This story appears in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
T MINUS Six Months
Gearing up: For a project to photograph the world’s extreme deserts, I wanted to visit the giant sand dunes in China’s Inner Mongolia. The only way into the Gobi is on foot or by camel. The Chinese military controls access, so I teamed up with Chinese scientists studying desertification. The plan was that I’d fly over the dunes and they’d follow on camel. Six months beforehand I went to Beijing to pick up the permits and arrange for a caravan to meet us at the edge of the desert.
T MINUS two weeks
Essential packing list: I did test flights each week before leaving to make sure the paraglider worked properly. In the desert you have to be your own repair shop. And if you run out of gas—you’re out of gas.
- Two aircraft and spare parts
- 200 liters of fuel (five flights each for two gliders)
- Rice and noodles
- Chinese military maps—no longitude or latitude listed
- Both shorts and fleece for the dramatic day-to-night temperature variation
- A camel load of beer and whiskey
T MINUS two days
Ready for launch: We flew from Beijing to Lanzhou and then drove to a town near the edge of the desert to meet our camel team. We camped in the sand the last night before setting off into the dunes. I didn’t unpack the aircraft until we got out there and set up camp under the stars in the valleys between the dunes.
Lake water percolates through the sand, so you can drink freshwater out of your footsteps as you walk around.
By the Numbers
Square miles of desert
Miles traveled from home
1,400 square miles
Annual rate of desert growth