The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places is much more than a travel book. Atkins also provides the reader with details of religious history and doctrines, geography, art, environmental issues and the politics of the regions he writes about. The author notes that the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all arose in desert or arid regions. His entertaining style is further enhanced by his literary allusions, using both prose and poetry from across the ages.
He has little patience with those adventurers who are ‘seeking not knowledge…but novelty, managed suffering [such as] the Amazon by bike, the North Pole on stilts’ (page 17). He disparages a recent expedition in the Empty Quarter of Oman which claimed to recreate a 19th century explorer’s trek but was replete with four wheel drive support vehicles, a film crew and emergency medical support.
Atkins seems, at times, to be a little precious in his consciousness of following the paths of others and is too critical of them – forgetting that things were very different in the 18th and 19th centuries. He is correct when he sees parallels between the government’s work to ‘modernise’ the ‘backward ethnic’ groupings in western China and that of English missionaries’ desire to do much the same in Victorian times. The motivation however, was not the same and missionaries never had the coercive power of the state behind them.
Atkins had been staying in a British monastery reading about the desert fathers and his first trip, to the Oman deserts, was motivated by his readings coinciding with the end of a relationship – perhaps a way of healing for the author. He has described deserts as dead or forsaken places but also believes that their very starkness and severity can provide mental space for clear thinking. It is in such places that the author reflects on the damage humanity has inflicted on the planet and each other.
We readers are reminded through vivid word portraits that, although our world seems smaller through easier travel and the internet, true discoveries are still out there as it’s the people we meet, rather than the places we visit that are so exciting. This is vividly seen in Atkins’ trip to the Black Rock Desert and the incredible phenomenon of Burning Man. On a dry lake bed in Nevada more than 70,000 gather ostensibly to celebrate freedom from restrictions – in an area which is tightly restricted and patrolled by armed guards.
We read the sad story of the Anangu people whose land around Maralinga was used for British nuclear testing in the 1950s. Not only was permission not sought, the Indigenous owners were not compensated until the 1990s for having their land so contaminated that it’s still not possible to live there for long periods. Atkins’s feeling for the desert and its people is seen in his observation that, while all the Abrahamic religions look for the sacred in the heavens, that is upwards in the sky, the Anangu people’s sacred connection is to the land and this makes the loss of this connection all the more tragic.
A rewarding read, full of interesting people and places, and highly recommended.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: July 2018