Arabian desert - Crossing the Empty Quarter

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The Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) has some of the world’s highest sand dunes and a fascinating variety of sand and sand formations.


It is this sand that defines, and is the cause of both fascination and worry about, a modern-day expedition through the Empty Quarter. For with much of the tribal politicking and warfare which lent such colour to the expeditions of old now gone, and the issue of adequate water supplies resolved by the ability to carry much greater amounts of water on a modern-day vehicle, it is the shifting sands that strike fear into the heart of the modern-day adventurer.

Stories of near-death experiences and great panic from being stuck in the sands, and of search parties being deployed to find those lost ‘in the sands’, are the modern cautionary tales for those looking to venture out into the Rub’ al Khali.

The first documented crossing of the Rub’ al Khali was by Bertram Thomas, an English civil servant, in 1930–31. In 1932 Thomas published his popular book, Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia), describing the desert’s animals and geology as well as its human inhabitants, the desert-dwelling Bedu. Thomas wrote of the Bedu’s constant search for water and food, trekking from waterhole to waterhole and of their medical treatments using hot pokers to sear away illness.

Thomas pipped Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby, who had waited 14 years to obtain Ibn Saud’s blessings, to be the first to cross the Empty Quarter. Described by Philby as ‘this beastly obsession which has so completely sidetracked me for the best years of my life’, he was bitterly disappointed to have been beaten to it, and swore he would cross the Rub’ al Khali twice. A year after Thomas’s expedition, Philby made it from north to south and back, then west – two true crossings.

As well as wanting to be the first westerner to cross the Empty Quarter, Philby had wanted to verify a Bedouin story he had heard in 1918 from his guide, Jabir ibn Farraj: that somewhere out in the desert lay a ruined city called Wabar. For Philby, the first sight of Wabar was almost as disappointing as the news of Thomas’s crossing: he found himself gazing not at the ruins of a city, but into the mouth of what he took to be an extinct volcano with twin craters side by side. What Philby had actually discovered was the site of a rare cosmic accident – craters that result from the explosive collision of a stray meteor fragment with the Earth.

Ethiopian-born, British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s motives for crossing the Empty Quarter were not only to win distinction as an explorer, but to find “the peace that comes with solitude, and among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world”.

Between 1946 and 1948 he crossed the Rub’ al Khali twice, back-to-back, accompanied by local guides. During his yearlong journeys, he delved even deeper into the culture of the desert than his predecessors. Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, a romanticised account of his expeditions through the area, highlighted his admiration of those who lived there. He described the Bedu as: “a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame” and “herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and light-hearted gallantry”.

The book also reflects on the diminishing traditional Bedouin ways of life that had previously  existed unaltered for thousands of years. Oil had been discovered on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s, and Thesiger predicted that the wealth that followed would change the traditional Bedu life of solitary independence.

The oil pipes that zigzag through the Empty Quarter, and the fences delineating the territory of the respective countries and consequently their rights to the oil found in the area (Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Yemen), really vindicate Thesiger in his prediction of oil forever changing the landscape of the Empty Quarter.

In today’s Bedu life the government has spread oil revenues to the people, creating population centres in the desert called markaz, often with free housing, schools, and medical care. While some still choose to live traditionally, many Bedu have moved to these markaz, although the livestock they rely on for trade, food, and milk are kept outside the villages, so a Bedu can always go into the desert to taste the old life.

Despite its modernisation, the Empty Quarter still represents an alluring emptiness, quiet, and desolation. And with such a range of illustrious, colourful personalities and history associated with expeditions through the area, it is difficult not to be drawn into the possibility of being included within its very rich history.

A journey through the Empty Quarter offers a series of changing landscapes, each unique in its formation and sand characteristics. With few visual distractions, faint animal tracks jump out at you, while sandskiing gives you the opportunity to make your own temporary marks on the undulating terrain. The peaceful beauty at sunset and sunrise, when the sun’s peculiar angle reflects off the mounds of surrounding sand while juxtaposed with unexpected strong winds and sandstorms. Though fully explored and charted over half a century ago, the desolation and remoteness that is the Rub’ al Khali continues to enthrall adventurous travellers today.

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