My journey to Oman actually began when I started my teaching career at a tough, bottom-of-league comprehensive in Somerset. I admired how the head of geography held the kids’ attention: it was because he was the one that took them out for field trips on the weekend. Eventually I became the head of geography myself at a school in Nairobi. The Arabic influence on the city is what really sparked my interest in the desert region. It led me to teaching in Bahrain and eventually Oman.
I guess I wanted to teach for all the wrong reasons – it was a lifestyle that enabled me to continue on expeditions. Between jobs I could go north to Greenland, Svalbard or the Northwest Passage, and while teaching in Bahrain I could do expeditions in the desert and use the weekends to take the students on field trips. If I were king for a day I would scrap all of the other subjects and teach the entire curriculum through geography.
Polar and desert expeditions complimented each other because there are such similarities. The geographical definition of a desert is somewhere with less than 250mm of rain a year. This applies to Bahrain and Greenland, they are both deserts – one of ice and one of sand. You also find similarities in the people that live in these regions. Most live on the edge of human tolerance and because of that most share a warmth and a generosity that is overwhelming.
The truth is, you don’t conquer the desert. You do what the desert allows you to do. I’m always reminded of a skiing expedition I did across Greenland in the 1990s. We had a call on a satellite phone telling us ‘at this rate you’re going to break the fastest record for crossing the Greenland ice cap’. We looked at each other and thought, do we really want to do that? We worked so hard for two years to make this journey happen. Why rush and get it over in 17 days? I think, there is a lot to be said for slowness.
There is also a lot of focus on doing expeditions unsupported. I feel we should stop worrying about that so much and embrace the fact that behind every steering wheel is a person. As an explorer, you can choose to either ignore your support, living in the cocoon of being a Westerner on foreign land, or you can open up to the society around you.
“It’s always an upwards struggle to change Western perceptions of the Middle East”
While the desert is a magnificent place, this expedition was about people. In Wilfred Thesiger’s account of crossing the Empty Quarter in 1947, he doesn’t refer to the place as much as the people living in it. That is his great memory – the comradeship and the hospitality of the Bedouin and nomadic tribes he met. Our similar route crossed the borders of three different countries: Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, so it had to be as much about people as place. We tried to communicate values as much as physical discovery.
We used the expedition as a way to get young people involved with the desert. To do that we had to use social media. While in Saudi Arabia, a team of young Saudis joined us in the desert to ride and walk. Then as we approached Qatar, there was a team of young Qataris who met us on camels for the last leg to Doha.
I set up the University of the Desert as a means to teach young people about the Empty Quarter and about each other. When groups of young people come out with us it is often the first time that they have the opportunity to sit down and be quiet in the desert. After we have persuaded them to unplug themselves from the digital world, they can actually sit down and think about the next step in their lives or careers. Three times a year we take 18 young people from 18 European and Middle Eastern nations to the desert and get to the bottom of controversial topics.
It was TE Lawrence who described the fireplace as the ‘university of the desert’. It is around the fire where stories are told, news is exchanged and disputes settled. When you’ve got 18 young people from polarised cultures sitting around the same fire, with no doors to hide behind, the cooperation is phenomenal. It’s an opportunity to expose young people to the reality of the Middle East.
It’s always an upwards struggle to change Western perceptions of the Middle East. I was recently in Romania and someone asked me ‘aren’t you a little bit worried living in Oman with everything that’s going on in Syria?’ I had to say, ‘well Syria’s closer to Romania than it is to Oman, shouldn’t you be worried?’ While headlines are dominated by negativity, the society out there is wonderful. Huge tracts of that region are incredibly peaceful.
1961 Born in Shropshire
1979 Completed first expedition to Norway
1994 Completed ski crossing of Greenland Ice Cap
1999 Retraced William Edward Parry’s expedition to the North Pole
2001 Spent a year in a tent within 500 miles of the North Pole
2003 Moved to Oman; completed 1,700km solo kayak journey around Omani coastline
2004 Founded the University of the Desert
2009 Appointed Executive Director of Outward Bound Oman, the only Outward Bound school in the Middle East
2009 Completed 28-day expedition through the Empty Quarter
2011 Awarded an MBE for using expeditions to promote intercultural understanding
This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.