Review: The Immeasurable World by William Atkins

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Atkins is the latest one to be drawn to those impenetrable places, deserts. He joins an illustrious list of explorers and people who are seeking something amongst the arid sands. The geographer definition of a desert is somewhere that has less than 250mm of rain per year, but for those that know what to look for, they can be places of riches and places where life is right at the edge, but they are not lifeless if you know where to look. Atkins is not fully sure what he is seeking though, his partner of four years had accepted a job overseas and he was not going with her. Seeking some clarity of mind he heads out to the Empty Quarter on the Arabian peninsular a place made famous by the travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. In his book Arabian Sands, he went searching for those that still carried out the age-old Bedouin life and where others saw unforgiving wilderness, Thesiger found timeless peace. Standing in the mountainous pink dunes, he is humbled by the vastness of the place and by the people who know these places so intimately that they are never lost.

The Great Victorian Desert in Australia has been Aboriginal lands for millennia. The UK government with collusion from the Aussie PM used it for numerous nuclear tests. These were on ancient Aboriginal land and the fallout caused many health problems and displaced people who had no idea of what was really going on. Even though it echoed to the most powerful blasts that we humans can make it is still a place that has spiritual significance to the people that still choose to live there. The next two deserts are in Asia; the Gobi and what is left of the Aral Sea. These utterly different places have been used as a method of defence to protect China for people trying to enter the country and the other a site of a massive environmental disaster. Stepping once again in the footsteps of travellers before him, in this case in it is the Cable sisters, where he discovers a place that is tense and edgy. Standing in the desert that once was the Aral sea is quite a surreal experience and he learns how the waters that once contained sturgeon now hold no life and how the demands for irrigation drained this once great freshwater sea.

Next place to visit is the continent of America where Atkins visits two deserts are on the list. First up is the Sonoran Desert. It is a harsh and baked environment that borders Mexico and is a focus for those wanting to cross and realise their own American Dream. Very little of it is fenced to keep people out as the desert is pretty effective at doing that, and Atkins joins those that are trying to keep people out as well as those who are there to offer some humanity to those that have made the attempt to cross. The polarised views of each camp make this a tense place, very different to his next desert, which is the Black Rock Desert and the festival that is the Burning Man where he has offered to help out. The contrast between this place with its liberal perspective on sex, nudity and drugs and the previous location is stark. These places are both very different to his final location though, St Anthony’s Monastery in the Eastern Desert of Egypt a place that revels in its isolation from the pressures of the modern world and brings Atkins full circle to the spiritual and intangible elements of the desert.

Even though deserts are some of the lest populated places in the world, this is still a series of stories about the people that inhabit them, however, scarce they might be. I particularly liked the chapter on the Australian Great Victoria Desert, a place that was taken from its rightful inhabitants and is slowly being returned having been contaminated. It makes for painful reading. It is as much about Atkins though, he is using the vastness of the desert to clarify his mind and as a support for the pain that he went through at the end of a relationship. Whilst this is a travel book, there is history, poetry and philosophy in amongst the drifting sands. His prose is lucid with hints of melancholy and this book contains some of the best maps I have seen in a travel book yet. Well worth reading for a modern take on deserts.


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  1. Liz Dexter

    This sounds like a great one – I like a desert almost as much as I like a polar region or a mountain (in my reading, mind).

    • admin

      It was Liz. And his book, The Moor is well worth reading too

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