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Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 6

  • Written by  Mark Evans
  • Published in Explorers
Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 6 All images Sim Davis and John C Smith
22 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: socks, frisky camels and Saddam Hussein

Day 37: Descent to the Arabian Gulf
15 January – Distance to Doha: (unrecorded)

Our camp tonight is at an altitude of 107m above sea level, and we have been steadily losing height for several days now (our highest camp was at over 800 metres altitude on Jebel Qarra, three or four days after leaving Salalah) as we slowly descend to the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The terrain has changed from the recent bare, rolling hills of sand, to flatter, much greener sheets of sand. The greenery attracts much more wildlife, and for the first time in several days today we have seen signs of foxes, dragonflies, bees and even a couple of butterflies.

Last night was one of the coldest nights of the entire journey; at 0500 this morning the thermometer had dropped to 5 degrees Celsius, and it was another morning marching and riding in fleece jackets and hats in an effort to keep warm. For the camels, it has been a great day; for them, the greenery means plentiful food on the go, and part way through the day we discovered an unexpected waterhole that enabled them to drink their fill.

Despite the cold, my two Omani companions, Amur Al Wahaibi and Mohammed Al Zadjali plod on, uncomplaining still after numerous camel kicks, 37 days and more than 800 kilometres of walking and riding. In the sands, both are walking in socks (Amur’s are special Bedouin socks, made by his wife, that are double layer on the bottom to protect from both hot and cold sand, and ‘hairy’ on the top to prevent scorpions getting too close to his feet). Despite his wife’s best efforts, both Amur’s socks and Mohammed’s now have enormous holes in the heels that display some pretty painful looking blisters, but each day we rattle off 28-30km progress to the north as we follow a line of wells, identified by our hero Bertram Thomas, to the border.


Day 38: Bringing life to an Ancient Desert
16 January – Distance to Doha: 288km

This morning was our coldest to date; as Amur called morning-prayer, the thermometer dropped to 0.4 degrees, and the rest of us shivered in our thin sleeping bags until we had to get up to get the day started at 0530. The sun currently rises shortly after, by when our bags have been packed, breakfast (a bowl of muesli) quickly eaten and the kettle has boiled on the wood fire to make a welcome cup of sweet tea. The final job before departure is to un-hobble the camels, whose two front legs are tied loosely together to stop them wandering too far in the night. A blanket is folded to make the saddle, harnesses tightened, and then we’re off.

The start of the day’s march follows a familiar pattern of two quick hours walking to get warm, followed by a quick ten-minute water break. We then walk for another two hours, before another water break, followed by an hour’s riding the camels, before we stop for a longer lunch break around midday. By then we have often covered 20km. Walking on hard flat sand we can cover just over four kilometres per hour, but riding, however slow and ponderous the camel’s stride may appear, is significantly faster, averaging out at five to six km per hour. We limit the time we ride so as not to tire out the camels, who are already carrying survival gear and our food and water for the day, but also to save our legs, as riding a camel reaches parts other activities definitely do not reach!

We learnt today that our current location was, in the past, home to large numbers of Bedouin who have now moved north to be closer to the blacktop road that lies about 150km to our north. This pattern is echoed across the Empty Quarter, which is arguably emptier today than it has been for many years as people migrate to the periphery, attracted by an easier life that still retains one foot in the sands.

New life is being breathed into those emptying sands in Oman, where a unique project takes place three times each year, designed to address the polarisation of cultures, highlighted by Kofi Annan when, in his last days as secretary general of the UN, he stood on a bridge over the Bosphorous that connects Europe to Asia, and announced the formation of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC).

Oman’s gift to the UNAOC is a programme for young global leaders called Connecting Cultures, which each winter takes groups of emerging social activists into the desert wilderness for five days. With no mobile phones, or doors to hide behind, young people from Arab and Western nations travel slowly through the sands with camels, stopping for frequent debates and workshops that are truly inspirational. The educational impact of those days and night’s in the desert is immensely powerful, and resulted in Connecting Cultures (www.universityofthedesert.com) being cited by the UNAOC as one of the world’s leading civil society initiatives.


Day 39: An exciting day for the camels
17 January – Distance to Doha: 259km

Today was an exciting day for our three royal camels; despite not being fed yesterday night for bad behaviour (how many times did your parents send you to bed early for bad behaviour when you were a 13-year-old?), all was going smoothly until we spotted the first herd of camels that we have seen for some three weeks. We are told that an Azba (a camel farm) is a few kilometres to our east, so we are hopeful, if someone spots the head-torches or the light of our fire at our camp, that we may get a delivery of fresh camel milk tonight, something Amur in particular has missed.

Whilst our three camels, Helwa (the beautiful one), Samha (the well behaved) and Al Abra (Ship of the Desert) have been loaned to us by the Royal Cavalry in Muscat, the rag-tag bunch we met today were a different story. Saudi camels tend to be black, and these ones had the ability to run very fast to catch up our three manicured and clearly extremely desirable girls. Males always seem to let themselves down in such situations, and after much bellowing, sniffing and spinning round in circles (the camels, that is), we managed to shoo them off and re-commence our northward dash for Doha. Tomorrow we will pass by another waterhole, Baniyan, which was an important stopping point on the original 1930 journey, so we hope that rumours of it still holding sweet water are true.

In addition to the camels, we have heard many planes going overhead all day today, an alien noise to us over the past month, but as we have now crossed the 23 degrees line of latitude, we are clearly under a busy flight-path.


Day 40: A heavy dew, and the wells of Baniyan
18 January – Distance to Doha: 229km

We have now descended down to an altitude of 71 metres above sea level, on a day that has seen a series of milestones ticked off.

It was a very wet start to the day; a heavy dew, the first real one of our journey had formed midway through the night, soaking sleeping bags and any gear left outside. The sun rose through a faint, low mist as we packed up camp, setting off north, once again with shivering camels. Just as we thought the hard work was behind us, so the terrain changed into a series of soft, white barchan dunes running at right angles to our path, so the morning was a challenging and tiring one, up and down often soft slopes with some of the camels once again on their knees.

After several hours of toil we finally reached the waterhole of Baniyan, a significant stop on the 1930/31 journey. Just as we had been told, the well was full of good clear water, which tasted only slightly salty – good news for the camels. In the afternoon we rode for two hours, achieving another 30km progress for the day, and leaving us just 160km the border with Qatar.

‘Baniyan was a real well, stone lined unlike the mere pits of sand further south’ wrote Thomas. ‘I was thoroughly exhausted after ten and a half hours in the saddle, but comfort came from the realisation that the great central wastes of the Rub al Khali lay behind me; the sea was but 80 miles northward – success was in sight.’

And so it is for us. The well of Baniyan marks the northern limit of the sands. From tomorrow morning we enter a landscape of gravel plains, sabkha and low gypsum hills that will bring their own challenges over the next five days, but the towers of Doha are now not that far away.


Day 42: British desert exploration at a crossroads
20 January – Distance to Doha: 166km

Another thick fog, combined with flat gravel plains enabled us to cover our greatest distance since we started our journey some 42 days ago in southern Oman. By lunchtime we had covered some 25km before the sun emerged through the low cloud, after which our pace slowed, and it was a tired trio of camels and riders that ended a 37km day an hour ago. We are now only 95km from the border with Qatar, which we will cross in four days time.

Our route today took us close to Jaub Dhibi, a location that featured in both Arabia Felix, written by Bertram Thomas, and Arabian Sands, written by fellow desert explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. Both visited here in search of water, only to be disappointed by the poor quality. Both were at very different points of their respective journeys. For Thomas, it was all downhill to Doha, and the end was in sight. Like us, at this point he was concerned with the sabkha, the treacherous salt-flats that after rain can prove impassable for camels. He wrote ‘With the end in sight, I was able to throw off my habitual restraint. Fortunately the recent rain had not been enough to turn the crusted surface into a greasy mire and hold camels up, as normally occurs. The tracks showed that Jaub Dhibi, our camping ground, was clearly a haunt of hyena, wild-cat, lizards and other steppe animals’.

For Thesiger however, Jaub Dhibi held a different story. He was part way through his enormous second crossing of the Rub al Khali from Yemen to Sharjah, and was utterly exhausted after days of rain, cold and poor grazing for the camels. Each morning the first thing he would do was to check if the camels were still alive, as death was close. ‘With cold, numbed fingers we loaded our camels and then walked dispiritedly beside them, trying to bring some warmth into our bodies. I felt sure the camels would not survive another day. Then, unbelievably we came across grazing. The camels barely moved, and just ate and ate. We stood and watched them, and I said to Bin Gubaisha, ‘this grazing has saved our lives’.

Fortunately for us, our situation is more similar to that of Thomas. Qatar looms, and as the sun set tonight we spotted a lone car in the sands ahead, and met our first Qatari, a delightful man carrying a beautiful Saker Falcon, called Saddam Hussein.


Day 43: Always stand upwind of your camel
21 January – Distance to Doha: (unrecorded)

Today was the fourth day where we have woke up to soaking sleeping bags, and a thick fog. For the first two hours we shivered away, walking alongside our dripping camels that looked like they were part way through an appointment at the hairdressers. My right index finger, frostbitten more than 20 years ago on Svalbard took an eternity to warm up as we tried in vain to hold a straight course in the fog, hungry camels lurching suddenly left and right as they spotted some of the scant greenery that exists here as it emerged out of the gloom.

The only plant that seems to thrive in these salty Sabkha plains is the vivid green Haram plant; camels eat it, but it gives them diarrhoea which, if water is short, results in them losing precious fluids. The proved such a problem to both Thomas, and Thesiger on their respective journeys that they ended up tying the camels tails to their saddles to minimise the mess caused by a flicking tail.

Our camp tonight is overlooking a very wet area of Sabkha, a result of the recent heavy rain that fell here a few weeks ago. This, together with the fact that we are camping at the lowest altitude of the entire journey (41m ASL) makes me think that sadly, we may be in for yet another soggy night. Far worse than the small area we currently overlook is the enormous Umm As Samim in Oman, which means ‘Mother of Poisons’. The local tales tell of entire herds of goats being lost into its depths, and many a vehicle comes to sticky end if they choose to stray off the one or two tracks that dare to cross. Wilfred Thesiger was one of the first westerners to set eyes on the area, and our hero, Bertram Thomas, made reference to them in Arabia Felix. ‘An item of much geographical interest is the presence of desert quick-sands.

The extent of Umm As Samim, as the area is called, is said to be two days march in every direction. In appearance a sheet of salt plain it gives no indication to the unwary traveller of its treacherous bogs. Many have perished here, and only certain Bedouin who come to its edge to collect salt are said to brave its secret passages, raiders, as might be expected, giving it a wide berth.’


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 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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