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“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)
From 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 Dhabi. 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, Oman, 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 corner.
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 impassible.
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 refuge.
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 much.
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 heartbeats.
“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 marauders?
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 of.
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