Deserts are nature’s perfect hiding places for strange things. The climate can be so hostile to traverse that few people will risk dying after a few hours exposure in the hopes of finding something worthwhile. The lack of even basic of life forms, like bacteria in some deserts, mean that bizarre and mysterious objects can be preserved much longer and more often than normal.
The extreme environment is also good for creating all sorts of novel flora and fauna. For unsavory types, the desert is perfect for doing nefarious deeds, where they imagine there wouldn’t be prying eyes to worry about. So let’s search the sands, seeking something strange.
10. Chinese Desert Patterns
In 2011, Google Earth users found objects in Gobi Desert areas of China’s Xinjiang and Gansu provinces that made the supposedly paranormal crop circles look downright quaint. While a few large buildings were quickly identified, the more intriguing and seemingly haphazardly designed collections of white lines carved into the ground defied any immediate explanation and came off as especially suspicious for having been made in remote areas. These were not small objects, either. The Guardian reported that some stretched out for as much as roughly half a mile to 1.15 miles.
The answer turned out to be a little ingenious but relatively benign. They’re used by the Chinese government to orient their spy satellites and calibrate their lenses. Knowing the relative distances and angles for different portions of the pattern allows the satellite operators to know if they’re reading certain distances properly or how well the focus is working. These, it should be noted, are not secret satellites, and it’s not a practice that’s unique to China, either. There’s one in Casa Grande, Arizona that serves the same purpose and which dates back to the 1960s.
9. Ancient Egyptian Burial Boat
For ancient Egyptians, it was fairly common practice to include a vehicle of some kind in the tomb. The famous tomb of King Tut had six chariots in it. Others favored putting boats in theirs, and this was hardly restricted to the elites. Even the peasant class would put cheap but affordable reed boats in their graves with them. But one that was discovered in the Saharan desert after 4,500 years in the sands of the Abusir Necropolis was quite baffling.
This vessel, unearthed in 2016, was sixty feet in length, only about six feet shorter than a warship of the time. It was made of especially high-quality wood, hence it still being relatively intact when it was excavated. What was odd was that it wasn’t buried in the grave of a noble, or a general, or anyone like that. Instead, the person entombed with it was a commoner. How could a peasant have afforded such a boat? How could the family have possibly afforded to pay to have the equivalent of a destroyer buried with him, or even have it transported inland? The answer for people curious about the true nature of the past is frustratingly lost to the sand swirls history.
8. Desert Graveyard for Sea Mammals
Speaking of graveyards, the mystery boat is hardly alone in terms of finding surprising burial sites in the sands. In the Atacama Desert in Chile, there’s a hill called Cerro Ballena (“Whale Hill”) forty meters above sea level that, during roadwork in 2010, was found to contain fossils of forty whales along with a collection of other marine mammals such as dolphins and seals, not to mention some fish related to swordfish. It initially seemed like an amazing case of mass fossilization: How could dozens of animals of various species have all died at once, and in so many cases have been preserved?
The most accepted explanation is that the numerous mammals and fish were deposited over time, and that the hill in question happened to be a place where the bodies were washed up, only to have nature preserved them for six to nine million years. The rather worrying suspect of the deaths that left them to washed up on land was a spontaneous algae infection. True or not, it certainly left an unusual resting place for quite a menagerie.
7. Sudden Tunisian Desert Lake
We’re all familiar with the trope of desperate people exposed to desert climates for too long who start to see mirages of water that appears out of nowhere. This conceit became real in an area of Tunisia twenty-five kilometers from Gafsa in July 2014, when a lake seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was no small body of water, either. It spanned about 2.6 acres and was estimated to be as much as eighteen meters deep according to the Digital Journal. Naturally it drew many people who wanted relief from the heat, which could climb over one hundred degrees fahrenheit.
For those who prefer rational explanations for seemingly anomalous events, the main option for a potential source is not good for the people who cooled themselves in it. Nearby there are phosphate mines, and the lake potentially came from an underwater spring freed by the mining process. This unfortunately would mean the lake is likely contaminated with carcinogens, and potentially radioactive carcinogens at that. Still, the Tunisian government did not attempt to ban swimming in it.
6. Egyptian Cone Patterns
Let’s return to Egypt now for a discovery that puzzled the internet when people began stumbling upon it in 2014 while using Google Maps. It was a spiral pattern near El Guana, Egypt (close to the Red Sea) of clearly defined and precisely arrayed cone shapes, either as mounds or precisely sculpted pits. Overall, the pattern spanned one million square feet with a cone one hundred feet in diameter in the center.
It turned out to have been an art piece called “Desert Breath” that was finished in 1997 under the supervision of Danae Stratou after several years of work. It seemed to fall in and out of the public consciousness, having also been “rediscovered” in 2009. Stratou said that he originally filled the pit surrounding the central cone with water up to the rim, but it’s perhaps not surprising that the water didn’t linger in a desert.
5. “Horned” Kangaroo Fossils
In Australia’s Nullarbor Desert (along the middle southern coast) in 2002, a dig found a collection of skeletons that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation described as “weird kangaroos.” They had not just digging claws, despite being larger than most burrowing animals and kangaroos not being burrowing animals anyway, but also odd protrusions above their eyes.
At first it was thought these were horns, but that didn’t fit with how little they extended from the forehead, so then it was suspected they were more like an unusual eye guard. It was also noted by New Scientist that the kangaroo skull shapes indicated they had “strange bulbous noses,” indicating they looked like alien kangaroo clowns. If that sounds creepy to anyone else, we can at least be reassured that the animal was a mere harmless herbivore.
4. Fairy Circles Stump Scientists for Years
The name “fairy circle” might make you imagine something with some strange beauty or least a little whimsy. In fact, it’s more about a lack of life than anything charming. In the Namib Desert (along the southwestern coast of Africa, largely in the country of Namibia) and in Australia there are odd circles in the middle of areas of vegetation wherein perfectly fertile ground had no grass growing in them, evenly spaced and exactly concentric. It looks like something a conspiracy theorist would claim was evidence a UFO landed. More mundane theories, such as fires or winds being the culprit, were ruled out by the fact these bare patches could last for decades, some remaining free of plant life for as long as seventy-five years. As recently as 2012 scientists were completely unsure, and it wasn’t until 2017 that any viable explanations were put forward.
The leading explanations are a combinations of the circles formerly being the sites of termite colonies (their even spacing is consistent with rival termite colonies elsewhere) and that plant root systems do this as a means of distributing water during inevitable shortages. Neither of these fully explain why the circles will remain barren for so long with no visible trace of colonies, but they are both at least a little more likely than them being the work of literal fairies.
3. Works of the Old Men
They were first observed from the air by British pilot Percy Maitland in 1927, but these enigmatic structures in Iraq haven’t really captured the public imagination the way they deserve. In Central-Eastern Jordan, near the Azraq Oasis, there are hundreds of wheel structures more than eighty feet wide, some as many as two hundred feet wide, and their use is lost to history. The best guess is that they’re cemeteries that date back millennia, but this has been disputed. Over in Northern Jordan, the Black Desert possesses two such circles that date back a whooping 8,500 years, making them far older than the world’s oldest known pyramid and leaving behind not a single hint as to why they were created. As you can see they often have rocks arrayed within them that indicate they’re supposed to be symbols, but the only clues that anyone has found are that some are arrayed in patterns to point towards the rising sun. Similar but simpler shapes have also been found in Saudi Arabia.
While we’re on the subject of Saudi Arabia, it has perhaps the largest number of these mysterious shapes. Large stone triangles were assembled, and so little is known about them that they haven’t even been given a date of origin. There are also very tall pairs of long “u” shapes that have been dubbed “gates” which have been carved into the ground or formed by assembling rocks which number over three hundred, and they seem to be exclusive to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps we will never really learn much more about them than that they are, as bedouins call them, “Works of the Old Men.”
2. The Unexplained Gigantic Marree Man
This 4 kilometer tall white etching near Adelaide in South Australia of an indigenous hunter about to throw a stick (usually cut into the ground about a third of a meter deep and about as wide as an average road) was discovered in 1998. Since it was first spotted from the air, it’s been uncertain who made it, how, or why.
The most likely person was Bardius Goldberg, but all that was known about it was he said he’d wanted to make something like it (he claimed his would be visible from space, which this thing definitely is not) and had paid to have one designed. But there was no info about specifics such as equipment or people hired, and he died in 2002 before he was reached for an interview that could reveal whether or not he was the one who supervised its creation. Not that there is any shortage of local people who claimed to have worked on it, but how they kept the creation under wraps for as long as they did remains unclear.
1. The Emptied Body of Ryan Singleton
Our final entry is a tragic one. In 2013, a 24-year-old openly gay male model from Georgia, Ryan Singleton, was found dead by hikers in California’s Mojave desert two and a half months after he disappeared. His remains were a particularly grisly sight. His eyes, lungs, liver, kidneys, and heart had been removed. No evidence of a perpetrator were found, or even any leads as of 2016. Police, for their part, felt that the removed organs did not indicate that Singleton had been murdered by an organ harvesting ring. They attributed the missing organs to scavenging animals, though if that was the case it seems odd that other than the missing organs his body was generally intact.
The family suspected that either Singleton had made an enemy in the entertainment industry or his orientation had caused someone to murder him in a hate crime. If he had died of natural causes, no reason was found for why he would have died where he did. At the time of writing, the investigation is ongoing.
Dustin Koski may be strange but he’s unlikely to be found in the desert. He is also the author of a hilarious and exciting fantasy novel.