In the footsteps of Thesiger: two Britons on a hotter, unexpected desert adventure
Two British adventurers, Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron, will today reach Al Ain after four weeks and 1,000km in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger. John Henzell found them hauling across Oman’s northern deserts.
For someone who was planning to spend the southern summer recreating Captain Robert Scott’s gruelling expedition to the South Pole, Alastair Humphreys has adjusted pretty well to hauling a cart across the deserts of Oman.
Instead of recreating the efforts of one heroic English adventurer, when his Antarctic plans fell through he opted to follow in the oversized footsteps of another: Wilfred Thesiger.
Humphreys and a fellow professional adventurer, Leon McCarron, of Northern Ireland, have walked nearly the length of Oman – more than 1,000 kilometres – trying to follow about the same route from Salalah to Dubai that Thesiger travelled on camels more than 60 years earlier.
They expect to reach Al Ain today, skinnier, smellier, hairier and also wiser about the appeal the desert held for Thesiger. Their destination is Jahili Fort, home to a museum dedicated to Thesiger and his crossings of eastern Arabia’s deserts after the Second World War.
“I’d been wanting to do this trip for quite a few years but originally it was going to be the full proper thing with camels and going through Saudi Arabia,” Humphreys explains. “Logistically, it boiled down to wanting to have an experience out in the desert. We’re piecing together bits of two trips but missing out on the core of the Saudi desert.”
That this was Plan B was reflected in the low-cost and last-minute nature of the expedition, embarked upon after the South Pole trek fell through.
“We didn’t raise the money in time,” Humphreys says. “We were trying to raise £1 million [Dh5.8m]. We got close.”
But not close enough, which is why they were hauling their cart across the plains outside the Ibri and not the Ross Ice Shelf. They have been using the harnesses they bought for polar travel, discovering they work equally well in the desert.
The late change meant they were short of information about what they would encounter, with the result that they carried a full month’s worth of food and 100 litres of water – unaware of the ubiquity of Oman’s iconic Sales of Foodstuffs stores.
“We had a month of food when we started off,” Humphreys says.
“We didn’t know if we’d go into any towns and buy food. We’ve eaten a lot of biscuits and Chinese noodles.”
McCarron chimes in: “It kind of makes Christmas dinner more appealing.”
They hauled this up the escarpment overlooking Salalah, which proved to be nearly as steep as the learning curve they faced about the logistics of hauling a cart the length of Oman.
“Our rough idea was we’d go to Salalah then go into the desert and basically go in a straight line,” he added.
“The reality was even before we got out of Salalah, we realised we’d made a mistake [with the design of the cart] and we needed to be able to steer. We admitted defeat and retreated.”
Back in Salalah, they had a direct example of the skills of Omani mechanics, who changed their cart – nicknamed Wilfred, in honour of the man who inspired their journey – to give it steering.
For some, that would be the cue to give up and return home. But Humphreys, 36, and McCarron, 26, have already demonstrated they are made of firmer stuff.
Humphreys, a former National Geographic adventurer of the year, makes his living as a writer of books about his adventures and by giving presentations about them.
His previous adventures have included cycling around the world, rowing across the Atlantic, racing a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean, canoeing 500 miles down the Yukon River, walking the length of the holy Kaveri river in India, running the 243km Marathon des Sables across the Sahara with a broken foot, and an unsupported crossing of Iceland by foot and raft.
McCarron has his own cycling pedigree, having cycled from New York to Hong Kong via the antipodes.
He also walked 4,500km across China, from the western deserts to the sea – a journey that will become a National Geographic series using footage he took.
“It was from the Gobi across the heart of China, and I swore I’d never walk anywhere again,” he says.
When was that?
“I finished in June,” he replies. “That didn’t last very long.”
For each, the reward for this expedition was getting a better understanding of what entranced Thesiger about the deserts of Arabia and discovering what Oman has to offer a pair of Brits hauling a cart through its landscape.
McCarron said Oman today cannot offer the experience Thesiger had in the late 1940s.
“The goal is the experience that, like him, we’re spending six weeks in the desert. But we’re dealing with oil roads and oil trucks, things that Thesiger hated.
“It’s been really good. It’s an amazingly incredibly welcoming country, especially on the oil roads. People would be stopping and offering us Pepsi.”
Humphreys adds: “That was Fahud. It was the first oil town we reached in Oman. It was getting a bit ridiculous – we had more Pepsi than we could drink.
“People would ask us why we’re doing this. We’d tell them about Wilfred Thesiger, but people didn’t know him. Then we said ‘Mubarak bin London’ and everyone knew.”
Thesiger used the pseudonym to make it easier to blend in with his Bedouin companions on his journeys.
In Al Ain, Humphreys and McCarron are hoping to donate the cart as an exhibit in the Thesiger-based museum. They will then complete their journey on foot to Dubai, aiming to finish late this week.
Flights are booked back to London, where both live, for a few days before Christmas, to pursue a life that does not involve hauling carts and eating Chinese noodles.