie strange rock formations named the “Devil’s Backbone” which were formed millions of years ago as a result of violent tectonic activity.

Puna Catamarqueña is one of the most deserted and remote parts of the country and it stretches all the way to the Chilean border. The backdrop to this overwhelmingly beautiful region is the Andean Cordillera, and majestic volcanoes, frozen lakes and huge expanses of altiplano grazed by vicuñas are all among the sights to behold.

How to get there?
Argentina’s Extreme North

10. The Gobi Desert – Mongolia

Camels in the Gobi - desert adventures with Native Eye Travel
Gobi Desert

The Gobi (its name means ‘waterless place’) is Asia’s largest desert, covering a wide swathe of southern Mongolia and northern China. Once an inland sea, its scenery is diverse, from towering sand dunes to mountains, plains and oases, and it is home to numerous species of rare and endangered animals, including the wild Bactrian camel, Gobi bear and wild ass. This is a fairly inhospitable place with extremes of temperature caused by its location in the centre of Eurasia – from -40C in winter to over 40C in the summer.

The Gobi is also a palaeontologist’s dream – in the 1920s Roy Chapman made incredible discoveries of fossilised dinosaur eggs, left on the bottom of this ancient lake, and fossils continue to be found today. The Gobi Desert continues to grow, and its rapid growth is alarming its neighbours. China is the hardest hit, losing valuable grassland to the expanding desert. The Chinese government has announced plans to plant the Green Wall of China, a line of new forest intended to slow the desert’s expansion. Even though its expansion threatens human habitation, the Gobi remains a distinctly beautiful area of the planet, with a rich history buried beneath its surface.

How to get there?
Mongolian Highlights

Desert adventures with Native Eye

We specialise in unusual destinations, off-the-beaten-track adventures and traditional, often tribal cultures and offer some of the most exciting and ground-breaking small group adventure tours on the planet. If you would like to find out more about any of our desert adventures, ring us on 01473 328 546 or e-mail us using our contact form.

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Best cultural festivals for intrepid travellers
The world’s most unusual travel experiences
Best things to see in Central Asia
West Africa holidays for first-timers
Best small group tours