Wednesday, 18 February 2009

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