Deserts - Life in the Furnace

Image for Deserts - Life in the FurnaceNot currently available on BBC iPlayer

Episode 2 of 8

Duration: 1 hour

We can survive for weeks without food, but only days without water: it is the essential element of life. Yet many millions of us live in parched deserts around the world. In the second episode of Human Planet, we discover how the eternal quest for water brings huge challenges - and ingenious solutions - in the driest places on Earth.

Battling through a sand storm in Mali, Mamadou must get his cows to a remote lake but desert elephants have arrived first. Can he find a safe way through the elephant blockade? Alone for weeks on end, Tubu women and children navigate the endless dunes of the Sahara. How does young Shede know where to find the last oasis, three days walk across the sea of sand? At the height of the drought we witness a spectacular frenzy: two thousand men rushing into Antogo Lake to catch the fish trapped by the evaporating water. When the rain finally arrives in the desert it's a time for flowering and jubilation - and love. The Wodaabe men of Niger put on make-up for an intoxicating courtship dance and beauty contest and the women pick the winners.

  • Deserts episode facts

    • A desert is defined as a place where less than 25cm (10 inches) of rain falls in a year.

    • Deserts cover around a third of the Earth’s surface. Due to climate change and increased desertification, deserts are expanding faster than any other habitat on Earth.

    • Temperatures soar to 58C in some of the hottest deserts, but there are cold deserts too like the Gobi in Mongolia where winter temperatures drop to –40C.

    • Incredibly despite the harsh conditions around 300 million people live in deserts round the world.

    • Sandstorms can build to 5000m in height covering areas the size of Britain, creating walls of sand so vast they can be seen from space.

    • Sand from Saharan sandstorms can sometimes travel as far as the UK.

    • Technically Antarctica is the driest desert in the world. The driest sand desert is the Atacama in Chile.

  • Human Planet – Deserts - Gerewol beauty contest

    Human Planet – Deserts - Gerewol beauty contest

    Producer/Director Tuppence Stone describes Gerewol, an extraordinary male beauty contest held by the Wodaabe people in Niger.
    The prize for the winners is the pick of any of the girls.

    Watch the Gerewol beauty contest Video
  • Human Planet – Deserts - Elephant Herders

    Human Planet – Deserts - Elephant Herders

    During the dry season Lake Banzena is one of the most important water supplies in the Sahel at the edge of the Sahara.
    At the height of the drought there can be a battle for water but here Producer/Director Tuppence Stone describes the peaceful coexistence between the desert elephants and the herders of Mali, in the Sahel at the edge of the Sahara.

    Watch the Elephant herders Video
  • Tuppence Stone, Producer/Director, Deserts and Grasslands

    Tuppence Stone, Producer/Director, Deserts and Grasslands

    Adventurous mother of three, Tuppence was inspired by David Attenborough, and the writings of Freya Stark and Wilfred Thesinger. She was caught up in a tribal war at the age of 19 while studying birds-of-paradise in the Papua New Guinean rainforest and at 21 she led a filming expedition to Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile in search of endangered hummingbirds. But it was on Human Planet that her passion for cultures and nature finally came together.

    For Tuppence, it’s all about trying to understand the way other people see the world, before their ideas are lost in these rapidly changing times. To travel across the desert with feisty Tubu women, to dance under the stars shoulder to shoulder with the beautiful Wodaabe, to gallop Bactrian camels across the Mongolian Gobi desert or to run after a wounded antelope with Bushmen hunters of the Kalahari. These are experiences she will never forget.

  • Cecilia Hue, Assistant Producer, Deserts and Grasslands

    Cecilia Hue, Assistant Producer, Deserts and Grasslands

    Multi-lingual Cecilia is half French, half Spanish and moved to England after a year at Bath University on a foreign exchange. She started working making current affairs documentaries for the BBC. Finding and reporting compelling stories hasn’t always been easy. Whilst in Gaza, for ‘This World’, she was under siege in a hospital for an hour during a gun battle and was nearly blown up by a bomb in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan.

    Human Planet may not have been as risky, but it has certainly been an adventure – from filming people catching millions of snakes in flooded grasslands, to chasing sandstorms and filming charging desert elephants in the Sahara. At least, with six languages under her belt, she can usually understand what’s going wrong when faced with a difficult situation!

  • Jane Atkins, Researcher, Grasslands and Deserts

    Jane Atkins, Researcher, Grasslands and Deserts

    Jane was brought up in Malawi, where she was lucky enough to spend years in the beautiful wildernesses learning about African wildlife and camping under the stars with her family. After many years and adventures she was well and truly bitten by the Africa bug. She later moved to Ethiopia where she whitewater rafted the Awash River, trekked through rainforests and spent time with tribes in the Omo valley who at the time were still isolated from the rest of the world.

    With a passion for photography and the natural world she graduated and found her perfect job at the BBC, where she’s worked on several award winning documentary series. Human Planet has been the most challenging yet though, with complex back-to-back shoots. With a young daughter and a partner who travels a lot as well, the last two years have been a scheduling nightmare, not to mention tough emotionally! But she loves her job, and it has all been worth it for a rare series like Human Planet. Filming across the world and being able to meet extraordinary people and tell their stories in these changing times has been unforgettable.


John Hurt
Tuppence Stone
Series Producer
Dale Templar


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