Magazine article Geographical

Into the Empty Quarter: Inspired by Wilfred Thesiger's Famous Desert Journeys, Alastair Humphreys Walked 1,600 Kilometres from Salalah in Oman to Dubai and Found That Life There Had Changed Enormously since Thesiger's Arabian Sands Was Published

Magazine article Geographical

Into the Empty Quarter: Inspired by Wilfred Thesiger's Famous Desert Journeys, Alastair Humphreys Walked 1,600 Kilometres from Salalah in Oman to Dubai and Found That Life There Had Changed Enormously since Thesiger's Arabian Sands Was Published

Article excerpt

Could it have been vengeful karma? After all, I had spent the morning whingeing about sleeping on the uncomfortable gravel desert floor. Or maybe it was the ghost of Sir Wilfred Thesiger--whose desert journeys had inspired this adventure--sneering at our wimpishness for using fancy sleeping mats. Perhaps it was simple incompetence. Whatever the reason, my heart sank when we discovered that our foldable, closed-cell mats had fallen off our cart. Uncomfortable nights lay ahead.

After serving with the Special Air Service in North Africa during the Second World War, Thesiger dedicated the next five years to a series of journeys in the deserts of the Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula. Inspired by his book Arabian Sands, I dreamt that one day I would make a journey of my own in the region.

Following the postponement of a polar expedition in 2012, I sent a speculative email about my desert adventure to a friend of a friend. Leon McCarron. He had recently walked 5,000 kilometres across Mongolia and China with Rob Lilwall, and I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to join me at short notice for another long walk.

We didn't set out to retrace Thesiger's routes directly. We were simply inspired by him to undertake a journey of our own. Like Thesiger, we decided to start from the city of Salalah in Oman. We planned to end our traverse 1,600 kilometres to the north in Dubai.

DESIGN FOR STRIFE

I had a lot to learn in a short period of time and turned to the tiny yet generous community of committed desert travellers for advice. When it came to the matter of transporting supplies, camels were the obvious solution, but neither Leon nor I knew how to handle these animals and besides, we couldn't afford one. So we found a friendly farmer who agreed to turn my rough sketch for a cart into a sturdy flat-pack vehicle that, when assembled in Salalah, would be capable of carrying up to 300 kilograms of water, food and equipment. Let me be clear about this: the double-axle cart was entirely my design. This is not a boast, as will become clear.

I settled on designing one large cart rather than two smaller carts because the latter would have used up more of our flight luggage allowance. I also feared that we would need our combined strength to move any one cart over certain types of terrain. I felt that the relationship hazards of being harnessed together to one cart were smaller than the stresses caused by one person moving faster than the other with individual carts.

The cart's wheels generated the most discussion. We considered several options. In the end, time, budget and the likely predominance of flat gravel plains along our route led us to choose eight bicycle wheels fitted with wide, solid, mountain bike tyres. This combination proved more than adequate for all but the softest sand.

The last-minute nature of the expedition meant that we only had one afternoon available to test the cart on sand. In pouring rain on Margate beach, we realised that--tyres apart--several alterations were required.

We did what we could in the short time available before departure and flew to the desert unnerved that we hadn't had sufficient practice with the cart, or tested our modifications.

The good news was that we would be travelling in a straight line across an empty desert. This meant that a complicated, heavy and expensive steering system wouldn't be required.

We began our journey by hauling our heavy cart along Salalah's roaring dual carriageways. This was the first time the cart had been loaded to capacity and it immediately became apparent that the lack of steering was a terrible mistake--there was no way we were going to make it to the outskirts of Salalah, let alone Dubai. I feel embarrassed writing about this even now, so farcical was the situation.

But as on so many of my journeys, the support of strangers was astonishing, humbling and invaluable. …

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