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Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 5

  • Written by  Mark Evans
  • Published in Explorers
Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 5 All images Sim Davis and John C Smith
15 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: moonlight, shooting stars, life-saving wells, and snakes

Day 31: The vanishing moon
9 January – Distance to Doha: 482km

Tonight we look forward to a spectacular night sky, as the moon has now left us, for a few nights at least, before it slowly re-appears. Over the past 30 nights we have slept out on the sand (we have no tents), and been treated to some spectacular shooting stars and a dazzling full moon that was almost light enough to read by, and certainly light enough to travel safely by.

The Arabs understanding of the night sky was legendary; many of the stars are named by them, and many instruments were devised to enable stars to be used for both navigation (the Kamal) and timekeeping (the Astrolabe, or Star Taker). Kamals we commonly used by sailors crossing the Indian Ocean between Oman and India, and Astrolabes were once common outside mosques and houses of the powerful – the bigger your Astrolabe, the greater your importance in society.


Day 32: Snakes, and Signs of Life in the Abode of Death
10 January – Distance to Doha: 458km

Today we pushed on to the northwest, heading towards the waterhole of Turaiga, which we hope to reach tomorrow afternoon to see if any water remains since Bertram Thomas went there in 1931. After the enormous sand mountains further south, the sands of Sanam are relatively flat and open, making for rapid progress for walkers and camels alike, and enabling us to cover another 29km today.

After weeks of zero light pollution, our view of the night sky has been interrupted by a glow of light to the west that has grown steadily stronger as the days have progressed, the source of which we discovered today. Three ARAMCO oil or gas exploration camps were in the process of being established, and for the first time in several weeks our path briefly crossed a road, before resuming our journey across the sands.

Oil and gas have brought enormous wealth to the Gulf States, and Bertram Thomas, once his crossing of the Empty Quarter was over, was appointed as an advisor to Shell, with the telegraphic name of ‘The Wanderer’, with the job of using his extensive contacts to report on any exploration activity taking place.

Another ‘first’ today was the sighting of a snake, about 18 inches long – the snake kindly posed for a few pictures before burying itself into the sand, no doubt in a state of shock.


Day 33: Trembling Camels and Shifting Sands
11 January – Distance to Doha: 436km

Last night proved to be the second sandstorm of the journey so far. A strong northerly wind kicked up yesterday afternoon, and grew in strength to about 20 to 25 knots as the afternoon and evening progressed. By the time we went to bed, sand was flying everywhere once more, and all we could do was to bury ourselves in our sleeping bags and wait it out in the hope that it would quickly blow through.

Sadly that was not the case – we awoke at dawn to a leaden sky, with the wind still strong, and with very dark clouds coming our way. Sleeping bags and anything else left outside were covered in sand, and it was a hasty breakfast in chilly conditions before we set off northwest to cover the last 29km to the waterhole of Turaiga, our target for the past 14 days.

Walking proved a struggle into the still strong wind, and the menacing black clouds brought our first proper rain of the journey; clothes were soaking within minutes, and the camels proved very nervous in the rain, turning in circles and bellowing in protest. We chose to couch them close to a small bush so they could graze, and stayed there for 20 minutes while they shivered and trembled away, part from fear, part from cold. As the rain blew over, their nerves eased and we set off once again, covering the remaining distance by 1600hrs, when we finally reached the waterhole in thankfully easing winds.

Bertram Thomas reached this exact location on the 19th of January 1931, and grazed his camels in the surrounding area before pressing northwards, keen to claim his crown of being the first person to cross the Rub al Khali. In 2016 there is little grazing to be enjoyed by the camels; the rains today are the first there have been for several years. Despite this, the well was full of water, and that water was sweet, with no odour or salty flavour. Our nervous camels will have their reward first thing tomorrow morning, when our rope and bucket will enable them to quench their undoubted thirst.


Day 34: The Northward Dash
12 January – Distance to Doha: 407km

For the past 14 days we have been walking on a bearing of 315 degrees to connect with the waterhole at Turaiga. Having arrived there yesterday, today the compass needle swung to 360 degrees as we started what Thomas described in 1931 as the ‘Northward Dash’. After a daunting distance of over 1,000km, Doha now lies a mere 407km to our north, and from now on we are walking directly towards it, every third day or so stopping off at one of a series of waterholes and wells visited by Thomas; we anticipate crossing the border into Qatar in about 12 days time, but cannot take anything for granted.

At this point on his journey, Thomas and his party were beset by a series of sandstorms that restricted their progress. In eight days, we will exit the sands, and enter an area of gravel that slowly descends to the sea, and Qatar. In amongst the gravel lies something called sabkha, a hazard well known to desert explorers. After rains, it turns to exceptionally slippery mud, making for difficult driving, and tricky conditions for the camels. If a camel does the splits in such terrain, it can be extremely difficult to get it back up, so the whole area is best avoided. We have no idea if the rains of yesterday and last night have fallen further north; if so, we may need to explore a different route.

We had three members of the team this morning who were extremely happy; for the first time, our camels were able to drink their fill as we set up a rope and pulley system over the Turaiga well. As is tradition, our Omani and Saudi companions started chanting as the water came up, bucket by bucket, whilst the camels danced and slurped in enthusiastic appreciation.


Day 35: Expedition Psychology
13 January – Distance to Doha: 375km

One of the scientific projects we are undertaking on this journey is working with Dr Nathan Smith from Northampton University, who is undertaking research into extreme environment expedition psychology. As we undertake our daily marches, we often talk about the challenges we have faced, and have overcome, and how we managed that situation internally.

Having covered almost 900km so far, and been walking for 35 days, we have all suffered from blisters and sore feet, as well as the odd camel kick. More challenging by far than the physical has been dealing with the mental issues associated with such a long and relatively arduous journey. Two weeks or so ago, we had been going for some 20 days, and had worked hard to cover some 500km, yet despite all the pain, there was still a very, very long way to go. Questions start to niggle at the back of your mind; ‘will we make it? Will the camels cope?’, and on the worst day of all, when temperatures were at their highest, the sand was soft and steep and the camels had sunk to their knees, bellowing in protest, ‘why do I choose to do these ridiculous things when I could be at home doing a ‘normal’ job’.

Managing these emotions has been a constant issue, made easier by mentally breaking the journey up into short steps, from well to well, border to community and so on. In addition to the at times spectacular landscape, beautiful sunsets, sunrises and desert sky, the one thing that has helped more than anything to overcome any negativity has been to pick up Bertram Thomas’s book, Arabia Felix, and read a chapter. Any chapter will do. What quickly becomes evident is that despite the difficulties we have faced, their journey in 1930/31 was simply awe inspiring in terms of the constant uncertainty, hunger, thirst and threat to life they faced, yet despite all of those things, Thomas retained a meticulously detailed and enquiring eye for science and discovery; without doubt we are truly humbled by what those remarkable people achieved.


Day 36: A Pair of Photographers
14 January – Distance to Doha: 345km

After several days of northerly winds, temperatures have dropped steadily, and we awoke this morning to one of the coldest days on the journey so far; 6.2 degrees and a light dew combined to make for a cold, damp start to the day. For most of the day, Mohammed, Amur and I wore our fleeces and hats as the biting wind blew relentlessly into our faces; already tonight it has dropped to ten degrees here in camp, so we expect perhaps one of the coldest nights since the start in Salalah 36 days ago.

Tonight is an opportunity to sing the praises of two key people who do a great job in enabling this journey to roll across the Empty Quarter, not only producing the wonderful images that you see each day, but also driving the two 4x4 vehicles, and maintaining a superb mobile base camp to support the camel and walking team.

At 67 years old, John Smith is a desert veteran, and one of New Zealand’s top landscape photographers; he lived in Riyadh for four and a half years, and has been to Oman 18 times, leading photographic tours or working with me on private or UNESCO-based expeditions. John and I have worked together on expeditions to Arctic Canada, a 1,700km kayak journey along the coast of Oman, and a year-long overwintering expedition to Svalbard, 500 miles north of the north cape of Norway. You only need to take a look at his website to see the quality of John’s work, and the depth and breadth of his experience.

If John is the expedition veteran, at the age of 26, Sim Davis is very much the youngest member of the team, an exceptionally talented remote location photographer and driver. Sim has worked in Oman on and off for four years, producing high quality images on Outward Bound Oman and UNESCO expeditions into the Empty Quarter, the Sharqiya Sands and walking overland, using camels from Salalah to Muscat, perfect preparation for a 50-day journey in a 4x4, navigating the biggest sand desert on Earth. The quality of Sim’s work can be seen at his website, and his images from this journey, together with John’s, will adorn the expedition book that’s due out later this year, and we hope a number of exhibitions in UK and Oman.


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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