In (one or two of) Thesiger’s footsteps – part III

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December 6th 2019
Published: April 2nd 2020
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“I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand.”

Thesiger put it in a nutshell.

Sometimes, I find, the places that have the deepest impact are the hardest to describe. The next morning, I stood at the top of the smallish (75m/250ft) dune behind our first night’s camp in Rub’ Al Khali and tried to grasp the fact that this stunning, terrifying, hypnotising, incredible landscape continued in front of me for another 500km (310 miles), and stretched the same distance to either side of me. Even today, all of the Empty Quarter crossings made by non-resident explorers can be summarised in little more than a single screen of a Wikipedia entry, and, even now, all the technology in the world cannot insulate the visitor from its dangers. We were warned the first night to take extra precautions at night. Don’t go too far from your tent. Follow your own prints back to your tent; don’t be tempted to take another route back. If possible (because torchlight does not illuminate footprints at all well), leave a light on in your tent so that you can find your way back (thank goodness for mobile phones’ torch function). We heard of one girl who didn’t follow the rules, and her absence was only noticed two hours after she had left her tent. She was found several hours’ later over 20km away, being cared for by passing Bedouin, just before the tour company called out the army to look for her. This land has enchanted the imaginations of fiction-writers, movie directors and even computer games designers; it is brutal, wild and beautiful.

We were to have two nights’ camping in the Empty Quarter. It is day-trip-able from Salalah, though that would be a long day and you’d barely get into the dunes, and some tours offer one night’s camping. Two nights would allow us time to get a little further into the desert, time to visit an oasis, to climb more dunes, to listen to more near-silence, to ponder further the enormity and beauty of our surroundings, albeit we would still only be scraping the surface. Our trip would not be added to the Wikipedia entry.

While the dunes themselves are almost bare of vegetation – the Quarter’s average annual rainfall is only 35mm (1.4 inches) – the gravel and gypsum plains in between are dotted with scrubby plants that more resemble bunches of bare stalks than anything deserving of a grander label, though one or two had fragile little yellow flowers. Although not much to look at, these plants could nevertheless harbour flies, so Nawaf was always careful to choose for our night’s camp a flattish area as devoid of bush as possible. When we planned a bonfire one evening – largely so that the Canadians could show us THE way to roast marshmallows (who knew it was such an art form?) – we optimistically gathered some of this scrub for kindling, but it was too small even for this purpose, and simply lit up in momentary twiggy incandescence.

Our full day in the Quarter started with a brief drive into the nearby town. Al Hashman was as sterile a place as Muqshin had been the day before, pristine new buildings but very few people, though a group of camels, including some rare black ones, were tethered picturesquely outside town suggesting some Bedouin were around. We were told we could photograph the animals, but not to step out of the cars to do so because this would upset the Bedouin who would assume we were about to steal the camels – regardless of how improbable and impractical this idea might seem to us with our overloaded vehicles. Camels are to the Bedouin what cattle are to the Herero in Namibia and the Maasai in Kenya. Apart from being transport, and a source of food (meat and milk products), drink (milk and occasionally blood), wool and leather, they are important for entertainment – camel-racing, a traditional activity now upgraded, regulated and transformed into a highly competitive professional sport under the aegis of the long-reining Sultan Qaboos bin Said – and culturally, with brides traditionally being valued in terms of camels. (One of my compatriots tried to “sell” me to Nawaf for 2,000 camels. “OK… but not racing camels,” Nawaf countered with a grin.) Camels appear to roam wild across much of the country, but each one will have an owner. We even saw an advert at a petrol station for GPS tracking devices for camels (even if we had originally interpreted the poster as being a MISSING CAMEL notice).

Back amongst the dunes we drove for an hour or so around the edge of a gypsum valley, the mineral staining the land’s surface white in places, before we stopped part-way up the side of the valley to indulge the shutter-fingers. It was hard to take it all in. Wind-wrinkled red sand, leached-out colours in the strength of the midday sun, false 3D patterns created by the varying gradations of colour in the sand, dunes so large that they themselves are the culmination of undulating smaller dunes.

We lunched at an oasis, but this was no Hollywood film set with palm trees and a tranquil pool. Here the water is hot and sulphur-smelling, pouring out of the ground with manmade assistance into a huge cement-sided bath, surrounded by shady not-palm trees. A gaggle of cars was already gathered as we drew up, an extended family from Salalah enjoying the long weekend. While the Welsh artist and I went scrambling up another dune, and Nawaf, Idris and Ahmed cooked up a delicious lunch, the others got talking, though more in gestures and smiles than language. Clearly a connection was made because, no sooner had we finished our own lunch, declining third helpings, than our oasis-companions presented us with a large platter of rice and goat. To my friends’ credit, they managed to squeeze in a little of the gifted food, and, in consultation with Nawaf, a return presentation of comestibles was made.

On the far side of the valley, the boys decided to show what the cars could do – or what they thought the cars should be able do, Idris having to let down his tyres still further in order to join the other two vehicles two-thirds of the way up one of the largest dunes we had seen. It was maybe 300m in height. Not even Ahmed could persuade his car to the top, and I would have been tempted to scramble up the rest on foot for the view over the other side, but the sand, in the early hours of the afternoon, was almost too hot even through footwear.

We backtracked a little in the afternoon, enjoying the same dune-scape from a different angle, with different light upon it, and now with shadows lengthening, before we turned into the dunes again, Nawaf searching for the perfect camp spot once again. An element of dune-fatigue was setting in. This is vast, indigestible landscape, and the thought of not being bounced around and having the chance to stop and enjoy it, drink it in, was becoming more and more appealing. Finally, Nawaf declared himself satisfied, and, for one last time, we picked up our tent bags and pitched camp. I left the Canadians to host their usual evening “soirée” with that day’s car-buddies (they had been generous in sharing their wine each evening on what had been nicknamed “the patio”, a group of chairs outside their tent), and went to climb up one more dune. Given the height of the dunes around camp, the sociable folks missed out on the sunset which had been cloud-shrouded as it dipped behind the far side of the valley, but I was treated to a desert spectacular from my lofty perch, the sun seeming to stretch, grow and even bifurcate as its light refracted around the altostratus.

That evening we were joined by some exceptionally cute wildlife, although not all of us felt the same way. We’d first encountered Cheeseman’s gerbils the night before, remarkably fearless and pretty creatures who would scurry around our feet, Idris’ cooking area, and any tents that had any suspicion of food inside. But they weren’t to everyone’s taste, mice-like critters having that effect on some people. A variety of coping strategies were adopted: sitting cross-legged on the chair with feet tucked underneath, putting on enclosed shoes, and in the best example, putting on pyjama bottoms with the ends tucked into some very brightly-coloured socks. Nothing seemed to put the gerbils off, though they might have needed sunglasses to cope with Peter’s leg-wear.

The next morning, the desert seemed to reflect our mood. The sky was overcast in a might-be-a-dust-storm/might-be-rain/might-just-be-fog fashion, and the temperature had dropped. Nawaf and his colleagues took longer to pack up the vehicles than usual because this time they were packing for the long haul: most of this stuff would not be unpacked until they got back to Muscat three days’ hence, yet our luggage, and the bits and pieces we’d acquired along the way, had to be accessible for our forthcoming nights back in town and our flights out. We sat around the table feeling a little out of sorts, with half-hearted attempts to play the word games and quizzes to which we had not before had to resort as conversation had flowed so constantly. Our Scottish retired-GP companion was revealed to be a yoga instructor – if we’d known that earlier in the trip, she could really have kept us in shape for those long days of cramped-up driving (perhaps she deliberately hadn’t admitted this skill until now) – and put us through a few paces before we felt self-inducedly guilt-tripped into helping with the last stages of the packing up.

And so we left the desert for a gradual return to civilisation. Appropriately enough our route would take us through the site of various former civilisations: ruins of what is suspected to be the lost city of Ubar, a desert version of Atlantis, believed to have been swallowed up by the sands (although, like Atlantis, it’s not clear if Ubar ever actually existed); Sumhuram, thought to have been an important internal trading centre for southeast Arabia between 400BC and 200AD; and Al Baleed which saw human settlement from the third millennium BC through to the Islamic period. If I had missed out on standing in Marco Polo’s footsteps at Qalhat’s Bibi Maryam Mausoleum, I could do so in Al Baleed, described by the Italian as one of the biggest harbours of the Indian Ocean. The reason for so much former activity in this area? Sap that was once valued more than gold, and which has traded here for over 6,000 years: frankincense.

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