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Volume 26, Number 1January/February 1975

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The Not – So – Empty Quarter

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

The twin-engine Otter sputtered into life at Dhahran's busy airport. We taxied past three big Boeing 707's: Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), Middle East Airlines and Pakistan International Airlines. I have to fly a lot on the big jets, but I was pleased that today I was really going to fly. We were heading down to Arabia's Texas-sized Empty Quarter, the Rub' al-Khali, or "the Sands," as Bedouins call it. It is the largest uninterrupted mass of sand in the world, and I was going to photograph its spectacular dunes from the air. I would be sitting in the co-pilot's seat and we would fly the area any way we wanted to.

The little Otter on its outsize wings lifted off like a bird in grayish-yellow buffeting cross-winds and we again headed south along the Arabian Gulf shore. This time the vivid coastal colors were faded by the dust storm we were going through.

An hour later the air cleared as we headed inland from the Gulf. The sands near the coast were whitish in the glare of the sun, but soon turned pink in tone. I have found that the desert is not at all monotonous. It changes from mile to mile and with the time of day. Now it looked like ocean waves when seen from a jet liner, a strangely pink ocean. We droned on, by now much further south than on our previous flight to Haradh. The waves became larger and larger, changing subtly from waves into mountains, sand mountains separated by broad white flats. "Pink whipped cream on ice cream!" a pilot's wife once exclaimed.

Banking sharply, diving, climbing, we took our photographs of this vast, weird, beautiful desert. At Shaybah, a mobile camp as tiny as one grain of sand in this expanse where Aramco is drilling for oil, we landed on a flat stretch of sand, a sabkha, and refueled for the trip back. A dry sabkha is as flat as a lake bed and great for driving a car or landing a plane. Hitting a wet sabkha (which does happen near low coastal areas or at certain seasons) a plane would tumble straight on its nose and a car could sink to its axles.

We decided to fly back on an inland course, over desert all the way. Shortly after takeoff we spotted six enormous trucks pushing south through the sands down below. It was a supply convoy for the Shaybah camp. I felt a strange twinge of guilt, soaring along in comfort and speed. Twice before I had been in this area, once aboard one of these truck convoys ( Aramco World, May-June 1969). It took us five days to reach Shaybah from Dhahran, rather than two hours in the Twin Otter. On another occasion, on a National Geographic assignment I had spent six weeks with the storied al-Murrah Bedouins and their camels on the edges of the Sands, sleeping in the desert, existing on camel's milk, dates, rice and—occasionally—camel meat. And, of course, the traditional strong Arab coffee and sweet tea.

Now, cruising through the grayish-blue sky, half asleep, my eyes fixed on something that looked at first like a cluster of bushes. When it seemed that some of the bushes started to move away I asked Knut, the Norwegian pilot, if we could fly over and take a closer look.

We had spotted a well where hundreds of camels were being watered. From the south, long lines of camels glided toward the well, other long lines moved away to the north. As we flew closer we could see Bedouins hauling up water and others walking on with the herds. Two pickup trucks were parked near the well—a sign of the new prosperity of the country. Bedouins use the trucks nowadays to carry heavy gear such as tents, blankets and cooking utensils and perhaps very old or very young family members as well. I was sure these must be Bedouins of al-Murrah tribe, since this was their area and many of the camels seemed to be of the black milk-breed that al-Murrah Bedouins treasure.

In all the time I had spent living and traveling with the Bedouins I had never seen so many camels on the move. On the ground a few days later I saw many more and also found out why they were moving.

With some old friends from Dhahran I had driven to some hill country south of the oil camp of Abqaiq looking for a suitable picnic spot. We soon came across a small herd of moving camels and two young herders, a boy and a girl. I've noticed that when seen from the air or far away camels glide through the desert. From close up they shuffle.

Stopping our Land Rover, we got out and walked over to the camels and exchanged greetings with the young herders. They were friendly, but had to be on their way to keep up with their charges. Off they went, but every hundred yards or so they turned around and waved at us. They waved until we could see them no more.

Then someone shouted, "Look over there!" As the rest of us turned to look we saw a long, endless line of perhaps more than 1,000 camels approaching. As they drew closer we saw men, women and children, some walking, some riding. The men were dressed in white thobes, the women mostly in black and with their faces covered. Some baby camels were trying very hard to keep up, chased by a very little boy in a brown thobe. He strode along with a proud and manly step. Several salukis, the speedy hunting dogs of the desert, ambled beside the herd with upturned curly tails. One was tied to a camel, but who was leading whom I don't know.

It was like watching a super-wide Cinemascope production. In spite of our intruding cameras shooting away, the Bedouins paid almost no attention to us as they moved past. Finally I walked up to one of the men, exchanged greetings, and asked how many camels were in the herd. "Wajid, wajid (Many, many)," he replied. Bedouins rarely answer such a question directly, I knew, but I was simply trying to make friendly conversation. Then I asked where they were heading. "Near Kuwait, up north," said the man. "Why is that?" I continued, which must have seemed like a foolish question, since the only reason they would be likely to make such a lengthy move would be in search of more water and better pasture. Still he replied politely. "It has rained a lot up there. Our camels will feed and get fat before summer." He confirmed they were of al-Murrah tribe, as I had guessed. "Your camels have the best milk of all," I said. Which was true. It is also one of the nicest compliments you can pay a Bedouin. He was highly pleased and rode on with a smile covering his whole face.

Tor Eigeland, a Norwegian-born American citizen now based in Spain, has photographed and written about countries from Australia to Mexicothe long way aroundfor such publications as National Geographic, Fortune, Time and Newsweek. He covered the Middle East from Beirut for five years and has been a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the January/February 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1975 images.