Compass

Why I crossed 1,000 miles of Middle East desert on foot

Alastair Humphreys, right, and Leon McCarron in the Empty Quarter. (Photo: Courtesy of Alastair Humphreys)

Alastair Humphreys is a British-born traveler who was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. In this exclusive story for Yahoo Travel, he recounts his 45-day desert crossing that is the subject of the 2013 documentary, "Into the Empty Quarter." It's available on DVD here.

There are so many aspects to travel. We seek out remote places to see what they might teach us - about the world and about ourselves. Going somewhere you have never been means there are no familiar crutches to prop yourself up, no old memories to fall back on. Everything is new and different.

The exception to this is going someplace you have read about so often that you feel you almost know the place. That was my first experience of walking across the Empty Quarter desert in Oman - the largest sand desert in the world – while dragging a 660-pound cart.

When I first began dreaming of traveling the world, and doing so in an adventurous and challenging way, one of my holy texts was Wilfred Thesiger’s book, “Arabian Sands.”

The consummate English gentleman, Thesiger was educated at Eton College and Oxford University. He wore tweed and smart three-piece suits. But he was also a hard man and an epic traveler. He boxed for his university and later fought with British Special Forces - the SAS - in the deserts of North Africa in World War II.

(Photo: Courtesy of Alastair Humphreys / Flickr)

“Arabian Sands” describes his exploratory journeys through the Empty Quarter desert, located on the Arabian Peninsula, with a handful of charismatic, knowledgeable, loyal Bedouin guides in the late 1940s. His book beautifully captures the harsh beauty of the desert, the terrible hardships of crossing it by camel, and the wonderful blend of camaraderie, solitude and personal discovery that emerge with all the greatest adventures.

Ever since I first read “Arabian Sands” I dreamed of one day making a journey of my own into the Empty Quarter. And so, when I set my eyes upon the empty gravel plains for the first time, I was seeing a place I had thought about for more than a decade. I was thrilled to be somewhere I had never been before. But I was excited also to be looking out at a landscape so familiar to my hero, Thesiger.

My journey was not aiming to replicate Thesiger’s adventures. I could not afford a camel, had no idea how to travel with one and - truth be told - I’m scared of them too. Nor could I roam at will across the desert. Saudi Arabia is off limits to today’s adventurous tourists, so I would be constrained to the desert in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

My aim then was to become a human camel, hauling a homemade cart with 660 pounds of supplies for 1,000 miles across the Arabian Peninsula from Salalah in southern Oman to the glitzy madness of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I’d need some help with this madcap plan, so I recruited Leon McCarron, a friend of a friend and a fellow fan of Thesiger.

We looked a strange sight, hauling our ludicrously overloaded cart along the side of the busy motorway out of Salalah. Bemused and amused drivers hooted their horns and waved as they passed. Already this journey was totally different to Thesiger’s experience. But you can never replicate someone else’s journey. It can be an inspiration or a catalyst, but you must seek out the adventures and experiences for yourself.

It was a relief, shortly after the air base at Thumrait (where the night roared with American military planes departing for nocturnal business in the skies over Afghanistan), to leave behind all the sound and fury of the modern world and turn off the road into the desert.

Oman’s desert is frequently crisscrossed with gravel tracks and the trails of 4x4 vehicles that zoom around the desert either for fun or rounding up some of their far-spread camels. So even here we couldn’t entirely leave the world behind. But we got the silence, the stillness and - above all - the heat that Thesiger endured. We lived on a strictly rationed amount of water and the most basic of supplies. We needed to carry food for a month, so we had no fresh food or refrigerated food. Our diet of instant noodles, biscuits, nuts and dates was not particularly inspiring.

Each morning we woke two hours before dawn. We walked as far as we could until the midday heat overwhelmed us. And then we would shelter and swelter in the shade of a small canopy through the worst hours of heat. In the afternoon we would keep walking, until night had fallen and we’d covered the day’s required distance.

As we walked and sweated, Leon and I would chat about how different our experience was to Thesiger’s. We had maps. We had strong plastic jerry cans filled with water rather than flimsy, leaking goat skins. But although much was different, much was similar too: the endless, unchanging gravel plains that shimmered all the way to the horizon and far beyond. The beautiful, sculpted dunes that looked different as the day progressed and the shadows lengthened. Their colors varied from a grey shade of khaki, through orange, to a deep shade of red that glowed with the last of the setting sunshine. This was our favorite time of day, when the ferocity of the heat had passed. We had miles in the bag (we walked a marathon, every day, for those 1,000 miles).

We could look forward to camping and resting. There were no showers, no days off. But to remove our harnesses at day’s end and set up camp was reward enough. I loved lying back on the still-warm sand and listening to the soft roar of our camping stove. This weariness, sense of achievement and towering air of remoteness is the one thing that we did share with Thesiger, and my favorite part of the journey. This repetitive, simple life continued day after day, week after week. The ascetic, almost monastic routine of a desert adventure is one of its toughest but most rewarding aspects.

We left the desert behind as we crossed the border into the United Arab Emirates. Flashy cars raced past, their once-nomadic inhabitants now cocooned in air-conditioned comfort. We trudged weary down the busy motorway to Dubai, pushing through the final 200 miles with dreams of ice creams and cold showers. Thesiger would have thought us soft! He would have been astonished by Dubai as well. In his day it was a small fishing town. Today the tallest building on Earth - the Burj Khalifa - speared into the sky high above all of the other extraordinary skyscrapers. Dubai is a surreal place, however you experience it. But to arrive on foot, after walking for 1,000 miles, was one of the weirdest and most memorable ends to an adventure I have ever known.

Oman was a beautiful country with some of the most generous, friendly people I have ever met. It should be more popular as a tourist destination and I’d urge anyone to add it to their itinerary. And as for Thesiger, and “Arabian Sands”? My admiration for the man and for the book grew during my brief taste of life in the Empty Quarter desert.