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Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 4

  • Written by  Mark Evans
  • Published in Explorers
Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 4 All images Sim Davis and John C Smith
08 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: silent marches, scavenging ravens, dust storms and doctors

Day 24: Deliverance, and the value of silence
2 January – Distance to Doha: 598km

The closest we have been to a sandstorm today, with a strong southerly gale giving us a push in the right direction, but sending plumes of sand flying off all of the dunes as we progressed northwest for another 24 km today.

To avoid the potential problems with passing through Yemen, our path for the last week has drifted east of Thomas’s original route, but we are now making a direct line to Bahat Jamal, to reconnect with the original route at a waterhole visited by Thomas as he headed north from Dakaka; we should be there in five or six days, depending on camels and conditions underfoot.

There was great excitement today as we saw the contrails of a plane passing high overhead, but there was no sound to break to utter silence that exists out here. Were there no wind, the only noises we would hear on our daily march would be the creak of the camel’s knees, the grinding of their teeth, and our periodic conversations. On a seven-hour march, one’s mind drifts and wanders, and it is a perfect place to put life’s issues firmly in perspective. It was the Norwegian polar explorer, diplomat and Nobel Laureate Fridtjof Nansen who, after his attempt to reach the North Pole in the Fram, said ‘I tell you, deliverance will not come from the noisy, rushing centres of civilisation. The solutions will come from the lonely places’.

Time to think and dream in today’s wired, 24/7 connected world is increasingly hard to find, and the wild, silent places such as the Rub al Khali have a value that goes beyond oil and gas.

day 24

Day 25: Things that fly in the desert – Part 1
3 January – Distance to Doha: 564km

It is unlikely that one can spend 50 days in the biggest sand desert on Earth without experiencing a storm. We are now on Day 26 of our journey, and yesterday afternoon one duly arrived. The sky darkened, and the northerly wind increased to 20 knots; the sand was snaking across the flats, and twisting into the air in spiralling plumes from the dune crests. Camel prints vanished within ten paces, and life was pretty unpleasant – at times similar to a white out in the Scottish highlands. As we have no tents, the only thing to be done once a sandy dinner had been wolfed down was to roll up in a blanket on the ground and go to sleep. About 0300 the wind abated a little, and the moon re-appeared, but it was a sand-covered campsite that we woke up to this morning.

In Arabian Sands, desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger described a storm he experienced as follows: ‘We sat throughout the day without shelter, in a reddish obscurity, half smothered by the flying grains which, reaching to a height of eight feet above the ground, rasped our skin, filled our eyes, noses and ears, and were gritty between our teeth. This continuous discomfort became almost intolerable with the passing hours.’

In 1931 our own desert hero, Bertram Thomas witnessed the first of a series of sandstorms very close to our current location. The storm sadly caused the failure of his cine camera, but not before he had captured extensive footage of their departure from Muscat, and their journey north into the southern borderlands of the Rub al Khali from Salalah.

Discovered relatively recently in Cambridge, this film has now been digitised, and an edited copy can be purchased from the Anglo Omani Society in London. A few short clips can be seen in the video clip on the home page of our own website.

day 25

Day 26: Things that Fly in the Desert – Part 2
4 January – Distance to Doha: 542km

On day two of our journey we were following an old camel trail through the frankincense-forested hills above Salalah; birdlife was plentiful, and especially beautiful was a solitary male African Paradise Flycatcher.

Some 25 days later we now find ourselves in the heart of the sands, some 400km north in the biggest sand desert on Earth. Even here, there is one bird that appears each day – not for long, but it is always there, keeping a watchful eye on us from a distance. This bird chooses to go where others fear to tread; from the rain lashed mountains on NW Scotland, to the ice clad peaks of Arctic Norway, it is always there. Even if you can’t see it, you will probably hear its unmistakeable call.

It is an opportunist, and considered one of the most intelligent of birds. Each morning, it checks out our camp in the hope of scavenging a scrap once we have left, and each day we find its prints walking around the few green bushes that grow out here. The bushes create an island of life, in what Bertram Thomas described as ‘an abode of death’; the tracks of beetles and lizards are found around the base of every bush, worth a daily check by the opportunist.

In Arab lore, this bid is respected. Seen singly, it is a harbinger of doom and bad news. Sheikh Mubarak, grandson of Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, who guided Thomas across these sands in 1930 remembers his father refusing to move when he saw a single bird, only considering it safe to do so once the bird had vanished, or returned with a mate.

If like me, you were brought up enjoying the books of naturalist Gavin Maxwell, such as Ring of Bright Water, the title of another of his books will tell you immediately the name of the bird to which I refer. Maxwell spent a lot of time with desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger, especially in the marshlands of Iraq, and it was Thesiger who wrote in Arabian Sands ‘a Raven croaked, circling round us, and bin Kabina shouted “Raven, seek thy brother”. Then another Raven flew over the shoulder of a nearby dune and he laughed, explaining to me that a single Raven is unlucky, a bearer of ill-tidings.’

day 26

Day 27: A Tale of Three Doctors
5 January – Distance to Doha: 528km

An essential part of any remote expedition’s risk assessment and preparation has to be the issue of health, and first aid. Our current location is several hundred kilometres in any direction from the nearest medical facility, so with the advice of experienced expedition medics we carry a fairly comprehensive medical supply of drugs, bandages, lotions and potions to cover most of the common injuries and illnesses that might befall us.

We are currently 28 days and 500km into the journey, and thankfully the need to dip into the medical bag has been restricted to the odd blister, and we hope that remains the case until we reach Doha. But it is not only modern drugs and technology that are available to us. Any complaint anyone has can be dealt with in one of three ways; firstly, from New Zealand, we have ‘Dr’ John Smith. John put together the comprehensive medical kits, and through Dr Sean Hudson in UK and Dr John Apps in New Zealand is able to call on expert expedition medical advice at any time of the day.

Secondly we have ‘Dr’ Amur Al Wahaibi; Amur carries his own supply of traditional herbs and natural medicines, the use of which are widespread in Oman. With the knowledge passed down from his father, Amur is able to work out which cocktail can be best used for which ailment. Finally, for a third option we have ‘Dr’ Hadi, who is quite happy to wield the red hot metal stick to those crucial seven places around the body to ensure a rapid response to whatever was previously bothering you; all of my Omani and Saudi Arabian companions on this expedition bear the scars of such treatment, and all are adamant that it is very effective.

One thing that would cause us problems would be a snake bite. In 1930, Bertram Thomas, in pursuit of science, wrote ‘whilst disembowelling a poisonous adder, I felt a sharp sting on my finger, and had an uncomfortable hour or so afterwards lest, despite my precautions for using tongs, some inward part of the snake were poisonous and I had not been sufficiently careful. No ill effects followed however, and I decided that a spot of formalin had touched a part of my hand where there had been a slight abrasion.’

I wonder, if it had been more serious, which of our three medical avenues he would have chosen for a cure?

day 27

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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