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Into the Empty Quarter

  • Written by  Alastair Humphreys
  • Published in Explorers
Into the Empty Quarter Alastair Humphreys
01 Jan
2014
Inspired by Wilfred Thesiger’s famous desert journeys, Alastair Humphreys walked 1,600 kilometres from Salalah in Oman to Dubai and found that life there had changed enormously since Thesiger’s Arabian Sands was published

Could it have been vengeful karma? After all, I had spent the morning whingeing about sleeping on the uncomfortable gravel desert floor. Or maybe it was the ghost of Sir Wilfred Thesiger – whose desert journeys had inspired this adventure – sneering at our wimpishness for using fancy sleeping mats. Perhaps it was simple incompetence. Whatever the reason, my heart sank when we discovered that our foldable, closed-cell mats had fallen off our cart. Uncomfortable nights lay ahead.

After serving with the Special Air Service in North Africa during the Second World War, Thesiger dedicated the next five years to a series of journeys in the deserts of the Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula. Inspired by his book Arabian Sands, I dreamt that one day I would make a journey of my own in the region.

Following the postponement of a polar expedition in 2012, I sent a speculative email about my desert adventure to a friend of a friend, Leon McCarron. He had recently walked 5,000 kilometres across Mongolia and China with Rob Lilwall, and I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to join me at short notice for another long walk.

We didn’t set out to retrace Thesiger’s routes directly. We were simply inspired by him to undertake a journey of our own. Like Thesiger, we decided to start from the city of Salalah in Oman. We planned to end our traverse 1,600 kilometres to the north in Dubai.

 

DESIGN FOR STRIFE

I had a lot to learn in a short period of time and turned to the tiny yet generous community of committed desert travellers for advice. When it came to the matter of transporting supplies, camels were the obvious solution, but neither Leon nor I knew how to handle these animals and besides, we couldn’t afford one. So we found a friendly farmer who agreed to turn my rough sketch for a cart into a sturdy flat-pack vehicle that, when assembled in Salalah, would be capable of carrying up to 300 kilograms of water, food and equipment. Let me be clear about this: the double-axle cart was entirely my design. This is not a boast, as will become clear.

I settled on designing one large cart rather than two smaller carts because the latter would have used up more of our flight luggage allowance. I also feared that we would need our combined strength to move any one cart over certain types of terrain. I felt that the relationship hazards of being harnessed together to one cart were smaller than the stresses caused by one person moving faster than the other with individual carts.

The cart’s wheels generated the most discussion. We considered several options. In the end, time, budget and the likely predominance of flat gravel plains along our route led us to choose eight bicycle wheels fitted with wide, solid, mountain bike tyres. This combination proved more than adequate for all but the softest sand.

The last-minute nature of the expedition meant that we only had one afternoon available to test the cart on sand. In pouring rain on Margate beach, we realised that – tyres apart – several alterations were required.

We did what we could in the short time available before departure and flew to the desert unnerved that we hadn’t had sufficient practice with the cart, or tested our modifications.

The good news was that we would be travelling in a straight line across an empty desert. This meant that a complicated, heavy and expensive steering system wouldn’t be required.

We began our journey by hauling our heavy cart along Salalah’s roaring dual carriageways. This was the first time the cart had been loaded to capacity and it immediately became apparent that the lack of steering was a terrible mistake – there was no way we were going to make it to the outskirts of Salalah, let alone Dubai.
I feel embarrassed writing about this even now, so farcical was the situation.

But as on so many of my journeys, the support of strangers was astonishing, humbling and invaluable. On this occasion, Claudio saved our expedition. This eccentric Italian–Eritrean mechanic agreed to look after us in Salalah after we got in touch with him via an expats’ website.

Claudio and his colleagues from Pakistan, India and the Philippines welded, whacked and bodged a steering system onto our cart. It didn’t look pretty, but it worked. Profoundly grateful, we headed out of Salalah for a second time.

 

DAILY ROUTINE

Once we were in the desert, life became simple. We woke at 4am and breakfasted on fig rolls and powdered milk. Then we walked. We paused briefly every hour for a little food and a gulp of rationed water, and to swap positions in order to maintain harmony.

Slacking from the pulling wasn’t an option; it was instantly obvious to the other person if you tried this trick. Fortunately, Leon and I walked at almost the same pace.

We barely knew each other and now we were effectively tied together for 1,600 kilometres, but thankfully, we had no major arguments. Sharing a cart or sledge is a technique I would consider adopting again should I get the opportunity to make another desert – or polar – journey.

During the morning, we tried to walk as far and as fast as we could, until the temperature became too hot for us to bear. Then we snoozed and sweated in the shade for an hour or two.

In the afternoon, we walked again, counting down the time until sunset. The hour before sunset was wonderful. The light was golden and the heat had seeped away from the world.

After covering a few more miles in the cool of the dark, we would eventually stop, unroll our sleeping bags, cook some food and fall asleep. We repeated this daily ritual every day for five weeks.

We travelled as simply as we could manage, motivated in part by the knowledge that Thesiger, like his companions, wore the same clothes every day and slept on the sand wrapped only in his blanket. Thesiger was also weighed down with ‘spare ammunition, [his] camera, films, an aneroid and thermometer, a volume of Gibbon and War and Peace, a press for plants… and several bags of Maria Theresa dollars’.

He also carried foolscap hardback diaries, which we had been thrilled to study before we left England. By contrast, I was so tired each night that I didn’t begin to write my diary until week two of the traverse, something that has never happened to me before on an expedition.

 

DRESSING DOWN

Thesiger wore local clothing on his journeys. This helped with cultural acceptance and as a disguise when he was travelling through an area without permission. We weren’t hiding from bandits, nor would our cart have been very easy to camouflage, so we wore wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and loose-fitting trousers and shirts.

Our tough, UV-resistant clothing was better suited to desert travel than shorts and a T-shirt, and it was also more culturally sensitive attire for when we passed through settlements. Thesiger walked barefoot to be like his guides. He suffered terribly from cold, heat and sharp flints until his feet toughened up. Being far softer than Thesiger, we each took a pair of trainers and a pair of lightweight walking boots.

We needed to create shade for ourselves during the midday hours when it was too hot to walk, but our expensive tarp failed to function in the manner we had hoped. In the end, we resorted to lying beneath the cart for our siestas, like a couple of mechanics sleeping off a heavy lunch. It was uncomfortable and daft, but that summed up our trip, really.

At night, we slept beneath the stars. We had been warned about snakes, scorpions and the terrifying-sounding camel spider, but, as usual, these tales were exaggerated and we saw none.

We each took the thinnest of sleeping bags and a silk liner. To lie back after a hard day’s march and stare at the stars and moon is a special feeling, and one that helped to connect us with the person whose journey had inspired our own.

 

DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE

My romantic dream of walking in a straight line deep into the Empty Quarter, like a modern-day Thesiger, didn’t come to pass. For a start, the small matter of the Saudi Arabian border kept most of the desert out of reach to us.

Some of the desert outposts Thesiger visited, such as Mugshin, now boast car parks full of vans selling curry, as well as 24-hour convenience stores. Many of these changes came about as a result of the oil that was discovered shortly after Thesiger left Arabia. We followed pipelines, waved at busloads of immigrant Bangladeshi oil workers, and marvelled at the gas flares burning through the night.

In the early stages of the expedition, all of this human intrusion was a disappointment. It gnawed at me that our experience was so different to Thesiger’s. However, our modern journey brought us into contact with numerous wonderful characters.

The people we met were extraordinarily generous and friendly. One oil worker we met knew that he would see us again when he made a return journey a couple of days later. He drove as quickly as he could in order to present us with two ice creams before they melted. Thesiger himself said that without his Bedu companions, his journeys would have been a ‘meaningless penance’.

Everyone we met thought we were crazy. I’ve never posed for so many phone-camera photographs. But whenever a person mentioned our journey in the same breath as ‘Mubarak bin London’ – Thesiger’s affectionate nickname – I felt pride in our ramshackle journey, which concluded on the viewing platform of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Alastair Humphreys is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and the author of half a dozen books. The film of his desert journey, Into the Empty Quarter, is available from www.alastairhumphreys.com.

Alastair and Leon’s Empty Quarter expedition was self-funded. For those interested in carrying out research in the region, the RGS–IBG’s Thesiger-Oman International Fellowship offers an annual award of £8,000 for geographical research in the physical or human dimensions of arid and semi-arid environments. For further information, visit www.rgs.org/thesigeromanfellowship

 

FOOD AND WATER IN THE DESERT

Wilfred Thesiger had to make do with goatskins for carrying his water and worried constantly about the consequences of a leak or puncture. We used plastic jerrycans and siphoned our individual daily ration of five litres into several small bottles. In case the cart fell apart in the middle of the desert, we each took a rucksack that was large enough to hold vital supplies as well as a jerrycan of water.

Owing to a lack of time and money, we bought all of our food in Oman instead of importing specialist expedition food. We ended up with an inexpensive, calorie-rich and disgusting cartful of instant noodles, peanuts, biscuits and corned beef.

We topped up our rations with a curry and a Pepsi whenever we reached small settlements. Occasionally, we received presents from passers-by. These ranged from a watermelon to a bottle of aftershave. At least we smelt good for a few days.

 

ESSENTIAL GEAR

If you’re thinking of following in Alastair’s footsteps and hauling all your gear across the desert on a cart, you’ll want to choose that gear carefully, making sure that it will stand up to the harsh desert conditions and is portable enough to be carried every day in the sweltering heat. Here Alastair lists the essential items he took with him

 

1. Shirt

RailRiders Eco-Mesh shirt

£60/198 grams

Desert clothing needs to protect you from the sun and keep you cool. The Eco-Mesh shirt is light, robust and quick-drying. Its featherweight Duralite nylon fabric provides UPF 30+ sun protection

 

2. Electrolytes

Elete bottle

£36/480 grams

The Elete contains the minerals needed for efficient hydration but is devoid of the gunk found in certain similar products. The 480-millilitre bottle contains 192 single litre servings. Suitable for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets

 

3. Sleeping bag

Lifeventure Downlight 660

£100/660 grams

An extremely light bag filled with 90 per cent duck down and with an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. It includes external and internal pockets, a glow-in-the-dark zip puller, and a treatment against mosquitoes, bedbugs and bacteria

 

4. Satellite tracking system

SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

£120 (plus annual fee)/147 grams

An inexpensive way to let people know where you are when you’re beyond the reach of mobile telephone signals. Transmits a variety of pre-programmed messages (including SOS) to a list of your contacts at the push of a button. A subscription package is required

 

5. Sun protection

Riemann P20 (SPF 30)

£25/200 grams

This water-resistant formula provides UVA and UVB protection. If it works for my fair complexion, it will work for anyone. Also available in SPF 15, 20 and 50+ formulas

 

6. Tyre

Greentyre Hedgehog

£20/880 grams

Made from a microcellular polyurethane foam, these nearly indestructible tyres are recommended for all types of terrain except soft sand. Let the manufacturer know the tyre size and wheel rim width in which the Greentyre is going to be placed

 

7. Tarpaulin

B&Q Light Duty Tarpaulin

£11/400 grams

Having a cart in a desert provides one with a structure from which to hang a tarpaulin. The tarp ought to be large and block all sunlight. The eyelets on this 3.9 metre by 4.9 metre tarpaulin enable you to rig it in a variety of ways with the help of trekking poles and bungees

 

8. Water container

Halfords 25-litre jerrycan

£15/750 grams

Jerrycans are supplied in a variety of volumes so choose a size according to your calculation of water requirements, while bearing in mind the available space on your cart. Jerrycans with a plastic bung inside the screw cap are recommended. This one is equipped with a handy tap. Remember to pack a couple of metres of hosepipe to act as a siphon

 

9. Backpack

Osprey Xenith 105

£240/2.6 kilograms

A good-quality pack is well worth its price tag. Osprey’s attention to detail is superb – pockets, straps and access points have all been carefully considered. I found the durable Xenith to be comfortable for hauling heavy loads. The top lid converts into a quality lumbar pack for day trips

 

10. Down jacket

Mountain Equipment Arete jacket

£140/385 grams

In dry conditions, a down jacket is a lighter and warmer alternative to a fleece. I appreciated the Arete’s windproof shell during chilly, breezy desert dawns. The stitched-through construction is filled with about 140 grams of 90 per cent down. Fitted with three pockets

This story was published in the January 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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