In­stant ex­pert

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents -

The Empty Quar­ter, 70 years after Wil­fred Th­e­siger cap­tured it in print

That name doesn’t sound too en­tic­ing…

It’s not meant to. The Rub’ al Khali (Ara­bic mean­ing ‘Empty Quar­ter’) is a sand sea shared be­tween Saudi Ara­bia, Ye­men, Oman and the UAE span­ning 650,000 sq km. Why empty? Well, the mer­cury soars to over 50°C here, and can plunge to be­low zero at night. Un­sur­pris­ingly, not much grows, ei­ther – av­er­age an­nual rain­fall is un­der 3cm.

Just how empty?

There are dunes – a lot of dunes, some soar­ing over 200m high. For­mer pop­u­la­tions of os­trich, sand gazelle, Ara­bian oryx and Asi­atic chee­tah went ex­tinct, though the first three are be­ing rein­tro­duced. Camels re­main, of course, along with less friendly res­i­dents such as scor­pi­ons and camel spi­ders. There are also a hand­ful of no­madic tribes of Be­douin mostly liv­ing close to the desert’s edge. And that’s about it.

So what’s to talk about?

It’s 60 years since the pub­li­ca­tion of Ara­bian Sands, ex­plorer Wil­fred Th­e­siger’s mem­oir of his time spent wan­der­ing this vast desert with the Be­douin in the late 1940s. He was the first Eu­ro­pean to prop­erly map the area, and the book is his paean its raw beauty: ‘ I was ex­hil­a­rated by the sense of space, the si­lence, and the crisp clean­ness of the sand. I felt in har­mony with the past.’

I’m won over. How do I visit?

Ye­men’s a no-go zone, and reach­ing the Saudi patch is tricky, though new ‘sharek’ e-visas are be­ing in­tro­duced for sport­ing and cul­tural events. It’s far eas­ier to join a tour of Liwa Desert from Abu Dhabi, or ex­plore Oman’s share from Salalah in the Dho­far re­gion. And since you’re nearby, pay a visit to the UAE’S Al Jahili Fort, which has a per­ma­nent photo ex­hi­bi­tion on Th­e­siger, then grab a shemagh (head­scarf) and pre­pare to camel up.

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