Rub' al-Khali Expedition 2008
Text: Svend Buhl, Photos: Svend Buhl and Thomas Kurtz
Already when jumping off the car it was perfectly clear to me: below on the gravel at my feet
there was a meteorite waiting for us. Although the matter was beyond doubt, after two days of
searching in vain the insight that we really had scored took some time until I could accept it.
We high fived us and celebrated our success with an extended photo documentation. It was
not until a quarter of an hour later that I finally touched and picked up the stone from the spot where it
had rested for the last couple of thousand years.
Although the meteorite made quite a
fresh appearance at first sight it now became obvious
that it was no youngster any more as far as his terrestrial
age was concerned. There was no fusion rind left and sandblasting
over the millennia had milled single chondrules deep out of the matrix.
However this particular aerolite displayed neither the widened
contraction cracks nor caliche adherent to the contact surfaces.
Both are typical weathering features of finds in the general area.
Later, after weighing the specimen, we registered it under the field
name 'Rub' al-Khali 002' and with a weight of 471.40g in the
After a long and fruitless search finally a second find. A chondrite of 471.40g with the field name 'Rub' al-Khali 002'
While walking the closer surrounding Thomas found another fragment of 60g. It
lay on the gravel surface six inches from our track. We had almost run over it.
On this occasion I discovered that I must have passed the main mass twice this
morning while prospecting from the car. At closest I drove by barely fifty meters.
The first time I passed it the mass lay towards the sun, thus I must have monitored the opposite side. Just
while driving past the second time the two graves caught my attention. My change
of course was easy to recognize by the sharp turn in my track.
We pitched a noon camp at the spot of the find and enjoyed an opulent bouillabaisse
for lunch. After drowsing for an hour under the car in the upcoming breeze we strolled
towards the two grave sites. At the foot of the second grave Thomas photographed a
beautiful blade worked from milk white flint. This type of tool with bifacial but
irregular and often slant retouching was familiar to me from the Ténéré desert in
Niger. There it would have resembled a typical pattern
of the early Sahara-Sudan Neolithic. However on the settlement periods of the
south east Arabian peninsula I possessed only nebulous knowledge.
Both burials consisted of an even layer
of larger desert varnished rocks which stood out some twenty centimeters
of the gravel pavement. The rock layer covered a roughly oval surface of 4
by 2.3 feet. The orientation diverged by some forty degrees. One grave which
was slightly larger and better preserved showed an alignment towards a northeasterly direction.
The other which was protracted by erosion pointed roughly towards East.
Both burials were obviously pre-Islamic.
A Toad Headed Agama of the species Phrynocephalus maculatus teaches us a lesson in desert camouflage. Approximately 24cm
We left the find context untouched and solely recorded coordinates. In the
wider perimeter of the burial site a number of fireplaces were cognizable.
Judging by the selection of stone tools from different periods which the
proceeding erosion had surfaced on the top horizon the location was
frequently used over different periods. The place was chosen well. It was
situated in a depression on top of a ridge that was separated from the vast
plain below by a shallow chain
of rolling hills. The ancient dwellers could easily overlook the plain for
game or general movement without their camp being spotted from below.
Dry camel grass and the remaining roots of died Shakr bushes
(Calotropis procera) were abundantly spread about the depression.
They indicated that on occasion of the rare rains the surface water
collected under the sink. And the green in the
sands doesn't need much water to sprout. It was obvious that this
location had provided feasible grazing land in less arid times.
Like the days before we dug out the bone dry roots to
replenish our stock of firewood, always alert not to flush
out the accidental scorpion or sand viper from the rotten stubs.
The insect predator Phrynocephalus maculatus is a
rogue. Often he can be seen standing on his forelegs peering for prey
Because we had exploited our maximum cruising range we were
traveling south-westwards since the previous day. We held our
course towards a small caravansary that was labeled on our maps with
the icon for 'nafta', the Arab word for gas. Although Thomas and I had
used the same maps when taking coordinates our GPS devices displayed
slightly different directions. 'We should better check that' I suggested.
With the distances we traveled even two degrees diversion could imply
that we would miss our target several kilometers without even seeing
way we would end up in some deserted dune valley with an empty tank where
we would have a lot of time to figure out what actually went wrong.
Thomas, probably already anticipating a picturesque scene with a flight
of vultures circling over our parched bodies, hurried to unfold the maps.
We had in fact used the same map chart
but to our dismay our maps differed in the compilation date. Our target
was marked with a difference of 12 kilometers in both maps respectively.
Thomas had managed to acquire a TPC with a
compilation date of 1999 already several years ago.
In my case the seller in a special
store for topographical charts in Hamburg had foisted
on me the very same map, but this issue was a shelf warmer
that was dating back to 1981.
Probably the store's motto 'we love the world and want to show
it to you' was to be understood that they decide what the curious
traveler would see and what not. I had asked for the latest TPC
that was covering our search area, not knowing
that the said traditional topographic store kept maps for the Arabian
Peninsula that were evidently dating back to the times of Ibn Battuta.
Probably not even magnificent Ibn Batutta would have found his
way with this particular map. As a closer examination
and a cross check with our GPS data recorded so far revealed,
most of the entries were far off their real world positions
and some even were complete
figments of imagination. If the US Air Force really
operated according to the 1981 editions collateral
damage was in fact unavoidable.
From now on we took our coordinates from Thomas copy
and we did well by doing so as we would see soon. To go sure not
to miss the envisaged gas station we checked the map and took a bearing
of a hill that was supposed to rise 25 meters above the terrain in a distance
of seven kilometers from the caravansary. From this viewpoint our target should
be well within the range of sight. Indeed after four hours of exhausting drive
a black object came in sight which revealed as a fuel drum filled with concrete
that had been placed as a landmark on top of a shallow butte. On arrival on top a
grey patch could be seen at the horizon. With the aid of the Hensoldt binoculars
we identified the spot as the sought after oasis. We had made it.
The seven kilometer distant oasis Wadi Kitaabit comes in sight (arrow)
When we rolled through the outskirts of the settlement we passed a
barrack with a group of fierce looking folks lingering in the shadow, all
uniformed in worn desert camo. Thomas suggested to drop by and say hello at what was
supposedly a military camp, in order to collect some impression of the general
security situation. I once had a similar idea in a place named In Guezzam in Southern
Algeria, I told Thomas. I had peered into a comparable establishment, greeted the soldiers in Arabic and a couple of
moments later found myself facing the business end of a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Thomas
thought for a second and then decided to spare the experience. This way we continued
without a better idea of the general security situation.
With the fuel gauge signaling in bright red we rolled to a halt in
front of the gas station. Mr. Gupda, the attendant, was a friendly
immigrant worker from Rajasthan. He greeted us
glad about the prevenient business and told us that today we were
his first customers. Therefore we would be getting particularly good benzine.
We were however in search of jerry cans which we intended to buy.
Especially because we had arrived to the conclusion that a small sized safety
margin would permit us a better sleep. This was easier said than done. Indeed
we managed to acquire eggs,
butter, fresh bread, soft drinks and eighty liters drinking water in the local
Mat'aam but no one kept a stock of jerry cans in that place.
Because all service personal was either of Indian or Pakistani
nationality we also met difficulties overcoming the language barrier.
Neither of them spoke more than a couple of words of English nor Arab, let alone German. After some Babylonian
complications that also attracted the local barber I put a stop on it
and had the 'mudir' of the restaurant called. It might lead us somewhere to discuss
the matter with him in Arab and while sharing a tea.
Sand wasp of the genus Tachytes (eventually the closely
related genus Tachysphex). The agile flyer preys for
crickets and locusts. Approximately 22mm
As a born and bred child of the Arabian sands he absolutely and at
first go understood the importance of a strategic fuel provision. He
disappeared into the kitchen where he, judged by the rising noise level,
scotched the resistance of his
chef de cuisine with a few clear words. Shortly upon he resurfaced beaming
with pride and with a thirty liter cooking oil canister in each hand.
With a little good will the containers could be used as jerry can.
We quickly agreed on a price of two dirhams per canister and everybody was happy.
Except for the cook. Loaded with our prize we left the establishment while we heard the cook,
presumably forced to temporarily store his oil in the sink, quarrel with his fate
through the open kitchen window.
Unfortunately the urgent solution of our fuel provision problem would not
allow us to consider his feelings any further and so we returned to
the gas station. Back at the pump Mr. Gupda our friendly attendant flushed
the canisters with petrol which he nonchalantly poured in the dust beside
the pump after completing this task. Then he poured us another sixty liters and
inquired whether we intended to drive all the way 'ilal Misr', 'to Egypt',
with that filling. 'Inschallah, ya Sadiq', 'if the Lord wants us to, my friend'
I answered determinedly.
Obviously the sands have swallowed the oasis and fuel station
that is supposed to be located at this very spot. At least according to
the Tactical Pilotage Chart J-7D with the compilation date of 1981
The oasis that was slowly shrinking and finally disappearing in our
mirrors was situated close to the position where Thomas 1999 map copy
had marked it. On our way back off road into the sands we also crossed
the position where the place was supposed to be following the indication of
my 1981 TPC copy. Surrounded by deep sand fields, desolated gravel hills and
buckled drifts there was not a single dead blade of grass as far as the eye
could see. Let alone a caravansary with a gas station.
With the 1981 issue even avionic navigation, for which the TPC were originally
intended, could only be recommended to undaunted optimists.
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