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Volume 18, Number 6November/December 1967

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Camping In The Empty Quarter

Off the great outdoors they went… and went… and went…

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by Sa'id Al-Ghamidi

It was the start of spring vacation and Kevin Mandaville, a second-grader in the school just across the street, was helping his father pack the family car for a trip. Kevin's brother Erik (known to all and sundry as Riki) was an attentive watcher. He wanted to help too, but most of the stuff going into the back of the car was plainly too big for a four-year-old to handle. Those cartons of canned food weighed plenty; so did the canvas tarpaulin and the fitted wooden chests holding Daddy's radio equipment, Coleman lamp and scientific paraphernalia. The boys' mother made a final check around the house to see that nothing had been left behind. She well knew that in the Rub' al-Khali, where they were going, there would be no shops to sell them forgotten needs.

The Rub' al-Khali is an area bigger than the state of Texas, covered by rolling sand dunes and—as viewed from the air—nothing much else. The Bedouins have been crisscrossing this lonely territory for centuries, but not until 1931 had any Westerner traversed the desert called—with reason—the Empty Quarter, a part of the Arabian Peninsula on which it almost never rains, where midsummer temperatures have been officially recorded at 126° Fahrenheit, and across which, in the spring, sand-carrying shamals out of the north are known to blow for 40 days without stop. It was to a selected point just north of the center of this inhospitable piece of real estate that the Mandavilles, I, my wife Joanne and my daughter Claudia were headed.

To geological field parties of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) the Rub' al-Khali has long been familiar ground. Oil explorers have been covering those parts of the Empty Quarter situated within the company's concession area for years. While in the field for weeks at a time they live in reasonable comfort in mobile trailers specially fitted out for sleeping, eating and showering. The makeup of these parties, it goes without saying, is strictly stag. We were, as far as we knew, the first Americans to drive their own vehicles—Land-Rovers—deep into the Rub' al-Khali as a family group with children, camping out in the open all the way. Let me point out here and now that it ought not be attempted except under severely circumscribed conditions—which means, in simplest terms, adequate support and qualified leadership.

The support so essential for our undertaking stood on six 1400 x 20 sand tires—a Kenworth bobtail (rated capacity: 10 tons) which, with its driver and driver-helper, Aramco had assigned to us for the trip's duration. Men in the company experienced in such calculations took into account the number of people in our party, the distance we expected to make and the time required to cover it, figured with plenty of margins for safety the quantity of water and fuel we would need, and recommended the kind of truck that would be big enough to transport that amount of liquid translated into pounds. It added up to quite an impressive total: the Kenworth drove out of Dhahran's Main Gate that departure Saturday bearing six 55-gallon drums of water, five 55-gallon drums of gasoline, plus sufficient diesel fuel to power its own engine. In addition, the support truck carried all of our sleeping bags, folding cots, the Arab crew's camping gear, much of our food, and a few tamarix-tree logs I'd been saving under the impression that our camp sites would be barren of cooking fuel. Some time before, Claudia had made a pair of stilts nine feet tall on which she often walks around town, getting a camel's-eye view of Dhahran—and some double takes in the process. When she saw there was room in the truck, with typical teen-age impulsiveness Claudia decided her stilts would have to go along, too.

Choosing one's companions for a trip into trackless desert holds much the same hazards, I am convinced, as selecting shipmates for a long cruise. Those who possess the right combination of know-how, experience and enthusiasm to carry their weight during either mode of travel are rare. In a way, Jim Mandaville has been preparing for the trip we were about to undertake most of his life. He first saw Saudi Arabia at the age of 13, when his family took up residence in Ras Tanura, the Arabian Gulf refinery and marine terminal town just north of Dhahran, where J. P. Mandaville, Sr. still works for Aramco. In that seaside community, with broad beaches close at hand, Jim cultivated a boyhood interest in collecting specimens of snakes, lizards and plant life. The youthful hobby was to grow into a serious adult avocation, and its pursuer to become an authority on desert natural history, sending his finds—pickled, skinned or pressed—to museums all over the world. His main purpose in going to the Rub' al-Khali, a trip he was making on vacation time, was to bring back more examples of flora and fauna for categorizing.

During his Ras Tanura days Mandaville was one of a handful of youths to take advantage of the Arabic lessons the company offers to American employees and interested wives. Jim continued to hear much Arabic spoken in Lebanon, where he entered the American University of Beirut with intentions of becoming an electrical engineer. After two years at A. U. B. an interest in hamzat and harakat won over volts and amperes and Mandaville transferred to Georgetown University in Washington, D. C, for full-time Arabic studies. At Georgetown too, he met his future wife, Lotte, daughter of a German diplomat stationed in the American capital, who was concentrating in European languages at the university. Lotte Mandaville's own Arabic, she says, was learned largely during her employment as a secretary at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington.

Competency in the language of the Middle East was an essential ingredient to bring along, even though we would be traveling through territory which seldom hears human voices speaking any tongue. After all, the two members of our party who would be showing us the way did not speak a word of English. Other assets were Jim Mandaville's intimate knowledge of the geography of the Arabian Peninsula and his long-time interest in amateur radio which made it possible for him to keep the outside world informed of our whereabouts daily.

The most significant contribution Jim Mandaville made to our project, however, came out of his acquaintance with Hadban ibn 'Ali ibn Naffah. Hadban is a slight, wiry Bedouin with bright black eyes and the weathered face of a man who is most at home out-of-doors. He belongs to Al Murrah, a tribe whose members are famed for their skills at desert tracking. We were fortunate indeed to have Hadban as one of our two Arab guides. Radios, compasses and proficient vehicles are certainly useful in the Rub' al-Khali, but it still would have been impossible to check off the precisely pinpointed locations we expected to touch in that vast country without the knowledge of its every feature which men of the desert such as Hadban ibn 'Ali carry around in their heads.

We picked up Hadban a few miles outside of Dhahran. His whole family gathered in front of his desert tent home to wave us good-bye. Although we drove on good, hard-surfaced roads most of the first day, Hadban had not been riding in the Mandaville's lead car long before he began to function as a guide. At midday the sun over Saudi Arabia can make the land very hot and glary, even in April, and as lunchtime approached the possibility of finding shade in which to pause seemed remote. But Hadban just happened to know of one cliff with a rock overhang on the left-hand side of the road, half way between Hofuf and 'Udailiyah, and it was under its most welcome protection that we picnicked that first noontime stop. A couple of hours later we had our last drinks of cool water from a refrigerated bubbler in the gatehouse of Aramco's 'Udailiyah camp before heading south in the direction of the Empty Quarter. It would be eight days and 770 miles before our tires touched asphalt again.

The big Kenworth support truck accompanying us was, by its very nature, stronger on power and capacity than on speed, and several times on the blacktop first leg of our journey we had to wait for it to catch up. Now, on the flat, trackless gravel plains which stretch from 'Udaliyah for a great distance west of Haradh the truck seemed in its element. With a direction instead of a road to follow, our three vehicles could spread out over the plain's hard, nature-made surface in a line. The throttle of the truck's engine was wide open now, and the roar of the engine, emitted through the vertical exhaust acting as a stack, was loud and strangely comforting. Under all that thunder driver Abdul Hadi ibn Hadi, wearing the customary red-and-white-checked ghutra, secured on his head by a black-rope agal, and looking quite small in the huge, high cab, kept his eyes on the "road" with the fierce concentration of a locomotive engineer who has 1,500 horses at his command.

It was deep dusk when we left the gravel plain stretch, and still we kept going. Hadban, now guiding us from my car, continued to give me the signal to move along. Our photographer, Sa'id al-Ghamidi, explained why. Hadban knew where there was fuel for our campfires, and we would push on until we reached that point, somewhere out there in the semi-darkness.

With the size of our party it was not possible to travel lightly, but back in our preparation stage we had all agreed at least to travel simply. This meant no cumbersome tents to put up and strike at each overnight stop, and plain meals—out of tin. Even with our camping routine stripped down to barest essentials, however, it took us two or three nights to get it running smoothly. I observed our Arab friends to see how they made camp with such speed, efficiency and seeming lack of effort. While Hadban roamed the campsite area gathering dry desert bushes for firewood, Hadi and his helper, Mutlaq Habib, tossed down from the truck their camping gear—blanket rolls, food and the inevitable utensils for making and drinking Arab coffee and tea. Within minutes after we had pulled up to our campsite the Arabs' fire was crackling and water was coming to a boil.

It was while we were lounging around the embers that first night out, relishing the stillness and peace of the desert, that Hadban suddenly cast his face skyward, began sniffing the atmosphere, made with his arm a broad sweep of the northern horizon, and announced matter-of-factly: "Hawa"—the wind. Sure enough it came, about an hour later, in great accelerating gusts out of the night. Our evening meal, heating in a pot on a fancy butane camp stove I had acquired for the trip, was not quite hot yet, and the small blue flame was wholly ineffective against the strength of the wind. Our wives tried to serve the food anyway, but supper rapidly disintegrated into a shambles as everyone grabbed flying debris with one hand while holding onto his plate, fork and spoon with the other.

The wind blew without letup until almost dawn. We were to live with it, on and off, for the rest of the trip. Six out of seven nights it came precisely at suppertime and, with no other choice, we soon learned to accommodate to the pressure of the steady blasts and the ubiquitous sand carried with them. My shiny new stove got stowed in the car for good. Bedouins were using desert bushes for fuel long before butane stoves were ever invented, and we discovered how quickly the thin, dry wood lit, how cleanly it burned and how the wind only fanned the flames into hot, concentrated embers. On shamal nights we simply lined up appropriate numbers of opened tin cans against the wood fire, and when their contents were hot ate them directly out of the containers.

By continual experimentation we finally hit upon the means of getting a perfect night's sleep in spite of the constant blowing. Settling Kevin and Riki in was easy. At ages seven and four, the Mandaville boys were already old camping hands, having made numerous field trips by car, including a journey to Kuwait only the week before as a kind of warm-up for the present trek in the opposite direction. They fitted with their sleeping bags very nicely into the back of their father's Land-Rover. For the first couple of windy nights Claudia tried sleeping in the front seat of my car, but she found her length and the car's width were incompatable and wound up taking her chances with the adults out in the open.

The parents in the party tried putting up their camp cots behind their vehicles parked at right angles to the wind for what would seem to make perfect shelters against the blasts. But this plan, we soon saw, had fatal flaws. For one thing, the sand blew under the cars as through a wind tunnel. Then, I'd wake up at dawn after the wind had howled all night to see my car tilted at an angle close to the point of no return. The incessant blowing had blasted deep trenches around both windward wheels. We learned to head the two vehicles directly into the gale and unfold our cots far out in front, away from any sand-catching eddies man-made obstructions would be certain to create during the night. Easing into our sleeping bags kept carefully fiat on the cots so they would not act like spinnakers, we would push our feet into the zippered enclosures positioned, right into the wind, like ships' bows. Before dozing off I'd take one long look at the sky. Even viewed through a film of blowing sand, the stars over the Arabian desert never seemed so bright or so numerous. Those were the best nights of sleep I'd ever had. We all—children included—came back from seven nights of camping wind-blown and sand-encrusted, but thoroughly rested and refreshed.

When I awoke at daybreak the second morning out and looked around I discovered we had company. A strange red truck had pulled up to our camp sometime during the night and now the Bedouins who had arrived in it were having coffee and talk with the Arabs in our party around a freshly-made fire. The truck, hauling a large quantity of dates for the encampment of a local amir, had experienced a mechanical breakdown during the night. Would we carry the sacks to a point along our route where another truck of the amir's could collect them later? Our Kenworth could easily transport the unanticipated cargo. That noon the numerous sacks of dates were unloaded near some clumps of sedge in a location which looked no different from any other we had driven by all morning. The mound of bulging burlap bags was covered with an old tent cloth and left to be found and removed at some future time. The episode said several things to me about Bedouins. They will not hesitate to ask strangers for a favor when there is need, nor do one in return for the same reason. They can leave goods of considerable value on the ground unattended with full confidence that no one will come along and steal them. And they take for granted that knowledge and instinct born of the desert will lead the right party to the precise prearranged spot in wide-open country where a cache will be waiting to be picked up.

Sections of terrain which appear so featureless when flown over, take on a personality all their own when viewed from the ground. I am thinking particularly of the place where we spent our second night. A map shows it as being decidedly in the middle of a desert, with no special topographical mark to set it apart from any other desert location: a blank. Yet I remember it as being most distinctive. From a sandy "promontory" near our campsite I looked down on what surely must be a broad, flowing river. In actual fact it was a salt basin, set apart from banks of white sand on either side by its rippled mud-brown surface, parched and cracked in the sun.

The illusion of being on a pleasant riverbank was further heightened by some 'asal bushes, some as tall as a man, which gave the area a bit of green and some welcome shade. Hadban had led us to the place, but he had his own opinion of its allure. Perhaps the unique, tree-like bushes and the unusual topography contributed to its reputation, but whatever the reason the location was widely believed among the desert nomads to be inhabited by jinns. I was never sure whether or not Hadban went completely along with the superstition, but with such a youthful and eager audience he was no man to pass up a good story.

By the morning of the third day out we had picked up, on schedule, another Bedouin guide. Muhammad ibn Salim ibn Bakhit was, like Hadban, of the Murrah tribe, and the two men were distant relatives. Jim Mandaville had learned from Hadban that Muhammad knew of a meteorite which no Westerner had ever seen before. Word was somehow passed over the desert "telegraph" when and where we would meet him. The perfect connection with our second guide out in the middle of nowhere vastly increased my already considerable admiration for the Bedouins' sense of direction and place. We had been driving several hours through virgin sand-and-sagebrush country when suddenly Jim's lead car pulled up to a flock of sheep being tended by a handsome nomadic herdsman who seemed not a bit surprised by our appearance. While we waited, the shepherd went to get his brother Muhammad from the family tent over the hill. Our new party member threw his blanket roll into the truck, climbed into my car, motioned for me to start; and we moved on south.

Though there was no sign, our little caravan was now entering the Empty Quarter. It was as if we had been maneuvering off an ill-defined coastline for some time, and now had headed out to sea. Even the dried-up bits of desert shrubs were being left behind, and the Arabs loaded up several nights' supply of hatab for burning: where we were heading, straight into sand dune country, bushes would be scarce. With two guides now leading us, either Hadban or Muhammad always rode up front with Joanne and me. They were doing the conning; I was merely the helmsman, taking orders by watching their hand signals out of the corner of my eye.

Muhammad had a particular sign when a passage was going well. He would start singing, always the same tune, alternating verses with a reprise hummed with closed lips in a soft, sweet falsetto. It was an old Bedouin song, with a sad philosophical content:

"My longing... is like the longing of an old lady for her dead son.

"She sheds copious tears whenever she hears his name,

"And claps her hands in agony at every singing bird."

The deeper we got into the Rub' al-Khali the greater was the need for extreme alertness on the part of both guides and drivers. Sand surfaces in that part of the world play strange tricks on the eyes, especially around the middle of the day, when there are no shadows anywhere. Most of the surfaces we traveled over now were hard and smooth, but the ever-present sand could be very soft in low and sometimes unexpected places, and the consequences of getting stuck was plain hard work for all hands. Our two cars traveled far enough apart in this country so that if one ever got into trouble the other would be warned to stay back. Then, whenever Hadban didn't like the looks of an area up ahead, alerted by sand with ominous ripples on its surface, he would leap out of the car, pull his thaub up over his knees and sprint like a gazelle to test the place in question with his feet. Between the two passenger vehicles, we had to be pushed out only five or six times the entire trip.

Negotiating the sand dunes themselves required precautions of another order. On the ascent we always slowed nearly to a stop as we approached the crest to see what was in store for us on the other side. It was impossible to tell whether the descent would be a gentle grade or a steep and hazardous slip face without a close look from the crown. Only once did our eyes fool us. My two front wheels were already over the crest before I realized that this was no gentle slope downward. There was no backing up. The dune face was only about eight feet high and luckily we had approached the top of it at right angles, so there had been no danger of flipping. But from here on, in any cases of doubt Hadban scouted the empty space over the far side of the hill.

With three vehicles in our caravan constantly on the ascent and descent at differing moments in this dunes country, it was amazing how quickly one could lose sight of the others. The truck was again having trouble keeping pace with the lighter cars, and when it got too far behind, the Land-Rovers would climb to the top of the nearest high dune, where Hadi and Mutlaq could see us, and wait. Often we heard the faint roar of their engine before we spotted the Kenworth itself. And usually the first portion of the truck to appear was its huge A-frame, inching its way over the top of a distant dune like a gallant ship's bowsprit.

In the area of al-Hadidah, the most distant point in our journey, we intended to look around in locations somewhat widely separated from one another, and for speedier maneuverability decided to leave the Kenworth at our campsite and use only passenger cars that day. Expecting to return to the same spot in the evening, Hadban employed an old Bedouin trick. He deposited a mound of brush on top of the highest dune around as a kind of navigational aid to guide us in.

One early evening in camp Jim Mandaville, getting ready to preserve some insects and snakes he had been collecting during the day, lined up his specimens of a folding table and asked his eldest son, "Kevin, do you know where the lizard is?" Kevin's answer could have come only from a seven-year-old boy: "I don't know, Dad. Maybe it's in the car someplace."

The desert we were traversing did not look as if it could support a living thing. Yet there is in the Empty Quarter a vast variety of creatures marvelously adapted to its extremely severe conditions. It took only Mandaville's scientific interests and the natural acquisitive instincts of Kevin, Riki and Claudia to find them.

The creatures causing the greatest excitement among the children were the skinks, a family of lizard by no means rare in desert environments. Their scaly bodies, about four inches long, are highly polished, and by means of well-developed limbs ending in five tiny digits they can literally swim just under the surface of soft sand. Hadban instinctively knew here they were traveling out of sight, and crouching low over a patch of sand would suddenly grab and bring up, with a triumphant grin, a wriggling lizard. Emulating his technique, the young people invariably ended up with only a fistful of sand. Unfortunately, they had not, like Hadban, grown up in the desert.

As the days went by deep in the desert, we noted that the combination of wind and dry air had a singular effect on our persons, supplies and equipment. The ladies in the group had packed bread with which to make sandwiches and figured that even- wrapped in plastic bags it would be good for two or three picnic lunches at the most. Our bread supply lasted a full six days; in that dry air there is no mold. The abrasive effect of the wind turned the walls of our tires, which had started out mud colored, into a polished ebony black. Though we had been without baths for nearly a week and, to save water, had given ourselves the most cursory hand and face washings, none of us really felt dirty. Long exposure to such conditions may not exhance feminine complexions, but the wind must have been, in effect, an efficient cleansing agent. In that air, too, metal could conceivably stand up almost indefinitely. Near al-Hadidah, Jim Mandaville saw an abandoned oil drum he remembered as being in the same spot some years before, when it was already a local landmark. The drum had not a trace of rust on it and was in perfect condition structurally, but constant exposure to the winds from all sides had polished its surface to a rich brown satin-smooth patina.

Because the truck had developed some mechanical trouble, our trip lasted three more days than was originally planned, but we were never seriously concerned over the delay. Original conservative estimates of food, water and fuel gave us one kind of peace of mind. Equally important, our contacts back in Dhahran, who would have launched air and land search parties if our return had been delayed more than 24 hours without explanation, knew where and how we were the whole time. Mandaville was able to "talk" to Aramco Communications by key over his low-powered radio transmitter and hear spoken replies on his short-wave receiver. The first time Jim set up his transmitter unit he was concerned about having a high-enough antenna. Searching for some kind of extension, his eyes lit upon Claudia's stilts in the truck. He lashed one end to the other, secured the two poles to the truck's A-frame, and was in business. What I had harshly judged to be the most frivolous pieces of cargo we had brought along turned out to be among the most essential.

We had finally evolved an organized routine, and though the long hours of driving were tiring, the days passed all too quickly. The face of the desert was constantly changing and even the weather offered sudden and unexpected surprises. In one 24-hour period in the Empty Quarter we had calm, chill, gales, heat, and a fairly heavy rainstorm accompanied by thunder. During the thunderstorm there was so much electricity in the air that the antenna lead to Jim's radio crackled with sparks and began to smoke as he was driving along.

Essential material needs were in good supply. Our families were with us, sharing our experiences, instead of being somewhere else and perhaps needlessly worrying. We were well accounted for to all others concerned. There hadn't been a strange human being in sight for days; the world outside moved farther and farther away. A kind of euphoria was setting in, the desert counterpart, I suppose, of raptures of the deep. It became conceivable that a point could be reached where I wouldn't care if we ever saw civilization again.

We pushed on in a southerly direction, for we had not yet come to the place Jim Mandaville wanted to examine in detail. This was the area called al-Hadidah (Arabic for "piece of iron"), where there still exists considerable evidence of meteorites having fallen in the indeterminate past. Several explorers of the Arabian deserts, most notably H. St. John B. Philby in his The Empty Quarter, have written about these sites. Muhammad had agreed to lead us to one unknown to the outside world. We had zigzagged over the sands from our base camp for about two hours when suddenly, just after rounding the base of a dune, our Bedouin guide quietly made his familiar sign to stop. The reason for our unexpected pause became apparent as we all got out of the cars and saw shapes of a dark brown-and-black substance outlined in the sand in an area no larger than a modest living room. They were fragments of oxidized iron, the largest weighing about two pounds, all strongly magnetic, with every indication that the collection had once been part of a meteorite.

Mandaville examined each of the larger pieces in detail, made some penciled jottings in his notebook, and we moved on to meteorite sites described in published works on the Rub' al-Khali. One was a crater evidently created by the impact of an extraterrestrial object of some size. As we explored the bowl, looking for more metal fragments, Hadban would call excitedly, "Jeem….Jeem!" to attract Mandaville's attention to some discovery he thought merited scrutiny. At another site we collected minute pieces of fused silica, glass-like, smooth and jet black, some round like pearls and others teardrop-shaped. Among the oddest manifestations of the meteorites were porous chunks of fused silica, coated, apparently as they splashed into the air from some enormous impact, by iron-rich gases. The resulting masses, with their soft-appearing insides and smooth chocolate-colored coatings, look for all the world like some unearthly kind of Eskimo pie.

I had been impressed by Muhammad's ability to guide us through this vacant country characterized by nothing but sand dunes to a spot on the desert floor no larger than 9 by 12 feet, and wondered out loud many times how the Bedouins do it.

Jim Mandaville, who knows desert nomads well, refuses to attribute their marvelous orientation abilities to any mystical sixth sense. The true desert-dwelling Bedouin, he says, simply utilizes his highly-developed powers of observation to the fullest, noting every slight change in plant life and sand-dune characteristic as he goes along. The nomad's sense of direction is just as acute. Mandaville had a compass above his windshield and when Hadban told him to head "where the sun rises," Jim pointed his car due east. Hadban corrected the car's direction by four or five degrees, explaining "I should have said, 'where the sun rises in the winter'."

This isn't to suggest that the nomad is infallible. On our way back to Dhahran, for example, we were to drop Muhammad off at 'home,' but when we pulled up to where he thought his tent would be, all we saw was a rather forlorn mound of personal belongings covered by a goat-hair cloth as protection against the elements. His family was in the process of moving to a new location which offered better grazing for livestock. A portion of the household effects had already been transplanted—but where were the people? We spent a good part of the afternoon atop the highest surrounding hills searching for Muhammad's family through a violent shamed.

The next evening the rest of the party drove back into Dhahran. The air was noticeably humid, the bright street lights looked so foreign now, and for the first time our home town, even though it was late at night with no people abroad, appeared strangely crowded.

Brainerd S. Bates, whose assignments as a writer with Aramco's Public Relations Department have given him a broad knowledge of Saudi Arabia, is an enthusiastic outdoorsman and photographer.

This article appeared on pages 26-36 of the November/December 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1967 images.