Day 44: The varied geography of Saudi Arabia
22 January – Distance to Doha: 115km
Saudi Arabia is the most fascinating of countries, and in my four years spent living in Riyadh in the late 1990s we travelled to every corner, clocking up thousands of miles in my trusty Land Rover Defender. I had forgotten just how diverse it could be, and just as we thought that it was flat gravel-plains all the way to the border, so today proved us wrong; we have covered another 32km northward through what has been very varied terrain. Our camp last night was overlooking a sabkha swamp, with standing water and large areas of the vivid green Haram bush. We feared the worst in terms of another heavy dew, but managed to escape relatively lightly; despite a near full moon, the stars were out in force until about 0400, when the first hint of a fog and some dampness appeared.
By the time we were on the move at 0630 visibility was once again down to 50 metres, and we headed off into the gloom, working our way slowly around the edge of the swamp. Halfway across the sun broke through, revealing some fascinating rock structures that would not have looked out of place in Monument Valley. Those structures, along with the lovely light were enough to send our Octocopter up into the sky for one more time, trying to film the camels and walkers passing through a series of fascinating pedestal rocks and wind sculpted cliffs.
We were then faced with the choice of skirting around the base of a large mountain, or going straight over the top. Despite some concerned looks from our camels, we opted for the latter, before descending into yet another large area of sabkha – dazzlingly white in places, ominously dark and moist in others. Having survived that, our day ended with a long stretch through a large farming community. After many days of nothing other than sand, it was lovely to walk through palm trees, smell goats and sheep, and hear cockerels crowing, a veritable oasis after the relatively sterility of the sands.
Our camp tonight is a mere 32km from the border, and our target tomorrow is a small grove of acacia trees some 6km from that border, enabling us to cross and enter Qatar at first light on the morning of the 24 January.
Day 45: Connecting with the outside world
23 January – Distance to Doha: 102km
Our final full day in Saudi Arabia, where we have enjoyed great challenges and wonderful hospitality, has come to an end. We are camped on the top of a small dune overlooking the brightly lit border post of Salwa, where tomorrow we will cross and enter Qatar, for the final stages of our journey.
I have, for the first time for several weeks, a strong signal on my mobile phone, and have been busy tonight contacting the Qatari authorities to ensure tomorrow goes as smoothly as it can. The mobile signal means that we can pack away our Thuraya satellite equipment that has enabled us to communicate our progress and discoveries each day, enabling people to be part of our journey, at least digitally. Over the past few weeks, people from more than 100 nations around the world have logged on to the website, and more than 4,500 people have been following our progress across the Rub al Khali on Facebook – all thanks to us being able to access the internet from the centre of the largest sand desert on Earth.
Contrast our situation with that of Bertram Thomas in 1930/31. For 60 days, he had no way of communicating with the outside world. No-one knew where he was, and he had no way to shout for help – a world away from modern day expeditions such as our own. Even when he reached Doha, Thomas was unable to share the news that the crossing had been successful. Qatar may well be hosting the World Cup in a few years’ time, but in 1931 it was a very different place. Once Thomas had enjoyed the legendary Qatari hospitality, he had to push on, sailing on a Dhow to Muharraq in Bahrain, from where he was able to send a Telegram that the Rub al Khali had been crossed, a story that made front page news in New York and London. Take the time to look at Thomas’s papers, now stored safely in Cambridge in the UK, and you will find Telegram’s of congratulations sent from King George, Sultan Taimour and a painful one sent from Philby, in Mecca, who’s own hopes of being the first were dashed by Thomas’s news.
Day 46: Arrival in Qatar
24 January – Distance to Doha: 89km
Our final morning in Saudi Arabia proved to be another damp one as we woke in our sodden sleeping bags overlooking the Salwa border post. The small military team appointed to oversee our safe passage saw us through the fast-track channel, and what must have been an intimidating experience for our camels, with all the trucks and the noise, was all over in about 40 minutes. No sooner had we bade farewell to our Saudi hosts than we were greeted by a Qatari police escort who where expecting us, and guided us past what proved to be a queue of trucks stretching a solid 4km.
Clearing the camels through the quarantine section on the border took an hour, by which time we had met the inspirational figure of Ahmad Al Kuwari, a key figure in the creation of NOMAS (www.nomascenter.org) a unique school set up in Qatar to reconnect young people to their culture and heritage. Boys as young as seven years old are taught to free dive to a depth of five metres and collect items from the sea bed, as their pearl diving forefathers did until relatively recently. They are also taught how to hunt with both falcons and salukis, to ride both horses and camels, to grind coffee and to learn the old stories and songs of the past. At a time when many gulf nations are concerned about the loss of culture amongst their young people, a programme such as NOMAS, just like Outward Bound in Oman, has been particularly well received, and is flourishing. So keen are Qatari parents to send their students to NOMAS that there is currently a five-month waiting list – always a good sign that something is of value.
With the special permission of the Emir of Qatar, tomorrow we have the privilege of riding our camels through an environmentally protected area closed to all but the most fortunate. Safe from the guns and hunters, the area is home to gazelle, houbara bustards and other local specialities that we look forward to seeing from the back of our camels as we wind our way north for another 30km towards Doha, and journeys end.
Day 48: Ironic Approaches, and a Tribute to Henry Worsley
26 January – Distance to Doha: 21km
To put us in a good position to reach Al Rayyan Fort tomorrow in good time, we had to push hard today. We covered more than 40km on foot and by camel before we stopped at sunset, some 20km from the fort, much to the amusement and irritation of the rush hour traffic as the Doha police escorted our camels across the main Doha to Salwa highway.
Our approach to the city, on our penultimate day, has been ironically similar to that of Bertram Thomas in 1931. A leaden sky, high wind and a few spots of rain fell as we worked our way towards the city.
In Arabia Felix, Thomas wrote ‘It was a bleak, bitter evening; no stick of firewood anywhere availed, only miserable fires of dung were possible. Drizzling rain fell through the night, and I woke to find my blankets drenched; so that to breakfast in the dry I lay under my camp table. But it was to be my last breakfast in the desert, and so whatever the conditions, they could be supported cheerfully.’
Time ran away with us last night as the sad news of the death of British Explorer Henry Worsley in Antarctica reached us via satellite. This morning we had a team from Nepal, Sudan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar sitting around the fire, and they listened intently as we explained what had happened, and what Henry was trying to achieve. They shook their heads in disbelief that anywhere could be colder than Qatar in the winter. The spirit of Henry’s journey (which was immeasurably more difficult than ours) was very much in tune with the core values of grit, resilience and tenacity we have been trying to convey to young people via our own journey. Our thoughts, and sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.
Day 51: The Towers of Doha! Our journey comes to an end
29 January – Distance to Doha: 0km
The team are slowly re-adjusting to civilisation in Doha. Sleeping in a bed has proven difficult after 49 days lying on the sand under the stars, and none of us have slept well since we arrived two days ago.
Our final day proved to be a stark contrast to the previous 48, most of which had been spent in total wilderness. Guided by our Qatari hosts, our group of camels ignored the noise and bustle of the roads, and we wove our way through first industrial and then residential areas on the outskirts of Doha. After two hours we got our first glimpse of the modern towers that today dominate the skyline of modern Doha, a city busily preparing for the World Cup in 2022, and a city very different to the Doha seen by Bertram Thomas on 5 February 1931. Thomas lingered briefly, enjoying the hospitality of the Emir, before pushing on to Bahrain to send a telegram announcing his successful crossing.
Our target was to end our journey at the same location as Thomas in 1931 – Al Rayyan Fort. We arrived shortly before 1600hrs, when our Qatari Patron His Excellency Sheikh Joaan bin Hamed Al Thani waited to greet us, along with the Ambassadors of the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Oman. A large media presence ensured we did not have to follow Thomas to Bahrain, and carried news of our arrival, and journey’s end to a global audience around the world, via BBC, Al Jazeera International, The Times, AFP and many others. We now have a couple of days in Doha to tie up loose ends before the team flies back to Muscat, and a homecoming press conference on Sunday at The Diplomatic Club.
It is only appropriate that in this, the final blog, I say thank-you to the fantastic group of people who have been a key part of this amazing 49-day journey. All have played vital roles, and all, despite the difficult conditions and unrelenting mental and physical demands unique to demanding, extended expeditions, have remained focused and sane! Two key figures have been our two support-vehicle and mobile base camp drivers and photographers Sim Davis and John Smith – their images that have appeared on the website, and been featured in the global media, have been the source of much admiration, and will grace our expedition book that is due out later in 2016.
My great admiration goes to my two Omani companions, Mohammed Al Zadjali, from Outward Bound Oman and Amur Al Wahaibi, a Bedouin from Bidiya, in Oman. They have been the best expedition companions one could wish for, and together we have walked, or ridden, for 1,300km and 49 days across the biggest sand desert on earth. Not once did they ask for a rest day, or complain, and Oman can be proud of them. Like most nations in the current economic recession, Oman faces a challenging few years; Mohammed and Amur have overcome their own challenge in the past 49 days through tenacity, resilience, positive thinking, flexibility and an unwavering focus on the ultimate goal, despite discomfort and constant challenge. Those same values will serve everyone well in the coming difficult times.
My final thanks goes to you, the people who have followed this journey for almost two months; while we have been unable to respond, we have been able to read, and your comments have meant a lot us, especially during the more challenging periods. Thank you.
Geographical has followed Mark’s progress throughout his 60-day expedition across the Empty Quarter. For more information on the expedition, interactive maps and a downloadable app, visit the team’s website, or follow the expedition’s social media feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.