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.