About the Expedition
It is the largest sand desert in the world. A hundred years ago it was the last great unknown.
In 1930 a small team of men, guided by Omani Sheikh Salih bin Kalut Al Rashidi al Kathiri, led British explorer Bertram Thomas on the first recorded crossing of this magnificent but dangerous landscape.
Challenged by the unknown, they walked for nearly 1,000 kilometres from the coast of Oman, through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to the coast of Qatar.
Now, 85 years later, another team of Omanis is taking on the challenge – leading British explorer Mark Evans across the same stretch of desert.
About the Empty Quarter
The Empty Quarter, or Rub Al Khali, is one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable and loneliest places on earth. Covering some 650,000 square kilometres of the Arabian Peninsula in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and UAE – an area of sand bigger than France, Belgium and the Netherland combined, it is the biggest sand desert on earth.
Temperatures can climb above 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, and it is not unusual to drop below zero degrees in the depths of winter. Annual rainfall is less than 30mm, and enormous star dunes, some of them almost 1,000 feet high slowly drift across an enormous bed of gypsum and gravel plains, steered and shaped by the winds associated with the high pressure weather systems that dominate the region.
Beneath the sand is the most oil rich location in the world, the wealth from which has transformed the lives of people who live in the region. The presence of vast reserves of oil and gas is an indication that the Empty Quarter has not always been hot and dry. It is widely accepted that the region was once green and lush. Permanent rivers and lake beds supported substantial human numbers, and were home to a wide variety of flora and fauna; fossil remains of water buffalo and hippopotamus have been found, along with stone tools such as flint arrowheads, and scrapers.
In 1930, The Explorers Club in New York considered The Empty Quarter to be ‘the broadest expanse of unexplored territory outside of Antarctica’. Today, some 85 years after the first crossing by Sheikh Saleh Bin Kalut and Bertram Thomas, the Empty Quarter remains as one of the worlds’ last true wilderness locations. In human terms it is now emptier than it has ever been, with most of the Bedouin preferring to move to the periphery of the sands, where life is easier closer to the roads that have been built to access the oil and gas.
One glance at the side of a dune at sunrise will reveal a myriad of tracks and prints, evidence that a surprising variety of perfectly adapted flora and fauna thrives, despite the challenging conditions; we will not be alone on our journey.
Born in Pill, near Bristol in 1892, Bertram Thomas was perhaps an unlikely desert explorer. He went to school in a quiet, west-country village and at the age of 16 was working in the local post office. The First World War was to change his life, and he was posted to Mesopotamia in 1918. Following the war he ended up in Muscat Oman, where he worked from 1925 as the financial minister to the ruler of Oman, Sultan Taimour Al Said. Unlike others, Thomas worked through the heat of the summer, saving his leave each year for the cooler winter months, when he embarked on extended camel journeys, from Muscat to Sharjah in 1928, and Muscat to Salalah in 1929. Looking back, it is clear that he was using those journeys to prepare himself for the biggest prize of all – to become the first European to cross the Rub Al Khali, the largest sand desert on earth, a journey he completed in the winter of 1930-31. This journey was considered by many to be the finest in desert exploration.
Thomas was not the only person with the dream of crossing the desert; his plans needed to be hatched in secrecy. He knew that if he asked for permission, it might be refused, so he left Muscat quietly at night and boarded a boat to Salalah. It was here that Thomas renewed his friendship with Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, who he met on his previous visit. Thomas shared his dream with Sheikh Saleh, who set off to gather camels and tribespeople capable of making the journey. Warring tribes prevented Sheikh Saleh from returning for several weeks, by when Thomas was about to abandon hope; indeed, the boat to take him back to Muscat was due the next day. Had Thomas got on that boat, he would never have been the first to cross the Empty Quarter, and he would have discovered that he had lost his job, as people in London considered he was doing a poor job of managing the Sultanate’s finances.
Instead, when he looked out of the window, he saw the camels and Bedouin below, and the journey was on. Thomas set off with fifteen camels loaded with provisions, and travelled from well to well. A group of local tribespeople accompanied him to the edge of their land, before handing over to the next tribe; it was up to the skills of Sheikh Saleh to negotiate safe passage, and he was the only person, other than Thomas, to complete the entire journey.
After 60 scorching days and freezing nights, the team arrived in Doha. Unable to communicate their success, they then had to travel on a Dhow to Bahrain, where they finally announced to the world that the Empty Quarter had been crossed. It was a global sensation; telegrams of congratulations poured in from Sultan Taimour, and King George in London, and the news made the front page of the Times in London, and the New York Times in USA.
Thomas went on to write a book about the journey, called Arabia Felix, and lectured and was awarded medals for his achievement around the world. He passed away in 1950, in the same house where he was born.
Sheikh Salih Bin Kalut Al Rashidai Al Kathiri
Sheikh Salih bin Kalut Al Rashidi al Kathiri is an Omani hero, about whom legends are still told. The team that made up the first ever crossing of the Empty Quarter was made up almost entirely of Omani’s, but Sheikh Salih was the only member of the team that completed the entire crossing from sea to sea, from Salalah to Doha, and in doing so became probably the first and only Omani to do so. His amazing exploits were such, that even today, if someone in Dhofar tries to achieve something extra-ordinary, some people will say ‘who do you think you are, Bin Kalut?’.
Bin Kalut’s skills of organisation, desert navigation and leadership of the men were critical to the success of the journey. Even more critical were his skills as a diplomat. As the group travelled from one tribal area to another, there was always the potential for problems, even fighting. It was thanks to Bin Kalut’s skills of negotiation that the journey team achieved success, and reached Doha safely in February 5th 1931.
In his book ‘Arabia Felix’, Bertram Thomas wrote;
“I took an immediate liking to Sheikh Salih. He bore the most magical name of Bin Kalut – Kalut, the most famous lady in all the sands, daughter of a famous warrior, and mother of three warrior sons. Salih was a short man, big of bone, with a rather large head, bald – unusual for a bedu, even of Salih’s 60 years, and a heavy jowl. His brow was big, perhaps from his baldness, and his eyes large, his countenance open and frank, his voice slow and measured; he inspired confidence” ….
Wilfred Thesiger, the explorer dubbed Mubarak Bin London (our friend from London) by his Bedouin colleagues, met Bin Kalut in Dhofar in 1945. He said Bin Kalut was ‘….. immensely powerful. His body was heavy with old age, so that he moved with difficulty, and rose to his feet only with a laboured effort, and after many grunted invocations of the almighty. He seldom spoke, but I noticed when he did, no one argued’.
Sheikh Salih passed away in Dubai on December 15, 1953, some twenty two years after his great achievement. There are pictures of him hanging on the walls of Bahrain Airport, Salalah Museum and the Sheraton Hotel in Doha.