Rub' al-Khali Expedition 2008
Text: Svend Buhl, Photos: Svend Buhl and Thomas Kurtz
The following day promised to get considerably hot. When we started at sunrise, the outside
thermometer of our Land Cruiser already displayed 68°F. We were innocuously unconcerned about
this because although our subjective heat sensation constantly rose during the following hours
the green digital display still claimed the temperature had settled at a constant 68°F ('Man, these
68° start to feel pretty combustive'). As the sun climbed at its zenith the two of us had already
repetitively burned our skin at the scalding hull of the Land Cruiser. When our hygrometer announced
that relative humidity had dropped below eight
percent and every step outside the shadow of the car had become an exertion we finally began to doubt
the credibility of the small green digits.
And in fact, a short while after we had killed and restarted the engine
the thermometer already announced 115°F. This certainly was a closer match
to reality. As far as atmospheric humidity was concerned I had never witnessed anything
near let alone below fifteen percent so this was quite a new experience. It
even dwarfed the dust dry Bordeaux wine from the previous night.
The many flies that had plagued us the past days and that
penetrated into trousers, nose, eyes and ears and that could
not even be scared off the fork one lifted to the mouth were all
abruptly gone. The billowing desert floor that we
rolled on the coming days from now on was flecked with dead moths,
locusts and hymenoptera. A couple of days later bird carcasses joined them.
At noon we scaled a limestone butte in the prospect of some gentle breeze.
We parked over a shallow erosion ditch on the top that provided enough
space below the chassis to drowse in the shadow. The plan was to catch
a nap until the desert would return to more favorable conditions for
endothermic life forms. For the first time I experienced a kind of heat
that seemed physically exhausting while simply sitting in the shade.
Thomas appeared groggy as well. Though he
determinedly rejected my allusion that the way he lingered below the car
suggested a first resemblance to the bloated camel at the roadside.
It was not until 03:00 p.m. that we continued searching that day.
But despite the good visibility and the vast stretches of untouched
land free of tracks and other signs of human presence we did not make
another find. In the late afternoon we halted to collect some firewood
for the night. More precisely, we dug out the abundant roots of Shakr
bushes that must have died a long time ago.
They burned a lot better than dry camel dung and besides they were to
be preferred to the latter at any rate because of their aromatic odor.
The distance from the photographer to the author and the 90g meteorite
at his feet is 85 meters. It was the first find we made by bridging
the working distance of the human eye with the Hensoldt field glass.
While pitching my tent I discovered a torn out and missing eyelet.
Unfortunately the component was indispensable for the construction
because it served as a bearing to the fiberglass poles of the frame.
Out of a ring pull from a sardine can I fabricated a full-fledged
replacement which led Thomas to the comment, this 'outspeeded even
MacGyver'. I understood the hint and also riveted Thomas's camping
chair. This particular piece
of equipment looked as if it had seen action in several of Rommel's
Africa campaigns. As a seating accommodation it was only of limited use.
In return I benefited from my companion's excellent knowledge of star
constellations. He showed me a number of stars and nebulae hitherto unfamiliar
to me. Among them Canopus in the constellation of Argo Navis, today better known
as Carina. Named after the pilot of Menelaus on his quest to retrieve Helen of
Troy, Canopus is the second brightest object in the night-time sky after Sirius.
I had noticed the star already at the previous evening and couldn't figure where
to assign it to. 'No wonder' according to Thomas: Canopus was so far south in
the sky, it never rose in mid- or far-northern latitudes and could not be seen
north of latitude 38°N. It was only when he mentioned the star's Arabic name
'Suhael' that I remembered my guides in Niger had navigated by it.
'Rub' al-Khali 007' (field name), an ordinary chondrite of 90.20g
I had been told there even were few among the old caravan
leaders who will always lay down face towards Canopus at full
moon nights. 'And why is that?' Thomas inquired. I wasn't
quite sure whether the legend of the ghost caravan
would be a bit too much of strong meat for my brave companion.
On the other hand the story might dispel his thoughts on decomposing carcasses…
The ghost caravan
'The camels would scent them first', I began. 'They will
start snorting and try to get rid of the bonds the Bedu tie
their legs together with at night. The wind dies and a sudden
calm creeps across the nightly desert. The first sleepers awake
to the uneasiness of their pack animals. Then, only subtly, the
sand begins to oscillate. The vibrations intensify and single
shadowy patches appear in the twilight, hell-bent pacing towards
and by the camp. These are the animals of the desert, hyenas,
foxes, lizards, curly tangles of insects, all in full panicked
flight, away from an unseen source of terror. The caravan
springs to arms and stares towards Canopus. And there
under its metallic light the first gray specters emerge over
the horizon. 'Allah have mercy upon us' murmurs the leader,
'the ghost caravan!'.
Led by diffuse ochre drivers Camel after camel
wafts over the horizon. Voluptuous women draped
with gold are seating in the high saddles. At their
feet slaves and maidens are balancing archaic jars
on their heads. They wander soundlessly among the biblical
trail. Silently and without casting a shadow the
terrible caravan follows its way in the cold moonlight.
Without number and for hours as it seems they are
wandering by. They say on sight of the caravan the
carcasses of the camels buried all over rise from
the sands. The bleached bones morph into shadows,
their bodies filled by swirling dust. The dust also
whirls into the shape of ochre men gripping for their
reins. From all sides the perished of the desert join the
trail of the ghost caravan. Al those devoured by the sands
rise from the dead in this night and join the caravan of
revenants. To pray they march towards Mecca. He who is
touched by one of the shadowy riders is doomed
to join them. Alone the call 'Allah' has the power to protect
the traveler. And it is not until the crack of dawn that the
'The ghost caravan is not only an ancient legend', I explain. 'It was seen in N'djamena
in Chad in 1995, in the Tibesti in Libya in 1998, near Mopti
in Mali in 2005 and close to Al-Faschir in Darfur in 2006, so I
have been told.'
While Thomas set up his telescope to check
in the direction of Canopus for any unusual
occurrences I went in my tent and hit the sack. At
sun-up we were already en route.
The author at eye level with a meteorite find ('Rub' al-Khali 004')
Hour for hour we searched a wide flat
depression. We checked roots, dead birds,
cast shadows, a sandblasted can and the casual
odd stone. Every time with decreasing distance
the certainty increased that the object again
would not reveal itself as a meteorite. Scanning
the field of vision with the naked eye was an easy
business until early noon.
But after 10 o' clock watching into the flickering
brightness of the limestone plains was only possible
with a good pair of sunglasses.
At about eleven o' clock we reached a narrow eroded chain of hills
bordering the plain that we had searched since the morning. I dropped
Thomas who preferred to continue on foot, but not without advising him
always to maintain visual contact with the vehicle in the confusing terrain.
Around noon I was driving a loop about four hundred meters from my companion
when left of me a group of dark varnished stones appeared. They differed
considerably from the common prehistoric
fireplaces abundant in the area. While turning I recognized that I was dealing
with a burial site. Several meters to the left was a second grave.
'We should measure and mark the site in our maps', I thought.
If the graves had not been disturbed we might be even able to derivate
evidence for the erosion gradient and and relative age
of the top surface that we were searching.
Provided the graves really were pre-Islamic and not oriented towards Mecca.
Thomas Kurtz (left) and author in front of a 488g chondrite ('Rub' al-Khali 006')
I took a bearing towards Thomas, collected him and together
we returned driving in walking speed, careful not to miss other tell
tale signs on the ground confirming a prehistoric settlement. The shallow
stone heaps were hard to rediscover on the surface that was flickering in the
heat. Although I had made a mental note of their position I spotted them not
until we had come as close as seventy meters. 'Here we go', but in the same
instant right below my window a black spot flashed by.
I turned my head
while I continued driving but almost instantly slammed the brakes. Thomas,
who could not see what I had seen curiously gazed at me. 'That looked good' I said
and he directly knew what I meant. I opened the driver's door and once again
looked at the rock that rested barely four meters behind the car.
In contrast to the bright gravel surface it was so black it seemed to come
directly from the darkest corner of space. In fact it looked as if it
was swallowing the light that was so lavishly distributed among this place.
It's hard to explain but when you
looked at this stone lying on the Serir of the Rub' al-Khali everything
on it exclaimed its alien origin. 'This actually looks really good' I said.
click to continue
go to page
© 2001-2008 Meteorite Recon