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The Legend of Rub’ al Khali

16th March 2015

The moment we’ve all been waiting for. Rub’ al Khali, the "Empty Quarter". This is the heartland of the nomadic Bedu tribes, made legendary by Wilfred Thesiger in his book ‘Arabian Sands’. Rub’ al Khali is one of the world’s largest and most famous deserts, covering a mind boggling 250,000 square miles stretching northwards from Oman into Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE.

It has everything you want a desert to be made of – huge, mountainous dunes towering above you at heights of up 300m, and between them flat lands and salt flats, occasional roaming camels eking out an existence in this hostile environment and the terrifying ‘quicksands of Umm al Samim, which even the Bedu stay well clear of.

You know you’re entering into somewhere significant when you’re asked to surrender your passports at the army checkpoint. Well prepared as ever, we had good photocopies to hand and managed to persuade the duty officers that this would suffice until we exited again in a few days time.

Driving under the barrier and into Rub’ al Khali, we were soon deep into the ancient dunes. Dunes perfect for having some fun in. Leading the way amongst our small convoy of three 4WDs, we traversed the dunes at a good speed, feeling as though we were almost floating over them with our soft tyres in the soft sand. As we got a feel for the terrain and how our passengers were enjoying the ride, we upped the anti, increasing our inclines, running along the ridges, dropping into the valleys, the whole time accompanied by the squeals of delight from our passengers. And then for the challenge, a 200m+ mega dune in front of us. Surely we can’t get up that. Surely we’re not going to try. Oh but we did, and whether or not propelled by the excitement in the back seat, we made it in one great sweeping, swinging movement before turning and sliding back down to rest. The most amazing feeling.

Continuing along in a somewhat more sedate fashion, we arrived at camp late afternoon, nestled in the shelter of another colossal dune. Organising camp, which involved popping up tents as quickly as possible so we could concentrate on the real fun – climbing the dune to find a good spot for sunset. Michelle and I, liking a challenge, weren’t going to give up until we reached the very top with front row seats at the day's close. Perched on the top, feeling pleased with our efforts, we looked down below to survey our surroundings – our camp, seemingly impossibly small for the distance we’d scaled in a matter of minutes, and Rub’ al Khali stretching as far as the eye could see in its emptiness. Breathtaking.

That night, after a delicious and hearty three-course meal, we settled down for the night, most making for their cosy tents, but a few of us taking the opportunity to sleep outside, under the clear night sky. Lying in our sleeping bags, by the glowing embers of the fire, I would concur, Rub’ al Khali is indeed somewhere to remember.

Tour leader Charlotte Hopkinson recently led our Oman Desert Adventure group tour.

Charlotte Hopkinson

Growing up in Derbyshire, Charlotte has always been surrounded by the great outdoors, with wildlife and a menagerie of pets. She believes it is hard n…

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