The Empty Quarter – Saudi Arabia
There is nothing better than watching a boss ‘boss it’! On many occasions the tour leader would park up and take a nap or relax while the rest of the crew got on with cooking and setting up camp. Beyond doubt the best example of Arabian leadership was when the boss got his truck stuck in the sand good and proper. He simply got out, took his drone from the back of the car and wondered off into the desert to take some aerial photos while the rest of the crew spent a good fifteen minutes trying to get the car out while simultaneously not driving straight into an oasis. We, the passengers, observed all of this from a superb view sat upon a sand dune. It may appear arrogant to a westerner but out here, age and position are still respected and whereas I wouldn’t preach it at work myself, it’s jolly good fun to see it in action!
We could have done better but I don’t think we were too bad at getting out and about on foot. For the entire week we wore nothing on our feet for the simple fact we were walking on sand as soft as talcum powder but holy moly did it get hot during the day. Every day when we pulled up for lunch we would venture out into the dunes on foot and almost every time we would begin climbing a dune that was facing the sun full-on and have to turn back because our feet would begin to smoulder. The heat of the sand was incredible even if the air temperature wasn’t too bad. We soon learnt to try and tackle dunes on the side that hadn’t been in direct sunlight which did help but we also learnt it was best to wait until mid afternoon when the exertion of climbing dunes yielded the greatest returns. The colour of the sand was something else. Largely beige with a delicate dusting of red on top, yet this was a red that changed colour constantly throughout the day. This dusting appearance left the most beautiful patterns across the dunes like icing on a cake or ripples on a pond. We would always wake up to paw prints around our campsites and strange tracks left by beetles and lizards were routinely seen although very rare did we see the owners. Trees and bushes were everywhere, ranging from very dead to very alive. Maybe I’m being a tad over optimistic using the word ‘tree’ but in the relative emptiness of the desert, the wooden branches that littered the place were tree enough for me.
On several occasions when parked up at night the crew would get their radio out and through shear politeness would tune into an English speaking station. It’s safe to say that all four western passengers immediately shuddered and asked for them to change the channel. It was a strange feeling but hearing what was happening outside of our enormous sandy bubble brought on what can only be described as a kind of stress. There was no phone signal or phone masts, no WiFi, no electricity or pylons or power lines, no cars, no people, no noise of any kind beyond ourselves for a whole week. When was the last time you had no phone signal or WiFi for more than a day? What’s it like when you have no electricity for a day? We didn’t miss any of it. We woke when the sun rose, we sat around the fire and talked at night and we happily forgot about the outside world. Yeah we played with drones and used phones for pictures and videos but it was all related to what we were doing in that moment and if they had been taken away it wouldn’t have altered the substance of the trip in anyway. I dare you to delete the Facebook app off your phone. Imagine if you used the time saved to spend it with your kids, your partner, the dog, reading a book or watching a sunset. If nothing else, when you next (finally) get to go on holiday, what about putting the phone in flight mode for the whole time? Enjoy the holiday and share it with friends and family when you get back.
Day 6 & 7
The penultimate day saw the scenery change yet again as the dunes began to flatten out which lead to some fast driving across the sand and a reduced level of car sickness. We stopped off for a dip at one last ‘oasis’ which was a larger disappointment that the first. Although this oasis had water, it had been piped and was being used to fill a water trough which then overflowed and ran towards a small flock of bushes and trees. The water was once again hot and sulphurous yet some more eagerly than others jumped straight into the water in an effort to freshen up. I got out relatively quickly feeling far dirtier than before getting in, yet our crew relished it and soon had the water pipe set up into a makeshift shower where they whipped out the soap, lathered up, washed some clothes and generally had a great time. I on the other hand sulked off to take photos of all the rubbish lying around from tyres, to chemical drums, to shoes and plastic bottles. What made it worse was that there wasn’t even a road nearby that I was aware of, although it was obvious this was a popular stop from the amount of camel poo lying around and wheel marks in the sand. If there was only one thing to be sad about on the whole trip then it was the state of any place we visited that had water.
As we hurtled north in search for the road home we came across the wreckage of a plane which, after some extensive CSI work, it was concluded that the plane was from the fifties. I’m sure the wreckage is well known but then this is Saudi Arabia and very little is commonly known about anything regarding such sights. Finally, after around four days with no roads we hopped onto a stone track that had been carved out by the oil companies although judging by the huge dunes that swept across it, it was barely used and we spent the first hour or so driving around the huge drifts. From then on the road remained clear and the boys sped up to over 100km/hr and we spent hour after hour looking at absolutely nothing other than a blue sky and a vast, flat, beige desert. It still had it’s own unique beauty but it couldn’t hold our attention the same as the rolling dunes from previous days. I have never been anywhere where the scenery remained the same for quite so long! After a full day on the stone road we began to pass the odd side road that led to an oil well in the distance and then as night fell, the sky filled with lights on the horizon. Not that of stars but of people and their towns and industry. As with the radio it was a strange feeling and on one hand it was a welcoming feeling but on the other it was one of sadness. Our wheels felt tarmac for the first time in seven days and we knew it was over as we were almost immediately thrown into everyday traffic, a little like stepping out of the wardrobe from Narnia. If I am honest, a week in the Empty Quarter is enough for there is only so much dune bashing one can do but also a week is the bare minimum and I feel like one could spend months in this desert and see something new and spectacular every day. As for returning home to modern life? I would be a fool to try and fight it or pretend I don’t go along with it. For me the most important thing is that great areas of the planet like the Rub’ al Khali remain in their raw, un-molested state. They are the last remaining spots on the planet where a human can escape and feel completely free and before long that too will also be gone as Mr Musk and others strive to deliver worldwide satellite WifFi coverage. But hey, at least we’ll be able to lie under the desert sky watching constellations of satellites fly over us in the place of the stars while sending a snapchat and checking the latest pandemic figures. Aside from a sad, final reflection, Saudi Arabia has once again provided an epic few weeks of travel, truly awesome. Shukran.