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Thirsty Desert

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Sherif Ali: There is the railway. And that is the desert. From here until we reach the other side, no water but what we carry with us. For the camels, no water at all. If the camels die, we die. And in twenty days they will start to die.
T.E. Lawrence: There's no time to waste, then, is there?

You're in the desert, a parched barren wasteland stretching for miles in every direction, with the occasional Hollywood Mirage gleaming in the distance to provide a false sense of hope. If the maddening heat doesn't drive you into a Mushroom Samba or just kill you, the lack of water or one of the desert's many hostile inhabitants probably will. Expect Circling Vultures lurking ominously overhead. Although the sky can be as barren as the land, with not a single cloud in sight. The sun appears to fill the sky on its own and the camera will point at it just to make sure you know. A shot of the characters marching (or crawling) forward moaning "Water, water..." is a common element, especially in more humorous takes.

Analogously, this trope is to Shifting Sand Land as Hungry Jungle is to Jungle Japes or Lovecraft Country is to Hollywood New England - a nastier, more serious portrayal of the same region. Desert Warfare involves fighting a war in one of these, and all the problems that apply here are now compounded by the presence of enemy soldiers. See also Crossing the Desert.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Yaiba, the group at one point has to cross the "Tottori Sand Dune", Japan's only desert, while on their way to Ganryuujima. Both them and Onimaru's three Oni suffer from the terrible thirst, to the point that when they encounter a Djinn, Gerozaemon and Yaiba waste the first two wishes on fresh water.
  • The Sand Garden from Toriko is the biggest desert in the Human World, about four times the size of the Sahara Desert. Not only it's gigantic and scorching hot, but is also populated by poisonous cacti and dangerous sand-dwelling beasts (though some of them can be consumed for their meat or blood). This being Toriko, a few areas of the desert are composed of unusual materials as gold dust, diamond, sugar and caviar.
  • The Alabasta arc in One Piece has the Straw Hats venturing in Alabasta, on Sandy Island. A treck made difficult by the heat, fauna and the lack of water, which is a plot point as Sir Crocodile is using a device to keep rainclouds away from the island (both to fuel the ongoing rebellion and to keep people from exploiting his weakness to water).
  • Invoked with the powers of Chotenkun from Soul Hunter: his spatial Paopei "Kosajin" (Crinsom Sands Formation) brings the opponent into a Thirsty Desert where he can manipulate the sand and his position, and everything but him slowly dries and crumbles to dust. Yozen only manages to save himself by using his half-demon form to transform into the sand itself and expand untill the Paopei's limits are broken.
  • The main setting for Desert Punk, as the name implies, is the "Great Desert of Kanto", set in a distant future after an apocalyptic event. Since water is scarce and precious, thirst and heat are a danger, though desperate bandits and outlaws substitute the fantastic fauna mentioned in the description.
  • Again a futuristic example, the setting of Trigun is a gigantic, desertic planet, dangerous to cross both because the scarcity of water, daily heat and occasional dangers as bandits and colossal worms.
  • Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic, being based on Arabian Nights, has massive deserts to cross early on, usually though they're traveled by caravans. Still, Aladdin makes his debut in a desertic ruin infested with bandits, half-dead for the heat and thirst. Other than bandits, the series has sand-dwelling monsters, usually carnivorous plants, venomous birds and tigers and even gigantic spiders.


    Comic Books 
  • Tintin: The Crab With the Golden Claws: As befitting Captain Haddock's first appearance as an alcoholic washout, he and Tintin wander through the Sahara. On learning where they are, the captain gets stuck on "the desert of thirst! the desert of thirst!" for a while.
  • Dungeon Twilight: The Always Day area is a desert where, as the name suggest, it's always day. The Great Khan punishes failure by dropping disgraced soldiers there to die of exhaustion, and they are crippled beforehand.
  • Lady Mechanika and Winifred find themselves stranded in the middle of the Sahara Desert after their zeppelin crashes in Lady Mechanika: The Tablet of Destinies.
  • The Dayside of the planet Taldain in White Sand is a single continent, most of which is a giant desert. When Khriss and her company attempt to cross it, their guide bails on them with most of their water, leaving them stranded and with little to drink until they find a native, Kenton, who reveals to them that water is actually easy to come by on Dayside - splashing even a little bit of it on the sand brings out water vines, which store a lot of the precious liquid.
  • Wonder Woman (1987): Part of what keeps the slaves from fleeing the mining camp on the Sangtee Empire planet nicknamed Hope's End is that it appears to be a desert planet and they're reliant on their brutal slave drivers for enough water to live.

    Comic Strips 
  • Numerous The Far Side strips use this setting for gags. A typical example has a guy crawling through the desert and coming across an enormous billboard advertising a brand of canteen: "Lost in the desert? Dying of thirst? Next time bring along a Jones Bros canteen!"

    Films — Animation 
  • Melody Time: In Pecos Bill, Bill and his horse fall into this predicament during their song and come up with a creative solution.
    Pecos lost his way while travelin' through the desert
    It was ninety miles across the burnin' sand
    He knew he'd never reach the border if he didn't get some water
    So he got a stick and dug the Rio Grande

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Arabian and Sinai deserts in Lawrence of Arabia. In particular, the desert known as Al-Nefud, which T.E. Lawrence's forces must cross to reach Aqaba in the first half of the film. The dialogue between Sherif Ali and Lawrence about this desert provides the page quote.
  • A thirsty Micky Dolenz beats up an empty Coke machine in the middle of the desert during a memorable scene from The Monkees' movie Head.
  • Spaceballs:
    Lone Starr: Water! Water!
    Dot Matrix: Oil! Oil!
    Princess Vespa: Room service! Room service!
  • ¡Three Amigos! was filmed in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona and contains a thirsty desert crossing scene where each Amigo stops to drink from his canteen. Lucky turns over his canteen to one remaining drop of water. Ned's canteen fills his mouth full on with sand. Dusty drinks from his canteen, splashes some water on his face, and throws the rest aside, while the others watch delirious. Dusty offers them lip balm.
  • In The Way Back, the Main Characters are crossing the Gobi desert. Two of them die of heat stroke and dehydration.
  • Death Valley serves as this in the silent classic Greed.
  • Lust In The Dust. Rosie's canteen falls and spills out its contents, causing her to exclaim, "My gin!"
  • Hidalgo's plot revolves around a race across the desert. At least a few of the racers are forced to put down their horses, and Hopkins and Hildalgo themselves must live off of locusts from time to time.
  • In Walkabout a teenaged girl and her little brother are stranded in the Australian outback. They are on the verge of death by dehydration when an Aborigine boy saves them.
  • In the Australian horror film Razorback (1984) the protagonist suffers hallucinations while staggering through the desert.
  • Exploited by Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when he abandoned Tuco in the desert. He managed to survive the ordeal and then found Blondie to give him A Taste of Their Own Medicine.
  • In the Clint Eastwood movie The Eiger Sanction, his character gets revenge on an old enemy by driving him out into the desert and abandoning him to die of thirst.
    "Jonathan, you're not going to leave me out here? Oh, Jonathan, for chrissakes, kill me but don't leave me here!"
  • Crossed by Moses in The Ten Commandments after being exiled from Egypt. He's given a little bag of food and a little bag of water. He's half-dead by the time he reaches a well, but fortunately not too far gone to fight off a band of marauders.
  • Due to its use of single biome planets, Star Wars has at least two entire planets that fit the bill: Tatooine and Jakku.
  • Most of the plot of 1929 silent film Desert Nights. Steve and Diana, a pair of jewel thieves, rob a diamond mine, kidnap Hugh the mine foreman, and escape into the desert. But it's a thirsty desert and the thieves run out of water and start getting desperate, with Diana in particular offering to give Hugh all the diamonds if he'll lead them to water, then offering herself up as a Sex Slave if only he'll lead them to water.
  • 3 Godfathers: The three godfathers flee into the desert after they rob a bank. Their ordeal starts bad when their water flask is shot through, gets worse when their first watering hole is staked out by the sheriff's men, and gets a lot worse when their second watering hole turns out to have been accidentally destroyed. Then they have to cross a wide salt flat to get to New Jerusalem. (Unlike most John Ford films, which were shot in Monument Valley, he filmed this one in Death Valley.)
  • In Tumbleweed, Jim has to cross the alkali flats, only to discover that the springs on the other side he was counting on have dried up.

  • La Saga du prêtre Jean: In The Desert of Death, you have to venture forth into the Desert of Gobi, looking for three ancient evils and recover their keys to the city of Agartha. You must get ahold of a camel and a reserve of water before you start, which you slowly deplete in certain paragraphs. If you fail to find all the demons in three days, the sun, endless wasteland and hopelessness drive you mad into a Non-Standard Game Over.

  • Arrakis of the Dune universe is one of the driest deserts in fiction and is home to Sand Worms that can eat large vehicles in one bite. Liet being left to die there without a stillsuit (protective sweat-recycling gear) was particularly brutal.
  • Claims the life of Arvid in The Emigrants tetralogy.
  • The Main Characters end up stuck in the middle of one in Five Weeks in a Balloon. They end up borderline insane or catatonic and nearly dying, until they're saved at the last minute by a sandstorm which allows them to fly their balloon to greener pastures.
  • The children's novel Holes is set in one. Camp Greenlake, a juvenile detention center located in the middle of the Texas desert, boasts minimal security because anyone setting out from camp on foot would die of thirst long before reaching civilization. Naturally, the main characters are forced to run away, and they nearly die in the desert before finding an overturned rowboat full of jars of canned peaches.
  • In Desert And Wilderness has one as the final obstacle for the Main Characters to overcome.
  • Crops up from time to time in the works of Karl May. The most iconic 'Western' example here is probably the (really existing) Llano Estacado, described as this in the stories and usually coming complete with at least some miscreants planning to lead travelers astray explicitly so they can die of thirst and never be heard from again.
  • In Robert E. Howard's "The Slithering Sands", Conan the Barbarian knows that the desert will kill him within a day, and strongly considers a Mercy Kill for the girl with him.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • The heroes visit Tatooine twice in Galaxy of Fear... though both times the major danger is less in the desert, more in the cooler, damper respite from the suns where they spend their time: the palace of Jabba the Hutt.
    • Han and Leia visit Tatooine in Tatooine Ghost. Han gets lost twice and has to have IV fluids so he doesn't die of dehydration after. The Tusken Raiders are a constant menace, as are the imperials who are still fighting the rebels.
  • The mesas of New Mexico in Tyrannosaur Canyon fit this quite nicely. The environment challenges several characters who hike through it with potential dehydration and heatstroke.
  • The Aiel Wastes in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series is one of the most hostile environments on the main continent. The only ones that are worse have been heavily tainted by the Dark One.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: Dorne's otherwise inhospitable geography played a key role in its maintaining a measure of autonomy.
  • The Twilight Zone TOS:
    • The Libyan desert in episode "King Nine Will Not Return".
    • An (unnamed) American desert in "The Rip Van Winkle Caper".
  • Despite having started by marooning an expedition on a desert planet, the Stargate franchise manages to avoid this trope all the way to its third live-action series, Stargate Universe, in the episode "Air, Part 3."
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Final Mission."
  • The Prisoner (2009) had the desert surrounding the Village, filmed in Namibia.
  • In The Aquabats! Super Show! episode "Cowboy Android!" the Aquabats trudge through one after the Battletram runs out of gas.
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a made-for-TV movie in 1987, features a cryogenically frozen Holmes who reawakens in the modern day. While driving through the Arizona desert on a case, his car breaks down, so he is forced to cross the desert on foot. Believing himself to be hallucinating or dead, he comes across London Bridge with a British telephone booth and calls his assistant. "No, that's not heaven," she tells him. "That's Lake Havasu."
  • On The 100, the desert area where parts of New England used to be is bad enough about this that it's actually called "The Dead Zone".
  • One appears in Once Upon a Time, that two slaves, newly escaped and desperate for water, are crossing. One grabs the Holy Grail, drinks from it, and dies. The second asks permission from the gods, and reverently takes a few small sips. Instead of dying, he is blessed with magic (and Immortality, though he doesn't yet realize), enough to make the wasteland into beautiful green countryside. His name? Merlin.
  • Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In: One sketch featured a man crawling along the desert looking for water. He then sees a sign pointing toward Lake Erie, and he starts crawling backward (at the time, Lake Erie was considered an ecological hellhole).

  • "Cool Water", the song written by Bob Nolan, and covered by Hank Williams and a host of others.
    All day I've faced / a barren waste / Without the taste / of water
    Cool water
    Old Dan and I / with throats burned dry / And souls that cry / for water
    Cool, clear, water
  • Eddie Money: "Give Me Some Water", about an outlaw fleeing through presumably desert country (either the US Southwest or Northern Mexico) after shooting a man on the Mexican border.
    Smack that horse in the ass; with my last dying gasp my brother could hear me say
    Give me some water 'cause I shot a man on the Mexican border
    Cool, cool water
    Give me some water


    Tabletop Games 
  • Attempts to employ this trope in Dungeons & Dragons are difficult, since the healing-oriented classes tend to get a create water spell at 1st level and employ it whenever there seems to be a hazard of thirst. However, the Desert of Desolation series (I3-I5) focuses on this trope.
  • The interior of Vrita, the Titan of Drought, is this in Scion taken to the extent it's basically an entire world comprised of this. And there genuinely is no water of any sort to be found. Indeed, it's so thirsty that those unfortunate enough to enter it have the very real feeling that their blood is being sucked out through their skin. Which is probably because it is.
  • The desert world of Tallarn in Warhammer 40,000. Strangely enough, it isn't a Death World: its entire surface is desert but there are great underground cities, with their armies all Lawrence of Arabia clones.
  • In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the Malfean abode of the Nameless Angel of Despair is a barren desert with a huge black sun overhead.

    Video Games 
  • Appears in King's Quest III and King's Quest V. In the first game, it's essentially a barrier to prevent you from going too far the wrong way. It's an insidious maze in the latter.
  • Lamakan Desert in Golden Sun. It's so hot there's a thermometer that appears during the entire trip with the PCs complaining about the heat at regular intervals, and letting it max out causes damage to everyone. Fortunately, there are oases hidden by mirages that reset the thermometer to zero, unfortunately most of them contain an Antlion Monster. Strangely enough, it's located in Weyard's equivalent of Asia (and thus the equivalent of the Taklamakan Desert), while the Suhalla desert in Weyard-Africa (Sahara) has no such issues.
  • Very much a part of Quest for Glory II, where the player will literally die of thirst if you don't have enough water, and multiple foes ranging from vicious brigands to giant scorpions to rampaging mini T. rexes to ghouls will try to kill you.
  • Breath of Fire III features a trackless desert towards the end of the game. Travel is only feasible at night, as you're navigating by the stars, but you can travel during the day if you don't mind expending more water and getting disoriented (i.e. don't travel during the day). You start with enough water to just barely reach your destination, but you can escape back to the entrance without any problems, even if you've been traveling for days.
  • The Mojave Desert becomes this with the Survival mode active in Fallout: New Vegas. The fact that the water you need to survive also irradiates you is just insult to injury.
  • The Arid Extra-Dry Desert in Kingdom of Loathing inflicts severe penalties on any player who tries to adventure there without getting the 'Ultrahydrated' effect from the oasis.
  • The first Space Quest game (and its VGA Remake) has this when you crashland on Kerona after escaping the Arcada. Fortunately, you have an infinite supply of "dehydrated" water (don't ask) and the game gives you ample warning when you need to take a drink of it.
  • In RuneScape, the desert south of Al Kharid will drain your health if you don't stay hydrated (using waterskins, an enchanted water tiara, etc). The rate at which you go through water/health depends on your equipment - melee armour makes you thirsty more often, whereas desert robes (and similar things) let you stay hydrated more easily.
  • Tales of Vesperia has a desert area where you have to find cacti that contain water for your party to fill their canteens with. When they run out of water, they start to take damage.
  • The Jak and Daxter games have the Wasteland. In Jak 3: Wastelander Jak, Daxter and Pecker nearly die of thirst and heat when they are banished there.
  • Spec Ops: The Line reminds us that Dubai, despite being a paradise of opulence, is set in a desert. A massive sandstorm causes the total collapse of infrastructure, water distribution more than anything, and it only goes From Bad to Worse from there.
  • The Gerudo Desert in Hyrule Warriors, when the heroes play through it towards the end of the main campaign. The overheating can be combated by entering special keeps marked as an Oasis. The villains earlier, had no ill effects from the desert heat.
  • The Forbidden Oasis and the Western Approach in Dragon Age: Inquisition are two desert regions available to visit and rather notably are located within Fantasy Counterpart Culture France. The latter in particular is currently this way because its the site where the Second Blight erupted and it was infested with darkspawn for 90 years. It has been centuries since that event happened and the area is still an inhospitable and hostile hell-hole that hasn't recovered yet.
  • In Rimworld, setting up a colony in the scorching and dry desert presents a lot of challenges, chiefly the potential for heatstroke and the lack of flora; hardy potatoes grown in the rare gravel patches will have do until hydroponics is researched, and any wood will have to be imported.

    Web Comics 

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • Steven Universe has fun with this trope in "Steven's Lion". Steven crawls along pitifully as the Crystal Gems travel a desert, despite them not being there that long, explaining to the other Gems "This is how you're supposed to act in the desert."
  • Wakfu:
    • In Season 1, after losing control of Rubilax and breaking Eva's bow, Sadlygrove wanders into the desert, suffering from the heat and thirst, ending up perpetually tanned for the rest of the show. Also, Yugo has to cross a scorching rocky desert in order to find Grougal's Dofus.
    • In Season 2, one episode starts with the Brotherhood of Tofu crossing a scalding desert (we see a scorpion being fried alive just for walking into a sunlit zone), desperate for water.
  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law: Parodied in "Back to the Present", when the Jetsons travel back in time into Harvey's office and discover they have to walk instead of stand on a conveyer belt. It takes them all night just to get to his desk; by morning, they're worn and ragged, Judy has been abducted by wolves, and Astro is dead from exhaustion and being picked at by vultures.
  • The Simpsons: In "The Greatest Story Ever D'ohed", Homer gets lost in the Israeli desert and grows thirsty, and he eventually finds an ocean to drink from. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the Dead Sea.
  • Family Guy: In "Bango Was His Name-Oh", Brian and Stewie walk through the desert while traveling to find the man who could possibly be Stewie's father.
  • Brumpo Tungus Magic Beans In episode four, "The Origin of the Beans," Brumpo learns that the magic beans originated in the Dusty Doom Desert, and the episode details a sort of flashback showing the beans being discovered by a group of travelers dying of thirst and using them to get water.

    Real Life 
  • Generally averted in Real Life, since desert biomes are often teeming with life despite the harsh climate. Death Valley has its name for a reason, though. It is officially one of the hottest places on Earth, with summer highs of up to 134 F/57 C, and next to no rainfall.
  • Hundreds of bodies of people who died from thirst or "exposure" are found every year in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Most are from Mexico traveling illegally to the United States. Many are from other parts of South and Central America, notably Guatemala and El Salvador.
  • Parts of the Atacama Desert in South America haven't received rainfall in hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Some areas receive moisture from coastal fog, other areas are as dead and barren as Mars. In its most desolate regions the Atacama is allegedly sterile, as not even bacteria can survive there. When the Top Gear boys crossed the Atacama on a road trip, Jeremy Clarkson mentioned this — primarily to illustrate that co-host Richard Hammond was currently the smallest organism within a hundred miles.
  • The Rub' Al Khalinote  desert on the southern Arabian peninsula is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, taking up about 250,000 square miles of area. While it's not completely inhospitable (there is some life), it's close: water sources are extremely few and far between. On the flip side, though, it's geologically rich, with mineral and oil deposits estimated to be worth billionsnote .
  • The Taklamakan Desert in Central Asia is often considered the world's worst desert to attempt to cross. Antarctica is actually far bleaker to cross, but it's not a Thirsty Desert (after all, lack of water is definitely not a problem in Antarctica).


Example of: