The desert is a harsh mistress… No wait, that was the moon. Anyway, deserts are harsh places. A desert is defined as anywhere that receives less than 250mm of rain a year, which means that technically parts of Antarctica are deserts. What we usually mean, though, is an area of rock and sand with very little water and even less life.
They say you can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without air (so I guess the moon really is harsher than any desert on Earth!). This means water management is extremely important if you wish to travel in the desert. What life there is tends to congregate around oases, the rare water sources which do appear in many deserts, or it lies dormant until the rare rains. In the Atacama Desert, in Chile, there is a phenomenon called the Flowering Desert – generally the area receives less than 12mm of rain a year, making it one of the driest places on the planet but every so often it receives heavy rain and the seeds germinate – for a few days the entire region is covered in thousands of species of wild flowers, and teeming with life which takes advantage of them. It is said to be absolutely beautiful.
The other problem with deserts is temperature – everyone knows deserts are hot (well, except for Antarctica), but the temperature drops rapidly at night, often falling below freezing. Many a traveller has frozen to death because they were unaware of that.
That small amount of life which doesn’t manages to live outside the rare wet bits has to be heavily adapted to survive. Plants tend to have thick skin to prevent evaporation, and often has spines to deter animals who would use them as a water source. They’re usually quite bulky, with thick stem and fleshy leaves, to maximise volume to surface area, and thus minimise evaporation. They also have very extensive root systems which can extend deep enough to reach what little water is deep down, or far around them to collect water that falls as dew – which adaptations are preferred depends on the specific conditions in that desert – many cacti (which are almost all native to the Americas) do both.
Animals life is more varied. Much of it is small and fast – sidewinders have an eccentric form of movement which minimises contact with the hot sand, but less well known are things like cartwheel spiders which tumble along like their namesake in order to travel quickly. They are often crepuscular (that means they come out at dawn and dusk, rather than being nocturnal (night) or diurnal (day)) as the temperature is better – not too hot and not too cold.
Even Kangaroos need to find shade to hide from the heat of the sun at noon. Many animals have other ways around this – the most common option for small animals is to bury themselves in the sand but this isn’t always possible, or even desirable – reptiles need the heat of the sun to warm themselves as they are cold blooded, so some species of gecko have developed the ability to change colour – they come out at dawn dark brown and absorb heat rapidly, but then get much paler to reflect the full intensity of the sun and better disguise themselves against the sand.
Of course camels are the best known desert survivors – they can go weeks without water carrying all they need in their body, and even longer without food as they carry fat reserves. They have coarse fur to protect their skin from the sand, and thick eyelashes to keep it out of their eyes. Their feet are broad hooves which allow them to traverse soft sand with relative ease. There are a myriad of other adaptations about the way they move, how they process water, and so forth which mean they are completely at home in some of the most hostile deserts on Earth. They are also notorious bloody minded – I’m not sure if that is a survival adaptation but it surely can’t hurt – I once heard it said that the Mongol tribes can break a wild horse to their will in two days, but to break a camel from the Gobi desert takes a full year!
Despite the hostile environment people still live, and indeed thrive, in deserts. People like the Australian Aborigines and the Bushmen1) There is some question over what the people of that region should be called as there are multiple tribes and they have no group name which they use themselves. Every term which has been used has been imposed by outsiders and has been used as an insult. Wikipedia tells me the current preferred term is Bushmen, and that the previous term, Sar, or Saar, is on its way out. If anyone has better information on this I am happy to be corrected of the Kalahari are hunter gatherers and can find everything they need living in the desert. They move from oasis to oasis, hunting the wild animals, gathering those plants which are edible, and taking their own shelter with them. An encyclopedic knowledge of the life of the desert is passed down allowing them to find sustenance where most would not even think to look.
Others, such as the Tuareg and Massai, are nomads who travel with herds of animals. Again they move from oasis to oasis, keeping their hardy herds of cows, goats, or camels healthy, while living off their milk blood and occasionally meat. They take everything they need with them, and rely almost entirely on their animals.
Finally there are farmers, such as some Native American tribes. Around the edges of deserts the land can be barely fertile, but some plants will grow reasonably well. These people will tend crops in these regions or near oases, and rarely move, or move between growing seasons. Irrigation is often a problem, and many ingenious methods have been developed to tap into water sources, such as the Chilean farmers who have strung up fine mesh to catch the morning dews. Recent research has shown that carefully managed farming can stop deserts expanding, and even make more of the desert fertile – the inverse of the more well-known effect whereby goatherds can encourage desertification.
Clothing seems to run to two extremes. Most tribes wear very little clothing during the day and remain inside where they can keep warm at night. These people often use something to block the worst of the sun (for example the maasai famously cover themselves in the red clay of the area, and the paint themselves further with other coloured earths), and have very dark skin which can absorb more sunlight without damage. However some peoples, such as the Bedouin, wear multiple layers of dark, even black, fabric. This acts as a form of portable shade, and traps a layer of air near the skin which is cooler than the desert’s air during the day and warmer at night. It also acts as a barrier t keep out the worst of the sand which the wind whips up on the Arabian peninsular. Either seems to be a viable option, but going into a desert without considering your clothing is a very bad idea.
Many of the nomadic and hunter-gatherer tribes also act as traders – to them the desert is home, but to everyone else it is an impenetrable and incomprehensible barrier (there is an old joke in one of the Carry On movies where someone sells a map of the desert which is just a piece of sandpaper!). The Tuareg have been trading food, cloth, leather, salt, and even camels for centuries.
In Your Games and Stories
Deserts are fascinating areas. They are great places to lose things, to get lost, and to find that which was thought gone. Entire civilisations could be buried, only be revealed by a sand storm centuries later.
The life in the desert makes dangerous foes, as many of them are highly venomous, and more than happy to eat something as juicy as a person! A fire would keep people warm at night, but may attract unwanted attention – having a fire may seem like a bad idea because of that, but not having one may be worse when the cold sets in – at least you have some hope of fighting a scorpion!
The people of the desert could act as guides through it, either for the heroes or for the caravan they are guarding. They are without fail touchy because if they are not they could not survive, but those they lead may not be. Equally they could be traders, bringing rare substances – herbs, materials, even magics – unavailable anywhere else.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||There is some question over what the people of that region should be called as there are multiple tribes and they have no group name which they use themselves. Every term which has been used has been imposed by outsiders and has been used as an insult. Wikipedia tells me the current preferred term is Bushmen, and that the previous term, Sar, or Saar, is on its way out. If anyone has better information on this I am happy to be corrected|