While desert nomads find their way using the stars, Michael Martin unwittingly found the desert by way of the stars. As a teenager growing up in Augsburg in southern Germany, Martin was a keen astronomical photographer. "My big dream was to go to the Sahara so I could see stars of the Southern Hemisphere, especially the Southern Cross," says the geography graduate and author of 16 books.
"Together with some friends, he organised an expedition to visit Morocco by scooter. "When we arrived in southern Morocco, I saw the Southern Cross and all the stars I'd wanted to see for so long, but I also saw the desert," he says. "This, my first contact with the desert, made such an impression on me. Already | was interested in landscapes and outdoor life, but this presented an invitation, and a challenge: to see more."
It was an experience that set the course of his life. When he turned 18 and was able to drive, Martin began periodically crossing the desert by car. "When you think about it, for Germans, the Sahara isn't very far away. You just drive to Genoa in Italy and take a 20-hour ferry and you're there."
What he lacked in money, he made up for in enthusiasm--how many other Germans consider the Sahara to be on their doorstep? It was this enduring enthusiasm that inspired Martin to make 60 journeys through Africa, 45 of them desert expeditions up to 1999, the year he began a mammoth project to visit all of the world's deserts for the appropriately titled Die Wusten der Erde, or Deserts of the Earth.
In good company
Michael Martin is easy to spot at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Tall, casually dressed and with a toothy smile lighting up a tanned and well-weathered face that's topped by a veritable nest of flowing locks, Martin has the appearance of an amiable, ageing and very healthy rock star, rather than an RGS medal winner.
However, the giveaway (as to his profession, rather than his identity--his hair did that) is that he's come armed with a large Gitzo tripod and Leica camera, and this despite the distinct absence of a desert within thousands of kilometres of Kensington. (No fan of digital photography, primarily due to the unreliability of the hardware in extreme environments, Martin swears by his Leica mirror-reflex R8, with which he uses wide-angle lenses without filters. He usually shoots on Fuji Velvia film.)
Martin's has been a one-man campaign to change the view of deserts as empty spaces on the world map and, in recognition, the RGS-IBG has presented him with its Cherry Kearton Medal and Award for "photography and geographical travels recording the deserts of the world". It's this that has brought him and his partner, Elke Wallner, a camerawoman and documentary filmmaker, to England. Wallner has been Martin's travelling companion since 1999, when they first met. That year, bolstered by the success of Deserts of Africa, which sold more than 50,000 copies, he decided to write a book about all of the world's deserts, and then proceeded to travel through them on a motorcycle.
"By 1999, I had a lot of experience, as well as connections--I had a very supportive editor in Germany and many contacts with whom to arrange lectures. Plus, I earned enough money from Deserts of Africa to finance this next project," he says.
But it wasn't all plain sailing. Although Martin was an expert on African deserts, he admits to having had "very little idea" about those elsewhere. At times, the project was a gruelling learning curve, but his African training ground had prepared him well. "Africa is a good school for life because it's really hard work," he says. "The Sahara is the biggest desert, the customs officers are probably the most corrupt, the bureaucratic situation perhaps the worst."
And as if taking on the world's deserts wasn't challenge enough, Martin and Wallner were taking their new relationship on the road. It was also the first time that Martin had worked with a filmmaker, not to mention the different considerations, equipment and requirements that filmmaking involves. …