Rub' al-Khali Expedition 2008
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Text: Svend Buhl, Photos: Svend Buhl and Thomas Kurtz
The Empty Quarter
Wind eroded rock formations ('Yardangs') sandblasted out of lacustrine limestone sediments
We had started at sunrise. By noon some five hundred clicks lay already behind us. Progress on the asphalt road was
smooth and the mercury showed an outside temperature of 89.6°F,
quite chilly for the desert we crossed. The dead straight track
ran through dazzling expanses of white gravel infrequently disturbed
by chains of shallow sickle dunes and flat limestone buttes. Heavily
loaded with the goods of the orient, we rolled westwards.
Easy going. When Allah created time,
he made plenty of it. Thus we saw no reason to hurry.
Behind our backs in the trunk, on top of a hundred odd pounds of expedition
gear, we had piled an assortment of local culinary experiments gathered at
the local night bazaar as well as sufficient drinking water and fuels.
Esspecially a five kilogram box of dry dates was met with particular approval.
The resourceful Saudi Arabian package designers, familiar with the demands of
modern time nomads, had perforated a corner of the carton, precisely wide enough
to grab the sticky content with three fingers.
The handy date dispenser was promptly awarded a standard position on
top of the oddments compartment and was to be displaced only
for a quick shift of the 4-wheel or differential.
At 595 kilometers in the shallow ditch, a black bundle came into
sight, rapidly growing to a frightening size. At passing by the lump
revealed itself as the bloated carcass of a dromedary, the dusty coat
buried under a blanket of flies, purple shimmering
intestines ballooning from the distorted trunk. Driven by first hand
experience in the nick of time I succeeded to shut the windows.
Judging by his paleness, the encounter had left an
impression on my team mate Thomas. My encouraging statement, 'entirely
natural occurrence, after three days in the ditch you and I
wouldn't look any different' however did not have the intended soothing effect.
Team mate Thomas preparing a 'bouillabaisse á la quartier creux'
In the late afternoon we reached Al-Ghaftain where
we filled our tanks one last time before we turned off
the road northwards and into the wilderness. The spot was
badly picked as we immediately found out. After
only two hundred meters we ploughed under curses through a
broad gypsum field with critical speed and under constant
danger of bogging down.
It was only after two kilometers that the ground started becoming safe.
As on top of an ice floe in stormy sea I brought the
Land Cruiser to a halt on a limestone escarp. This was a
relict of the Mesozoic basement that now rose several meters
above the sand fields. We had reached our destination.
The Rub' al-Khali, the 'Empty Quarter' of the Arabian Peninsula, is the
largest contiguous sand desert on Earth. It covers an expanse of more than
780,000 square kilometers. With a North-South extension of
six hundred and an East-West extension of more than one thousand kilometers,
it is concurrently one of the most deserted surfaces of our planet.
Wilfred Thesiger, pioneer of the Rub' al-Khali, during his first crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1947. From: Arabian Sands, London 1959
In the North it begins South of Riad in Saudi Arabia and
reaches as far South as Hadramaut in Yemen and Mugshin in
the Sultanate of Oman. In the East, the Rub' al-Khali expands
from Abha in Saudi Arabia as far West as Al-Khis in the United
Arab Emirates. The central desert forms a dune belt that in its
complete extension would cover France. The 'Barchan' dunes in its
centre pile up to a height of one thousand feet. In combination with
'Irq' named girdle dunes of over 150km length, they create a hazardous
zone that is extremely difficult to overcome. Even
with state of the art desert transport the task is
only achieved by taking enormous risks and spending a lot
of energy. Occasionally even today people get lost
without a trace in the inner desert.
Due to the trade wind, the Rub' al-Khali is a hyper-arid desert.
Temperatures vary from freezing point
in spring and winter nights to a comfortable 149F during the day in summer and fall.
Apart from space imaging the Rub' al-Khali is largely unexplored.
So far the desert is among the most impenetrable territories on Earth.
Contrary to the Sahara desert in North Africa the caravan traffic in
the Empty Quarter has long succumbed. The legendary people of AD, whose
frankincense caravans crossed the Empty Quarter until the third
century AD, have not left many traces. The caravan trails that once ran
from Moscha on the coast of the Indian Ocean via the city
of Ubar towards the Arabian shores of the Red Sea are long buried by the shiftings sands.
The present day Bedu, who live at the seam of the Empty Quarter, avoid the inner desert.
Today only the exploration parties of the oil companies, whom
the Bedu owe their present wealth, traverse the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali.
The first crossings of the Rub' al-Khali by Europeans did not
succeed until 1931. Both, British civil servant Sir Bertram Thomas
('Arabia Felix', 1932) and shortly after British Agent Harry St. John
Bridger Philby, better known under his Arabic name Sheikh Abdullah,
traversed the dune belt with the aid of their Bedu guides. In 1946, Sir
Wilfred Patrick Thesiger arrived on the scene and undertook
several well documented crossings further east and north of the routes of
his predecessors ('Arabian Sands', 1959).
Full moon rising over the Rub' al-Khali desert
Like the Bedu who accompanied them, all the pioneers of
the Rub' al-Khali trusted in dromedaries as pack animals as
well as mounts. It was not until the late forties of the past
century that the oil exploration parties of Saudi Aramco
introduced automobiles to penetrate the Rub' al-Khali.
The unmistakable tracks of
their Series I Land Rovers left their impressions on gravel
surfaces which no man's foot had ever touched before. They can still be found today.
Since the eighties, the vast crude oil fields like Shybah at
the Northern seam of the Empty Quarter are all hooked up with
the infrastructure by their own pipelines, fiber optic cables,
and airstrips. Today a dense mesh of broad dirt tracks visible even
from space is drawn over the Rub' al-Khali. But the appearances are
deceptive: The tracks on a busy dirt track may be years, even decades
old. They may lead to a deserted drilling site or an abandoned camp
which reveals itself only by a couple of rotten planks, rusty
cans and sanded bottles half buried under the sand. The desert
wayfarer is well advised not to trust them
but to rely on thorough navigation. To all others Shakespeare
may be applied, because these tracks '… have lighted fools the way to dusty death'.
We did not intend a crossing. With a single Land Cruiser J9, whose gas
tanks could barely take 120 liters and a maximum payload
of seven hundred kilos this would have meant a kamikaze mission.
But we were heading for the Southern periphery of the
Rub' al-Khali, particularly the vast corridors between the
dunes that penetrate the sand belt for up to two hundred kilometers.
These gravel and silt plains composed of lacustrine Miocene sediments
are subject to severe eolian deflation. Their bright grey, beige and
ochre surfaces provide the soil horizons from which meteorites emerge.
Rained down on our planet thousands or ten thousands of years ago,
they have outlived the destructive forces of surface weathering.
Embedded in the sediments until climate changes, increasing
desertification and eolian erosion uncovered them, they now
patiently wait their discovery on the bright gravel beds. These
were our search grounds.
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