by Magda Chmura
1. When did you first become interested in dry lands?
I first did research in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa back in 1997. Ever since then I’ve been interested in the world’s drylands. The geomorphology and ecology is unique and totally fascinating. The numerous links between people and the environment are also very clear in drylands and that’s what makes it such a good place for Geographers to study.
2. When did you visit a desert for the first time? How was it?
I was on a Geography field trip of course! We went to the Sahara in southern Tunisia. I can still remember how excited I was to see the vast expanse of dunes. I couldn’t believe how fine the sand was, it was like flour. That trip was also memorable because unfortunately it coincided with the first Gulf war and we encountered some hostility in places. We had to leave one village pretty quickly when our coach was pelted with stones by a load of kids!
3. Which desert is your favourite and why?
That’s a difficult one. I’ve loved all of the drylands I’ve been to for different reasons. The Namib is spectacular, with huge dunes and stunning rock formations, but I’d have to say the Kalahari. I love Botswana. The people are so friendly and it always amazes me how resourceful they can be. The diversity of plants and animals is like nowhere else I’ve been. I see new species every time I go and you never quite know whether you’ll see lions, black mambas or tortoises at the next site.
4. What was the most unusual thing that happened to you at a desert? Any scary stories?
Animal encounters aside, one of the most unusual and incredible places I’ve been is the Tsodilo Hills in the isolated far north west of Botswana. The hills are made of resistant quartzite which rises almost vertically out of the sand and they are covered in ancient rock art. Some of the pictures date back many thousands of years and are exceptionally well preserved. The site is an important cultural and spiritual location for the indigenous San and Hambukushu communities and there are numerous stories of strange goings on there. On my first visit I planned to stay three days exploring the hills and looking at the rock paintings.
However, it didn’t quite work out like that and I ended up leaving after just one night. I was the only person there and I’d just gone to bed in my tent after a lovely day walking and taking photographs. Then I heard a deep rumbling noise coming from the north. It got louder and louder, and then wham, the tent bent right over on its poles as a wind hit the side. After a few seconds this stopped, the tent sprang back up and all went quiet again. However, after another few minutes I heard the noise again, this time coming from another direction. It got louder and louder and then the wind hit, pushing my tent right over. This went on for most of the night. Lying in my sleeping bag in the dark I tried to rationalise and explain this climatological phenomenon, but completely failed to do so, thinking instead that the spirits at the site were telling me to leave. When I got up in the morning, it was completely still, as if nothing had happened, but then a swarm of bees descended on the tent, and any last rational thoughts I had disappeared completely and I decided to make my escape. That didn’t go too well either, as I only got a few hundred metres before I buried the car in a patch of black cotton soil and had to spend several hours digging it out!
5. Are we likely to experience more desertification due to climate change?
Yes, sadly. All the climate predictions show that the world’s drylands are going to get hotter over this century. This will increase moisture deficits and make it more difficult for plants to grow and stabilise the surface. We can expect more wind erosion, dust storms and a deterioration of soil quality. Fortunately, there’s still quite a lot we can do to delay this, particularly by using appropriate farming techniques and limiting livestock numbers.
6. Why should we investigate deserts?
For all of the reasons above and because they are wonderful places to be in.