Seventeen years ago I teamed up with a motley crew of strangers looking for adventure in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We set off in an off-road Soviet-era van, on an offbeat road trip of epic proportions that lasted about five weeks. The desert landscape revealed itself in deathly stretches of desolate sand. The built environment rarely interrupted our reveries. Saddle-less horsemen exploded out of the middle distance, arms akimbo. Occasionally there was a lush shimmering of desert foliage, or sand dunes undulated out of the nothingness, made of gold that turned copper as the setting sun flamed purple on the horizon. We bumped along spooling the same music on the same cassettes for hours upon hours. One of them wore out. We slept in Mongolian gers (their yurt-style tents), sometimes with animals – and once with a drunken patriarch the worse-for-wear after a night on fermented mare’s milk. In over a month we didn’t see a bed or a shower. We washed in rivers if we washed at all.
Fast-forward to 2018, and it seems more travellers than ever before are hankering after an adventure amid the dunes. Pinterest has revealed that searches and saves of “desert travel” have increased by more than 125 per cent and predicts this type of holiday will be one of the biggest travel trends of 2018. Of course, intrepid explorers have long sought out these inhospitable places and climes, but what’s notable for the latest glut of desert visitors is the style in which they’re able to now immerse themselves in these life-changing landscapes.Cazenove and Loyd, the sine qua non purveyor of wilderness travel with the softest of landings, has launched a trip through Mongolia similar to my own, staying with nomadic families in gers, but instead of roughing it, everything is tailor-made and luxury-led. The company is not alone. A swoop around the planet’s finest providers of experiential travel reveals that the most exciting – and finely appointed – adventures this year are taking in the driest places on Earth, from the sands of the Sahara to the Australian outback.
Why are people embracing barren landscapes? Digital detox, peace, space and silence are all givens. With virtually no light pollution, so too is the romance of stargazing, as the night sky spreads out above you like a magic carpet of planets and stars. But deserts also provide the perfect opportunity to indulge in another of this year’s key tourism trends: transformational travel. By which I mean travel that is defined by a shift in perspective and the opportunity for a deep communion with nature and culture.
The man best placed to understand the singular appeal of this kind of transformational travel could be Eric Walters, the brains behind Hud Hud Travels, which offers escapes in Oman and the Empty Quarter. In the late 1940s, when Wilfred Thesiger spent five years criss-crossing the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, which stretches from the UAE to Saudi Arabia, he may not have envisaged the advent of Walters’ tents of black camel-hair, softened with rugs and cushions, camp fires and lanterns and Arabian feasts, but the aim of the journey has changed very little from Thesiger’s day: to gain a perspective on the spiritual topography of this unique environment.
People visit the Empty Quarter, he says, “because of this need to escape from everyday freneticism”. Ironically, he adds, the arrival of 3G and luxury hotels in remote spots is actually making true escape ever more difficult. To truly get away, it appears you need to make something of an effort, even in this wilderness. He cites the example of Qasr Al Sarab, a hotel that resembles a sprawling sultan’s palace with a palm-flanked pool. “Being on the edge of the Empty Quarter in a five-star resort is very different to being in the Empty Quarter!” he exclaims. But it also provides an excellent staging post from which to plot a desert adventure. Escaping into the nothingness is even more profound when you make the effort, he argues, adding, “The Empty Quarter is one of the few remaining places that offers this solitude and silence.”
Elsewhere in the world’s furthest sandy reaches, adventure options abound. The Moroccan Sahara is a popular place to get a slug of desert romance, but you need to be careful which camp you choose. One travel editor I know excitedly signed up to a “desert experience” only to find herself bedding down with many dozens of snoring compatriots. She was not inspired.
The best option I know in this neck of the woods is the Dar Ahlam Nomad Camp, run from Thierry Teyssier’s 19th-century Kasbah Dar Ahlam hotel in the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs in southern Morocco. Teyssier is a French theatre producer turned hotelier extraordinaire who has created an exquisite, subtly staged guest experience in the mud-walled town of Skoura.
I don’t know why it is that in the hotel world it should be radical that you don’t have to deal with keys, check-in, bars or restaurants, and that you find yourself dining alone in a cubbyhole filled with dozens of candles, but sadly, it is. Teyssier has extended his stage-set perfection to Dar Ahlam’s desert outpost, its 15 tents hidden among the dunes of Erg Chigaga. At night they cover the dunes in lanterns, creating the most eccentric and fantastical of scenes.
Teyssier says that his outposts are created with the idea of bringing people “lasting” happiness. “Many guests feel trepidation when our vehicle leaves the paved road. This anxiety always disappears as one puts bare feet into the soft, caramel-hued sand – it never fails to evoke the purest wonder from everyone’s inner child.”
Teyssier is not the only hotelier to grasp the power of this form of escape. The dune-scapes of the Namib Desert have been around for 55 million years. At Wolwedans Camp, bookable through Original Travel, they have launched a “solitude programme” that involves being driven out into the desert and just left there for 100 minutes to absorb the silence and surroundings, the idea being that solitude is a transformative luxury. “In a world of social media and 24/7 digital access,” Tom Barber, Original’s CEO tells me, “going back to basics is much more attractive.”
Part of the appeal is also the fact that you can stay in some pretty cool digs. On the Salar de Uyuni – south-west Bolivia’s white salt flats, which, given the lack of water, are also considered deserts – your bed for the night is housed in igloo-shaped yurts, courtesy of Cazenove and Loyd. So, you can feel like an adventurer and still have wood-burning stoves, en suite bathrooms and Andean styling.
Meanwhile, North Americans have their own tamed version of desert wilderness for those who seek the beauty and drama of the desert without having to be worried about being too far off-grid. Scottsdale in Arizona has more spas per capita than anywhere else in the United States, and most of them are on desert land.
Sanctuary, where Beyoncé and Jay-Z mini-mooned, is one hot ticket thanks to their endorsement, according to Scott Dunn’s Americas Product Manager, Maudie Tomlinson. Built in the foothills of Camelback Mountain and across 21 hectares of desert, it’s a spa resort that also offers horse rides, ballooning and hikes into the Sonoran desert, followed by an evening of pampering. Tomlinson reports a marked hike in client queries for desert travel and glamping experiences. “It’s a booking pattern that’s only going to grow,” she predicts, “especially with millennials, as the quest for experiential travel to extreme off-the-beaten-track destinations increases.” While if you head north, beyond the Grand Canyon National Park, you’ll find Amangiri, Aman’s mind-blowing, Bond-villainesque bunker nestled on a desert plateau. These are properties that are almost as unique as their settings.
And if you prefer your luxury in the Australian wilderness (perhaps to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines), Uluru’s classiest resort recently got a multi-million dollar facelift. There’s now an uber suite – the Dune Pavilion – cleaved off discreetly on its own, with private views of Uluru and the Kata Tjuta rock formations through glass walls, and a plunge pool.
The desire for these kind of breaks is taking off so quickly that operators are adjusting their entire operations. Black Tomato has created a whole department devoted to desert discovery with their services Blink and Get Lost, which the experiential travel operator runs globally. Sign up to Get Lost and you might find yourself left in the expanse of Morocco’s Agafay Desert, asked to navigate across untouched terrain beneath wide open skies to find your way back.
Or for the slightly less daredevil, there’s their Blink desert camps. Launched just over a year ago, they offer pop-up accommodation and itineraries in absolutely private, untouched spots. Tom Marchant, Black Tomato’s founder, sees the desert as the ultimate reset button. “Far from the confines of city grids and hordes of travellers, deserts have this mind-boggling ability to seemingly stop time,” he muses. “Alone with your thoughts and this great expanse, a trip to the desert always reveals something new about yourself you never knew before.”