x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Adventurers to follow Thesiger

Two expats are spending four weeks travelling through the most remote parts of the Empty Quarter, the world's largest sand desert.

Mark Evans. left, and John Smith prepare for their trip through the Empty Quarter, retracing the steps of explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
Mark Evans. left, and John Smith prepare for their trip through the Empty Quarter, retracing the steps of explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger warned explorers who followed his lead and ventured across the Empty Quarter: "If anyone goes looking for the life I led they will not find it." They would bring back results more interesting than his, but "would never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs", he wrote. Sixty years on, Mark Evans and John Smith are undaunted. They are setting off today on a four-week trip traversing the most remote parts of the Empty Quarter, or Rub al Khali, meeting the Bedouin tribes celebrated in Sir Wilfred's Arabian Sands and sharing its unspoilt beauty with the rest of the world. Unlike the British explorer, who lived and hunted with the Rashid tribe for five years, they will be equipped with 4x4s, satellite navigation and GPS systems, and laptops to write their internet diaries. "For me, deserts are a source of complete relaxation," said Mr Evans, 47, a former geography teacher from England now living in Muscat. "I find happiness and contentment there and nothing beats sitting and watching the world go by. "I try to venture into the Empty Quarter every weekend, heading off on a Wednesday afternoon, driving four or five hours with a bunch of friends and pitching a tent in the middle of nowhere for two nights, but wanted to spend an extended period of time in the place I love. It is incredibly liberating. "People relate to empty places in different ways. Some get completely freaked out by it, as you never know exactly where you are. "But the Empty Quarter is virtually circular and eventually you will hit something. We cannot exactly recreate the journey of explorers like Sir Wilfred as the circumstances and technology have changed, but we can experience the difficulties they experienced." Mr Evans and Mr Smith, 59, a photographer from New Zealand, planned their trip after reading the accounts of Sir Wilfred and Bertram Thomas, the first European to cross Rub al Khali in 1932, followed by St John Philby. Their mission has been backed by the Omani government, which is keen to see a wider appreciation of the desert's attractions and promote eco-tourism there. The Empty Quarter, which covers large chunks of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the UAE and Oman, is the largest sand desert in the world, spanning almost 650,000 square kilometres and with 160km-long ranges of dunes up to 300m tall. Temperatures often hit 55°C and the sand can get even hotter. Thomas and Philby were well-equipped - Philby even carried a wireless to listen to cricket Test matches - but Sir Wilfred immersed himself in the life of the Bedouin during his two crossings in 1946 and 1948, travelling by camel for about 2,400km each time. He dressed like the Arab tribesmen he rode with and lived on water and dates, later writing: "In the desert I found a freedom unattainable in civilisation; a life unhampered by possessions." Mr Evans said: "We are not recreating their footsteps. The world they relied on is now filled in with sand and long gone, but we are visiting the same spots. "We have not mapped out exactly where we are going but are just going to enjoy the desert and feel the sand under our feet. Sitting in the comfort of an armchair reading about these adventures, you miss so much in these books." Their journey begins in Shisr al Wad in Yemen, near the borders of Oman and Saudi Arabia, a well known watering hole for camels and nearly 200km from the nearest village. They will travel on to Mugshin in Oman and Al Hadida, a crater in the Saudi desert thought to have been caused by a meteor tens of millions of years ago and mentioned in the Quran, before their ultimate destination of Umm al Sammim, the quicksands Sir Wilfred wrote about in Arabian Sands. Mr Evans and Mr Smith, who do not speak Arabic and will be camping in a traditional goat-hair tent, have arranged to meet local sheikhs in about eight villages, who will introduce them to the Bedouin. The explorers will present them with a list of questions in Arabic and record their answers for translation to compile in a book about their experiences. Mr Evans said that while the technology is new, the basic tools of survival such as food, shelter and water have barely changed in 60 years. The two Land Rovers they are taking will be packed with 80 litres of water each, dehydrated meals such as noodles and chilli con carne, compressors for their tyres, and equipment to get out of the sand if they get stuck. They will use solar panels to power their laptops and broadband connections. Mr Evans, whose only luxury will be a radio to tune in to the BBC World Service, fell in love with the desert as a teacher at British schools in Bahrain and Riyadh in the 1990s. At the age of 17 he won a five-week trip to the Arctic, which gave him the travelling bug. After crossing the globe two years later, it became his mission to explore empty spaces across the world. Mr Evans returned to the Arctic several times and in 2001 he took a break from teaching to spend a year there. Since then, he has taken trips with long-time friend Mr Smith to Greenland, where they skied and sledged across the icecap. They also travelled across Kenya. One of their adventures involved using the diaries of William Edward Parry, a whaling ship captain in the 1820s, to retrace an overland journey across the Arctic. Born in a tiny hamlet near Shrewsbury in England, Mr Evans moved to the Middle East in 1992, eventually settling in Oman in 2004, and embarked on his desert love affair. He spent 55 days kayaking from Musandam on the border of the UAE and Oman, to the Yemeni border, accompanied by Mr Smith in a Land Rover. Mr Evans has retraced the steps of T E Lawrence along the Hejaz railway in Saudi Arabia, and travelled part of a historic route from Baghdad to Medina. His long-suffering wife Madeleine, a teacher he met while working in Riyadh, sometimes accompanies him. Funds raised from his current expedition and book will go toward, setting up an Omani branch of Outward Bound, a non-profit organisation taking teenagers on educational adventures. Wael al Lawati, the chief executive of Oman Tourism Development Co, said: "The Empty Quarter has captured the minds and imaginations of travellers for centuries and remains a crucial part of our heritage. "This journey will emphasise the importance of sustainable tourism and recognising the importance of our natural environment." Mr Evans said: "A lot of people in the Middle East have never been to the desert and there is an increasing apathy to explore their roots. We are trying to promote it as an adventure and tourism destination. Our journey is not just about place, it is about people. "The desert has given me so much pleasure and enjoyment, and I hope via our website we can engage the global community and make people think more carefully about what is on their doorsteps." The pair's travels can be followed at @email:www.omandesertexpeditions.com tyaqoob@thenational.ae