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Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 2

  • Written by  Mark Evans
  • Published in Explorers
Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 2 All images Sim Davis and John C Smith
26 Dec
2015
Weekly updates from explorer Mark Evans as he attempts to retrace Bertram Thomas’ footsteps and cross the largest sand desert in the world – the Rub al Khali, from Salalah in Oman, to Doha in Qatar. This week: shooting contests, regal camels and Christmas Day in the desert

DAY 10: Real expeditions should make a difference
19 December – Distance to Doha: 789km

In the past, expeditions like the first crossing of the Rub al Khali made significant contributions to scientific understanding. Our journey is not so much about that, but is more about communication, and connection. We are not the first, and we do not set out to break any records. Instead, we set out to put the spotlight on two extraordinary individuals (Omani Sheikh Saleh Bin Kalut and Bertram Thomas, from Pill, near Bristol) who were the first to cross the biggest sand desert on earth in 1930, and who have, over time, been largely forgotten.

On his journey, Thomas collected countless specimens, some of which were new to science, and many of which are stored today at the natural history museum in London. By the time Thomas reached our current position, he had shot Oryx and Hyena, and seen signs of badgers, hedgehogs and numerous snakes. His record keeping was meticulous, and he collected 125 specimens from the sand desert alone.

Carried by the camels was an array scientific instruments. To avoid being accused of magic, or worse, Thomas followed a system at the end of each day; ‘To serve the ends of secrecy, always take up position on the edge of camp at some thirty to forty yards distance. There, on reaching camp, my servant would place my bedding and boxes whilst I joined my companions around the campfire. As darkness fell, I would retire for the night, and my servant let it be known that I was not to be disturbed. My three chronometers, two aneroid barometers and a wet and dry bulb thermometer were then laid out on the table…’

In contrast, our science is far less clandestine. Each day, as we arrive in camp we fill out a psychological report that monitors our state of mind as the expedition unfolds. This project is being undertaken in partnership with Dr Nathan Smith at the University of Northampton – at the same time that we are undertaking our work, a group in Antarctica led by Robert Swan will be doing the same thing.

Our second project is working closely with Green Arabia, a fascinating project headed up by Dr Michael Petraglia at the University of Oxford, and worthy of a much more in-depth look via their website. As we wind our way along wadi beds and sand dunes ever northward, we keep an eye out for any items of archaeological interest that might be of interest to the Green Arabia team.

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DAY 11: One gunshot changed everything
20 December – Distance to Doha: 779km

After a chilly night spent sleeping around the embers of the fire, interrupted by a persistent fox, we spent the first part of today crossing the first real sands of our journey, with the dunes of the southern borderlands of the Rub al Khali looming ever larger in the background. With no wind, and loose going underfoot we did well to cover 18km before deciding to stop for lunch, using the meagre shade offered by our backpacks to get at least our heads shaded from the early afternoon sun. From the peace of our vantage point we spotted a herd of 12 sand gazelles, but that peace was shortly broken by the sound of an approaching vehicle. On discovering us, the driver leapt into the back of his pick up and let off one loud rifle shot into the sky with a 65-year-old rifle that jammed three times before working.

The sound of the single rifle shot was all the remaining vehicles needed to work out our location; within minutes, fifteen vehicles descended, carrying in the region of fifty members of the Al Rashdi tribe, whose territory we are now passing through.  After much handshaking, nose pressing and shouting, mats were laid out on the sand and coffee, dates and nibbles were served, hotly followed by a wonderful song (and dancing) of welcome written especially for us, thanking His Majesty Sultan Qaboos for enabling the journey, and us for bringing back the memories of past explorers. So big was the crowd that a light lunch of goat and camel meat on enormous plates of rice had to be tackled in two sittings, carefully crafted to reflect the respective social standings of all those present. A brave poet stepped forward and proudly read out some lines he had written, before a rifle-shooting contest ensued. As with world cup penalties, England’s effort flew high and wide of the mark, as did the three that followed, before the target was finally hit by one of the old grey beards present – there’s clearly no beating experience.

The paramount Sheikh announced that lunch was over; a farewell song was sung, wishing us good fortune on our journey to Doha, and speeches of thanks were exchanged before we set off west into the setting sun to quickly cover the last seven kilometres. We have a nine kilometre dash left tomorrow morning to the oasis settlement of Al Hashman, the last settlement we will visit before we enter the sands, and where our camels await.

 

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DAY 12: The southern borderlands
21 December – Distance to Doha: 771km

Our final day travelling to the west was yet another memorable one. The dunes to our north are now large sand mountains that require a mountaineers’ eye to summit via the easiest route. A nine kilometre trek saw us in sight of the small community of Al Hashman, the last before we enter the sands, and the border with Saudi Arabia. We were met on the plain by the green oasis by the Vice Wali of the community, and directed to a large Bedouin tent that held another 100 or so people, who greeted us with poetry, singing and dancing, coffee and delicious halwa.

Our four female camels have been living here for two weeks, getting used to the environment, awaiting our arrival, and were the source of much admiration from the local people. They are fine animals, from the Royal Cavalry in Muscat, and bear the brand of Sultan Qaboos.

Amongst the crowd a young man was keen for us to meet his grandfather, Sheikh Hussein bin Ali bin Rumaida Al Rashdi. Sheikh Hussein had no idea how old he was exactly, as birth certificates did not exist when he was born, but he think he is over 100-years-old. As a young man he accompanied Wilfred Thesiger to the Haudramut and Mukalla, and his grandson proudly showed us four black and white images of a young, dreadlocked man in his prime, fortunate enough to have been chosen to accompany someone who, like Bertram Thomas, is synonymous with desert exploration.

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DAY 13: Three wise men (and one Englishman)
22 December – Distance to Doha: 754km

Our first day with the camels today, covering 18km north towards the border with Saudi Arabia. We are now travelling through enormous star dunes, which will get bigger still when we enter Saudi. The camels, all female and coming from good stock in the royal stables in Muscat proved quite a handful for the novices amongst the team today, but the afternoon session proved a little easier.

We have now been on the go for 13 days, and are much in need of a shower. The best we can do is to drop a few beads of frankincense onto the fire, and waft the aromatic smoke using a cupped hand into our faces to freshen up. Those wearing Arabic dress straddle the fire and allow the smoke to drift up their clothing and out of the neck, so ensuring a full body experience!

The frankincense trees grow in a narrow belt in the arid hills beyond Salalah, and we left them behind over a week ago. As we head north, we do carry some beads with us to burn each night. Much sought after in the great centres of civilisation, frankincense once had a value greater than gold. In 1930, Bertram Thomas noted that it was sold as far afield as Egypt and Israel, and from Bombay found it’s way to the markets and temples of the east. He also noted that ‘a little was kept in Dhofar, where the good housewife may out an incense burner under the bed at sunset to keep away evil’.

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DAY 14: Expedition communications
23 December – Distance to Doha: 743km

Our journey through the Empty Quarter revolves round communication. One way we have done this is through face to face social gatherings in the communities we pass through; we estimate that so far more than 1,000 people have joined us around the fire, or in a majlis, and at times there have been three generations from the same family with us, often listening to their grandfathers reminisce about their days spent with Mubarak bin London, and even one or two old greybeards who remember Bertram Thomas, and Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut.

The other way we are communicating is via social media and the internet. Our website is updated daily with images, a blog and a location tracker, and briefer updates are placed on social media each day. People from 97 nations have now logged on and are following our progress.

To send communications from the largest sand desert on earth requires some specialized kit. We have Thuraya XT satphones which give us voice comms to talk to the BBC World Service for example, and we also have two Thuraya Sat Sleeves that convert a normal GSM phone into a satellite phone. Each support vehicle carries one of these, whilst the walking team carries the XT handset. To send this post and daily images to the website each evening we turn on our Thuraya IP unit that gives us wifi satellite internet access. All of this equipment requires power, and each day we unfold three portable solar panels to capture the abundant energy from the sun; this unit is made by a great bunch in USA, called CT Solar.

What a contrast to the 1930 journey, when Thomas had no way of communicating with anyone for 60 days until he reached a telegraph office in Bahrain.

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DAY 15: Pre-Christmas drinks for our camels
24 December – Distance to Doha: 722km

Another 25km north today, which proved to be a good day for our four camels (shortly to become three due to persistent bad behaviour!). Our camp last night was a warm one; temperatures dropped to 15.3 degrees, the warmest night since we started, and the near full moon combined with constantly chewing camels meant for a broken night’s sleep for many. We do not carry tents, and all sleep out around the camp under the stars – some lying close to the fire, some closer to the camels to keep an eye on them during the night.

Within two hours of leaving camp we came across a substantial waterhole, Burkana 1, which had lush grass and sedges growing around it, in addition to three trees, the first we had seen in several days. The prints in the sand, and the bird life in the trees indicated the importance of the waterhole to local wildlife. A lone eagle left the trees as we approached, and the camels had an early Christmas dinner, hoovering up most of the sedge and grass within 20 minutes of arrival, before taking a short drink of the sulphurous water that filled the concrete water butt.

In his book Arabia Felix, Thomas wrote: ‘Impatient to get on to the sands, I had hoped to make a good day’s march, but that suggestion found small favour. The traveller in the great desert soon discovers that the welfare of the camel is the supreme consideration. Starts and halts are normally determined by the quality of the grazing; fodder is almost more important than water, for the camel can carry a load for a week and more without water, but food is an almost daily want…’

If no free grazing is available – and there is little present here due lack of rains for seven or none years, depending on who you ask – our own four camels eat half a bale of hay each day (we have 40 bales on the roof-racks of the two support vehicles), and consume 20 litres of water every third day, meaning that our support vehicles carry a substantial weight at times.

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DAY 16: Christmas Day in the Empty Quarter
25 December – Distance to Doha: 703km

Christmas morning brought the first overnight dew, and our sleeping bags were quite damp this morning; a near full moon entertained us with a lovely moonrise over the dunes just after the sun set in the west, and with the winds shifting to the south, a warm night ensued, 12 degrees warmer than of late.

The damp morning was brightened by the appearance of several tines of baked beans, the same treat that Bertram Thomas enjoyed in 1930. ‘My Christmas dinner consisted of desiccated soup, made with the water from the well, which thus needed no salt or pepper, and one of the few tins of baked beans I carried for special occasions – festive fare after a strenuous nine hours march without solid food,’ wrote Thomas. ‘A midday meal was an indulgence I never allowed myself. It would have been quite out of the question to cry a halt at noon- for the rule of life in the arid desert demands rapid marching from pasture to pasture. Instead I carried a flask of camels milk and some malted milk tablets, and short stops for my companions to pray afforded me the opportunity to slake my thirst.’

With beans gratefully consumed, our own march today took us a further 24km north, past the 19th degree line of latitude, and also past a small waterhole, with abundant grass growing around it that enabled the camels to graze to their content – quite appropriate for Christmas Day.

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Geographical is following Mark’s progress and will be posting weekly updates 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 on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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