I never was the girl who cared about deserts until I started flying on Emirates between the USA and India. Deserts always seemed so dead, so dry, so…lifeless. But after sitting 30,000 feet in the air somewhere above the desolate sands of Iran, I feel a pang of overwhelming love for this stark expanse of gold beneath me. Deserts, apart from their characteristic sand dunes, hold a fascinating array of geological landforms, with rock mountains rearing out of beds of sand, carving patterns in the heat waves that I can see from my sky-high vantage point. Golden sand, woven with ripples, blends into pure white salt pans, much like those in the Rann of Kutch in India. The Thar Desert, which occupies most of the western state of Rajasthan and a portion of Gujarat to its south, is the world’s most densely-populated desert, an anomaly even among deserts! Nomads with colourful caravans traipse across these seas of sand, setting up camp when the night falls and huddling around tiny burning fires that are visible from the sky to protect themselves from the extreme cold of the desert nights.

A nomad and his camel traversing the Thar Desert, India (P.C. Travel Planet)

I find these extreme environments fascinating from each of the perspectives that I count myself as lucky to have. As a geomorphologist, I never cease to admire the aeolian dunes, the dusty rock formations, or the crystalline structure of each perfect, tiny grain of sand. I pull out my hand lens and crouch to examine the mineral grains, nearly burning my hand as the hot sun reflects off the lens onto my skin. As an ecologist, my heart flutters at the sight of a sand boa or a sidewinder, at the silhouette of camels, black against a fiery sunset sky. Scorpions, their stingers brimming with poison that can kill even a grown man, scuttle across the sand, daring larger predators to attack. Desert iguanas blend perfectly into the shades of tan, gold, and brown around them, their beady eyes on the sharp lookout for hunting birds of prey. Vultures soar on air thermals high above these desert lands, keeping a sharp lookout for a quick snack on the sand below. Yes, as an ecologist, there is much to admire about deserts. And as a tiny cluster of atoms on this vast planet with myriad natural wonders, I never tire of that feeling of stepping into soft, burning sand with nothing but burnished gold on the horizons. As one tires in deserts, mirages appear, taking on the form of gleaming pools of water where there is nothing but dunes of sand. How helpless it feels to run towards what looks like precious water only to be denied this vital resource. How strongly we are reminded of our own mortality in the desert. There is a magic in the way Mother Nature can bring out our insignificance. In the face of dunes and mountains, of what consequence in the human ego?

Fauna of the Thar Desert, clockwise from the top left: Great Indian Bustard (P.C. conservationindia.org), Chinkara (P.C. Google Images), Saw-Scaled Viper (P.C. Reptiles of India), Caracal (P.C. biodiversityofindia.org)

I think I will explore the depths of Thar Desert one day and sink down into a bed of sand crystals and just let my own insignificance swallow me. My heart years to walk in the sand again, my eyes peeled for signs of water to refresh my parched throat.

But until that day, I shall content myself with the image of an endless sea of sand as I sit in the window-seat of an engine-driven metal tube 30,000 feet in the sky.

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