The Empty Quarter – Saudi Arabia
Sleeping out under the stars is a bit of a paradox in itself due to the fact that if you are asleep, you won’t see the stars so may as well be inside. To combat this issue, when going to bed at 9pm I made the point of looking up at the heavens and trying to stay awake until I had seen at least three shooting stars. I took surprisingly little time, however I must confess that the stars let me down a little out in the Empty Quarter. I was expecting the sky to be ablaze with the Milky Way as I remembered it to be in other destinations I’ve been lucky enough to visit but for some reason, on this occasion they refused to give their all. I have always faced waking up in the morning with great difficulty. I am neither a night owl nor an early bird; I simply love going to bed and loath getting out of it. This applies anywhere at any time but waking up every morning in the desert to a chill on my cheeks, a bright blue sky developing overhead and magnificent views ahead of me made the whole process much easier. I would wake to the sounds of the boys at prayer or preparing tea on the fire but that would be it, no birds, no waves, not trees rustling, just absolute silence. Our Saudi crew boiled up a selection of drinks for us every morning, all delicious. One gem was warm milk with grated ginger, an absolute game changer in the world of hot drinks and on one morning I really discovered who my mates were when a cup of the gingery liquid was brought to me as I lay dozy eyed in my cosy sleeping bag. Arabic tea was always on offer which we devoured at every opportunity. Served black and sweet it’s a drink I’ve always loved. This was followed up with ginger tea, another drink that can do no wrong. In the evenings we kicked off with some lovely Arabic coffee before getting back on the black and ginger tea. Basically, the selection of hot drinks in the middle of the desert was impressive. Breakfast was always cheese and bread for me (tea, cheese and bread, it doesn’t get much better than that!) plus olives and some nutty spread for those of us that were a bit woo woo. By 8am we would be packed up and heading back out into the dunes to where? We never knew.
We were still following the dusty road through the desert, heading south towards the border with Oman. A visit to a few oases had been mentioned and I was full of excitement to see a lush patch of green rising out of the desert; how disappointed I was to become. Still on the road we rounded some sand dunes and came across a scene of devastation. A large area of old, dry, rushes was slowly burning away in the distance leaving large areas of black carpet. On closer inspection it was clear to see that some tyres had been set alight to get the fire going. I don’t even know if it’s possible but apparently the spring to the oasis had been blocked off by the oil companies in order to save water. Blocked off or pumped dry it was clear that human intervention for whatever reason had completely destroyed a little corner of paradise in an otherwise gigantic and hostile environment. I was pissed off. One of the main reasons for going on this trip was to get away from humans and their insistence on screwing up everything, yet it would appear that nowhere is safe. I will state – in the pursuit of balance – that there were hints of plants growing and there could have been a tiny possibility that the fire was clearing the dead vegetation to allow new growth but…… I think this is an overly optimistic assessment and does nothing to make up for the fact that there was water and now there is none that is visible at least. My desire to get away from the road increased.
A couple of hours later our disappointment was given a chance to ebb as an actual, fully working oasis appeared on the horizon. It too had been messed with but apparently the perpetrators were unable to prevent the water from supplying the oasis. What’s more, the water that rose to the surface at the source of the spring was bloody hot, accompanied by the delightful smell of sulphur; it wasn’t quite the perfect combo for a roasting hot day in the desert. Nonetheless, the water filtered through the rushes to a deep pool of crystal clear and cool water that we were only too happy to throw ourselves into. Living in the desert is a strange thing as nothing really gets dirty. Sandy yes, but not dirty. As a result, after a couple of days of not getting wet I still felt surprisingly clean, not that that did anything to prevent me from stripping to my pants and jumping into the cool, refreshing water. Although it was winter, the 30oC sun made light work of drying us out and soon after we were back in the cars to make a short trip around the back of the oasis that opened up to reveal a large shallow lake which I assume is still classed as part of the original oasis yet, it was different. Although there was plenty of water, there was relatively little life around the lake. However, the views as we bombed up and around the surrounding dunes were spectacular with the lake acting as nature’s mirror reflecting the surrounding scenes perfectly. We took the opportunity to park up under some shade, put the kettle on, have a light lunch and a heavy nap.
Finally we said goodbye to the road for good as we headed deeper into the desert thanks to the supply car being a little lighter and boy did we have fun. The desert changed every day, starting with what can be likened to rolling countryside, it then changed to mountain peaks before turning to endless plains on the final day of the tour. The one constant was sand. Day 4 we found ourselves very much among the impossibly high peaks of the sand dunes and would prove to be an absolute highlight of the trip. The dunes were arranged in lines running roughly from east to west and we were travelling in a southerly direction which meant we had to cross these sandy beasts. That was a challenge that our cars and drivers did with ease and far more ease than me as I sat in the back getting tossed around until I turned green. Speed is everything, as well as having your wits, and so we would regularly fly up a sand dune, skirt along it’s crest to check out the route, turn back down the dune and head straight back up and over the crest or, find another route. Sometimes we would shoot up a dune before the driver changed his mind and slammed it into reverse, flying down the dune and halfway up another backwards. None of this made me feel too good even if the experience on the whole was absolutely epic and everything I could have hoped for. Once we had scaled a set of dunes we would speed along large, flat, open salt pans for a few miles before hitting the next row of dunes and begin to descend them. This, we spent the whole day doing and no matter how I felt, it never got boring and the dunes never failed to take your breath away one way or another!
It was almost impossible to get any sense of scale of the desert, especially during the heat of the day when the sun bleached every view. However, as the sun set, the dunes appeared to come alive with every ripple making itself known to the eye. Usually we rocked up to strike camp around 4.30pm where we would jump out of the cars and immediately hike up the highest dune that was possible and kick back to enjoy the inevitable stunning sunset in absolute silence. It wasn’t until I returned to work and I woke in the morning to the sound of birds when I realised what I had been missing, yet at the time sat on those dunes listening to nothing was simply awesome. Some may say its haunting but I thought it was beautiful. It’s hard to describe hearing nothing and in fact it’s quite impossible to hear nothing for an environment as quiet as the Empty Quarter enables one to hear someone else from what feels like miles away. Distance was incredibly hard to judge yet the distant sound of the camp kitchen could sometimes be heard as though it was right behind you. Sat on those dunes, watching the sunset must surely be one of the best detoxes the mind can get. With the sun gone, the sky immediately started to fill with the stars and we would settle in for the night drinking tea and coffee around the fire while munching on dates followed by chicken, rice and veggies. Conversation inevitably turned to world domination yet by 9pm we would all be drifting off to our own little patch of desert to once again fall asleep under the stars.