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Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 1

  • Written by  Mark Evans
  • Published in Explorers
Crossing the Empty Quarter: Week 1 All images Sim Davis and John C Smith
18 Dec
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: setting off, local hospitality and mysterious cave writing

DAY 1: We’re off!
10 December – Distance to Doha: 944km

Several years of planning came to fruition today as our journey finally got underway at Al Husn in Salalah, blessed by HH Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said and a crowd of 300 VIP well-wishers. A police escort enabled the camels to negotiate the busy streets of Salalah without any problems, and a constant stream of well-wishers stopped and bade us well. In 1930 Sheikh Saleh Bin Kalut and Bertram Thomas headed straight out across the plains towards the Jebel Qarra, but in 2015 we have to negotiate Salalah’s impressive new airport; we are currently camped at the base of the Jebel, which we plan to ascend tomorrow morning. A strong northerly wind has kept us cool all day, and we hope it continues tomorrow as we struggle up the frankincense-clad hills. After a long day, all of the team are tired, but delighted the journey is finally underway.


DAY 2: Everything has changed, and nothing has changed
11 December – Distance to Doha: 925km

Any thoughts we may have had of losing weight on this journey have gone completely out of the window. The goat, slaughtered in our honour has just been eaten, and is now being washed down with hot camel and cow’s milk. Such is the end of what has been a remarkable second day.

The GPS may only show 13 km of northward progress towards Doha, but we have covered substantially more than that as we have weaved our way along the flank of Wadi Jaziz, the same wadi used by Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger on their travels many years ago.

Our day began at 0830, after an interview via satellite phone on BBC World Service radio, and our slow ascent of the frankincense covered slopes of Jebel Qara brought us up to grassy meadows, herds of cows and our first stop of the day for hot tea at a small farmhouse.

Pushing on northwards for a few more hours proved that there is no such thing as nipping into a house for quick cup of tea in Oman. Our effort to do so resulted in dozens of locals descending to join the party, all of who proudly recalled parents or grandparents travelling with either Thesiger or Thomas. With tea, coffee and dates exhausted our team continued on to the days end, covering a further four kilometres before finding a nice campsite with spectacular views for the night. Our peace did not last long; there are now about 20 people sitting around the wadi mat, including Oman’s Ambassador to Kazakstan, Dr. Said Al Barami.

Our team are tired, but well, and enjoying the journey through rapidly changing landscapes. It is our plan to keep distances short for the first period of the journey, to get used to the routine of long marches in preparation for the greater challenges that lie ahead. Tomorrow we hope to reach Ayun, a day which no doubt will involve yet more generosity and wonderful kindness from the local people.

As the lights of modern day Salalah twinkle in the distance, much has clearly changed, but at the same time, many things have remained the same.


DAY 3: The land of the Bedouin
12 December – Distance to Doha: 918km

Our longest day so far; after a windy and cold night at our hilltop camp, it was good to get walking this morning to keep warm – hot rocks out of the fireplace were in demand to warm cold hands, and our day started moving through meadows where camels, cattle and donkeys drank side by side at the watering holes. Our efforts took us over the watershed, and much of today has been gradually downhill, culminating in us entering and walking through the spectacular gorge of Wadi Halfan, littered with the tracks of gazelle and some impressive fossils.

The transition in landscapes, from grassy meadows to arid lunar landscapes is rapid; once the edge of the Khareef rains are reached, the landscape becomes parched and rocky. Around us on hilltops are signs that man has occupied this area for thousands of years – old graves and burial mounds litter the landscape, and we are keeping an eye out for any signs of lithic activity, such as arrowheads or scrapers.

The campsite tonight is quite unlike last night; we are in a wooded, quiet wadi, sheltered from the wind, and for the first time we are alone, and able to reflect on our progress over the past few days before getting into our sleeping bags for what we hope will be a warmer night.


DAY 4: ‘You are now in the land of the Bin Kathir, and we cannot let you pass without accepting our hospitality…’
13 December – Distance to Doha: 902km

Our greatest progress today, with almost 20km of straight line distance achieved, which in reality was about 25km on the ground – not a lot, but we are still easing into our journey, and trying not to overdo things too early.

Today we exited Wadi Halfan, and are now at the point where it joins Wadi Ghudun. It has been another day of unbridled hospitality, with lunch today attracting more than 30 well-wishers, and countless invitations and photographs. Again, much discussion ensued about Bertram Thomas, and Sheikh Salih bin Kalut, and how they passed through this area in 1930 en route to Doha.

The strong northerly winds have eased, the fire is lit and our campsite tonight is a peaceful one, with people sitting around writing diaries, warming feet or drinking fresh camels milk, the latest gift to be delivered. A hilal moon is already sinking in the west, so the stars should all be out on show tonight.

Our surroundings bear evidence of long past human activity; skylines are littered with the outline of graves and burial mounds, and we are searching as best we can the now plentiful beds of flint in the hope of finding some evidence of arrowheads, scrapers and such like to support the great work being done by the Green Arabia team in Oxford and Riyadh.


DAY 5: Those boys were tough
14 December – Distance to Doha: 884km

As each day passes we are increasingly in awe of the original party that completed this journey in 1930 – what they achieved was quite extraordinary, and our modern day celebration bears little comparison.

As we are now slowly descending the wadi system from the top of Jebel Qarra, temperatures were slightly warmer last night, dropping to just over ten degrees before dawn. Our camp was a peaceful one, the silence broken only by the occasional barking fox and calling owl; once the moon had slipped below the horizon, the skies were alive with a meteor shower that kept us entertained until we could no longer stay awake.

Well rested, we were away and walking by 0730, pausing only briefly to get as many kilometres under our belt whilst the sun was hidden behind some cirrus clouds. That cloud, and a cooling breeze that grew during the day enabled us to cover over 21km in a straight line, our best day yet, and we are currently camped under some rocky cliffs on the west side of Wadi Ghudun. Today was a day of ancient graves, gazelle and yet more humbling hospitality. The land of frankincense and the Arabian Leopard are now behind us, and we are about to enter the flat, steppe like region called the Nejd, that lead to the sands of the Rub al Khali.

Just how tough the original team were was driven home to us today as we tended to blisters and cracked lips. In his book, Arabia Felix, Bertram Thomas wrote:

‘One of the team was complaining of stoppage of the bowels, which had not responded to my explosive medicines. His companions resorted to another approach; one end of a rifle bolt was inserted into a fire until it glowed red-hot. It was then prescribed to seven places – behind the left and right ear, left heel and right heel, top of the head, centre of the forehead and the navel. The cure was instantaneous, and we moved on the next morning’.


DAY 6: A day of discovery
15 December – Distance to Doha: 868km

With Britain obsessed with food and cookery programmes such as The Great British Bake Off, we had our own version of a gastronomic extravaganza last night. It goes something like this:

Collect large amounts of dead wood from the wadi, and three bags of pebbles of various sizes. Make a large circle of stones, put the wood in the middle and light it. Place pebbles over burning wood, and leave to bake nicely for 60 minutes. Whilst your rocks are warming, prepare your goats and set out the wadi mats. When rocks are suitably hot, smear goat fat over rocks to give non-stick coating, then lay out slabs of goat meat to cook, turning occasionally to suit. On a separate fire boil rice and then serve to a by now ravenously hungry group that has doubled in size since you started. Such was dinner last night, and we were all late to bed by the time the last of the crowd had gone, able at last to enjoy the plentiful shooting stars.

This morning we awoke to our first dew, with damp sleeping bags and gear, all of which soon dried off in the heat of the day. Our morning was one of discovery, as we explored one of the various caves to be found on the side of the wadi. In the roof of one were some inscriptions that none of us could understand; not Arabic, so we have duly posted the image in as many places as we can in the hope that someone, somewhere, can tell us what it says, and how old it may be.

This is an area that has been relatively heavily settled in the past, especially around water sources such as river beds and lakes, the evidence of which can be found in caves, and on hilltops all around us as we continue our steady path northwards to the settlement and waterhole of Shisr, now only two or three days ahead of us.


DAY 7: Trust the animals; they’re usually right
16 December – Distance to Doha: 845km

Day seven has seen us exit the confines of Wadi Ghudun, a key route-way for both Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger on their respective desert explorations, and enter the Nejd, an area of flat stony plains that extend northwards to the Rub al Khali, that now lies some two days ahead of us. A cooling Shamal breeze enabled us to make good progress on foot, covering some 24km before sunset. Out of the Wadi, at last we were able to walk on a northerly track, using the sun to help keep to our northerly course.

The start of the day was difficult terrain underfoot – a mixture of polished, rounded cobbles and loose gravel made for hard going, until we picked up and followed a compacted, narrow camel trail that meandered for several kilometres across the wadi bed. Camel prints faded, and gave way to gazelle prints, with the odd large canine, possibly striped hyena, on the trail of the gazelle.

On Jebel Akdhar, Oman’s Green Mountain, when we run Outward Bound courses we always advise students to follow the donkey droppings. The donkeys, beasts of burden until the arrival of gravel roads and cars, now wander freely on the mountain, and know the easiest way from A to B across what can be difficult terrain. Find the donkey droppings and you’ll be okay. Fellow explorer Nigel Harling and I were once trekking across 40km of tundra in western Greenland, with painfully heavy loads in our backpacks after skiing over from the east coast. Thinking we knew best, we abandoned the caribou track we were following as it veered off our line of travel. 200 metres later, we came across a deep ravine that was impossible to cross. 30 minutes spent cursing as we struggled up the hillside to cross higher up reunited us once again with our caribou track. The animals knew best...

day7(Image: John C Smith)

DAY 8: Shisr – gateway to the Empty Quarter
17 December – Distance to Doha: 823km

All day we have been trekking northwards across flat gravel plains towards the small community of Shisr, covering 26km, our best day yet. The wadis here last ran with water seven years ago, and with stars from horizon to horizon last night, there seems little sign of any on the way soon.

Perched on a waterhole at the southern edge of the Rub al Khali, Shisr has been a point of interest to numerous desert explorers; Thomas, Thesiger and Ranulph Fiennes when he was searching for the lost city of Ubar all came here, and for the first two, it was not a journey to be taken lightly.

‘Shisr tomorrow,’ wrote Thomas in Arabia Felix. ‘No wonder it looms so large in the Arab mind, for it is the first waterhole we meet for five days, and after leaving there will be none for a further seven or eight. Approach to a waterhole is made with much caution, for if an enemy is already in possession, there is a choice between hasty retreat, tormented by thirst and fear of pursuit, or a fight for possession. It is a proper practice to fill in a waterhole when leaving to delay possible pursuers.’

Our approach tomorrow will need little caution; we are currently setting up camp some 15km to the south, and awaiting us is another substantial tribal gathering. As we are now very much in Bedouin country, the meat on offer will be the very best camel tomorrow, which we are looking forward to immensely!


DAY 9: The Atlantis of the Sands
18 December – Distance to Doha: 804km

Our gastronomic tour of Southern Oman continued today. It was a sluggish start this morning after a night that saw temperatures drop to 5.8 degrees, with everyone reluctant to leave the warmth of the small fire on which the morning tea had been brewed. The small but historically important settlement of Shisr stood out clearly in the distance, but failed to get any closer for a long time across the hot gravel plains. We covered the 16km in just less than four hours, and were met some way before by a small team on camels, who guided us in to the heart of Shisr where, under the shade of a large Ghaf tree a crowd of about 80 people, including the Governor of Thumrait had gathered to greet us in a natural amphitheatre beneath the ruins of Ubar, the fabled Atlantis of the Sands.

After much singing and handshaking, we retired to the large majlis where two camels had been roasted in our honour, and served up on two enormous platters of rice. The crowd was so large that lunch was in two sittings, and after a formal send off under the tree, we covered a further six kilometres west, towards the final community before we enter the Rub al Khali, Al Hashman, where our four camels await. Another amazing desert sky is revealing itself, and the moon is growing larger by the day – we should be crossing the border into Saudi Arabia by the light of a full moon.


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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