With enormous anticipation, I was about to see some of the Empty Quarter (Rub el Khali), the world's largest continuous sand desert and what many consider the most unforgiving.
Bruce Kirkby's Sand Dance:By Camel Across Arabia's Southern Desert had absorbed me. Possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen; the photographs are gorgeous. Not to pretend yours truly will be or ever was up to anything like a safari for days, weeks, of gruelling survival. In 1999 Kirkby and his companions the Clarke brothers followed in the footsteps (the camel tracks, that is) of Sir Wilfred Thesiger who twice crossed the desert in the late 1940s. No other westerner had recorded such travel since; the 1999 journey from Salalah in Oman through Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates took them forty days.
Instead, my tiny journey is from Salalah by jeep to "the lost city of Ubar." Luckily for me, the attractive but slightly sinister-looking driver Mahmed motioned me into the front. Three people were squashed into the back seat. Mahmed and I were quite satisfied with this arrangement of due propriety, casting surreptitious glances at each other from time to time to confirm the proximity of the exotic other person. English is taught in Omani schools but this man was silent which was fine with me. Back seat engages in chattering away, much jollity, but I can't always hear them over the jeep noise and visual distractions, difficult to participate.
We have a flat coastal ride across the north edge of town to climb the hills where the scenery resembles northern California. The infrastructure and highways are great. Of course: oil riches. Sultan Qaboos of Oman is revered for his wise decisions in modernizing this new Bedouin nation. They have universal education, health care, and so on. It's encouraging that Salalah, a small city, does not have the ugly skyscrapers of other cities in the Arabian peninsula.
Up on the plateau, we stop at a gasoline service centre where the four drivers inspect the tires and gas up. And smoke. Mahmed is seldom separated from his pipe. I note with approval that none of my dozen fellow tourists are in embarrassingly immodest dress. We load up with water and juice. A local in a leather jacket tells me that the Bedouin are so accustomed to the heat that this early morning, already in the high 80s(F), feels chilly to him. Then again, he had slept in the desert last night when the temperature plunges dramatically. Mahmed disappears as our group prepares to leave; back seat squashee says I scared him off by talking so much (not). Like I said, the back seat is a fun bunch.
Driving north, the landscape again becomes totally flat approaching the Empty Quarter. We drive and drive and drive, straight road in a vast emptiness. Only a few loose camels are a sign of life. Then we turn off and go west. Pass a village (I blink, hard to imagine in this emptiness) that Mahmed indicates as Ubar. We don't stop. We take a dirt road for miles and miles. Some irrigation farming going on here but no obvious human life. All this is in the Dhofar province of Oman.
Then we turn onto a sand "road," north again. This is the Empty Quarter. Drive more miles and miles, on flat, rocky sand. Has it been hours? We pass the temporarily deserted Empty Quarter Camps (Comps says the sign that back seat squashee obligingly captures).
Stop for a few minutes, the sun is baking and we gulp water. The drivers are deflating the tires. I know what that means. It's time for them to compete with each other at racing over the ruts in the sand, up and down the increasing hills. Dune bashing. It's a mystery to me why this body-pounding, cross-country racing should be an obligatory tourist experience, except the drivers themselves take great glee in it.
Unusual vegetation appears sporadically, a low sprawling plant with apple-like fruit. Later I learn what it is: al ashkar, or Calotropis procera, aka Adam's apple or Dead Sea apple -- thank you, Dubai Museum and Wikipedia. The root and leaves are used to treat a wide variety of medical disorders.
Suddenly we encounter the dunes. Huge. Endless. Dunes. This is our ultimate destination. So different from the flat rocky sand we've been driving through. The overbearing sun bleaches everything. Some of our group climb the nearest one. Climbing in soft sand is incredibly difficult and I'm not crazy. What I need is a camel to mount this dune, any dune, as I bemoan to any driver who will listen to me. They think I am funny.
Back to the "Comp" for a box lunch. Pita sandwiches, tea, soft drinks, and a big chocolate cake that looks totally alien in this setting. The tent gives shade from the blistering heat. The tea is recommended for those wilting from the relentless sun. Campers who come to this spot are usually away during the day, exploring the secrets of the desert.
The drivers come to sit by me. Friendly bunch, some eager to try a bit of English. They are not as "conservative and reserved" as one of our lecturers said, maybe because they're in the tourist industry. They are all Bedouin, as are all true Omanis, a new century slowly transforming them. We decide to compare and pool our sandwiches; they demonstrate their appreciation of the yoghurt and soft drinks. A bit surprisingly, the toilets are western-style here in the wilderness.
Then we race to back to Shisur, that village we had passed. Once in a while a car passes us going the other way, a bit of mad honking. Mahmed, perhaps encouraged by the openness of his colleagues at lunch, delights in calling out to all of us "Crazy man!" each time. He's a good driver; the vehicles are comfortable and well-kept. He played Arab pop music all day on the radio to my immense satisfaction; thumbs up works well in any language.
Beside the village we have our walking-around time to see remnants of the lost-and-found city of Ubar. Most of it fell into a sinkhole over two thousands years ago. A well had provided the basis for a thriving site in an inhospitable environment. Drifting sand dunes and later stone structures obscured the site. Satellite images, just over twenty years ago, along with ancient maps, finally helped archaeologists pinpoint the location beneath the sand. Sought by explorers for centuries, the city's reputed wealth was due to its trading position on the incense caravan route. When archaeologists began digging here by the village of Shisr, they revealed a wall and towers dating back two thousand years.
What we can see are crumbling stone remains on the edge of the chasm, and partial excavations. Signage is up at various viewpoints, not always clearly explanatory. As a member of the first working team, Ranulph Fiennes described the find in his Atlantis of the Sands but a slew of experts still argue whether this place is historical Ubar, or another ancient city. The name Ubar may have represented a tribe, or a region, not a specific city. In 1997, chief archaeologist on the original expedition, Juris Zarins, said:
While surveying oases in the Dhofar region our team discovered red- and black-polished ceramics of the classical period (after 300 B.C.). Based on these finds, we became convinced that a road at the edge of the Rub al-Khali was linked to ancient urban centers mentioned in classical sources and Arab histories. We chose to study Shisur, a ruined city some 90 miles northwest of Salalah on the edge of the desert. A permanent spring there had attracted people since the Neolithic (ca. 5000-2500 B.C.), and a fortress first built during the Bronze Age (2500-1300 B.C.) was in use until A.D. 1500.
Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, and other ancient authors, though not specifically mentioning Ubar, gave brief accounts of cities in southern Arabia that marketed resins from frankincense and myrrh trees. While it is certain that people of the Dhofar area grew rich trading these commodities, it would appear that the city of Ubar was an Arabian Nights fantasy.
Unfortunately the little museum is closed! The government has built new facilities at the village for the Bedouin, fewer and fewer of whom live the old migratory desert life.
After the long way back to Salalah, visiting the frankincense tree park is a denouement to a thoroughly amazing day. In the park, many stairs up and down. Although the sun is at half-mast by now, we are pretty well knackered.
Mahmed has been waiting for me to notice that he drank one of my lemonade bottles. When I scrabble around the front seat looking for it, he grins and gives me a bottle of water.
At the security checkpoint to the port I take a photo of the port sign through the windshield as the policeman checks with Mahmed. Back seat immediately hisses at me: no photos! no photos allowed! Too late. I wasn't aiming at the cop; never crossed my mind. Clearly we are back in the modern day after an almost dream-like lull in a fabled land.
One of Kirkby's companions, Jamie Clarke, was the instigator of their epic journey. He too wrote a similar book. The logistics in planning and execution of such an arduous camel trip seemed insurmountable sometimes. They came close to perishing, totally dependent on the innate and sometimes inscrutable skills of the Bedu. Forty days in the Rub el Khali is an endurance test incomprehensible to any but those of the most romantic and resolute obsession.
There's no comparison but one memorable day―in relative comfort―helped fulfill girl dilettante's compulsive leanings. And reinforced admiration for those who dare.
 Bruce Kirkby, Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia’s Southern Desert (Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2000).
 Ranulph Fiennes, Atlantis of the Sands: The search for the lost city of Ubar (UK: Penguin, 1993).
 Juris Zarins, "Atlantis of the Sands," Archaeological Institute of America journal Archaeology (http://archive.archaeology.org/9705/abstracts/ubar.html : accessed 28 May 2014).
 Jamie Clarke, Everest to Arabia: The Making of an Adventurous Life (Calgary, AB: Azimuth, Inc., 2000).
© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.