The Ros Dodd Interview: One Man's Thirst for a Wonderland of Deserts

Article excerpt

Martin Buckley is passionate about deserts. Most people consider them the most forbidding places on earth - to be avoided all costs - yet these vast tracts of arid nothingness have served both to enrich Martin's experience and nourish his soul.

Even in the comfort of Birmingham's Burlington Hotel, with the April rain lashing the windows, Martin succeeds in evoking something of the unique appeal of the desert.

As he talks, eloquently and lyrically, of his experiences circumnavigating the globe via desert byways, you can almost smell the languid air of the Negev, feel the red-hot golden sands of the Sahara and touch the dramatic rock formations of the Nevada.

Martin has travelling in his blood and the throb of the desert in his veins.

For two years, he trekked - on buses, trucks, trains and, occasionally, camels or mules - across some of the most inhospitable terrain known to man. By the end of the journey he had passed through no fewer than 18 deserts.

Despite getting married half-way through his travels (on the edge of the desert in Senegal) and honeymooning at lush oases in Mauritania, the 43-year-old journalist and author journeyed largely alone.

In fact, it was his desire for solitude that stirred him to set out on an adventure most of us can only dream about.

The idea came to Martin as he lay in the bath in Birmingham, where he used to live and work, more than five years ago.

Disillusioned with his job at the BBC, and at an age at which many men suffer a mid-life crisis, he was gazing at a soggy map while planning a desert holiday with Penny, then his girlfriend, now his wife.

'I was looking at a map of the world - a map that showed deserts,' he recalls. 'Not all maps show them; they tend to show only mountains and lowlands.

'Looking at it I saw that you could almost circumnavigate the earth without ever leaving the desert. The route would be a ragged one, winding across two hemispheres and making leaps across the oceans, but a route it was.

'Once I had the idea I rather thought I had to do it.'

So, in 1995, Martin's ambitious plan swung into action. Setting off from Cairo, he spent six months traversing the Sahara - in the searing heat of summer - taking in Chad, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania.

After a couple of months recharging his batteries in Britain, he took off to southern Africa, where he penetrated the Kalahari and Namib deserts in Namibia and Botswana.

From there it was back to London briefly and then on to South America, where he worked his way up through the Atacama desert (the driest in the world) to Mexico and then to north America's Death Valley.

From Los Angeles Martin flew to Sydney, crossed the deserts of northern Australia and then headed for China, taking in the Gobi and Takliamakan. He then made his way back to Egypt overland, passing through the deserts of India, Pakistan, Iran, Oman and Yemen.

There was danger and discomfort at every turn. In the Sahara - the quintessential desert - two soldiers threatened to kill him after he photographed them without asking their permission, in the Gobi he hijacked a cycle-rickshaw and while dehydrating in Mexico's Sonora he hallucinated fruit cocktails.

Water became an obsession. 'When you're in the desert, you never stop thinking about water,' explains Martin. 'There were several times when I ran out, and in the Sahara I can remember thinking I'd give anything to stand in the rain.'

Didn't he ever feel like giving up and coming home?

'After crossing the Sahara I do remember thinking, 'I can't believe I've got to do the rest of this journey',' he admits. 'But the commitment of time and money, as well as my reputation and ego, made me grit my teeth and carry on.'

The mammoth journey was the culmination of a lifetime's fascination with desert landscapes, which cover a fifth of the earth's surface. …