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Empty Quarter trip on 27 April 2013

Empty Quarter trip on 27 April 2013

August 5, 2013 4:17 am Category: Articles and Experiences Leave a comment A+ / A-

Written by: 
Dorothea Boshoff (a Participant)

 The story of the make-up trip. Return to the Rub Al Khali. For certain things, there are no words. I can try, but it is like attempting to capture the Himalayas with an instant camera …
This time there were only three cars, not nine, and the call names on the walkie talkies were Berri Wahad, Berri Ithnayn and Berri Thalatha, or then Wild One/Desert Boy One, Two and Three. Our guides on the trip were Meteb (Berri Wahad), Khalid, our guide from the previous time and his cousin, also named Khalid. To avoid confusion, they become Abu Mohammed and Abu Nasser. Father of … In Layla we picked up Abdullah, a very good friend of Meteb, and his desert buddy of many years. Meteb is still the most gracious host ever, Abu Mohammed still as wild as last time. Abu Nasser speaks better English than he thinks, and has the kindness of ages written on his face. Abdullah was very quiet, but he had a good giggle at the daftness of the foreign creatures. What a privilege to spend time with these guys and to be shown their beloved desert through their eyes.
Layla lies between three and four hundred km south west of Riyadh, and there we turned east again, destination (come hell or high water), the Empty Quarter Dunes… From the pressing darkness on the previous trip, very little was left as the full moon bathed everything in a lovely silver light. This time, the mosque was not a hull looming out of the dark in the headlights, it was bright as daylight and everybody spared a wave for the “Rub Al Khali Ritz” (ala Boris) where we spent a nervous night cowering against the storm on our previous trip. The moon threw ghostly shadows on the white sand and every little ridge and bump made relief patterns in the night. Where we stopped the gentlemen put up canvas sheets covering the area between the chassis of the car and the sand, so nobody got too much sand in the teeth that night. I was lying awake for hours looking at the brightest moon, drinking in the empty. I could feel the moon and wind and sand and peace soak into my skeleton till I became small. I was actually waiting for the bright moon to go down so I could search in the east for the end of the meteorite shower, but all I saw before I fell asleep was one shockingly bright shooting star. I could settle for that – my own personal meteorite.
Five o’clock eteb chased us up for a breakfast of flat bread, perfectly cooked eggs and cheese with croissants. He showed us on a huge atlas exactly where we were – at the start of the Rumeillah Dunes, quite a way east of the furthest point we had reached on the previous trip. And (from the Atlas) I’ll have you know that the Rub Al Khali Ritz is not just a ruined building and a mosque. It is a village, with a name. Shahatea. Everything was packed and redistributed and with Berri Wahad in the front, we took on the dunes again. They were huge, huger, gigantic monsters with deep folded edges and crests as sharp as knives, round on the one side and dropping of like sheer cliffs on the other. At the bottom, devious traps of soft powder sand waiting to swallow everything like Venus Flytraps. If your car falls into those you might as well start walking, because you’d never get it out again. We did get stuck a few times, but (apology to everybody else with whom I’ve ever driven in the sand) these guys know what to do with a car in the sand. There were a couple of times I was convinced we were spending the rest of the day right there digging, but after a few sharp jerks on the steering wheel, plucky jumps, serious hiccups from the engine and impossible angles of reverse and forward, the cars always got traction and off we went again. Like last time, we were basically flying over the dunes.
The Rumeilah Dunes cover an area of about 30 km wide running north/south and on the other side of them lies … the moon. Flat as far as the eye can see, and the same silvery white of the night time. Only where we came out of the dunes a bit of red remained, but after that, sheets and sheets of shale appeared, white slivers of stone which covered the flat all the way to the far off dunes, which were also white. The stones were not really white. Well, some places they were. Other places they were black as night, or even grey, but often there was a soft purple sheen and it looked like Namakwaland in flower time. A purple and white desert going on farther than for ever! The wind picked up and was howling over the flat land while we creeped deeper and deeper into the nothing like three little beetles. How deep we could go into the Rub Al Khali would depend on how long our petrol lasted, so we were driving with no air-con and the wind was too strong to keep the windows open. The pressing heat was compounded by the white sheets disappearing into a horizon that was turning steadily darker and darker. The rain was coming. The heat, together with the sky turning to deep blue made it feel even more as if we were driving under a dome in a contained environment, totally unreal. The Saudis’ excitement about the rain was palpable and Meteb promised if it rained we would all be dancing in the desert.
They were not 100% sure of continuing in those weather conditions, so when we came across a Bedouin camp, they decided to stop and ask the experts. We drove closer to the camp, but slowly, hooting every now and then so the people could be warned about our coming. The man came out, but he didn’t seem very thrilled with us. Meteb and Abdullah got out and I could see very clearly how the man softened and was much more inclined to speak with Abdullah, who is from Leyla and speaks the local dialect. Meteb is a city slicker, and not to be trusted We were invited for tea, and in a scurry of looking for shoes and hunting for abayas in the cars, we were directed to the women’s trailer. They must have, in the time between us hooting from afar and the small talk of the men, scurried (like us) to get their best clothes on and to get ready, because when we met them at the top of the stairs, they awaited us in gorgeous dresses with bright colours and shiny fabrics. They looked beautiful, but even after the men left, they kept their niqab on (the black face mask). They were very worreid about us taking pictures, and the man even came back, knocking on the door and reminding us not to take pictures. They were, however, fascinated with the pictures that were already on the cameras, and were very excited when they recognized some of the dunes they know from the pics. There was the mother, three daughters of 18, 17 and 12, and two little boys of 7 and 4. They brought us sweet dates, Arabic coffee strong enough to chip the enamel off your teeth, sweet black tea, white coffee with condensed milk (yum) and then bowls of fresh, frothy, creamy camel milk. And everything we said and did was studied minutely and intently, every movement was analyzed, each smile measured. I don’t think they’ve had much contact with western people before. After it had been determined which countries we were from, we had to explain who was Moslem and who not, and of nearly equal importance, who had babies and who not. After that it was necessary for every one of us to explain where our mother and father was in the world. Once we were securely placed within a social framework, were measured and not found to be too light, the mother chased her daughters up to fetch her precious perfume collection. The daughters went about spraying us with different perfumes, from expensive designer bottles to heavy Arabic oud, which clings to your skin for days. I was able to dodge the oud, but we smelt like a French Perfume House by the time they were done with us. It was just so incredibly far removed from how we do things. Imagine you live off the land, a bleak existence at the best of times, you move in your two trailers after the camel feed, basically on subsistence level. Hoot hoot hoot in the sand, three cars full of obviously crazy foreigners stop, men and women mixed, no modesty whatsoever, and you open your door for them, unpack the new coffee cups from the shop packaging, bring your precious packs of dates, pour extra condensed milk into the coffee. Your treasures, your perfume, you spray on them as a blessing and a token of acceptance and your husband fills their tanks from his own life giving supply of gasoline. They shake your hand, say your house is beautiful, your tea is delicious, jump in their cars and charge off, not even the dust cloud in their wake remaining very long. Alien invasion, Mars Attacks.
Meteb says the man asked him if we were the group who came the previous time in eight cars. The groups of Bedu are in radio contact, and they all knew of us and exactly where we were and what we were doing. He also told us off because we scared his camels and it took him a long time to gather them again…
Although our kind hosts said the rain is definitely coming, our guides conferred and decided to push through to what is known as the Dunes of the Empty Quarter. We wouldn’t be able to sleep there due to the rain, but we would see a lot and be able to explore. It is after an hour or so, when we finally reached those dunes that my words simply fail me. As on all the other trips I’d done with Meteb, there was again the realization of the utter, utter fragility of mankind and of civilization. Our life is a futile chasing after the wind and in those dunes, in that unbelievable expanse of nothing, of wild, harsh beauty and shattering emptiness, you realize it deeply and profoundly.
We stopped again in the Rumeilah Dunes for the night. The cars were once more pulled into a square with the camp fire at the open end, canvasses up against the wind, which was starting to blow harder and harder. The full moon rose while we were busy preparing dinner and in the wild wind, surrounded by high mountains of sand, we vacuumed up some chicken kebabs, flat bread, hummus and pepsi. Since camel milk was lunch, we’d all built up a serious appetite by then. We had planned to sit around the camp fire to listen to the promised story of Layla and Majnun, but in the wind, and after a day of driving very far
 and seeing mind blowing things, we were all exhausted and got into our sleeping bags for the night, tiny under the spectacular lightning display overhead. Ha ha. Did I mention we put up canvasses for the wind? Fat lot of good that did. The wind blew so hard that it felt as if somebody was standing next to me with a spade, dumping scoops of sand on top of my head. I was still awake for a long time because I wanted to see the lunar eclipse, and got up every now and then to shake away the small dune that had formed on top of me. The sand got so bad I couldn’t keep watching the moon. I think I saw the start of it when I just had to put my pillow inside my sleeping bag and fold a blanket double, like a lid over my head and the top of my sleeping bag, tucked under the top of the pillow. I still got shovels full of sand on top of me, but not in my face and apart from the snoring (curse of communal sleeping) I slept very well. Until four o’clock, when the first drops woke me up. Rain! Rain in the Empty Quarter! In the wink of an eye everything was in the cars (us included). A small break in the rain allowed the men a chance for their morning prayer (how close to God we are out there) and then we started driving again. It was not easy, because the windows were fogged up and the moon was hidden behind the clouds, but Berri Wahad inched us safely into the dunes. Once dawn broke we were treated to surely the most spectacular desert scenes so far. The dunes became red, red, red from the rain and where the patterns from yesterday were soft and white, suddenly red and yellow ridges were etched hard and clearly against the improbable fiery colour. The wind was still blowing up sand which stood like steam on hot water, long ghost fingers dancing like dervishes and lying down as the wind caught its breath, all on top of these staggeringly high red dunes. The smell of rain and wet earth was everywhere and the light from the soft morning sun just made everything even more beautiful as the yellow became gold against the red. We stopped on the highest crest and like kings at the top of the world, we had our breakfast. Meteb made us Saudi pancakes, and we all agreed that the recipe worked great with a scoop or two of sand in. Everybody’s eyebrows and hair (and beards for the men) got red edges from the clingy, wet sand, like it does in the bitter cold when everything turns to icicles. When we drove away I knew with certainty that a piece of my soul and a very large part of my heart would remain behind in the sand.
Since we left the desert early, we could stop at a gas station for half an hour to try and get the worst of the grime off. Try is the operative word. There was sand in our very pores and a bit of water and a tissue would not remove that. We stocked up on water and laban (butter milk) and took a shortcut to the Aramco concession. Our guides were a bit wary of mud in the Diamond Valley and decided to lunch under the trees (in Meteb’s Desert Forest). I was suddenly so grateful that we could stop halfway, in a different, softer desert, before having to return to the city. I think if a person should go straight from the Rub Al Khali to Riyadh, you’d rip in half and develop schizophrenic issues. You first need to acclimatize, like a halfway house or a decompression stop.
It was much greener than the previous time we visited, and we could see the debris where the water had come down the river bed. We stopped under a beautiful old tree and everybody either went for a walk or sat on the little mats playing scrabble. Kristel helped me with a few yoga stretches, Abu Mohammed showed us how to climb a tree and Abu Nasser started cooking his world famous kapsa. Total peacefulness and deep contentment.
We drove back through the desert in a light drizzle, and just before we turned back to civilization, Meteb stopped and did the promised dance of joy with Abu Nasser in the sand. He also told us the long due story of Layla and Qaiss. Qaiss loved his Layla dearly, but her parents forbade a marriage. Qaiss’s heart broke and he lost his mind wandering through the desert calling her name till people started calling him “The Crazy One”. Hence Layla and Majnun. There are different versions to where the story might actually have taken place, but the town Lyala, where we always turn away from the road, is named after her and they suspect it might be the town where the tragedy played out. Apparently Qaiss really became crazy after her death and they found his body next to her grave. The story has been told from generation to generation and is based on poems written by Qaiss himself as well as traditional poetry written about them. We also heard the story of strong and brave Antar, a freed slave who could not marry his beloved Abla due to tribal issues. Their story, like that of Qaiss and Layla, has been immortalized through poems …
“Thou hast possessed thyself of my heart; thou has fixed thy abode in it (imagine not that I delude thee), and art settled there as a beloved and cherished inhabitant.”
“My camel is as tall as a tower, and I make him stand
And give my aching heart to the wind of the desert.”
The trip was nearly 1000 km each way, and everybody was pretty tired, but I think the stories inspired Meteb, because he announced that we’d still go and see one special thing just before the trip ended. Just outside of Al Kharj, he told Berri Ithnayn and Berri Thalatha that we would be stopping by the Holy Mountain. At first I thought he was pulling our leg, but then I saw the outlines of stone mounds on the mountain. We drove through the little town and in the last remaining light, we all ran behind Meteb up the mountain (literally). On top of the mountain? Stone mounds, like pyramids, some round, some square, some long, for families. Apparently there are more than 500 graves on the mountain on either side of the highway (horrors to think how many might have been destroyed when the road was built). One Dr. Ghazi did a study and the graves were dated 4000 BC. The site (known as the Cumulus Tombs) can be seen on Google Earth and is the largest ancient burial site in the world. Even so, it is not even on the Saudi list of antiquities or tourism. Even Abu Mohammed, who lives in Al Karj, did not know about this till Meteb showed him. They did find skeletons in the graves, sitting with legs pulled up, facing the east, which might indicate sun worship. Dr. Ghazi suspects they might be much, much older than the official date, even Middle Stone Age, which would link them to the Delmun people who had settled in Bahrain.They are not sure at all, but there could also be a link between them and two local tribes from the area, the Tassim and the Jadees (the tribes of Antar and his Abla). These tribes gave birth to the legend of Yamamah, who had amazing eyesight, and could see three days into the future. When the one tribe returned from Yemen, bent on revenge on the other, they kept her gift of sight in mind, and masked themselves as trees. Shades of Macbeth? She warned her people that a few soldiers and many, many trees were marching toward them, but they thought she had lost it. They were all killed by the approaching army…
The site should be a World Heritage Site, never mind on the Saudi list of this or that. Some of the tombs had still not been excavated and it is really a treasure. Meteb says it is better that nobody knows about it, as the anonymity protects it. Lots of the land was bought up by Dr. Ghazi himself, while the mountain on the other side of the road belongs to a prince, who had fenced in all the graves, but it is still scary to think of something so precious being so vulnerable. It was surreal to find, in such a by the way fashion, nearly as an afterthought in the dark, one of the potentially richest archeological sites on the Arabic Peninsula.
At the airport, I thought I’d attempt to get myself on the 23:00 flight instead of the 1:30 a.m. flight. I tried being charming to the man at the counter and he helped me very quickly, so I was very satisfied with myself when I walked away. Until I walked into the hammam and saw myself in a mirror for the first time in three days. I nearly fainted. The man did so not help me because I was charming, he helped me because I must have scared the living daylights out of him! Everything, the whole of me, was covered in a layer of red dust. Dull red. The only thing that was not dull red, was my eyes. Because they were bright red, like the devil straight from hell. Sigh. So much for charm. Going through customs I was worried they would charge me extra duty for the three tons of sand I had stashed behind my eyeballs and after the flight I nonchalantly pretended it was normal for people to leave little heaps of red sand on their seats.
Meteb and Khalid had talked to the other gents and had decided to offer us this trip as a ‘make-up’ trip, practically free of charge, worried that we didn’t have a good experience the previous time. We all jumped for the chance, exactly because we did have such a great experience last time and wanted to repeat it. But in all honesty, what we saw last time was tame and mild in comparison with what we had seen this weekend and with where we had been and money could never measure how much the richer we are for the kindness of their gesture.
My little mound of stones are on exhibit in my room, the sand had been shaken out of the last of my things, tomorrow the madness will start again as if I had never been gone. But somewhere, thousands of miles from here, the wind is chasing dancing dervishes on the crest of a red dune in the Rub al Khali and in that wind there will be, forever dancing, a part of me.
Pics: The Sands of Time, Same Sand Different Perspective, Three Little Beetles a the Top of the World, The Sorely Appreciated Saudi Contingent, The Usual Suspects and a Rain Dance.

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Empty Quarter trip on 27 April 2013 Reviewed by on . Written by:  Dorothea Boshoff (a Participant) [one_half] The story of the make-up trip. Return to the Rub Al Khali. For certain things, there are no words. I ca Written by:  Dorothea Boshoff (a Participant) [one_half] The story of the make-up trip. Return to the Rub Al Khali. For certain things, there are no words. I ca Rating: 0

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