Say Senegal or mention West Africa and misinformed mutterings of ebola start to spread quicker than the virus itself. Sitting on the western shoulder of Africa, Senegal is frequently overlooked by travellers – but for little good reason.

While the excellent birding and beaching in The Gambia – the country that slices Senegal’s coastline in two – attract thousands of tourists on organised tours and package holidays, Senegal simmers in the African sun with stretches of often-empty beaches (around 500km of them, in fact), with few tourists to be seen.

And it’s not just about the coastline. There are near-untouched deserts, steamy cities and some fascinating islands with captivating stories to tell. So if you’ve got no idea what to expect, let us tell you a few things you didn’t know about Senegal…

Senegalese coastline © Lottie Gross 2015

1. The Senegalese seriously know how to bake

Waking to the waft of pastry in the morning or sighting women carrying bundles of freshly-baked baguettes after breakfast is something you’d associate with a holiday in France. But this isn’t France, it’s Senegal, and the bakeries fill the early morning air with the tantalising smell of pastry and bread. A legacy left by the French, warm croissants and pains au chocolat make up the breakfast spreads in many a hotel or resort, as well as Senegalese homes. Baguettes are served with almost every meal, and patisseries showcasing impressive-looking cakes will have your mouth watering as you stroll past.

2. You can camp under a sky full of stars in the desert

Lodge de Lompoul sits in the middle of the Senegalese desert and it’s a world away from the big, brash city of Dakar. As the sun sets, crack open a cool Flag (West African lager), sit back, relax and watch the dunes turn from yellow to orange before they’re silhouetted against the night’s sky.

Lodge de Lompoul © Lottie Gross 2015

Three hours north of the capital, the small village of Lompoul sits on the edge of a desert of the same name. This smattering of huts and concrete and corrugated iron structures is a gateway to a strangely empty patch of yellow sand dunes in the middle of the forested landscape that backs the Senegalese coastline.

Leave your vehicle in Lompoul and jump into the camp’s 4×4 truck to traverse the steeply undulating, foliage-clad dunes – an exhilarating adventure in itself – before arriving at your luxury tent to spend a night in the wild.

3. Senegal’s natural attractions include a vivid pink lake

Blue, crystal-clear waters are beautiful, but what about bright pink? Thanks to its high salt content (up to forty per cent in places) caused by an algae called dunaliella salina, Lake Retba looks more like cloudy pink lemonade than a refreshing cool-blue pool. Don’t try swimming in it though: the salt is terrible for your skin, and the workers who gather the mineral have to cover themselves in shea butter before jumping in. It’s brighter at certain times of year (the dry season, mainly) and is made even more striking where parts of its banks are made up of bright-white salt.

The lake is a hive of activity all year round: men dig for salt under the water and women in brightly-coloured dresses carry buckets full of it on their heads from the waters to the metres-high mounds on the shore.

The Pink Lake © Lottie Gross 2015

4. The country is a twitcher’s paradise

The Gambia gets most of the attention for birdwatching in West Africa, but Senegal also has its own haven for hundreds of winged creatures. The Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, at the southern end of a long, thin, sandy peninsula near the border with Mauritania, is a reserve for over 160 different species of birds, from all kinds of terns and gulls to pelicans and pink flamingoes. Hire a pirogue (traditional canoe) and glide through the calm waters all afternoon for some excellent ornithological observation.

5. You can visit an island made from millions of shells

In the south of Senegal, a hundred kilometres from Dakar, Ile de Fadiouth is one of Senegal’s many little islands, set in the ocean between a peninsula and a warren of lush mangroves. But it’s not like the others that dot the Atlantic coastline here – this one is made of shells. The streets are paved with them, the houses decorated with them and the adjoining mini island, housing only the Christian-Muslim cemetery, is entirely made up of them. Take a stroll to the top of the highest mound of shells in the cemetery for a glorious view over the mangroves and azure waters.

Ile de Fadiouth – © Lottie Gross 2015

6. Senegal hosts a famous jazz festival

Each year in May, the sleepy city of Saint Louis becomes overrun with strumming, scatting and singing musicians, ready to set the jazz standard high. The world-renowned Saint Louis Jazz festival has seen some of the biggest names in jazz take to the main stage in the city centre, and plenty of smaller acts performing in various venues around the city. Restaurants, hotels and bars are abuzz with musical excitement at this time of year; walk down the streets and you’ll hear jazz on every corner, whether it’s blaring out from a shop soundsystem or a jam session in someone’s back garden.

7. You can spot enormous baobabs over 1200 years old

Baobabs are everywhere in Senegal: from the national coat of arms to the city centres and the arid countryside. They’re peculiar-looking trees with fat trunks – that can grow up to 25 metres in circumference – and short stubby branches, and they can live for well over a thousand years. They’re a symbol of wisdom and longevity, the fruit is used to make a sweet, deep-red juice drink called bui and the bark makes strong rope. Whether they look as if they’re bursting from the tarmac of a busy city road, or they’re just standing silhouetted against a burning red sunset, baobabs are a bizarrely beautiful sight to be seen throughout the country.

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The fabled Pacific Crest Trail guides adventuresome hikers from the borders of Mexico to Canada, blazing across the deserts, mountain ranges and dense forests that make up America’s breathtaking Western States (California, Oregon, and Washington). It usually takes five months for thru-hikers to complete, but you’re about to make the 4286km journey in less than three minutes.

This film’s creator, Halfway Anywhere, says he quit his job to make the trip after “finally realizing that what you grow up thinking you are supposed to do and what you can actually do are two entirely different things”.

When you see the stunning clips in this video, you might just want to do the same:

Thousands of foreign travellers visit the geysers, salt flats, oases and volcanoes of north Chile’s Atacama Desert, but few make it to two of the region’s man-made attractions: the starkly beautiful ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura. Shafik Meghji takes us into these abandoned settlements. 

Yellow tsunami “hazard zone” signs, planted like sunflowers on street corners, guide our car along Iquique’s seafront. Inland, climbing the 800-metre-high cordillera that provides a backdrop to the city, the car slows to a crawl to ease past a section of highway that collapsed during the 8.2 magnitude earthquake in April 2014.

Beyond Iquique the morning mist evaporates, the heat ramps up and the parched Atacama stretches away into the distance. This part of northern Chile is one of the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth; it is so otherworldly that NASA uses it to test its Mars exploration vehicles.

“There is not a person in sight”

Our view ahead is temporarily blurred as billowing clouds of dust fill the sky, the result of Chilean army tank exercises, my guide, Jaime, explains. Then, some 45km inland from Iquique, a strange sight appears ahead: in the middle of the desert plain sits the giant rusty skeleton of what looks like a marooned ship. Slowly other structures materialise: a set of train tracks, clusters of huts and warehouses, and finally neat rows of houses and dusty streets. There is not a person in sight.

This ghost town, Santa Laura, is one of the remnants of a largely-forgotten industry that once made the Atacama Desert one of the most valuable places in the world. In the nineteenth century, the vast saltpetre (potassium nitrate) deposits in the region – then part of Peru and Bolivia – were heavily in demand for use as fertiliser and gunpowder in Europe and North America. A booming industry developed, with rapacious nitrate barons – many of them British – using the hefty profits to build opulent mansions in cities like Iquique. In 1878 the War of the Pacific broke out between Chile, and Peru and Bolivia: five years later, Chile emerged victorious, having seized all of the nitrate territories.

Of the 200 or so oficinas salitreras (saltpetre works) that operated during the industry’s heyday, only one – María Elena – still operates. The rest have disappeared, stripped clean of anything valuable and eventually swallowed by the desert after World War One signalled the beginning of the end of the nitrate boom. But for a quirk of fate Santa Laura and neighbouring Humberstone would have suffered the same.

“After the mines were abandoned in the 1960s they were occupied by homeless people. There was rubbish everywhere, graffiti, the mummified bodies of dead dogs,” says Jaime. “Santa Laura and Humberstone were then bought by a businessman who planned to sell off the remains for scrap. But he went bankrupt first, which actually preserved it. They were taken over by a non-profit organisation, cleaned up and made UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005.”

“A sense that you are in some kind of steampunk hospital”

Today, Santa Laura, which opened in 1872, is an adventure park for anyone interested in industrial archeology. Jaime and I arrive early in the morning and have the eerie site to ourselves. At its height the oficina was home to over 870 inhabitants: workers lived with their family and for much of the plant’s history were treated appallingly. They worked long hours, in harsh conditions, paid in “tokens” redeemable only in the oficina’s shops, and dissent met by repression or even massacre.

Wandering around Santa Laura, kicking up clumps of crumbly white caliche (unrefined saltpetre), we discover a treasure trove of Victorian-era technology: the remains of a railway station and train carriages; a factory with metal-cutting machines, coolers and compressors; and a power station with a gas engine made in Halifax and steel beams from Lanarkshire in the UK. Preserved in the dry desert air, most of the machines look as if they’re still in working order.

The “marooned ship” proves actually to be a leaching plant, its mast a smokestack. The rusted corrugated iron walls – one of them pierced by several bullet holes – creak and groan in the wind. There is still a distinct smell of iodine (a by-product of the saltpetre process) giving the sense that you are in some kind of steampunk hospital.

“The feel of west coast, small-town Americana”

A couple of kilometres away is the larger and more extensively restored Humberstone. It was taken over by the Chilean government, who in 1932 named it after British nitrate entrepreneur James “Santiago” Humberstone. At its height the town had a population of some 3500 people: “Though it had the capacity for twice that number. The industry was collapsing in the 1930s and the government just wanted to give people jobs,” says Jaime.

Much of the architecture is Art Deco, giving Humberstone the vague feel of west coast, small-town Americana, and many of the workers’ homes have been turned into mini museums. One of the most evocative is filled with letters that sheds light on day-to-day life: one reveals a “strike” by housewives who were refusing to cook for their husbands until they received a better quality charcoal for the ovens; another complained about the cost of building a new tennis court.

In the town centre, the surviving facilities show that by the 1920s and 30s, conditions had slowly improved. There is a large, empty swimming pool, complete with diving board; a school filled with wooden desks and (sometimes risqué) graffiti; and a town clock stuck permanently at 4pm. Overlooking the town square is the old hotel, with guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, billiards room, and a separate entrance at the back for workers, who were forbidden from using the front door. Conditions may have improved, but a strict hierarchy continued in the oficinas.

These slowly crumbling buildings provide a sense that the hostile Atacama had been tamed – but a five-minute walk away to the industrial area reminds you of the harshness of the environment. It is blisteringly hot, shade free, and the wind whips past, covering us in a sheen of dust and grime. Beyond the factories and warehouses, a solitary train engine faces out towards the desert.

Humberstone’s highlight, though, is its glorious (and supposedly haunted) theatre. Inside, perched on a wooden seat, it is strangely quiet, as if a performance had only just ended.

Shafik travelled with Journey Latin America, who offer a seven-night trip to Santiago, Iquique, the ghost towns and San Pedro de Atacama from £2549 per person (including transfers, B&B accommodation, excursions, and all flights).  

Our editors and authors have named Iran as one of the top countries to visit in 2015. Here, Anthon Jackson explains why now is the time to travel to Iran.

The word is out: as far as off-the-beaten-path destinations go, Iran is an absolute gem. More than ever since 1979, intrepid travellers are making their way to the Islamic Republic, and there’s little wonder why.

Boasting gorgeous landscapes and rich tapestry of ancient cultures and religions, Iran is highly welcoming and easy on the wallet (though you can only use cash), offering plenty of bang for your buck. Stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea and from Turkey to Pakistan, it encompasses spectacular desertscapes even more desolate than the American Southwest, snowcapped peaks, fertile valleys and lush forests.

Its treasure chest of attractions include ancient Persian monuments, lavish Qajar mansions, Silk Road caravanserais, world-renowned museums and art galleries in the bustling capital of Tehran, and the splendid Safavid gardens in Esfahan that encircle some of the world’s most hauntingly beautiful mosques, adorned with mesmerizing turquoise tile-work.

“Persia’s sense of heritage runs deep, boasting a richness on a par with the greatest of civilizations”

Much like its 3000-year-old qanats, an ingenious network of irrigation tunnels, Persia’s sense of heritage runs deep, boasting a richness on a par with the greatest of civilizations. Wandering the ruins of majestic Persepolis, one of history’s greatest capitals, it’s hard not be impressed with the wealth and glory of the once-mighty Persian Empire. In Shiraz, City of Poets and heartland of Persian culture and sophistication, visitors from near and far pay their respects to the ornate tomb of Hafez (whose lines are often held in greater honour than those of the Qur’an), while in Yazd, home to one of the Middle East’s best-preserved medieval bazaars, a flame said to have burned for 1500 years flickers on in the Zoroastrian Fire Temple.

Mingling with pilgrims in sacred Mashhad’s Haram complex, you’ll marvel at the dazzling, tiled Tomb of Imam Reza, resting place of Shi’a Islam’s eighth Imam. And while soaking up the grandeur of Imam Square and admiring its iconic, blue-domed Shah Mosque, you’ll begin to appreciate the old rhyme, “Esfahan is half the world,” then join local Esfahanis for an evening promenade past the magically lit bridges spanning the Zayandeh River.

“Returning travellers are most impressed with the warmth of Persian hospitality”

Even considering Iran’s abundance of worthy sights, returning travellers, particularly from the US, are most impressed with the warmth of Persian hospitality. Doubtless among the most welcoming people on earth, Iranians are lauded even by their most bitter enemies as superior hosts. In chatting with curious locals, often keen for a glimpse of the outside world, foreigners in Iran are guaranteed endless cups of tea, spontaneous gifts, home invitations and even impromptu guide services. And in stark contrast to more established regional travel hubs, jaded by decades of mass-tourism, you’ll find hardly any of the old tourist touts in Iran.

Until quite recently, however, Iran only drew a small trickle of foreign visitors, but as relations with the West continue to thaw, tourist numbers are on the rise, hotels are booming, visa requirements are easing up and airlines are rapidly expanding to connect Iran’s hubs with Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Some international companies have already set up shadow offices in the country as they anticipate a deal to finally rid themselves of crippling international sanctions.

“There is indeed cause for hope”

And there is indeed cause for hope. An end to political deadlock that has kept much of the population impoverished for decades may be in sight. Indeed, by just about all indicators, the country’s long-poisoned relationship with the West appears increasingly on the mend.

Though the much-anticipated November 2014 deadline for nuclear negotiations has come and gone, only to be extended until 1 March, 2015 (with a final agreement to made on 1 July), the past year has seen unprecedented progress towards ending the twelve-year nuclear standoff with the West and the 35-year freeze in relations with the United States.

The two countries, after more than three decades of radio silence and bitter clandestine conflict, now enjoy daily diplomacy in pursuit of surprisingly common regional goals. Of course, a mountain of mistrust needs first be dismantled before any meaningful deal can be struck, but both can already agree that, firstly, such a breakthrough is vital, and secondly, that the path ahead lies at the negotiating table rather than through old tactics of pressure and intimidation.

Perhaps most promising of all for the prospect of continued detente between Iran and its longtime enemies – and most worrisome for the ageing mullahs in control since the 1979 Revolution – remains its burgeoning youth. Of Iran’s 77 million people, more than 60 percent are now under the age of 30 and many of them burning for change, increasingly tired of the ultraconservative, out-of-touch elite, of the sanctions, the international isolation, the stealthily patrolling, dress-code enforcing Ershad (morality police), and even fast-food rip-offs like Kentaky Chicken, Pizza Hat and Mash Donald’s.

It would appear change is on its way whether the mullahs like it or not. And when it comes, travellers can expect the floodgates of mass-tourism to open wide. The time to travel to Iran is now.

Need to know: Check your home country’s travel and security advice before booking a trip to Iran. You may not travel to Iran if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, and at the time of writing, some nationalities were only permitted to visit the country on an organised tour and may not travel independently.

Following in the footsteps of the late explorer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Rough Guides writer Anthon Jackson takes to the back of a camel across the Danakil Depression, in pursuit of Lake Abhe Bad on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border. 

Just after dawn on our fourth day in the dusty frontier town of Asaita, Go’obo, my translator from Addis Ababa, popped his head into my mosquito-net tent, shaking me awake. The heat of the Danakil already had my forehead covered in sweat. “The camels are gone!”

That’s right, I remembered, with just a touch of alarm: we own camels now. I scrambled out of the tent and rushed after Go’obo to find the beasts we’d acquired just the day before after lengthy negotiations in Asaita’s rag-tag camel market. We rounded a corner onto a dirt road and there they were, hobbling with half-tied legs, hovering awkwardly over the tiny shops that were just opening up – causing a bit of a scene. We’d have to learn to tie their legs properly for our trek into the Danakil.

By Anthon Jackson

The mastermind behind our eastern Ethiopian expedition was David Lewis, an old friend from the road. He’d recently written his thesis on the ever-inspiring Wilfred Thesiger, a fellow Oxford alumnus. At the end of his life, the legendary explorer maintained that the most dangerous journeys of his life were those in the Danakil. In his Danakil Diary, he conveys his many encounters with the Afar, a fearless and resolutely fatalistic people long feared throughout the Horn of Africa. A well-known Afar adage goes, “it is better to die than to live without killing.”

David’s plan was to purchase a pair of camels, stock up on supplies in Asaita’s famed Tuesday Market, then head off the grid, hiring some local guns along the way. The goal: to trace Thesiger’s route to Lake Abhe Bad, the terminus of the Awash River, spending some time among Thesiger’s beloved Afar, for whom one of the most desolate and inhospitable places on earth remains home sweet home.

Three days from Asaita we reached the Boha River. Its banks were buzzing with life as goats, cows and camels waited to cross the crocodile-infested waters. Long-haired, sharp-toothed Afar herdsmen huddled in acacia shade drinking tea and breaking ga’ambo (maize bread), most eyes fixated on us, the ferengi (white people). A few of the toughest men swam across with camels in tow, buoyed by jerry cans. The rest of us packed into an old rusted boat, weighed down with burlap sacks, stacks of reed mats and sweating boys falling over the passengers as they pulled us across by a rope connecting the other side.

Once across, we sat beneath a cluster of acacias with a promising Afar trio. We hoped they might be the ones to escort us through the lawless wilds ahead. Muhammad and Tur were both young and fit, “essential flesh and bone” as Thesiger had described the Afar, and much friendlier than the other candidates we’d met along the way. The third was much older, promising to contribute wisdom and an insider’s knowledge of our route.

After shaking hands on the new fellowship, we never saw the old man again. Muhammad and Tur, however, proved essential to the expedition. Each was as confident with camels as anyone in these parts, and carried next to nothing.

In the spirit of traveling light, Tur only carried a single bullet for his old gun. Upon discovering this a few days further into the trek, Go’obo asked how he’d handle one of the rumored Issa (Somali) raiding parties (soon to become more than rumor). Easy, he said: just line them all up in a row.

A few days further along we saw the glimmering strip on the southern horizon that was Lake Abhe Bad. Sticking to Thesiger’s route rather than beelining to the lake, we circled the volcanic mass of the Dema’ali Terara mountain, passing through a blackened wasteland where jagged rocks drew blood from our camels’ feet. Talk of Issa raids to the south, hippos on the banks of the Awash river, hyenas on the slopes of Dema Ali and a fierce “demon government” that ruled the area kept things interesting.

The morning of our final march to Lake Abhe Bad, David’s watch thermometer passed 40°C by 8am. A few hours later it was well into the 50s, and our water was running dangerously low.

By Anthon Jackson

Finally Abhe Bad came into view again, this time to the east. The Djibouti shoreline was a faint watermark on the horizon. We paused to take in the view Thesiger once traveled so far to see. Then, like a mirage in the distance, a small patch of date palms came into view over a rocky ridge. The faint sound of rushing water became too loud to deny.

Soon the camels were lapping up from the Awash and our crew was stripping down to bathe in a flurry of streams that cascaded into pools beneath the shade of date palms.

Perhaps a bit delusional after our long trek in the soaring heat, it seemed as though we’d found lost Eden, the end of the world, a momentary quenching of that yearning for exploration and adventure which Thesiger had so relished throughout his life.

A cluster of aris and stone huts a few hundred metres north of the palms was the village of Harissa, our home for the next week among the Afar of the Danakil.

Asaita is the jumping off point for exploring the southern Danakil’s salt lakes. Permits must be secured in Semera in order to travel beyond Asaita.
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. All images by Anthon Jackson

Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter), Saudi Arabia

Part of the Arabian Desert, the Empty Quarter is made up of 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq miles) of sand dunes and is the world’s largest sand desert. It occupies much of the southern inland area of the Arabian Peninsular, covering over a quarter of Saudi Arabia, and there are very few settlements here – hence the name.

The Tabernas, Spain

The Tabernas is the closest thing Europe has to a desert – it’s classified as a semi-desert (Europe has no actual deserts). Its iconic landscape, which is typical badlands terrain that’s been extensively eroded by wind and rain, has been used to film several Westerns, such as The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and The Magnificent Seven.

The White Desert, Egypt

The White Desert’s chalk-white formations are a dramatic sight, situated just north of Farafra Oasis, Egypt. The limestone in the area, which was once a seabed, has been eroded by sandstorms and winds into all kinds of bizarre shapes. You can camp here overnight, surrounded by these gleaming mushroom-shaped formations.

Lençóis Maranhense, Brazil

Okay, so it’s not technically a desert, but the Lençóis Maranhense National Park in northeastern Brazil, just outside the Amazon Basin, looks and seems an awful lot like one. There are sand dunes as far as the eye can see, and, due to a strange phenomenon where rainwater collects in the dune valleys, the region is dotted with beautiful turquoise lagoons.

Death Valley, USA

The site of many a Star Wars shoot, Death Valley is the lowest and driest area in North America – its lowest point is 86 metres (282ft) below sea level. This hot desert valley is home to the Timbisha tribe, who’ve lived there for at least 1000 years. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley – and on earth – was 57°C (134°F).

The Great Victoria Desert, Australia

In 1875, British explorer Ernest Giles was the first European to cross the vast Great Victoria Desert in southwestern Australia, and it was he that named it after Queen Victoria. Europeans didn’t stick around in this challenging environment, however, and the 348,750 square kilometres (134,650 square miles) desert is now mostly inhabited by Indigenous Australians.

Dasht e-Kavir, Iran

This hot desert, where temperatures can fluctuate as much as 70°C (158°F) between day and night, is covered in a thick salty crust, formed due to the arid, virtually rain-free climate and intense evaporation of water on the ground. No one lives on the salty terrain itself, and the desert has barely been explored.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The world’s largest salt flat, at 10,582 square km (4,086 sq mi), sits in southwest Bolivia at a lofty 3656m (11,885ft) above sea level. Salar de Uyuni formed when a giant prehistoric salt lake dried up, leaving behind a salty crust, in parts is up to ten metres (32ft) thick – an incredibly striking, indelible sight.

The Namib, Namibia

At 55-million-years old, the Namib, or "vast place" as it means in the language of the Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa, is the world’s most ancient desert. Its sand dunes are exceptionally high, several exceeding over 300m (980ft), and barely any rain falls here. There are few human settlements in this almost totally barren region.

The Atacama Desert, Peru, Chile, Bolivia & Argentina

The driest desert in the world, the Atacama, contains Chile’s largest salt flat. This desert sees just 15mm (0.59 inches) of rain a year, though some parts receive as little as 1mm (0.04 inches), and some have never seen rain. It’s 50 times drier than Death Valley, California, and the lack of moisture caused the accidental mummification of bodies buried thousands of years ago.

Thar desert, India & Pakistan

The Thar Desert forms the natural boundary between India and Pakistan. In Indian mythology, the great epic Ramayana refers to the Thar Desert region as the Salt-ocean, or "Lavanasagara", due its rich salt deposits and salt-water lakes. The origin of this desert is one of controversy, and scientists dispute the dates and method of its formation.

Taklamakan desert, China

The world’s second-largest shifting-sand desert is made up of about 85 per cent sand dunes, which are expanding (due to desertification caused by drought, inappropriate agriculture or deforestation) to envelop farms and villages in northwest China. Taklamakan is on the Silk Road trade route, and merchants used to stop in little oasis towns, where water is supplied by mountain rainfall, for much needed respite from the arid environment.

Karakum desert, Turkmenistan

Karakum Desert, meaning "Black Sand" in Turkic languages, takes up seventy per cent of Turkmenistan’s land surface. In 1971, a 70-metre-deep (230ft) cavern full of natural gas was discovered by geologists who tried to burn off the gas by setting it alight. However, it has burned ever since, and "The Door to Hell" is now a popular tourist attraction.

Chihuahuan desert, USA & Mexico

Straddling the US-Mexico border, the Chihuahuan Desert is the second-largest desert in North America, after the Great Basin. With warm summers and cool winters, it’s one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world and contains several large mountain ranges, including the Sierra Madre and the Sacramento Mountains.

Patagonian desert, Chile & Argentina

Bound by the Andes to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Patagonian Desert sits in the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, made up of vast frosty tablelands and massifs, split by canyons and valleys. Temperatures here average just 3°C (37°F), and despite the harsh environment, local wildlife includes owls, pygmy armadillos weasels and pumas.

Kalahari, southern Africa

The Kalahari occupies most of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. Though its name means "the great thirst" or "a waterless place", it has grazing areas that can support wildlife. The San hunter-gatherer people have lived in the Kalahari for 20,000 years, and they share it with hyenas, lions, meerkats, giraffes, warthogs, jackals, baboons and antelope.

Gobi, China & Mongolia

The largest arid region in Asia, the Gobi is a cold desert, mostly made up of huge expanses of bare rock. The Gobi covers parts of the south of Mongolia and the northwest of China, and rapid desertification means the Gobi is expanding at an incredible rate (3600 square kilometres a year) into the grasslands of southern China, and is damaging the region’s agriculture.

Arabian, western Asia

In the Arabian Desert, which encompasses most of the Arabian Peninsular, the interior is dry and hot, but the coastal regions and highlands can get very humid, with a more tropical climate. Extremes of temperature are common – summer temperatures can reach 54°C (129°F), while the coldest recorded temperature was –12°C (10°F), when it snowed.

The Sahara, northern Africa

Almost as large as the USA, the Sahara ("The Great Desert" in Arabic) is one of the world’s hottest deserts. Though it contains shifting sand dunes that can reach up to 180m (590ft), most of this huge expanse that stretches over the north of the African continent is characterised by hard, rocky plateaus. Berber and Beja peoples have lived in the Sahara for centuries.

McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

The Antarctic continent is all desert, and it’s the largest on earth. The Dry Valleys region is one of its driest areas – virtually no snow falls here, and it is not covered in thick ice, unlike the rest of the continent. Freezing cold, dry winds that can reach 320km per hour sweep down from mountain-tops through the valleys and evaporate all moisture.

Despite its natural beauty and vast array of historical sites, Jordan welcomes only a fraction of the visitors to the Middle East. When many think of Jordan, they picture camels and deserts – which admittedly make up 85 percent of its land mass – but this is also a country of mountains, beaches, castles and churches, with a welcoming population and a rich culture. These are our top things to do in Jordan:


Music: Ya Mo by Dozan (with thanks to worldmusic.net).

A remote mining town in Outback New South Wales, Broken Hill nestles up against the South Australian border, 1150km by road from Sydney. Visitors that make the effort to get here will discover a thriving art scene, eerie mine tours and some of Australia’s best desert vistas. Rough Guides writer Sara Chare explains why this town is top for Outback adventures.

There’s little doubt that Broken Hill is synonymous with mining – it’s been riding the minerals roller-coaster since 1888 when the area’s rich deposits of silver, lead and zinc first drew plucky prospectors to an unforgiving expanse of desert. Today the industry is still part of the town’s DNA: instead of enquiring how you slept over breakfast, here you may find your host asking “Did you feel the blast yesterday?”; a sign in the launderette reads “Mine clothes NOT to be washed in these machines” and streets are named after ore and minerals like iodide, cobalt and oxide.

Yet look beyond the giant slag heap in the centre of town and you’ll find a surprisingly attractive place: wide streets fringed by corrugated-iron buildings, Art Deco shops and heritage pubs with ornate iron balconies; trees and welcome patches of green providing a welcome contrast to the orange, arid surroundings. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover art galleries, a theatre and a cinematic heritage to rival most Australian cities. Not bad for a Outback outpost of 20,000 souls. So where to begin? Here are five essential “Back O’Bourke” experiences:

Break bread at Broken Earth

Affectionately known as the Line of Lode, Broken Hill’s slag heap has found a new lease of life as the home of the classy Broken Earth Restaurant, which offers sunset cocktails and panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. There’s also a thought-provoking mining memorial here: a rusted-steel sculpture listing the names of the deceased and their cause of death – including cave-ins and falls – in chronological order.

Discover the Brushmen of the Bush

Inspired by the relative isolation and the desert landscapes that surround the town, artists have flocked to Broken Hill from elsewhere in Australia. Perhaps the best known gallery is that of Pro Hart, a miner who was born in Broken Hill and whose paintings of union leaders, miners and everyday life in the Outback made him justly famous. Visitors who pop in to The Silver City Art Centre & Mint, meanwhile, can try to imagine themselves stepping into The Big Picture, an impressive hundred-metre-long painting of local desert scenes.

Just north of town there’s more to please the eye at the Living Desert. This 24-square-kilometre site is split into two parts: the Flora & Fauna Sanctuary contains an Aboriginal quartz quarry, but the highlight is the striking Broken Hill Sculpture Park, perched on a hill above. The result of a sculpture symposium in 1993, each of the twelve sandstone carvings is by a different artist. The best time to visit is at sunset, when the rocks glow a warm red and there’s nothing for miles around to spoil the view.

Place your bets

Broken Hill always been a legendary drinking hole – it once had more than seventy hotels – and gambling has long been part of this culture. Come Friday night, boys from the bush flock to the Palace Hotel to play the traditional game of Two-up. Once an illegal back-lane gambling operation, the game sees two coins tossed under the watchful eye of the ringkeeper and bets laid on whether they fall heads or tails.

Go down under

Silverton, 25km away, makes an interesting side trip from Broken Hill. A variety of films and adverts have been shot in the area; the friendly local pub, The Silverton Hotel, displays entertaining photographs of cast and crew while movie-buffs can head to the Mad Max 2 museum. Nearby, the Day Dream Mine’s walk-in tours offer an unrivalled chance to experience life underground. Kitted out with a hardhat, head torch and heavy battery pack, visitors are taken down three levels of the mine and shown the seam of silver that the owner still works in his spare time.

Strike out(back)

If you want to venture further afield, Broken Hill is an excellent base for day trips to see the Aboriginal rock art in Mutawintji National Park, the Menindee Lakes’ varied birdlife or the opal town of White Cliffs, where many locals live underground because of the extreme heat.

You can explore more of the Australian Outback with the Rough Guide to Australia. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

This excerpt from Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth sees one intrepid Rough Guides writer experience a night to remember…

My Bedouin guide settled forward over his ribaba, a simple traditional stringed instrument. As he drew the bow to and fro, the mournful, reedy music seemed to fill the cool night air, echoing back off the cliff soaring above us. The fire threw dancing shadows across the sand. A billion stars looked down.

“Bedouin” means desert-dweller. It’s a cultural term: Bedouin today, whether they live in the desert or not (many are settled urban professionals), retain a strong sense of identity with their ancestral tribe. You’ll find this desert culture across the Middle East, but to get a feel for its origins you need to travel into its homeland – which is why I’d come to southern Jordan, specifically Wadi Rum.

Here, the dunes and desert vistas form one of the classic landscapes of the Middle East – the backdrop for the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Granite and sandstone mountains rise up to 800m sheer from the desert floor. The heat during the day is intense: with no shade, temperatures down on the shimmering sand soar. Views stretch for tens of kilometres; the silence and sense of limitless space are awe-inspiring.

I’d come to spend a night camping. Camels were available as transport, but I’d opted instead for a jeep ride. Bumping out into the deep desert, we headed for camp: a distinctive Bedouin “house of hair” – a long, low tent hand-woven from dark goats’ hair and pitched in the sands – would serve as quarters for the night.

As blissful evening coolness descended, the sun set over the desert in a spectacular show of light and colour, and the clarity of the unpolluted air produced a starry sky of stunning beauty.

Wadi Rum lies 300km south of Amman. The best online resource is www.jordanjubilee.com.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

If you’re as obsessed with Breaking Bad as we are, you might want to take a tour of New Mexico. From the city of Albuquerque to the arid desert nearby, the region hosts a wealth of Breaking Bad filming locations and is well worth exploring in its own right.

According to series creator Vince Gilligan, it was pure chance that brought Breaking Bad to Albuquerque. Shooting was originally scheduled for California, and only moved to New Mexico to take advantage of tax breaks for filmmakers. That lucky change of setting, however, gave Breaking Bad an extra character – the brooding desert landscape that lends it the flavour of a latter-day Western.

While Breaking Bad’s cameras seldom dwell on recognizable Albuquerque landmarks, eagle-eyed devotees have mapped out real-life locations including the fast-food restaurant that became Los Pollos Hermanos, and the originals of Walter White’s house, Saul Goodman’s law office, and the retirement home where Gus Fring meets his explosive end. Stop-offs on Breaking Bad bus tours enable visitors to buy plastic bags of bright-blue candy, or Bathing Bad bath salts, that look remarkably like Heisenberg’s trademark blue meth.

Beyond such specific locations, though, lies the fact that New Mexico itself is imbued with an awe-inspiring sense of infinite space, and infinite possibilities. Much like Walter White, a humdrum high-school chemistry teacher who escapes his ordinary life to become crystal-meth kingpin Heisenberg, Albuquerque is a normal city perched on the edge of a primeval wilderness. To venture into the bleak no-man’s-land where they conduct their business, all White and sorcerer’s apprentice Jesse Pinkman have to do is keep on driving when the tarmac runs out. Search on Google Earth for ABQ Studios, for example, where Breaking Bad is based, switch to Street View and face in the opposite direction, and there it is: the boundless desert, stretching away to the horizon.

If watching Breaking Bad entices you to see New Mexico for yourself, you’ll almost certainly begin by flying into Albuquerque. Framed by the Sandia Mountains to the west, which glow a glorious gold at sunset, it’s a sprawling Sun Belt giant that still retains its Spanish core, centring on an ancient plaza. Two of its most conspicuous features barely make it to the screen in Breaking Bad: the Rio Grande river, which flows south through the city towards the frontier with Mexico, and the similarly mythic Route 66, which cuts across the centre en route to California. Both epitomize New Mexico’s historic role as the meeting place of diverse peoples.

The state’s longest-standing inhabitants, the Pueblo peoples, have been joined in the last half-dozen centuries by the Navajo and Apache, migrating south from Canada; the Spaniards, who headed north from Mexico during the sixteenth century, long before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock; and the Anglo Americans, who started to stream in on the Santa Fe Trail two hundred years ago. All those cultures continue to co-exist, making New Mexico a hybrid of the Old and New Wests, where Pueblo Indians, bedecked in turquoise body paint and eagle feathers, dance to the beat of deerskin drums at the foot of the same mountains that hold the secret laboratories of Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed and future weapon technologies are even now being devised.

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s oldest city, 95km north of Albuquerque – a cheap and easy day-trip on the wonderful Rail Runner light-rail system – is deservedly the prime destination for visitors. The strict rule that requires every building to look like it’s made of adobe takes some getting used to – even the multi-storey car parks look like Indian prayer chambers – but it’s a lovely place, small enough to explore on foot, and filled with monuments, restaurants, shops and galleries. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, where Jane kept promising to take Jesse but sadly never did, is just one of several excellent museums.

 

To explore the rest of the state, you’ll need a car, or perhaps a Heisenberg-style RV. Wherever you head, you’re guaranteed stupendous desert scenery; the southeast corner, for example, holds the dazzling dunes of White Sands and the underground labyrinth of Carlsbad Caverns, not to mention remote Lincoln, where Billy the Kid shot his way to fame.

 

It’s northwest New Mexico that’s most likely to fire the imagination though. Follow the green ribbon of the Rio Grande for 110km north of Santa Fe, climb to a high plateau overlooked by the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and you’ll come to Taos, where twin thousand-year-old pueblo dwellings – genuine adobe this time – stand as astonishing reminders of North America’s Native past. The rolling hills to the south hold time-forgotten Hispanic villages like Chimayó, where a tiny and impossibly pretty wooden chapel attracts Catholic pilgrims from throughout the southwest. Or head 100km west of Albuquerque to Acoma Pueblo, set atop an isolated mesa way out in the desert, and described by Spanish conquistadores five centuries ago as the most impregnable natural fortress they’d ever seen.

The brand new Rough Guide to Southwest USA is out on Oct 1st.

Greg Ward is the author of The Rough Guide to The Titanic, and writes a popular blog on The Titanic. His website details all his work for Rough Guides.

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