Regrettable to all who have enjoyed it, Cecil Kuhne concludes his marvelous travel-writing anthology series with the fourth entry, Near Death in the Desert. He again takes readers around the globe and back through time to vicariously experience adventures few have endured. In contrast to Near Death on the High Seas where the participants are surround by an abundance of water, in the desert the lack of it leads to problems since, as Kuhne points out in the preface, “the human body…can last only a few days without water” before organ failure sets in. Then “the end cannot be far away.”
Not surprisingly, most of the adventures occur in Africa. Michael Asher and his new wife Mariantonietta traveled across the Sahara. His language is evocative as he details the effects a thunderstorm they got caught in had on the landscape. “The black plain had become a blotch of blood-red, amber, orange and gold, overlaid in places by slicks of mud as smooth and creamy as milk chocolate.” Fellow travelers across the Sahara include William Langewiesche, whose story may require a handy, glass of water at the mention of 128-degree heat in Adrar; Justin Marozzi, who followed old slave routes across the Libyan portion; and Geoffrey Moorhouse, who spent six months there, dealing with illness and exhaustion that made him quite emotional.
Unlike the other books in the series where the adventurers were usually isolated, the local populace plays an important role in many of the journeys. In Niger, Peter Chilson arouses suspicion because “every stranger, every white person, is a suspect agent of the American CIA or the French Sûreté.” In the book’s earliest entry from 1847, Bayle St. John is assisted across the Libyan Desert with help of Bedawins. Robyn Davidson’s second entry in the book finds her in the Thar Desert of northwest India with the Rubari people. She only has her journal to channel her disgust at the societal inequity and moral corruption she witnessed.
Two entries reveal the wondrous landscape North America has to offer. John Wesley Poweell’s 1869 expedition of Colorado River began in Green River, Wyoming and ended in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, his journal documents his progress and catalogs the canyons. Graham Mackintosh, who had one of the more dangerous journeys of the collection, walked the coast of Baja California, traveling by land and sea. He dealt with the kindness of fishermen and the dangers of rattlesnakes and plant life.
In Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks, which is excerpted for the foreword, she states, “There is nothing so real as having to think about survival,” a statement apropos not only for these tales but the whole series. The chroniclers here don’t experience as many near-death moments and danger as in the other books, but that doesn’t make the adventures any less thrilling.