The Empty Quarter, or Rub Al Khali (which in Arabic, translates literally to “the Quarter of Emptiness”), is one of the largest swathes of sand desert in the world. Located within the larger Arabian Desert, it lies nestled between the borders of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. These sands cover roughly one-third of the Arabian Peninsula, encompassing 650,000 square kilometers.
The desert expanse is perhaps best known for it’s harsh, arid environment and extreme heat, with temperatures recorded as high as 51 degrees C (124 degrees F). It’s also well-known for its traditional inhabitants: tribal Bedouin groups who have lived close-to-the-bone in one of the harshest environments on earth.
Western explorers first documented their journeys (with the help of local resident buddies) across this expanse in the first half of the twentieth century: Bertram Thomas was the first British citizen to cross it with the help of Sheikh Salih bin Kalut Al Rashidi al Kathiri in 1931, followed by the expedition of St. John Philby in 1932.
At that time, the Empty Quarter was an unexplored domain, considered dangerous and uninhabitable. Wilfred Thessiger was to follow in the late 1940s. I had a copy of his book, Arabian Sands, while I was working on a project in the interior of Oman a few years ago. In the book, he documents the gritty reality of desert travel in Arabia from camelback:
“In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the year. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease. Yet men have lived there since earliest times. Passing generations have left fire-blackened stones at camping sites, a few faint tracks polished on the gravel plains. Elsewhere the winds wipe out their footprints. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way… No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”- Wilfred Thessiger, Arabian Sands
His descriptions and insights on exploration were captivating, and ultimately motivated me to go camping in the Empty Quarter one weekend. Here’s what I did:
Rather than book a tourist trip to the sands, where a company will graciously take you to a campsite, build you a campfire, make you dinner, probably subject you to belly-dancing, and let you sleep in a “traditional” tent; I packed up my adventurous project colleagues into our rental truck and consulted our handy Oman atlas. We also came prepared with firewood (we collected it from dead, dry acacia trees on the outskirts of the local village we were staying in), meat for kabobs, a blanket or two per person, extra socks, extra water, some lemon-mint juice, and, because it was the weekend, a nargile and a bottle of gin (I also took my first aid kit and well-loved field-copy of Arabian Sands).
Heading northwest from the town of Ibri, our truck of archaeologists-turned-weekend-warriors drove until townhouses and estates gave way to camel herds and sand dunes tall enough to marvel at. Then we drove a little bit more, towards the sunset (but stopped long before we encountered a land border with Saudi Arabia). We spent the night exposed on the sand dunes under a canopy of sky. As temperatures plummeted, the sand began to drain our body heat, and the wind kicked up. Being so cold, hardly any of us slept. I gave my blanket up to a particularly shivery colleague, tucking it under her to insulate her from the ground. Seeing as I couldn’t sleep anyways, I tended the fire (to keep my sleeping pals warm) and watched the desert shift beyond the firelight until sunrise.
How do I go camping in the Empty Quarter?
If you are like me, and you’re interested in making your own camping trip or expedition to the Empty Quarter, you’ll need a few things.
First, don’t leave your situational awareness at home. The Empty Quarter is serious desert and it’s easy to get lost in the dunes. Bring a working compass and always consult an accurate map, so you know where the nearest settlement or road (or national border) is, should you need it. Being in the Empty Quarter at all means you are automatically remotely located—if something breaks down and you don’t have the resources to fix it, you’re stuck out there. Foresight and planning will help decrease your potential risks.
Second, you’re going to need a four-wheel drive vehicle (or camel, if you’re lucky!). Attempting the dunes in anything else will get you promptly stuck and waiting for a particularly friendly Bedouin to pull you out with his 4WD pickup truck (but since you’re in the Empty Quarter, that might be a while), and then you have to navigate the vast expanse of cross-cultural interactions from a particularly weak position. Personally, I hate being the damsel-in-distress. Know your vehicle and your own personal limits. Don’t gallivant over giant dunes at high speeds, either. If you can’t see the other side, proceed with caution!
Third, unless you’re trying to live out your own personal hardship fantasies (in the style of Wilfred Thessiger), bring more than just a blanket and a jacket to go camping in the desert. I’m guilty of making this mistake, even though I’m used to living in the desert. Daytime temperatures are drastically different from night-time freezefests. Remember to insulate yourself from the ground, so it doesn’t suck all the warmth from your body as you sleep. Also, sand dunes are formed by wind, so don’t sleep on the windward side of dunes unless you really like to be miserable.
Fourth, bring your pals! There’s safety in numbers in the desert, and you’ll get to share all the ups and down of the experience with trusty buddies. More people means more planning, but it also means you’re more visible if you need help, and have more people to solve field problems on the ground.
Lastly, bring yourself. I mean this figuratively, you need to be present during your trip. Don’t get caught up in your own expectations. The desert is something you have to be patient with, or you’ll miss all its details. Listen for that singing sand dune, look for those sublime signs etched in the ripples of a saddle. Drink that desert in! It’s why you’re here, after all.
Want to know more about the Empty Quarter before making the commitment? Check out these resources:
Types of Dunes from USGS: http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/deserts/dunes/
Most recent on-foot expedition across the Empty Quarter: http://www.crossingtheemptyquarter.com/
National Geographic on Oil, Politics, Bedouin, and Modernity in the Empty Quarter: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0502/feature1/