Extremes Environments

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Liwa, United Arab Emirates

Unusual rock landscapes are distinctive. Bizarre rock formations are twisted and contorted depicting an ancient story of thousands of years of erosion by wind and water. Memories from seeing some of the vast and unique formations in Bolivia inspired thoughts of how weathering and geological processes have sculptured such beauty. It was rock art. Rock Tree (Arbol de Piedra) in Bolivia looked as real as what I had seen in the photographs. True to its name, it indeed looked like a tree and incredibly top heavy. It’s only matter a time before it topples. Geological time.

Desert Landscapes

Deserts are such a different, distinct landscape. Beautiful in their simplicity with sand sculptured sand dunes and the occasional enchantment of an oasis. But not all deserts are sandy; some can be rocky, stony or even icy like Antarctica.

Deserts are dry, rainfall is rarely seen – in fact certain areas of the Atacama Desert has not felt raindrops for hundreds of years. Even though temperatures may scorch during the day, deserts are often cold at night. The Atacama Desert in Chile rarely sees any rain as most of the moisture from the air is squeezed out as it passes over the Andes. It has been recorded as the driest non-polar desert in the world consisting of a stony, sandy and salty landscape. A variety of flora and fauna has evolved in this ecosystem, typically found closer to the coastline. I explored Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), relishing in a unique landscape of sand and rock formations, carved by wind and water.

Some incredible plants and animals have evolved to live in harsh desert conditions with unique adaptations. Arabian Camels can store food in their humps and do not need to eat for weeks, or drink for days. Camels often travel in groups; I was lucky to see a herd of wild camels zigzagging their way through the Arabian sands between the UAE and Oman.

The Arabian Oryx is a medium-sized antelope with distinctive long straight horns. They escape the heat of the day by seeking shade and are able to detect fresh plant growth from a distance. Oryx leucoryx has been classified as endangered species and was extinct in the wild by the early 1970’s. Thanks to the scientific investment in zoos and private reserves it has made a comeback and was reintroduced into the wild from 1980. The Arabian Oryx is the national animal in a number of Middle Eastern counties, including  the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.

Cacti have evolved sharp spines from leaves to minimize water loss through transpiration alongside providing a sharp defense against predators. Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert in the USA take many different forms, sometimes appearing full and bushy, and other times spindly and sparse. Yucca brevifolia survival is a fine art – waiting for the arrival of well-timed rains and pollination from the Yucca moth. Many animals, birds and reptiles rejoice in the Joshua tree for food and shelter. With the comfort of travelling through the Mojave Desert in a car I could simply enjoy their artistic shapes and sizes.

Salt Landscapes

It is surprising to find any kind of life in the most hostile of environments. I have visited Death Valley National Park in the USA, where the hottest temperatures have been recorded in the world. It is the driest and lowest spot in North America, -86 metres (-282 feet) below sea level.

Visiting the Dead Sea on the border between Jordan and Israel created a headache for me. Literally! Between dehydration and atmospheric pressures of being – 414 metres (-1360 feet) below sea level. Both landscapes are marked with an abundance of sodium chloride. Very few plants and animals can survive the salt flats. The Dead Sea is also referred to as the Salt Sea, with high concentrations of salinity at around 32%. At the very least, the sensation of floating due the natural buoyancy makes for a memorable experience.

 

Uyuni is located in the south west of Bolivia and is famous for Salar de Uyuni. It is the world’s largest salt flat in the world, but this time at greater heights of 3656 metres (nearly 12000 feet) above sea level on the Altiplano plateau. Formed from a prehistoric lake around 40,000 years ago, today the large expanse of salt can be up to 11 metres thick. The region is also rich in lithium reserves, containing over half the world’s reserves. The day I visited, I did not see any form of wildlife, although cacti (Trichocereus pasacana) can be seen on Incahuasi Island . This island is a remnant of an ancient volcano, which was submerged in a prehistoric lake. Deposits consisting of fossils and algae have also been found. Looking around at the largest salt plain in the world made me question how I could survive in such a habitat. Not very well – it was hot, dry and barren. It was beautiful but deathly.

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