Rub' al-Khali Expedition 2008
Text: Svend Buhl, Photos: Svend Buhl and Thomas Kurtz
Al Abwaab as-Sabr, The Gates of Patience
Until sunset we continued towards our second search area. Half
along the way we built a dump with our improvised jerry cans, food and
drinking water. The dump would enable us to operate longer independently in
As we continued, suddenly after overcoming a steep bump and barely ten meters
in front of us a pitch black stone appeared.
The visibility is decreasing, a dust storm is building up
On approaching it all doubts disappeared. 'This is the real
McCoy' Thomas claimed and right he was. Deep contraction cracks widened
through chemical and mechanical weathering clearly indicated another
find. Also a slightly fresher find than the one we had discovered before
noon. Happy about the unexpected present we gave an Indian dance on the spot.
To be more
precisely, to keep a low profile we performed the local Bedouin variant,
at least what we thought this would look like from hearsay.
We planned to return to the location on our way back to see whether
'Rhub al-Khali 003' belonged to an undiscovered strewn
field and if there would be more masses to find.
Already in the afternoon the breeze had intensified. Until
the evening the range of visibility had decreased from almost
fifteen kilometers to a couple of hundred meters. Gray dust clouds
darkened the sky which indistinctly melted with the horizon without
a distinguishable dividing line. The sun disappeared early and glowed
until sunset through a thick haze the color of molten lead.
‚Rub' al-Khali 005', a fresh chondrite of 7.2g found by accident between our own tracks
Colors and contours of the landscape dissolved and the desert showed
its pitiless face. Under rapidly worsening visibility conditions we searched
for a wind protected camp site. Finally we succeeded and halted near the bank
of a shallow erosion furrow. Pitching our tents which we tied redundantly and
additionally secured with boulders took us twice the usual time.
Around our fireplace we constructed a windbreak. But
despite all the effort the dry roots we had collected during
the day and which we now fed to the blaze burned twice as fast.
Instead the scrambled eggs on the gas stove took what seemed for
hours due to the frequent gusts that swept through the campsite and
flame. At the first teeth gritting mouthful we mutually suspected
us of having assisted to the earthy taste with a fistful of sand.
Al Abwaab as-Sabr, The Gates of Patience
With the torch I later discovered that although I had closed my tent meticulously a miniature
dune landscape had assembled on the floor inside. Due to the dedicated
maledictions Thomas issued the situation in his housing wasn't any better.
‚How's it in your place' he inquired. 'F… reputable Ghibbli'
I coughed as I crouched in my sleeping bag under swirling clouds of dust that
were impressively illuminated by the torchlight.
On the following morning all our gear was coated by a fine ochre powder.
The silt had even penetrated into the locked up car where it had evenly distributed.
We started early towards a hill chain several kilometers northwards.
The feature was named 'Abwaab as-Sabr' in our maps meaning as much as
'The Gates of Patience'.
There is a saying in Arab that goes: ‚no crowd ever
waited at the gates of patience', I explained. 'Good'
replied Thomas, 'then this place will at least be quite
Driving was particularly exhausting that day. Repeatedly we
ploughed at high speed through extended deep sand and gypsum fields
which were almost impossible to spot due to the quick moving dust
on the surface. The complete surface seemed to be in constant movement.
Additionally abundant roots and a confusing patchwork of flat
contourless depressions and ridges made searching in the area a
challenging task. The air was so dry that
speaking was only possible after sipping from the water bottle. On
the other hand with a maximum of 100°F temperatures remained quite chilly.
‚Rub' al-Khali 005-1' in situ
Around 10:00a.m Thomas found the first meteorite. He was prospecting
on foot and because the sun was shining from the right he had
only watched his left side when suddenly he turned around to gain some general orientation.
On this occasion he discovered that he had just passed
two steps from a pitch black meteorite. The 700g mass had patiently
waited on the eroded slope of a shallow hill a couple of ten thousand
years for Thomas to pick it up. When I joined Thomas to shoot some
in situ images of his find I found another weathered fragment a few
steps away. We recorded the two
masses under the field name 'Rub' al-Khali 004' in the log book and then
decided to continue separately by foot and by car further towards the North.
Visibility got no better until noon and beyond a distance of three hundred
meters I could spot Thomas, who was walking around in a white dischdascha,
only with the help of the binoculars. Keeping the sun at my three o' clock
the treacherous deep sand fields and trying not loose Thomas out of sight
in the confusing terrain was a matter of sweat and patience.
Repeatedly I had to let pass promising targets because had I stopped the
Land Cruiser near them I would have sunken the heavy vehicle in the fesch
fesch to its hubs. Instead I had to steer
the jeep on top of the next safe patch of bedrock where it often came
to a halt smelling nastily of the clutch.
Close shot of ‚Rub' al-Khali 005-1'. The mass is embedded two thirds in the sand
and is most probably paired with field number 005. It weighs 40g,
the scale cube has 1cm each side
Regaining traction was often possible only by quick kicking
and releasing the clutch at high speed. After parking the car
on solid limestone I would find myself walking back through
the deep sand along my tracks only to discover that the alleged
potential target was in fact a flint stone or the cast shadow of
Although we had agreed that the team member
prospecting on foot would always have to maintain
eye contact with the car, at some point there was no
trace to be seen of my team mate. He had simply disappeared.
'This is going to be a dry day for Thomas' I thought, for against
my advice, he hadn't even taken his canteen, when he walked off.
'I should have better sent an unmanned sample return mission'.
I parked on a bank, grabbed for the binoculars and climbed on the
car's roof. Thoroughly I scanned the plain and the shallow hill chain
behind it, where I had last seen Thomas walking along the ridge.
I saw nothing but a group of dust devils swirling across the plane.
Between my position and the ridge where Thomas had vanished
was a fesch fesch field some two hundred meters wide. Exactly
the one I had just crossed drenched in sweat. Judging the depth of
my tracks with the Hensoldt glass I tried to figure a better passage
for the way back. At some places from under the ochre sand white
gypsum had been turned up. Even when walking on foot I had sunken
into the liquid like silt
ankle deep at these spots. Not exactly the kind of ground you would
want to drive a two ton Land Cruiser upon, if you could avoid it.
I waited another twenty minutes but to no avail. To get a better
overview closer to his lat position I had to go through it, once again.
I swung myself behind the wheel and after a wild fishtailing cruise I had just touched safe
ground at the foot of the ridge when Thomas appeared, jovially strolling
in his wavy robe, like Emir Musa on his way to the city of brass.
Dust coated I jumped off the car to remind my companion of the consequences
should he get lost for good. In doing so I called the bloated camel to his
memory and admonished improvement on his side. Thomas however, innocently
replied he had pursued a very agile
specimen of Phrynocephalus maculatus which he tried to photograph. This
argument made sense to me and so I decided to let the matter rest.
On my way back to the car I could barely keep myself from stepping
on a small black pebble that lay between the tire tracks. The little piece of
charcoal seemed highly suspicious to me. And indeed, like the drawing of a silvery
spider web there were delicate contraction cracks visible on the drab black velvet
like fusion rind. A texture typical for the surfaces of freshly fallen meteorites.
When it comes to stainlessness it doesn't get any better, so if this wasn't a
meteorite, I wouldn't know what else to look for. Gladly for us it was a
meteorite and what a nice one. To be more precise, a peanut sized stone of seven
grams, but a notably splendid specimen. Despite the low weight the find was
sufficient to put us in high spirits for the rest of the day.
Martian like landscape in the Empty Quarter
We stopped on the spot for a noon break and to reward
us with a light meal. Because of the persistent wind which would
have made dealing with the gas stove a challenging task we
a hot dish and chose canned tuna instead. Fortunately we've had
the smart sense to bunker the latter in countless variations and pallet-wise.
Without explicitly mentioning it we both hoped for a strewn
field of this fine material. At least we wanted to make a
second find of the fall that had produced such a pristine
stone. How would even the larger masses look like? But at the
same time we knew that chances were few to discover such a
If there really was one, then this could be located in any
point of the compass. Larger, easier to find masses could be
umpteen kilometers away.
Nevertheless we combed the wider area on foot for the rest
of the day. Every once in an hour we relocated the Land Cruiser
some three hundred meter further down the valley and away from the
recent find. At late afternoon the landscape around us had morphed
into a Martian like scenery. Sky and horizon had merged into a
leaden grey while the sandblasted ochre gravel plains were frequently
obscured by thick
and fast moving rust colored dust devils. It seemed they wouldn't
stop until the rest of the soil would become air-borne too and join them.
Like chameleons we had by now adopted the color of the terrain around
us, for the fine grit dust excellently adhered to skin and wear.
Hooded like a mummy I doggedly walked my search track in the grim
dust storm. From time to time I turned around to see how Thomas did.
All of a sudden he gesticulates at me like a scalded cat. I see that
he is calling but although he is barely two hundred meters away from me
I can not hear him due to the furious wind. But it's clear anyway; he
must have made another find. How exciting this business is,
I think to myself, as I dive for the car, jump behind the wheel and drive
over to him. 'We have a strewn field" he says with a broad smile.
As I see the stone, I double my efforts enthusiastically
congratulating Thomas on his achievement. 'This looks paired
indeed" I confirm his assumption. The mass, larger than our previous
find, was good for thirty of forty grams. Most of it still stuck in
the soil, only a quarter protruded from the surface. Like the other
one this piece displayed minute contraction cracks on a fresh velvet
textured fusion rind. Where a small polygon of the crust had blistered
off the blowing sand had milled a tiny depression into the matrix of the
meteorite. A sign that the meteorite was not of such a recent fall as
our first impression had let us to believe. Compared with the other
meteorites littering the vast gravel plains of the Rub' al-Khali and
of which some had terrestrial
ages of 250,000 years, this find was yet an extraordinary exception.
In geological terms the fall occurred the blink of an eye ago, so to say.
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