A Saudi friend of mine recently made a 2.5 week excursion into the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter. For those of you not aware what or where the Rub al Khali is, according to Wikipedia: “The Rub’ al Khali (Arabic: الربع الخالي), which translates as Empty Quarter in English, is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including southern Saudi Arabia, and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) (the area between long. 44°30′–56°30′E., and lat. 16°30′–23°00′N), more than the combined land areas of the Netherlands, Belgium and France. It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, and entirely uninhabitable.
Largely unexplored until recently, the desert is one thousand kilometers (600 miles) long, and 500 km (300 mi) wide. Even the Bedouins only skirt the edges of the desert. Nonetheless, tour companies do exist that offer GPS-equipped excursions into the desert. The first documented journeys made by Westerners to the Empty Quarter were those made by Bertram Thomas in 1931 and St. John Philby in 1932. Between 1946 and 1950 Wilfred Thesiger crossed the area several times and mapped large parts of the Empty Quarter and the mountains of Oman.
With summer temperatures up to nearly 55 degrees Celsius (131 F) at noon, and dunes taller than the Eiffel Tower — over 330 meters (1000 ft) — the desert may be the most forbidding environment on Earth. However, as nearly everywhere else, life flourishes. Arachnids, rodents and plant life can all be found throughout the Empty Quarter. As an ecoregion, it falls within the Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands.
Desertification has increased through the millennia. Before desertification made the caravan trails leading across the Rub’ al Khali so difficult, the caravans of the frankincense trade crossed now virtually impassable stretches of wasteland, until about 300 AD. For example, Iram of the Pillars, a lost city, depended on such trade. More recently, tribal populations were also present in certain parts of the Empty Quarter, with the largest in the Najran region. A few road links were connected with these tribal settlements to the water resource and oil production centers.
Geologically, the Empty Quarter is one of the most oil-rich places in the world. Vast oil reserves have been discovered underneath the sand stacks. Sheyba, in the middle of the desert, is a major Arab light crude oil-producing site in Saudi Arabia. Also, Ghawwar Field, the largest oil field in the world, extends southward into the northernmost parts of the Empty Quarter.”
My friend had the opportunity to be the photographer of an official group which went into the Rub’ al Khali to conduct a geological survey. During the 2.5 weeks he traveled as part of this group through the Rub’ al Khali the temperatures ranged from 3 to 33 degrees celsius. With the exception of one night spent at an Aramco camp, all of their nights were spent camping among the open skies. I learned from him so much about the hidden treasures and beauty of this vast and perhaps at first glance, desolate desert. He told me how they first entered into the empty quarter through an area that has been preserved as an official wildlife reserve. To his surprise and delight, he was able to see (and photograph) a herd of 11 arabian oryx in their natural habitat. What makes this sighting even more significant is that the oryx is on the endangered species list and it is believed that there are less than 300 of them in existence. To see so many at one time is nothing less than a miracle. Many people who enter the wildlife preserve in the hopes to see even just one oryx will go away disappointed. The oryx is a medium sized antelope.
I further learned that within the Rub’ al Khali (about 5-7 days into the trip) the group came across a desert lake. Yes; you read that correctly – a lake in the midst of one of the world’s largest sand deserts. It had rained three years ago and enough water still remained to qualify as a desert lake. Here is where my friend was able to view a wide variety of foliage which even included a seagull who had found its way to the water. Due to the location and composition of the ground, the water in the lake was composed more of sulphur water and emanated a sulphuric odor.
The group skirted the borders of the Rub’ al Khali between the Kingdom and UAE, Yemen and Oman. Much of the trip was actually on a paved road but naturally there were times when their SUV’s were driven across the sand dunes. They also stopped at several of the Aramco sites and saw the airstrips that had been built for Aramco. These same Aramco sites were not only well-secured but equipped with comfortable installations and lodging facilities.
Taking a tour into the Rub’ al Khali has been a dream of mine even before coming to the Kingdom. I have learned through my friend that tours can be arranged by knowledgable beudion guides. I hope to receive this contact information and will be happy to share it once received for others who may have this same dream. However it will be unlikely that I would take such a tour during 2008 as the prime season to go into the empty quarter is just about over. The sand storm season across the desert has started and then that season is followed the intense searing heat which exceeds 60 degrees celsius so in all likelihood such a trip will have to be planned for Spring 2009.