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The Empty Quarter Desert (Rub' al Khali)

Southern United Arab Emirates - Jan 2010

A world of extremes - Off the beaten path on an off-road expedition in one of the largest sand deserts in the world.

  • The Empty Quarter Desert in the Arabian Peninsula is so vast (650,000 square km, 250,000sq mi) that it encompasses 4 countries: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. I undertook a crossing of part of this vast desert utilizing a caravan of 3 off road vehicles and it was the toughest driving I've ever encountered. Each day consisted of figuring out a path across untouched sand dunes, navigating through the constantly changing terrain, getting stuck, getting unstuck and getting stuck again. Each night we'd camp in a new spot and just enjoy the barren emptiness of this place which is almost beyond description.
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    Looking out over the vast Emptiness. No wonder this place is called the "Empty Quarter"

    Heinz, one of my guides, pulls up after a tricky section.

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    Long, late afternoon shadows.

    As the sun sets, the colours shift and the sand takes on a new look.

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    This looks like a good place to camp. It feels like being on another planet.

    Our first desert camp. Find a relatively flat spot and that's all you really need.

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    It gets cold at night in the desert and on some mornings, thick blankets of fog rest in the valleys between the larger sand dunes.

    Today's task: Drive across this...

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    Morning light and sand ripples make for some amazing textures.

    The occasional small shrub pokes out of the sand.

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    A herd of camels left out to graze (on what?) from a nearby camel encampment. They are let out in the mornings and they return at night.

    A curious camel, dromedary actually.

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    You all know what this is...

    Here I am. stuck on the top of a dune in a rented Land Cruiser. I didn't have enough momentum to get up and over. Heinz pulled me out. Actually, he probably pulled me out of the sand dozens of times over the 5 days in the desert.

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    Taking a short break in the mid day heat.

    Heinz, a very experienced off road driver, gets ready to tackle the next set of sand dunes.

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    The trick is to find a "safe" passage through the soft, undulating dunes. Getting stuck is a frequent problem.

    Me with my vehicle for this trip. The front bumper got ripped off when I hit the bottom of a dune too fast. This Land Cruiser was way too nice and new to take out into the desert!

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    The epic landscape of the southern United Arab Emirates.

    In the late afternoon, it gets easier to drive on the sand because you can see the shadows better. During mid-day, the light is flat and the terrain is tougher to judge.

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    The sense of nothingness is overwhelming here.

    More nothingness. I love this place.

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    Another one of our campsites. No neighbors for unknown miles in every direction.

    The next task is to drive across this terrain. Not so easy.

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    Wind whipped ripples in the sand

    A closer look at the sand ripples.

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    Because of the countless dangers out here, we travel in a group of three vehicles. Jochen, one of my guides plots out a route through a challenging stretch of dunes.

    Jochen crests a dune and finds himself trapped in hole on the other side. Time to pull out the tow rope.

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    Vast salt flats and huge sand dunes are about all there is to see out here in the Empty Quarter.

    Jochen bashes through a tough spot with very soft, loose sand.

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    Golden sand and long shadows.

    Millions of years ago, the Arabian Desert used to be part of the Sahara.

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    A large sand dune. The biggest one that I drove down was 170 meter (about 550 feet). You have to drive slowly, straight down or else risk rolling the vehicle.

    Sunset in the Arabian desert, very close to the border with Saudi Arabia.

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    Sunrise.

    The desert is constantly reshaping itself. The footprints on the right are new, the ones on the left were made the night before and are already being erased by the wind.

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    In the morning, when there is no wind blowing, the desert is completely silent. No birds, no insects... Nothing.

    A lone camel on a dune.

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    The ships of the desert.

    More inquisitive camels.

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    Heinz, enjoying a glorious sunset in one of the most inhospitable, barren places in the world.

    Morning fog blankets the salt flats between the giant sand dunes.