The world's ultimate desert dares

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Grit your teeth, shield your eyes and get stuck into this decathlon of desert challenges. This article is adapted from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures.

Blokart in the Mojave Desert, USA

Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. Image by Kyle Monk / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images.

Dawn yawns over Nevada’s Mojave Desert and the lurid glow from the Vegas strip fades to insignificance. Ivanpah Lake, a dusty expanse of pancake flatness 65km from Vegas, looks like a windswept wasteland but it’s blokarting heaven. Blokarting involves piloting lightweight, wind-powered, three-wheeled vehicles, and you’ve come to race some of America’s best landsailors. In 2009 Richard Jenkins set a world record here, clocking 202.9km per hour in his land yacht the Greenbird. You won’t reach such speeds, but the wind is gusting and you’re ready to set sail.

Related article: A desert full of mysteries: the Nazca Lines and beyond

Regular regattas are held on Ivanpah Lake. See nabsa.org for more info.

Horse trek across the Gobi, Mongolia

You thought you knew what to expect but the sheer diversity of the Gobi almost knocks you off your horse – the barren terrain is both harsh and beautiful. As you head from Ulaanbaatar out past the rock formations of Baga Zorgol Hairhan Uul and across the Arburd Sands, you couldn’t be happier with your choice of transport. This is where horse riding was born, the stunning steppes of Mongolia once home to the largest herds of horses the planet has ever seen. So how else would you travel across Genghis Khan’s old stomping grounds?

Gobi horse treks are offered by several companies; time your visit to coincide with the ancient Naadam festival in July.

Canyoning in the Judaean Desert, Palestinian Territories

Recovering your breath after rappelling down a 100m cliff on the periphery of the Judaean Desert, you wonder how you’d never before heard of Canyon Qumran. You could have gone wet canyoning in the Golan Heights but a desert snapling adventure close to the spot where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered was too appealing. Those historic documents lay undisturbed for 2000 years, showing how little human visitation these caves and canyons receive, and therein lies the allure of this semi-subterranean adventure to the lowest place on earth. Temperatures commonly push close to 50°C – lucky the Dead Sea is nearby for a cooling plunge.

Trips can be arranged through Q-Terra (qterra.org). The best time to do activities in the Dead Sea area is October to April.

Battle the black snake, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi

Outside Al Ain’s Green Mubazzarah you clip into your cleats, kick off from the curb and pedal your road bike toward the foothills of Jabal Hafeet, a 1249m-high abrupt interruption to the desert flatness that sprawls over the border of the UAE and Oman. This is the challenge for all visiting roadies: sprint up the 11.7km length of the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, around its 21 lung-busting corners and up every centimetre of its 1219m elevation, with an average gradient of eight percent. You’ve barely begun to climb, but the sweat is flowing and already you’re looking forward to the rush of the descent.

Several races use the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, including a punishing annual duathlon (cycling and running).

Climb a mountain in the world's oldest desert, Namibia

The Brandberg Massif in the Namib Desert. Image by Juan Carlos Munoz / age fotostock / Getty Images.

Day three of the expedition, and you’re camped at Wasserfallflache on the flanks of the Brandberg Massif – Namibia’s tallest mountain, close to the coast in the Namib Desert, the oldest on Earth. Yesterday was brutal, with seven hours of scrambling over boulders and up steep inclines, but today is summit day. Another push will bring the group to Königstein (King’s Stone) 2573m above sea level. And on the way back down there’s the chance to check out Snake Rock Cave, a famous San rock-art site.

The Brandberg Ascent is a guided five-day camping and hiking trip offered by operators out of Windhoek. Winter (April to September) is the best time to climb.

Sandboard Cerro Blanco, Peru

Flying over the ancient enigma that is the Nazca Lines is a hard act to follow but this might just top everything else you’ve done in Peru. You’re standing on the precipice of nearby Cerro Blanco, steeling your nerves and preparing to launch down its sandy flanks on a sandboard. At 1176m this sand dune in the valley of Las Trancas is the tallest on the planet and there’s only one way to see it: through a speed-distorted blur, with your feet strapped to a board and your eyes behind a pair of goggles. This is snowboarding for the cold-averse.

Cerro Blanco is about a 28km drive and three-hour climb from the city of Nazca. Sandboarding excursions can be arranged through various commercial operators.

Cycle across the Simpson, Australia

You’re already awake and fine-tuning your fat-tyred steed as dawn erupts over Purni Bore in outback South Australia. The heat won’t arrive until later, but once it does you won’t escape its ferocity until the burning ball tips over the horizon. You’re about to embark on a 10-stage bike race through the Simpson Desert, a natural arena that’s earned the diabolic moniker ‘Satan’s Velodrome’. The nickname signals a challenge to rough-riding cyclists who contest a brutal 570km course that includes sadistic sand dunes, mirage-producing salt lakes, colossal cattle stations (some the size of small European countries) and the endless puncture-producing rubble of the gibber plains.

The Simpson Desert Challenge (www.desertchallenge.org) is an annual mountain-bike race held in late September/early October.

Run the ocean floor, Egypt

Mushroom Valley in Egypt's White Desert by misslishness. CC BY 2.0.

Navigating your way through a surreal forest of wind-carved sand sculptures you wonder whether you’re experiencing sleepmonsters – hallucinations suffered by extreme endurance athletes. Maybe you are, because that piece of bedrock over there looks just like a giant ice cream. This terrain was once underwater, but that was 200 million years ago and H2O is in short supply in the Egypt’s Western and White Deserts these days. Shame, since you’re in the midst of a four-day, non-stop, 160-mile ultramarathon across this subsection of the Sahara and your mouth is drier than a camel’s armpit. Only 60 miles left – got to find the checkpoint and all-important drop-bag soon...must beat that 96-hour cut-off...

The Ocean Floor Race (www.oceanfloorrace.com) is run in February.

Kite skiing in Antarctica

The corners of your expedition buddy’s mouth curl into a grin as their kite catches the katabatic wind. Your kite billows into life too, and the reigns twitch impatiently in your gloved hands. You’ve broken camp and bundled up, you’re clipped into your skis and ready to rock. Wind was once the mortal enemy of travellers to the planet’s poles because its chill can send temperatures plunging to lethal levels of -70°C and below. It’s now used by modern adventurers to propel themselves across the desert ice fields of Antarctica, the coldest, driest and windiest continent on the planet – an extreme sport in the world’s most extreme place.

Though pricey, polar kite-skiing expeditions of various lengths can be arranged through specialist operators such as Weber Arctic (www.weberarctic.com).

Camel trek through Arabia's Empty Quarter

Discover your inner Wilfred Thesiger by climbing aboard a camel and exploring the agoraphobia-inducing Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter) – the world’s largest sandy expanse – which occupies a fifth of the Arabian Peninsula and sprawls across parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the UAE and Oman. This is the home of the Bedouin and over the coming days your Bedu guide will instruct you in the ways of the desert, revealing how his people have survived for millennia in this harshest of environments. At night, once the campfire has dulled to a glow, the sky puts on a kaleidoscopic show performed by a spectacular cast of stars.

Camel safaris into Rub’ al Khali are best arranged in Oman or the UAE.