NO MAN'S LAND

LE­VI­SON WOOD RARELY TAKES THE PATH OF LEAST RE­SIS­TANCE. IN 2017, THE INTREPID 35-YEAR-OLD SET OFF ON A 7,000-KILO­ME­TRE TREK AROUND ARA­BIAN PENIN­SULA, FROM IRAQ TO LE­BANON. HERE IS AN EX­CLU­SIVE EX­CERPT FROM HIS NEW BOOK ARA­BIA, WHERE HE PRE­PARES TO CROSS

Esquire Middle East - - FEATURE -

WEL­COME TO OMAN, pro­claimed the sign at the re­mote cross­ing point, hemmed in by sheer cliff s on the one side and the glis­ten­ing ocean on the other. There was no­body cross­ing on foot and, be­ing a Fri­day, there wasn’t any com­mer­cial traf­fic ei­ther. A soli­tary lorry up ahead marked the lonely en­try into the coun­try that calls it­self ‘The Jewel of Ara­bia’.

The im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial greeted me with a smile as I handed over my pass­port. “Where are you go­ing?” he asked. “Khasab,” I replied. He looked at me quizzi­cally. “Where is your car?” “I don’t have one,” I said.

“How will you get to Khasab?”

I told him that I hoped to hitch a lift or walk. “Are you crazy?” he said. “There’s no cars this way, it’s a Fri­day, and you can’t walk — it’s 25 kilo­me­tres. Where are you from?” he said, and then, re­mem­ber­ing he had my pass­port in his hand, he looked at it.

“Ah, you’re Bri­tish. That ex­plains ev­ery­thing! You’re wel­come.”

He stamped my visa and handed it back, and I walked out onto the fierce heat of the empty road.

The of­fi­cial was right. There were no cars, so I walked, fol­low­ing the road as it wound along the cliff edge, watch­ing as the azure waves bashed against the rocks be­low, the crash­ing of the sea be­ing the only sound in this bar­ren land. The soft wind was hot, de­spite the fact that it came from the sea, and the salty mois­ture only added to the claus­tro­pho­bic em­brace of the hu­mid­ity, mak­ing each step ex­haust­ing work. Nev­er­the­less, I was happy and ex­cited to be in this enig­matic na­tion.

The road twisted and turned as it went up and down, con­tour­ing the ridges and crags, and keep­ing the sea to my left was my only guid­ance as to where I was go­ing. Even­tu­ally the road wound down to the beach and flat­tened out, and I saw my first Omani vil­lages. They were eerily quiet in the af­ter­noon heat. Khasab was still another five or six kilo­me­tres away to the north. I could al­most make out the minarets at the port in the far dis­tance, ob­scured by the haze of the af­ter­noon, but I was hot, tired and very sweaty, not to men­tion hun­gry and thirsty, so I sat down un­der the shade of a palm tree to rest for a while.

In the moun­tains above, I no­ticed an ea­gle soar high on the in­vis­i­ble ther­mals, twirling and glid­ing; as ma­jes­tic as the crags them­selves. Half hid­den in the jagged es­carp­ment I saw the ru­ins of an an­cient fort, stand­ing guard to the high passes of the east. All that seemed miss­ing from this scene of an­tiq­uity were the peo­ple. They must ei­ther be at prayers or at home with their fam­i­lies, I thought. The phrase ‘mad dogs and English­men’ came to mind. I be­gan to doze off and my thirst was re­placed by the light-head­ed­ness that comes from too much sun. I wrapped my shemagh cot­ton head­scarf around my head to try to keep cool and drank the last sips from my wa­ter bot­tle. Af­ter a short while, I heard a car speed past from the way I was head­ing and screech to a halt. A young Omani man with a neatly trimmed beard wound down the win­dow and said hello. “As-salaam alaikum.”

“Wa-alaikum as-salaam,” I replied, ‘and unto you peace’, notic­ing that a woman in a black abaya was sat next to him. I could just make out her eyes watch­ing me. “I heard there was an English­man out walk­ing.”

“Word trav­els fast,” I said.

“It does here. We don’t get too many vis­i­tors.” He spoke in al­most per­fect English. “You want a lift to Khasab?” I said that I would love one. “But aren’t you go­ing the other way?” I asked.

“Wait here, I’ll be back,” he said, be­fore screech­ing off, leav­ing be­hind a trail of dust. That was odd, I thought to my­self, won­der­ing if he’d ac­tu­ally come back. But, true to his word, five min­utes later he did re­turn. This time there was no woman. “Get in,” he said. “I had to take my wife home first.” I put my ruck­sack in the boot and got into the pas­sen­ger seat. I no­ticed that he’d put a plas­tic cover over it, which hadn’t been there be­fore. No doubt he’d seen how sweaty I was and wanted to keep his car clean.

Mak­ing my­self as com­fort­able as I could against the sticky plas­tic, I en­joyed the fact he blasted the air con­di­tioner on cold in my di­rec­tion. More to avoid the smell than any­thing, I sup­posed.

“I’m Rashid,” said the man, who said he was a stu­dent of crim­i­nol­ogy, but also vol­un­teered for the lo­cal po­lice ser­vice. “It’s my day off. Don’t worry, I won’t ar­rest you,” he said and laughed, as we

drove along the road to Khasab port. Rashid in­sisted on buy­ing me lunch when we ar­rived. “You are a visi­tor in my land and it is my duty and hon­our to feed you. A guest must never pay.”

Af­ter the ker­fuf­fle I’d had in Iraq, and the end­less sales pitches I’d had all along the Gulf so far, I was slightly taken aback by his hos­pi­tal­ity, and the fact he’d driven well out of his way to give me a lift and used up his en­tire af­ter­noon. “Ev­ery­one in Oman is like this, you will see.” Rashid not only paid for my lunch, but in­sisted on tak­ing me to the port and mak­ing all the ar­range­ments for the on­ward ferry to­wards Mus­cat, too, which left the fol­low­ing day. It’s amaz­ing how a sim­ple act of kind­ness from a stranger can lift your mood.

The ferry, a crusty old ves­sel, filled with In­dian and Bangladeshi mer­chants and their boxes of goods, left at three in the af­ter­noon. Rashid had sorted me out a pas­sen­ger ticket with a seat, but I pre­ferred to stand on the out­side deck and watch as we left the old port. The boat sounded its horn and we passed the rows of moored dhows, which bobbed in our wake. Soon we were in the open wa­ter of the Strait of Hor­muz, but never strayed too far from the brown cliffs to our right.

The route weaved past fjords, where dol­phins frol­icked in the waves. We skirted by Tele­graph Is­land, a bar­ren rock that was once one of the most im­por­tant Bri­tish re­peater sta­tions on the main sub­ma­rine tele­graphic ca­ble be­tween Lon­don and Karachi. It was deemed such an un­for­tu­nate post­ing for the colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors, who com­plained of the heat and the flies and the lack of shade, that it be­came in­fa­mous for send­ing peo­ple stir crazy. Be­ing despatched to the des­o­late chan­nel, with its re­mote twists and turns, be­came known as ‘go­ing ’round the bend’. For­tu­nately for me it was a brief en­counter. The boat jour­ney took only a few hours to reach Shi­nas on the main­land, and here I hitched a lift down the coast to the cap­i­tal of the sul­tanate, Mus­cat.

I ar­rived late that evening and got a room at the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel. It was al­ready dark, so I thought I’d get some rest be­fore ex­plor­ing the city and meet­ing my guide. I asked the re­cep­tion­ist if there was any food avail­able, given that it was al­ready gone 10PM, and I was di­rected to ‘Al Ghazal’. I don’t know what I was ex­pect­ing, but it cer­tainly wasn’t an English pub com­plete with wood pan­elling,

Bass Ale and bags of salt-and-vine­gar crisps. There was fish ‘n’ chips on the menu and foot­ball on the telly; I could have been trans­ported straight back to Lon­don, were it not for the pa­trons be­ing dressed in long white dish­dashas and an ar­ray of Omani-style head­scarves.

Mahrouqi was wait­ing for me the next day at an out­side ta­ble at a café on the promenade over­look­ing the port.

The bay curved around, sur­rounded by jagged moun­tains that glowed pink in the morn­ing sun. Above us on the craggy high ground was Mut­trah Fort, mark­ing Mus­cat’s an­cient city de­fences tow­er­ing over the in­let. The coast was lined with old adobe build­ings, with deep-set win­dows and cool­ing white­washed walls to stave off the al­ready scorch­ing morn­ing heat. The pat­tern was bro­ken by the speck­led dome of a mosque, its gold tip just vis­i­ble as it glinted in the light, and next to it an azure minaret against an even bluer sky.

Flocks of squawk­ing gulls com­peted nois­ily for scraps be­low them. A fish­ing boat chugged in from the open sea and they went mad, flap­ping and cir­cling and an­gling for food. In the bay, a few lonely boats were moored, bob­bing steadily. Hus­bands and wives wan­dered along the cor­niche, com­ple­men­tary in black and white, their long fab­ric flap­ping in the breeze. The place was im­mac­u­late, a per­fect vi­sion of Ara­bia. I’d been on the hunt for a good guide in Oman for a while.

I’d learned through good and bad ex­pe­ri­ences that hav­ing a lo­cal travel com­pan­ion can be in­valu­able. It’s not that they nec­es­sar­ily need to nav­i­gate the route — one can do that one­self with a bit of plan­ning and a de­cent on­line map — but noth­ing can beat hav­ing a lo­cal who knows the lan­guage and the nu­ances of na­tive cus­toms, re­li­gion and cul­ture. What’s more, if you’re lucky and they do know the route in­ti­mately, then they can show you places that no guide­book can ever take you to. My guide had been barely tol­er­a­ble in Iraq, and I’d made my own ar­range­ments in the Gulf, but I knew that in or­der to get across Oman in the way I chose, across

“HE WAS WEAR­ING TRA­DI­TIONAL CLOTHES, A LONG WHITE DISHDASHA AND A GOLDEN IN­DIAN-STYLE TUR­BAN. ON HIS BELT HE WORE A SIL­VER CURVED DAGGER, AND WERE IT NOT FOR THE MANGO SMOOTHIE HE SLURPED, HE WOULD HAVE MADE A FINE PRINCE.”

the cen­tral sands, I would need to have some­one who knew a thing or two about deserts. There were a lot of things to ar­range — spe­cial per­mits, camels and pro­vi­sions — and while I’d crossed deserts be­fore, namely the Sa­hara, this was a dif­fer­ent beast en­tirely. What lay ahead was the Rub‘ al-khali — the no­to­ri­ous Empty Quar­ter.

“Marhaba,” he said coldly. Mahrouqi looked like a stern old man. He was 58 and was wear­ing the tra­di­tional clothes of his home­land, a long white dishdasha

and a golden In­dian-style tur­ban. On his belt he wore a sil­ver curved dagger, and were it not for the mango smoothie he was slurp­ing through a straw, he would have made a fine prince in the One Thou­sand and One Nights.

“Sit,” he said, of­fer­ing me a chair.

I sat down and or­dered an or­ange juice. “So, you want to cross the Empty Quar­ter?” he said, peer­ing through thick spec­ta­cles. I could tell he was weigh­ing me up.

I told him that I did. He pulled out a map and laid it across the ta­ble. “This is the route we will take,” he said.

“First, we go south from here. I’ll drive us to Jebel Akhdar, where we can do an ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion walk. We can climb up the moun­tains and get you used to the heat.” It sounded sen­si­ble.

“Then we will go to Nizwa, the old town, and you can see the an­cient fort and the mar­ket. We’ll need to stock up on pro­vi­sions any­way, so it is a good place to stop off. Then we will carry on to Adam, that’s my home town. There we will pick up the camels and take them to the edge of the desert, where we will start walk­ing. We will leave in three or four days, when I am ready, and then by the time we get to Adam and set off it’ll be a week, and then, de­pend­ing on how fast you can walk, it will take another week or so to reach Haima, and then it’s to the coast. You’ll be at the coast by the end of the month, and then you can go across Dho­far on your own.”

It seemed like he had it all planned out. On the one hand, it was re­as­sur­ing; af­ter all, this was a man who’d crossed the Empty Quar­ter by camel mul­ti­ple times and was re­garded as Oman’s fore­most camel man. On the other hand, I won­dered if I’d get any say in the mat­ter at all. I couldn’t abide the thought of this ex­pe­di­tion turn­ing into a guided tour, and I knew full well that the best laid plans of­ten fall apart at the first hur­dle any­way.

“It is as you like,” said Mahrouqi, with a tilted head. “In­shal­lah, we will make it.” I was hop­ing to de­part straight away, but Mahrouqi said he was busy, so I had to kill a few days be­fore set­ting off. I used the time to ex­plore Mus­cat.

I wan­dered along the cor­niche, past the mosque and the souk, and the rick­ety, bal­conied tourist ho­tels. I was in­vited to visit the Bri­tish School Mus­cat and was re­minded of the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween the United King­dom and Oman. Its po­si­tion on the Tru­cial Coast had meant that it had been an im­por­tant strate­gic foothold for the Em­pire in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies, but even be­fore that, Mus­cat had been a sig­nif­i­cant draw for traders and in­vaders alike.

It all started when the Ibadi Ima­mate ar­rived from over the moun­tains in the eighth cen­tury, unifying the dis­parate and no­madic peo­ples. For the hun­dreds of years that fol­lowed, Mus­cat and its out­skirts saw the rise and fall of dy­nas­ties, as fam­ily dis­putes and war­fare rum­bled on. But they were fac­ing dif­fi­culty. In the west, tribes were earn­ing a for­tune from frank­in­cense, but in the east, with dif­fi­cult ac­cess to the trade routes and sur­rounded by desert, moun­tains and sea, Mus­cat was cut off from the rest of the penin­sula. Even­tu­ally, they aban­doned at­tempts to con­quer the dry and bar­ren in­te­rior, in favour of ex­plor­ing the high seas and dis­cov­er­ing neigh­bour­ing coast­lines and is­lands.

Oman’s strate­gic spot on the cor­ner of the penin­sula made it a valu­able trad­ing post, but a suc­ces­sion of in­vad­ing em­pires ruled Oman and utilised its sea link, tak­ing away all its riches.

Fi­nally, in the mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tury, the Omani Yaruba dy­nasty be­came colonists them­selves.

Omani war­riors sailed across the

Gulf of Aden in dhows and took over a part of what is now Pak­istan, as well as

vast swathes of East Africa – in­stalling a cap­i­tal city in Zanz­ibar. As it built up its over­seas ter­ri­to­ries, the Omani sul­tanate be­came an in­flu­en­tial power in the slave trade. Vil­lagers were cap­tured from Cen­tral Africa and hun­dreds of thou­sands were sold as slaves to towns in the Ara­bian Penin­sula and across the whole Mid­dle East.

But with the ban on slav­ery in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury, the Omani econ­omy col­lapsed. About 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion em­i­grated to Zanz­ibar, and Bri­tain swept in and claimed Oman’s over­seas ter­ri­to­ries. Even­tu­ally the two signed a friend­ship treaty, which gave way to a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence in the 1950s.

Although the Bri­tish of­fi­cially with­drew in the early Seven­ties, the re­la­tion­ship has re­mained strong — per­haps more so than any other An­glo­mid­dle Eastern bond — and even to­day the Sul­tan of Oman re­tains a num­ber of Bri­tish of­fi­cers on loan from the army to train and serve along­side the Sul­tan’s Armed Forces.

On 19 Oc­to­ber, I met Mahrouqi at 4AM. He picked me up in his 4x4 and we drove up into the Ha­jar Moun­tains. The road wound be­tween rocky es­carp­ments and ter­raced vil­lages. In­be­tween the bronzed boul­ders sprang palms and aca­cia bushes and lit­tle rivers that cut nar­row gorges through the an­cient hills. We walked all day through the wadi, as Mahrouqi bounded from rock to rock in a way that con­cealed his years. He sang and mur­mured Omani folk hymns and stopped only to point out the flow­ers and wa­ter­falls.

There were mag­i­cal lit­tle vil­lages made of mud that seemed as though they hadn’t changed in cen­turies, and their in­hab­i­tants walked across the tiered fields tend­ing to flocks of goats. It was the Ara­bia I’d yearned for. “It’s beau­ti­ful, isn’t it?” said Mahrouqi, proud of the land of his fore­fa­thers. “But wait till you see the desert.

I pre­fer it there, where it is pure.”

By late af­ter­noon, we’d al­most reached the top of the ridge­line at over 2,000 me­tres. Mahrouqi stopped and pointed across the val­ley. I could see out over the Jebel Akhdar range for miles. The rock burned rose gold in the set­ting sun and the view was spec­tac­u­lar. I could make out the peak

THERE WERE MAG­I­CAL LIT­TLE VIL­LAGES MADE OF MUD THAT HADN’T CHANGED IN CEN­TURIES. IT WAS THE ARA­BIA I’D YEARNED FOR. “IT’S BEAU­TI­FUL...BUT WAIT TILL YOU SEE THE DESERT, WHERE IT IS PURE.”

of Jebel Shams, Oman’s high­est point. Be­neath it, sheer precipices of jagged, bronze lime­stone de­scended into the val­ley be­low. The wadi seemed to go on for­ever.

The sun dropped out of sight and Mahrouqi was eager to set up camp be­fore it got dark. “It’ll be freez­ing tonight,” he said. So we made a small fire and he brewed a pot of sweet chai, which went some way to al­le­vi­at­ing the chill. I re­alised it was the first time on the jour­ney that I had ac­tu­ally felt cold.

Mahrouqi had come pre­pared for the alti­tude and was hun­kered down in a thick blan­ket, whereas I had only a thin cot­ton sleep­ing liner, which did noth­ing to pro­tect against the whistling wind. So I ended up wrap­ping my roll mat around me and shiv­er­ing through­out the night. The fol­low­ing morn­ing we de­scended from Jebel Akhdar to Nizwa, the last ma­jor town be­fore the start of the dunes. It was a green city, filled with date palms and bi­sected by a great river. It used to be the cap­i­tal of Oman in the sev­enth cen­tury, when Is­lam ar­rived, and later on, in the six­teenth cen­tury, Nizwa Fort was built, one of the most im­pres­sive in the whole penin­sula, to de­fend against ma­raud­ing tribes. In its hey­day, it was a cen­tre of learn­ing and schol­ar­ship, earn­ing it the ti­tle, ‘The Court­yard of Is­lam’. Nizwa was con­sid­ered to be the main stop­ping-off point for the camel trains cross­ing the Empty Quar­ter, be­fore reach­ing the Sul­tanate of Oman and the coast to the north of the moun­tains.

As such it was an im­por­tant trad­ing cen­tre. Ibn Bat­tuta came to Nizwa in 1329 and said of the place:

“It is a fer­tile land with rivers, trees, or­chards, palm plan­ta­tions, and all kinds of fruit. We reached the city of Nizwa, con­sid­ered to be the main city in this coun­try. Here, peo­ple usu­ally eat in the mosques, where each one brings what­ever food he has to eat in the mosque court­yard. Ev­ery­body shares the food and these peo­ple are help­ful and coura­geous.”

But given its re­mote­ness and sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to law­less­ness, it was in­evitable that when oil was dis­cov­ered in the desert, Nizwa formed its own op­po­si­tion groups against Mus­cat, and be­came a rebel strong­hold that kept away even the hardi­est of trav­ellers. Wil­fred Th­e­siger, that most stoic of Bri­tish ex­plor­ers, who trav­elled through Oman in 1948, was forced to avoid Nizwa al­to­gether, warned by his Be­douin guides that he would cer­tainly be killed by the fa­nat­ics if he at­tempted to visit.

These days it is at peace. Although I wouldn’t call it quiet. It was a Fri­day morn­ing and that meant that it was mar­ket day. Peo­ple had trav­elled from all over Oman to visit the fa­mous souk and hag­gle for their goods. I fol­lowed the flow of mer­chants through the an­cient gates into the walled city and into the old mar­ket­place, where cows, sheep and goats were be­ing auc­tioned off, as well as the odd camel. Bearded men in a rain­bow of pat­terned hand-em­broi­dered hats stood around as­sess­ing the live­stock from afar.

The women wore niqabs, full face veils, in a style I’d not seen be­fore, with an ad­join­ing piece of ma­te­rial from be­tween the eye­brows to the mid­dle of the nose. Lit­tle boys darted around, teas­ing the an­i­mals. It was a racket and I could only just hear the auc­tion­eer over the din of the ner­vous bleat­ing.

“Camels are very ex­pen­sive,” Mahrouqui barked over the noise. “These ones start at around 20,000 rial [AED190,823], but two years ago, an Omani camel went for over two mil­lion rial [AED19M].”

“That’s more than four mil­lion pounds,” I splut­tered. “Well, it was a very good camel,” he said, mat­ter of factly. “Look at how they are in­spect­ing them very care­fully; that’s how they can tell the value.” I glanced across to where a re­mark­ably chilled-out camel had three men peer­ing be­tween its legs.

“Any­way, we’d bet­ter get some sup­plies,” said Mahrouqi. “This is the last place be­fore we go into the wild.” We wan­dered past the crenu­lated city walls to the pointed arch­ways of the mar­ket, where palm leaves hung low. Ev­ery­where, sturdy coloured bas­kets were full to burst­ing with spices, ce­re­als, dates, fruit and veg­eta­bles, and beige pot­tery was lined up on the ground like domi­noes.

There were jew­ellery and hard­ware stores, where brooms and mops spilled out into the gang­way, and the usual tourist tat stalls. I lusted af­ter the curved sil­ver khan­jar knives, famed in this re­gion, and some of which were go­ing for a whop­ping

US$10,000 [AED36,730].

We bought some bat­ter­ies and so­lar-pow­ered lights, we got matches and fire­wood and bartered for blan­kets. Then we needed food. We bought chick­ens and rice, dates and veg­eta­bles. I’d learned that the best fruit to sur­vive the con­di­tions of the desert was or­anges. Ba­nanas went black and shriv­elled, ap­ples got bat­tered and bruised; only or­anges could do the job, and when you’re hot, thirsty and tired, noth­ing is more re­fresh­ing. I bought an en­tire sack of them.

From Nizwa we drove to Adam, sixty kilo­me­tres to the south, and reached Mahrouqi’s house by early af­ter­noon. The moun­tains were a hazy blur in the dis­tance and ev­ery­thing to the south and west was a seem­ingly end­less ex­panse of flat sand. Mahrouqi lived on a farm on the edge of the desert. It was quite a big house, sur­rounded by a con­crete wall that hemmed in his al­lot­ment and gar­den. There were thatched sheds filled with straw for the an­i­mals and out­build­ings, too, and ev­ery­where hung goatskins and wa­ter blad­ders, nets and tools. It was a ram­shackle com­pound, but in­side the house it was mod­ern, with a games room and a bil­liards ta­ble. Out­side, roost­ers, sheep and goats roamed freely. The noise from the chicken coop was deaf­en­ing, but it didn’t seem to bother the sev­eral lazy dogs that lounged around the gar­den, or cats lolling on the tops of walls. It was a ver­i­ta­ble pet­ting zoo of beasts. Af­ter a lunch of rice and chicken, Mahrouqi took me to help get the camels from the back­yard, where they were sec­tioned off in lit­tle en­clo­sures.

“They’re a bit small, aren’t they?” I said. I’d bought camels be­fore, in Su­dan, and knew that in or­der to carry enough wa­ter, they’d need to be strong and healthy. These ones looked a bit fee­ble, and one was an in­fant.

“They’re fine,” he snapped. “When they get into the Empty Quar­ter, they will be fine.” I as­sumed it must be bad form to in­sult a man’s camels, so I apol­o­gised, and thought it best to keep my mouth shut and changed the sub­ject.

“Who named it the Empty Quar­ter?” I asked him. Mahrouqi sniffed.

“It was named by the great Ara­bian ex­plorer Ah­mad Ibn Ma­jid.

It’s not just you white men who can be ex­plor­ers, you know. He called it the Rub’ al-khali — Empty Quar­ter — be­cause it was bare and he found no one liv­ing there.”

I’d read some­where that the ori­gins of the name might ac­tu­ally have been from vis­it­ing Euro­pean ex­plor­ers, as they tried to map and de­fine the re­gion, but I thought it best not to men­tion this to Mahrouqi.

He con­tin­ued, “The Be­douin just call it Al-ram­lah, or ‘The Sand’, be­cause it’s the largest desert in the world, the sand goes on and on. But even they won’t live there; they stay on the fringes, be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to sur­vive. They only cross if they re­ally have to. The dunes move in the wind, so all of a sud­den you don’t know your way. And in some places, there are sink­ing sands that can swal­low you whole.” I was not filled with con­fi­dence that Mahrouqi and his sickly-look­ing camels were ca­pa­ble of get­ting us across this dan­ger­ous desert wilder­ness. I knew that mod­ern­day camels were less hardy than in Th­e­siger’s day, and in one of the dri­est places on Earth with zero phone sig­nal, we’d be de­pen­dent on them to sur­vive in the waste­land.

It didn’t re­ally as­suage my fears to see him drag the camels out of the yard and whip them. They grunted and snorted and made the most aw­ful groan, but I put it down to the fact that they re­ally couldn’t be bothered to walk across the Empty Quar­ter, rather than a more gen­eral dis­like for their mas­ter.

Mahrouqi saw me watch­ing.

“When we get to the desert, then they will be­have,” he said. If only I be­lieved him. I felt some­thing lick­ing my hand and looked down to see a lit­tle golden dog, with scruffy fur and a needy ex­pres­sion. It was pant­ing in the hot sun.

“That’s Snugly,” said Mahrouqi. “He’s com­ing with us.”

I didn’t know what to say. It looked like we’d be a very mot­ley crew for our Empty Quar­ter cross­ing.

Nizwa mosque, Oman. A ma­jor stopover on the in­cense route for cen­turies

Ex­tracted with the kind per­mis­sion of Le­vi­son Wood from writ­ten by him­self and pub­lished in hard­cover by Hod­der & Stoughton

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