x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

To the nth degree

What is a degree confluence? We follow some Dubai businessmen on their quest through the Empty Quarter to find the global coordinates N23°00.000 E55°00.000.

Members of the Dubai Off-Roaders Club on the way to the degree confluence near Liwa.
Members of the Dubai Off-Roaders Club on the way to the degree confluence near Liwa.

When the steep-faced dunes of the Empty Quarter halt the convoy of four-wheel drives, the seven occupants get out and hike the final few hundred metres to their destination. Is this to a palm-fringed oasis? Some landmark of early UAE history? A Bedouin encampment? For the Dubai-based businessman Ahmed Pervez and his companions from the Dubai Off-Roaders club, there is nothing visible west of the Liwa crescent, to explain why they travelled more than 300km to visit it.

Instead, the cause of their quest is displayed on the screen of their global positioning system (GPS), which reads: N23°00.000 E55°00.000 In reaching the point where the 23rd line of latitude north of the equator intersects with the 55th line of longitude east of the Greenwich meridian, Pervez has joined a movement that started as a bored American techie's whim 14 years ago and has grown into a project involving nearly 200 nations.

Since 1996, more than 12,000 similar trips have been made all over the world, all for the purpose of visiting degree confluences, as such intersections of latitude and longitude are known. Since the activity caught on in the UAE around 10 years ago, it has been the justification for dozens of journeys into the desert, up rocky wadis, and, on one memorable occasion, wading into the Gulf while towing a 101 Dalmations inflatable raft for safety.

For Pervez, after 12 years of off-roading experience in the UAE, visiting the country's degree confluences has added an extra purpose to his journeys into the desert, not least because the visits compel him to visit areas that he would have otherwise avoided. "Desert trips are always exciting. We have five cars and the area has very high dunes, sharp ridges and treacherous sand bowls," he explains.

"It was very challenging to both navigate and drive to the point, and we had to leave the cars some 300 metres away and walk the last stretch to the confluence point. "Now that we've started, I plan to visit all the degree confluence points in the UAE." If he achieves that aim, he could be the first to do so because only 10 of the 11 degree confluences in the UAE have been visited up until now. The exception is in the Gulf about 100km north of Ruwais (a degree confluence must either be on land or in sight of land), between a couple of modest islands administered by the UAE.

Degree confluences manage to be simultaneously definitive and spectacularly arbitrary. When the Abu Dhabi Government established a regional media hub for businesses in television, radio, film, publishing, online, mobile, music, gaming and animation, the name TwoFour54 came from the nearest degree confluence to Abu Dhabi: N24° E54° The reason the 54th degree of longitude runs near Abu Dhabi is because a Briton once arbitrarily decided that Greenwich, then the headquarters of the Royal Navy, ought to be the site of 0 degrees. The 24th degree of latitude was labelled by an equally arbitrary decision - the northern hemisphere was divided in to 90 equal increments between the equator and the pole.

This arbitrariness was all part of the appeal to Alex Jarrett, who unwittingly founded the Degree Confluence Project in 1996 while musing about potential uses for his newly acquired GPS. At the time the satellite navigational system had only recently made available for civilian use. "I liked the idea of visiting a location represented by a round number such as N43°00.00 W72°00.00," he said. "What would be there? Would other people have recognised this as a unique spot? I hoped to encourage people to get outside, to places they would never normally go."

That 43°N 72°W location was near his home in New Hampshire and he and a friend set off on a cold February day in 1996, cycling 16km and then walking nearly 2km through a snowy forest to the otherwise indistinguishable swamp-side site that the failing batteries of the early-model GPS identified as the confluence. "We kept expecting there to be a monument saying '43N/72W' but no such luck," he says.

"I visited several confluences of my own and posted them to my personal website. Before long others found the site and visited confluences of their own, and it just snowballed from there." The website became www.confluence.org, listing more than 10,000 degree confluence visits from 181 countries. With the UAE's supply of technically literate residents with time on their hands, it was inevitable that the movement would reach the country.

Despite the remoteness and difficulty of access of the 23°N 55°E confluence reached by Pervez's group, their journey was not the first. Three others had preceded them to the site. The first, Alasdair MacKenzie, had already made a reputation for himself in degree confluence circles by the nature of his visits. Instead of the pleasant early-winter temperatures Pervez's group had, MacKenzie went in the middle of summer.

After one false start thwarted by a huge series of dunes, he linked the easy driving of the interdune sabkhas and managed to drive almost to the confluence without even having to deflate his tyres. "We managed to drive to within 400m of the confluence and walked the last bit," he explains. "The shade temperature was 45°C, so this last part was a bit unpleasant." MacKenzie went one better than dune-bashing in midsummer when he attempted the UAE's westernmost confluence, which is 1,500m offshore in the tepid waters of the Gulf.

His first attempt, with Martin Kelly in early 2003, ended ignominiously when they took their children with them on what they expected to be an easy wade. "We gave up after walking 800 metres, when the water came up to our chests," he says. "We timed our second attempt to start two hours before low tide. We expected to have to swim for a kilometre in each direction and so took along our supply of buoyancy aids - a 101 Dalmatians boat and Lion King ring, borrowed from the children who this time were left as emergency back up team with their mother on the beach.

"We walked into the water 1.5km from the confluence point and were pleasantly surprised to find that the depth was shallower than on our previous attempt, not getting above knee height at first. "After about 400m we spotted some flamingos ahead and were pleased to see that they were standing rather than swimming. "We carried on and finally reached the confluence after 30 minutes of walking. There is not much to see from the confluence - you can just see land to the south, and to the east there's a sandy spit which could have cut down on the wading if we'd waited for low tide."

The first recorded degree confluence visit in the UAE was in 2001, five years after the start of the project in the United States. Stefan and Martina Beck, with their then one-year-old Alex in tow, headed for the confluence just north of the Dubai-Hatta Road, believing that every one of the country's degree confluences remained unvisited. "This was an unvisited spot according to confluence.org and we were in very high hopes to be the first ever on the spot, because it is really in the middle of nowhere," he explains.

They were able to drive to within 350m of the point and walk the rest of the way, only to have an experience similar to the one Captain Robert Scott had in 1912 at another degree confluence - the South Pole, at 90° south - by finding rival adventurer Roald Amundsen had got their first. "We easily reached the confluence spot, and were disappointed, because it seemed that someone had already been there and marked it with stones and put his initials or name there, called: JETT, so we have to say Jett - who ever it is - was there before us.

"Anyway, these things happen probably more often, and who knows, perhaps Jett is busy putting landmarks everywhere. So at least we are busy following Jett's footprints and confluence marks. We will head out soon to visit more confluences and will not be surprised to find Jett's marks again." The mystery was solved in 2007 when Jett, now living in Australia, made contact. "Hi, I'm Jett. It was my Dad who marked the confluence with my name in white stone.

"At first we didn't know why he was looking for the spot where he did this. He was driving around looking at his GPS." Four weeks later, Stefan Beck gained his degree-confluence first by visiting 24°N 55°E in the dunes south of Al Khatim on the Abu Dhabi to Al Ain motorway. Twice on the journey the vehicles were bogged and eventually he continued on foot for the final kilometre. He describes the point as "very desolate" and doubts that anyone had ever even passed close to it.

By the time Rainer Mautz, Elionora, Imade Widana and Chikati Ravikunar arrived in the UAE in 2006, all the land-based confluences had been visited so they went for 26°N 56°E, which is located 8km off the coast of Ras al Khaimah. After a day of failed attempts to charter a boat, they befriended the head of the Ras al Khaimah customs and port department who arranged for a boat to take them to the site, which proved to be a waiting zone for cargo ships and oil tankers.

In the four years since then, no one has reached the final unvisited UAE confluence in the Gulf 100km north of Ruwais. That could change because Pervez said it is on his list, now that he picked up the confluence bug. "Maybe this has to wait until we start boating," he says.