Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Rub Al-Khali, part one

”What is her name?” I asked Mussalam Bin Hassan and he forwarded the question immediately to his friend, Mussalam, who shook his head and said in Arabic: “The female camels are all named after their grandmother.”

“You can give her a name then”, Bin Hassan said in perfect English to me, but then changed his mind and said: “Let us call her Sahara! It means desert in Arabic.”

I then went up to Sahara, stroked her long neck and patted her cheeks at the same time she was hobbled by her front legs, lying on all four as a sphinx on the desert floor. The surroundings where spectacular, burning orange red sand dunes all around and total silence. Suddenly Sahara looked at me, gave out a loud gurgle and vomited a green foul smelling substance straight on my face. I realized that I would have preferred a better start to my visit in the southern most tip of the biggest sand desert in the world – Rub Al-Khali.

The major reason for my visit was to find out if I really had my heart into my next big project, Expedition Arabia by camel, maybe as much as 7000 km:s of desert travel with camel during at least 18 months. One of the last great Expeditions on earth. I have the last two years found myself in limbo, not enjoying life too much, not knowing what to do with life. Suddenly, I just realized, by pure coincidence, whilst visiting a lecture by an oil company and seeing the words Rub al-Khali written on a map, that is it! Arabia! That is my next Expedition! Well, anyway, whilst taking a look at a world map of Arabia I saw the full picture. And one of the major obstacles on such an Expedition would be a passing of this legendary desert, Rub Al-Khali, made famous by the legendary British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Since then, well, as always, forgetting the local Bedu who live here, who crossed for necessity up until the early seventies when Oman was thrown in no time into the modern era, an unsupported passage has not been done by a westerner since 1949. So, I was in the Empty Quarter to try to find out if I still had what it takes to do a big Expedition. Meaning checking that I really had the heart into it had the right motivation and physical and mental stamina. And hopefully find one or two Arabs preferably of Bedouin origin to join me, because I want my project to be an Expedition where east and West travels together and build bridges between people and cultures. A project also to promote Arabia and Arabs. I have realized a long time ago that we in the west have a terrible picture of this part of the world and its people. And it is getting worse by the day. Something has to be done. I will do my best to balance it a bit. Because, after a few days with three great Bedu in a small tiny part of Rub Al Khali, I know that some of the best people on earth live here!

See the slideshow from my visit in Rub Al-Khali here

See the slideshow from Oman here

Rub A-Khali, part two

“I was born in cave”, Bin Hassan told me slowly and calmly when we took a 4 hour break in the middle of the first day, lying in the shade of one of the two four wheel drives that accompanied us, “and I didn’t wear any shoes until I went into the army. And now, today, I have been in Europe, I speak 5 languages, have all modern gadgets and have my own business. It feels like I have taken a gigantic step.”
Bin Hassan was dressed in his white dishdasha, a matching orange-brown turban and looked like a sultan in his grey beard. He was slightly heavy, since he wasn’t moving about by foot as he once did. Like all bedu boys he had to take and look after grazing camels, walking long distances to find something to eat. We were the same age. It made us even more comfortable with each other. Bin Hassan has experienced a lot in his life. He has seen and heard most things.
“The life of the Bedouin has changed a lot”, he said, he like all bedu (Bedu in local tongue) likes talking, it is still a favourite past time, “Today’s young kids are lazy. They don´t want to do anything. They’re spoilt. I would like to do something about that. I want to try to preserve some of the old Bedu culture. Maybe do a long trip by camel.”
“Maybe we should try to pass Rub Al-Khali together?” I said.
“Yes”, Bin Hassan answered thoughtfully, “That will be a very good idea. Let us do it in true bedu style. No shoes, bare feet, just have dried meat, dates, Arabic bread and coffee with us.”
“Unsupported, no cars, no back up” I said.
“Yes” , Bin Hassan said solicitously and told Mussalam in their local tongue, mehri, he who owned Sahara, the camel and he nodded, and Bin Hassan looked at me and said: “We need him to come with us, he knows everything about camels. He lives with them and loves them. We are strong you and me, but not like him. He is very strong.”
Mussalam smiled as always. He was in his mid-fifties, lean and strong. He smoked his pipe, talked about women and marriage and grinned. He was my image of a real bedu. And did he have to show his strength on this practise run?
Yes, because it turned out immediately I sat up on this peculiar animal, which in itself is dramatic, she groaned unhappily and then we sat out cruising through these dramatic sand dunes, me being transported like a child in a zoo, by somebody holding a rope, pulling the animal. It all went well until a group of English tourists turned up and made it all into a circus by trying t get two people on Sahara. A disaster and from that time she was almost impossible to ride for me. She groaned, vomited and looked like she could bite me all the time and even for Mussalam, sitting up on her was like a small rodeo every time. So I set out on foot.

See the slideshow from my visit in Rub Al-Khali here

See the slideshow from my visit to oman here

Rub Al-Khali, part three

I basically walked for four days. A few hours. Half before the four hour lunch brake, and half after. Always through a dramatic desert scenery. I have been in a lot of deserts, like the biggest of them all, Sahara, but it cannot compare. Take the Sahara for example. The sand dunes there are higher and bigger, but they are covering just small areas of this vast desert. The rest is flat stone desert broken up by valleys. But Rub Al-Khali, if I am to believe Bin Hassan, is pretty much all sand dunes! And it is a big desert! Largest sand desert in the world and covers about 650,000 km², being about 1000 west to east in the north, from north to south about 800 in its western side and 300 km in its eastern side. It is the largest continuous sand area in the world. Rub al-Khali has no permanent settlements, and represents one of the most extreme areas in the world with summer temperatures shifting from below 0ºC at night to over 60ºC at noon. Dunes can reach heights of more than 300 metres. I climbed the biggest dune next to our night camp every evening, just to get a view over this vast desert. It is the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The shapes, the patterns and the size are just unbelievable, but the most penetrating feeling in Rub Al-Khali is the emotion of tranquillity and peace of mind. It took two evenings of sitting at the top of the highest dunes to get me to understand that my life for many years ahead, maybe the rest of my life, will be deserts. Somehow I felt like I had come home.

I was spoilt as any tourist on this trip. Bin Hassan did all the cooking and Mussalam and our third helper, Salim, from the same tribe as the other two, took care of everything else. Bin Hassan is used to tourists, running his own business to take all nationalities to experience the Empty Quarter. And one of the biggest joys of desert travel, is not like I am used to, travelling by yourself, it is the time you spend together around the campfire. It is a natural way to live. And as Wilfred Thesiger said:

“You never feel lonely amongst Arabs!”

There´s first of all in the desert, not only at night camp, almost dead silent, the surroundings, broken only by a stray bird, like ravens, otherwise it is so silent you can almost hear when you make an invisible line in front of you, by drawing your finger in front of you, from left to right. That silent. The food tastes great. The talk is joyful and full of inspiration. Suddenly darkness takes over and the sky suddenly explodes with stars, the Milky Way is so close. Strongest is the Northern Star, It was full moon during my visit. So after two hours of relative darkness, suddenly the moon towered on top of us and we could switch of the torches when going off to do the needs. One sleeps outside in the desert of course, especially during winter, since no scorpions or snakes look for a place to rest. It is part of feeling free. And after sleeping indoors for two years in row, which is a lot for me since I have slept over 2500 nights in my tent, I slept better than ever. Waking up a lot, having some very strong dreams, but still, even with a few hours sleep, one feels refreshed in the morning. And, the reason for waking up is that suddenly a small little breeze starts and touches your cheeks. When you open your eyes, the moon lightening up the spectacular surroundings and it feels like you are in the middle of a dream.

See the slideshow from Rub Al-Khali here

See the slideshow from my visit in Oman here

Rub Al-Khali, part 4

A feeling which changes quickly during midday, whilst walking and the strong sun is pounding your head. It is difficult to think during this time, otherwise deserts are great for contemplating life. And during this time it is hard to believe that anyone can survive, even less live in the desert, but the amazing thing is that you continuously see tracks after life. Most of all from small lizards, beetles and hares. But I also saw a fresh track after a fox. Repeatedly you pass some odd looking rock balls, which in fact are crystallized over thousands of years by the little dew that the desert receives. On and off you pass a resilient bush or even a patch of grass, loved by the camels. These animals which are so perfectly evolved to fit the desert. Mussalam, the camel owner, had major difficulties with Sahara for three days. She didn’t like the desert at all. Especially with a tourist on her bShe wasn’t used to travelling over dunes and was terrified every time it was going uphill or downhill. The forth day she allowed me to ride her again. And once up on the back of the camel, behind her hump, sitting on a relatively comfortable saddle, it is pure joy when at walking pace. It is much more comfortable than on a horse, but once, for some unknown reason, a faster trot or gallop starts it is very difficult to enjoy life. Since there´s no stirrups, and very little balance, you hold on to the saddle for your life! But, there´s no doubt, a desert should be travelled by camel. It is relatively slow, so you actually have time to study the surroundings carefully, but still it moves faster than walking. 5 km:s per hour and you loose very little energy and sweat by riding a camel and therefore, need less water. But, gee, do I need to train camel riding before setting off on the great Expedition of our time!

“I need the desert”, Bin Hassan told me almost every hour, “I feel very good every time I return here.”

I learnt a lot about the Bedu during these days. My respect for them is enormous. The power it takes just to survive in the desert is unbelievable as anybody can understand who has suffered thirst and hunger in the desert. (Which I didn’t this time, but I have spent a long time all together in other deserts around the world.) And they have lived here for thousands of years. They are the people of the desert. Three times a day I saw them turned in the direction of Mecca, praying to Allah. It just felt so natural out here in the desert and I can well understand why Islam was born in the desert not far from Rub Al-Khali. Every year some Bedu, those who cannot afford air or car travel, takes a three month camel journey to Mecca. Through the Empty Quarter. I also like that the Bedu are very sociable, talkative and very proud. They believe in themselves. They consider themselves the true Arabs. And they love women and camels, more than anything. These two subjects dominated the camp fire talks. Mussalam even started drawing women dressed in abeyya in the sand. That after only 4 days, gee, I wonder what kind of paintings it will be like after seven weeks in the desert!

So, conclusion, what did I learn for the big Expedition?

  • I need to learn Arabic, there´s no doubt about it. More important than ever. I will not get anything serious done otherwise. I will not understand Arabia.
  • Good, well-trained camels are dead important. They should be used to hard, undulating desert travel and like tourists…I will need at least three months of training before leaving and setting out on Expedition.
  • Desert travel in winter is not bad at all. The heat is bearable. Nights are not to cold.
  • Travelling the Bedu way will be much more difficult than traditional expedition travel. Less food and less energy…..
  • Motivation is very high and I am definitely ready! It feels like big things are coming up!