Camping on Another Planet: The Empty Quarter

Camping on Another Planet: The Empty Quarter

To return to the Empty Quarter would be to answer a challenge, and to remain there for long would be to test myself to the limit. It was one of the very few places left where I could satisfy an urge to go where others had not been.

Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands (1959)

the bright-white beaches of the Persian Gulf to the
satellite galleries of the Guggenheim and Louvre and the camel-milk
cappuccinos served in palaces and stirred with flakes of gold,
there is plenty to keep a visitor occupied in the Emirate
metropolis of Abu
. But beyond the borders of the city, where the
municipally-maintained flora stops abruptly, construction cranes
and power lines waver on the horizon and sand slides across the
highway in translucent sheets, there is a draw to something else.
Something less planned, more primitive and more permanent.
Something this coastal, space-age city seems to be always and
barely keeping at bay: the desert.

Rub’ al Khali – the Empty Quarter, to Westerners – is the
largest sand desert in the world, spanning a quarter of a million
square miles across
Saudi Arabia
, Yemen and the UAE. You’ve seen it in films: red-orange in
the Arabian sun, the occasional line of camels streaming through a
lens flare along the rift of a distant dune. Temperatures soar to
47 degrees celsius. Less than an inch of rain falls each year. What
a fantastic place for a camp out, we thought.

Visiting a fellow American friend, Laura – an artist who’s taken
up a post as an arts faculty member at Abu Dhabi’s New York
University campus – I learned desert camping is not an uncommon way
for UAE expats to spend a weekend. In fact, there’s a formula. Plug
the Liwa Oasis resort Qasr Al Sarab into your GPS, once near the
oasis choose a road – any one of hundreds of unpaved sand roads
strung across the vast expanse of nothingness – and drive until you
find a good place to pull over. “And then what?” I asked her.

“And then we park the car and take all our stuff and walk as far
into the desert as we can carry it,” Laura said. “And then we pitch
the tent.” There were other bits of inherited wisdom: bring
cardboard to wedge under car tires for traction if (when) you get
stuck in the sand on the small roads. Carry extra contact lenses.
Go to bed late and wake up early. Water. Sunscreen. Don’t be too
egregious a presence: it’s not clear what desert is privately owned
and what is government owned; handles of whiskey or unwed friends
sharing a tent may not be quite haram under Sharia Law, but could
be frowned upon by conservative locals.

A somewhat daunting proposition, I thought. But there are some
things in travel you do not refuse: local cuisine, invitations into
elders’ homes, guided visits to impossible terrains. And what this
impossible terrain had to offer was unnameable: a removal from all
things modern, familiar and active – from sensory overload and
abominable politics – to a place with the stillness, Thesiger says,
that we have driven from our world – or, perhaps, from all but one

Saturday midday, we pack up our friend Sami’s compact car in
front of Laura’s towering condominium complex and the three of us
take off through a gauntlet of robotic speed cameras south out of
Abu Dhabi toward the Saudi border, watching the city fade behind us
in a shimmer of heat. After some trial and error, we decide on a
parking spot along a nondescript road near the edge of the oasis. A
couple of one-storey cinder block farmhouses are visible further
down, some crumbling ruins with shattered windows, some apparently
inhabited. A bearded man in a white dishdasha and muzzar (Omani
traditional dress) appears minutes after we do, jovially
volunteering to help us spring our car when our tires are whirring
in the sand. We’d forgotten the cardboard.

We gather our stuff in our arms and walk toward the steep
incline of sand at the road’s edge. Wading up in the heat was slow,
but cresting the first rise, our little dirt road disappears as if
it had never been there, and the desert rolls out before us. It is
Jakku; it is Disney’s Aladdin; it is another planet. We tread from
dune to dune, looking for the perfect valley.

Wilfred Thesiger, an English adventurer, Oxford boxer and
officer of Britain’s Sudan Political Service traversed the Empty
Quarter back and forth for five years in the company of nomadic
Bedouins. He published Arabian Sands about his journeys in 1959. By
that time, Thesiger had already lamented that the Bedouin way of
life he loved was being eroded by the globalising intrusion that
comes with the discovery of oil. Feeding on oil wealth, Abu Dhabi
and Dubai have since sprung out of the desert like futuristic
forests of metal and glass.

Oil exploitation and desertification (a product of development
and climate change in which sand infringes on anything in its path)
have forever changed the human aspect of the Empty Quarter. What
still remains of the desert Thesiger knew is the inhuman part: a
persistent timelessness – an unchanging – in its desolation.

We are no Thesigers, but the alien landscape that separates us
from familiarity, however nearby, feels infinite. We look out over
virtually the exact desolate vistas Thesiger saw in the 1950s,
British explorers Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby saw in the
1930s, and the camel caravans of the frankincense trade saw nearly
two millennia prior, before desertification made their trade routes

The ground is amber with strokes of umber. A few scorched shrubs
or sand-logged tumbleweeds dot the expanse. Green trees mark up a
patch of the distance in one direction – this must be what an oasis
looks like. We settle in, prepping our tent as the sun wanes. Tent
intact, we still have light enough to build a fire for cooking the
dinner we had pre-staged. But when the last ray of sun goes, as if
on cue, the wind picks up. It had been deathly still all evening,
but just as we held our food over the fire, sandy gales pelt us,
blow our logs askew and cover our kebabs. The meticulous foil
encasements I’d built around the vegetables are no match.

It was like being unarmed in a pillow fight. Hellbent on
“leaving no trace”, like maniacs we chase cups and blankets to the
tops of proximate dunes, virtually blinded. Eventually we share the
epiphany that grocery bags full of sand make great weights to
anchor rubbish, and, most critically in this moment, the sides of
our tent, which nearly lifted itself up completely from the spot
where it was perched. We secure everything. And then we seek

At first, this minor haboob was a welcomed adventure on an
unplanned night. But it persists for so long, we start to
second-guess ourselves. What match are we tiny humans for this
ancient weather event? Sardined in our 7 x 5-foot refuge with all
of our worldly possessions – sunscreen, bottles of water, flasks of
booze, tinfoil and citrus fruits and orphan bedsheets – all covered
in a fine, coppery dust that penetrated the tent walls themselves,
we wonder if any of us have got phone signal, what a room at Qasr
Al Sarab would cost, how far it is. Time passes. Who knows how

And then suddenly, the wind stops. We unzip the flap, dust
ourselves off and emerge into a pin-drop silent, still and moonlit
world, like astronauts just stepping off the ship. The three of us
and the camp we carried in are the only things – aside from sand,
sticks, and stars – visible in any direction. There is no sound but
from our breathing. If we hold our breath, none but from our

“The desert is a blank in time as well as space,” Thesiger
wrote. One with no intelligible history. Civilisation is absent.
The stimuli we take for granted in every other place are absent,
but for an instinctive awareness of potential threats that the most
primitive and instinct-driven parts of our brains demand we
consider. What are the chances of a scorpion? An unwitting and
destructive recreational desert buggy? A band of anti-American

Letting go of fears from the familiar world takes hours. But
eventually, with the tactile therapy of sand on skin, the goodwill
of moonlight and the mental muffle that comes from being sun-tired,
we welcome the blank and let it welcome us.

“The Empty Quarter offered me the chance to win distinction as a
traveller,” Thesiger wrote, “but I believed that it could give me
more than this, that in those empty wastes I could find the peace
that comes with solitude.”

We sleep soundly, cradled by the sand, and when the sun arrives
before the heat, we awake to a world that was a quiet unheard

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