Follow in the sandy footsteps of a legendary British adventurer in Oman’s Empty Quarter – the most fearsome desert in the world
WORDS OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES
There is no way of telling precisely when you arrive in the Empty Quarter. There is no road sign, because there are no roads (and there are no roads, because there is nowhere much to go to). There is no one to ask, because there are no towns, villages or buildings. The Omani military keeps maps of the desert. But you can’t use a regular mobile phone to call up and ask them for help – because, you see, there is no reception in the Empty Quarter.
But there is sand.
Sand piled high in pyramid-sized dunes. Sand that gets everywhere: by the end of a day walking in the Empty Quarter, you will have in each sock enough sand to build a medium-sized sandcastle. Sand is an unwelcome ingredient in breakfast, lunch and dinner. And there are enterprising grains of sand that gather in remote regions of the nostrils, belly button and ears. Anyone who travels through the desert will find these specks of sand for months after leaving it – they will blow their nose and find a stowaway from the most fearsome wilderness on Earth.
Translated from the Arabic Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter is the world’s largest sand-dune desert, the Sahara being bigger, but mostly stony rather than sandy. It covers an area about the size of France, spread across Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Seen on a map it is a blank space comparable to Antarctica. To the north-west are the mosques of Mecca and Medina; to the north-east the skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and, to the south, the warm currents of the Indian Ocean. And in between them is a featureless void that looks like a cartographer might have skived off early from work one afternoon. With a big atlas, you can study every feature of the Middle East – from the gardens of Jerusalem to the foothills of Afghanistan – all while handily balancing a mug of coffee on the blankness of the Empty Quarter. It is a place where no ink was spent and few souls go.
But, of course, there is no adventure quite like a journey into the middle of nowhere…