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Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 3

  • Written by  Mark Evans
  • Published in Explorers
Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 3 All images Sim Davis and John C Smith
01 Jan
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: sulphur showers, flags and maintaining a routine

DAY 17: A sulphurous but much needed shower
26 December – Distance to Doha: 690km

The Saudi Arabian border is now in sight; yesterday we reached Burkana 3, the last of a series of waterholes near to the Oman/Saudi Arabian border, leaving us just 28km before we enter Saudi Arabia. To do so at a non-formal border crossing we have to carry, amongst other things, veterinary certificates for the camels, and the usual passport and letters of authority to cross from military post to military post on what is a long, largely unmarked border.

Our arrival at Burkana 3 at midday gave us a semi-rest day; the oasis is nothing more than a phragmites reed-bed amidst enormous dunes, but the vivid greenery stands out markedly from the otherwise sandy surroundings, not only to us, but also to migrating birds. For the past three days all we have seen is a pair of brown necked ravens that have followed us in the hope of a few scraps of something. Yesterday, around the reedbed, we saw swallows, wagtails, pipits and an Egyptian vulture, and fox prints were plentiful.

The small military camp here takes its water from the waterhole via a large pipe that stands four metres high – open the valves and stand underneath and you have the best shower ever – hot, smelling of rotten eggs, but most welcome after 16 days of toil. Thomas mentioned that the water further north was of a brown colour and so sulphurous that even the camels refused to drink; he had no choice, but frequently spent the next few days having to dash to the toilet!


DAY 18: Flags, and farewell to Oman
27 December – Distance to Doha: 673km

When Bertram Thomas and Sheikh Saleh Bin Kalut crossed the Rub al Khali in 1930, there were challenges aplenty, but no political borders to be negotiated. Today has seen us finally reach the border between Saudi Arabia and Oman. The border post consists of a rusty metal bar across the sandy track, between two oil drums; some four kilometres away, across the valley, we can see the lights of Khiran, a Saudi military camp that we hope to reach tomorrow, where we can discuss our plans with the authorities for the next few hundred kilometres, which will be the most challenging of the entire journey.

We left the Omani military camp this morning after a lovely, unexpected visit from about 20 members of the community of Al Hashman who had travelled about 100km to wish us well. After exchanging greetings we posed for photographs with the flags of all four nations involved in the journey – Oman, UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In addition, the flag of Outward Bound Oman, the only Outward Bound school in an Arabic speaking nation was on show.

The final flag on display was that of the Explorers Club of New York. The flag is only awarded to expeditions that make a significant contribution to scientific understanding. To date, the Explorers Club flag has been carried to all seven continents, under the ocean and into the stars via Apollo 8 and 15. The flag we have is 60 years old, and has been carried on at least 27 major expeditions prior to ours.

We will hand it back to the Explorers Club when we speak in New York in 2016; Bertram Thomas spoke there in 1932, when he was made an honorary member in recognition of his achievements. His picture hangs on the wall of the club’s headquarters, next to other exploration greats such as Edmund Hillary, Richard Ellsworth, Wilfred Thesiger and Fridtjof Nansen.


DAY 19: The next chapter unfolds
28 December – Distance to Doha: 666km

A brief wait this morning for our passports to reach us from Muscat, where special visas had been issued, and we were on our way, saying farewell to Oman, and entering Saudi Arabia through the most remote of border posts in the dunes of the Rub al Khali.

The border here is unfenced, and marked by concrete marker posts every five kilometres. If you happen to be between posts, there is little evidence of the border. To complete the unusual formalities associated with crossing at an unmanned location, we crossed the border at a point close to a military camp, where we were met by many smiling faces, and made to feel most welcome by the border patrol who found it hard to understand how we got formal permission to enter the kingdom in such a way.

After countless cups of coffee and sweet tea, we were on our way once more, covering three kilometres over a large dune to be greeted at the top of the col by the most beautiful vista of large, red sand dunes stretching away to the horizon, separated by flat, broad valleys. It is wonderful to be back in Saudi Arabia; 70 per cent of our entire journey from Salalah to Doha will now take place in the eastern province. It is, geographically, the most fascinating of countries. I spent four very happy years working in Riyadh, and in my old Land Rover Defender explored the Kingdom from top to bottom, from the juniper clad mountains of Asir, to the rocky north west of the Hejaz, scene of Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits, and where the engines he de-railed can today still be found on the side of the old tracks, free of rust and well preserved in the dry desert air. We followed ancient pilgrim routes from the iris-covered border of Iraq, across the Nafud desert to Mecca, and importantly travelled deep into the great Rub al Khali itself, approaching from the north.

As we now work our way northwest towards the next waterholes, the next two weeks will be the most difficult of our entire journey as we pass through the area of largest dunes – an interesting challenge lies ahead for walkers, camels and drivers alike.


DAY 21: Cajoling camels as New Year approaches
30 December – Distance to Doha: 627km

The central southern sands of the Rub al Khali are known as Dakaka, and today we have made 23 kilometres of progress into their eastern edge. It has been tough going for both walkers and camels, as the dunes have grown in both size and steepness.

Depending on which book you read, sand can only hold a slope angle of 32 to 34 degrees before it avalanches, but that angle is tough going irrespective of whether you have two legs or four. On such terrain, the camels need careful handling; going upwards, in 1930 Bertram Thomas had to physically dig pathways for the camels to follow; our own camels found it more difficult going downhill – one refusing point blank, and the others skating down like Bambi on ice.

In such circumstances riding is not advisable, so we lead them by a short rope, and talk to them incessantly, cajoling them to calm their nerves and re-assure them. Whilst doing this it is important to be aware of where your camel is in relation to your own legs – a nervous camel doesn’t think twice before giving you a lightning quick sharp kick, one of which ended up in my groin yesterday. Other ways they show their dissatisfaction is by an unexpected head-butt, or if you’re really lucky you get a shirt covered in semi-chewed, pungent vivid green cud, spat with deadly accuracy from a couple of metres.

In Arabia Felix, Thomas wrote ‘these central sands of Dakaka were indeed the key to the problems of my journey, for they had received the rains of last year, and were therefore blessed with exceptional pastures. Had Dakaka itself been hungry, had last year’s rains fallen not here but to the north-east, the camel concentrations would have been too far removed for the system of relays by which alone I could hope to cross the deserts in quick stages, carrying my scientific instruments’.


DAY 22: Time, and the desert regime
31 December – Distance to Doha: 619km

Whilst we know it is New Year’s Eve, most of us don’t know which day of the week it is for sure, and to be quite honest, it doesn’t really matter. Time is now measured in marches – each march lasting six to seven hours, starting just after sunrise and ending just before sunset, with a break in the middle depending on the camels, and the weather. When journeying with their reindeer, the Sami people in northern Finland measure time in coffee brews; during the summer there is no night.

In contrast I once spent four months living in total darkness on Svalbard over a decade ago, where I met a Norwegian ex-banker who had given it all up to live alone there (his nearest neighbour was more than 60 miles away) in a cabin he built himself out of the plentiful driftwood. He had his dog team and sled, a radio set so he could keep in touch with the outside world, a small boat for when the sea ice broke up in the summer, and made what money he needed from collecting down from the nests of the Eider ducks that lived there in great numbers.

Harald said that in his experience, unless we set an alarm and wanted structure to our day, we would find ourselves sleeping for 13 hours a day, each day therefore advancing one hour. He was absolutely right, but it didn’t really matter if we woke and had breakfast at 1400hrs – the jobs around camp, such as shovelling snow to stop ourselves being buried, checking the wind generators and the dogs still had to be done. Everything took time; something as simple as making a cup of tea can take more than an hour when the first step involves going to the frozen river with a bucket and an ice-pick.

Until we get a full moon, here in the desert our daily regime is determined by daylight, sunrise and sunset. We sleep outside on the sand, and the day begins about 0500 with Amur calling prayer. He will use Venus, and the glow of the rising sun to determine the correct way to face. Once done, he will use a few twigs to re-kindle the fire and get some hot sweet tea brewing. By 0600 all are up, bags are being packed and breakfast eaten before the camels are prepared for the day ahead, the aim being to be away by 0630 and cover as much ground as possible before things get unbearably hot.

Depending on how much grazing we stumble across, progress is usually an unbroken two hours, then a quick water stop, and then moving ahead in hourly marches thereafter until we or the camels feel the need to stop and sit out the heat of the day. This stop need only be short if a cool northerly wind is blowing, but if like today it is stiflingly hot, it can last an hour or more until things start to cool. We normally manage a couple of hours in the afternoon, before setting up camp and getting the dinner on. Sleep comes early – by 2000hrs we are all normally tucked up in our sleeping bags, counting the stars and resting our weary legs.


DAY 23: The Long Haul
1 January, 2016 – Distance to Doha: 607km

In their books Arabia Felix, and Arabian Sands, Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger referred to the monotony of the long marches through the sands, the aim being to get from waterhole to waterhole, or grazing to grazing as quickly as you could to ensure the health of the camels upon which your life depended. Having covered 350km in a straight line since we left Salalah (in reality much more, as there are few straight lines in nature), and with 617km still to go to Doha, we are now just over a third of the way through our journey. In terms of running a marathon, we are currently at the nine-mile mark; the euphoria of the start is now behind us, whilst the finishing line remains a long way ahead.

This is the mid-section of the journey where we need to get our heads down and settle into a routine of long marches, steadily covering the ground and chipping away each day. Our current bearing of north-west has us heading to a waterhole called Bahat Jamal, some 150km, or seven days march ahead. We have no idea what we will find when we get there; when Thomas drank the beer coloured well-water in 1930 he had diarrhoea for days afterwards, and drank nothing but camel milk for the remainder of the journey.

The terrain has changed noticeably during our seven-hour march today; the dunes no longer have a bulk and skyline similar to the northwest highlands of Scotland, but are now opening up into gentler but still vast moorland of sand, with beautiful snaking dunes catching the eye – whilst this is indeed the phase of the journey to get our heads down and cover the miles, one must always remember to look up, and admire the beauty of this extraordinary place.


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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