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Volume 40, Number 3May/June 1989

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Crossing the Rub'

Written and photographed by Erik A. Mandaville

In February 1982, when I was a high school senior, I obtained special permission from my boarding school in Wisconsin to miss a few weeks of classes so I could go on an expedition with my father. Along with two other men, in three four-wheel-drive vehicles, we planned to cross Saudi Arabia's vast Rub' al-Khali desert, more commonly known to Westerners as the Empty Quarter, the largest continuous body of sand in the world.

The trip was a teen-ager's dream - fewer than a handful of Westerners had ever attempted such a thing - and it was an experience I'll always remember. It was also, I suppose, a trip I'd been preparing for all my life.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia; my father, James Mandaville, had moved there with his family when he was 13. In 1967, when I was just four years old, we first ventured into the Rub' al-Khali: my mother, my brother Kevin - then eight - my dad and I, along with another American family, the Bateses. Brainerd Bates wrote about that experience in the November-December 1967 issue of Aramco World.

We had with us on that early trip a remarkable Bedouin guide named Hadban and an enormous support vehicle, a Kenworth truck with big, puffy sand tires and a carrying capacity large enough to accommodate the heavy containers of gasoline, water and food required by two American families camping in the remote desert. For whatever reason, it is that truck that I remember most clearly about my first Rub' al-Khali voyage as a small child. The red Kenworth looked more like a ship to me than a truck, and I remember how Kevin and I used its huge frame and fat tires as a kind of jungle gym to climb on after long, cramped hours spent in the back of our father's short-wheelbase Land-Rover. I recall, however, that we got into big trouble if we used the truck's slippery yellow diesel-fuel tanks as a slide. When we were shooed away from our Kenworth, we chased off to play on the dunes of the biggest sandbox in the world.

Now, more than 20 years later, I can remember too another, longer Rub' al-Khali adventure which my father, Hal McClure, Greg Dowling and I embarked upon during the coolness of February in 1982. We planned to cross the Empty Quarter from northeast to southwest, a journey of nearly 1,400 kilometers (900 miles) on the map. But the main purpose of this expedition, like the one in 1967 when Hadban led us to a group of little-known meteor craters in the Rub' al-Khali, was to learn more about the plants, animals, geology and meteorology of the desert.

Hal McClure, who drove a 1974 GMC Blazer, is an expert when it comes to anything having to do with rocks and fossils; he served as the expedition's geologist and paleontologist.

Greg Dowling, who, like my father, grew up in Saudi Arabia and returned as an adult to work for Aramco in Dhahran, acted as collector of moths, spiders, insect larvae, and anything else that crawled or scurried about on three or more pairs of legs. He drove a short-wheelbase 1981 Land-Rover with the large, V-8 engine.

My father has collected flora and fauna throughout the Arabian Peninsula for over 25 years; he organized the expedition and was its navigator and botanist. He had begun teaching me the art of desert driving when I was nine years old and, with this trip, offered me the opportunity to put to use whatever skills I had mastered on the ultimate testing range: the sands of the Rub' al-Khali. Besides, if I were driving our 1981 Chevrolet Blazer, he would be free to study the land, the sky, or whatever else stirred his curiosity and interest. My "official" title was Lead Driver, Terrain Scout, and Student Assistant.

My teachers in the United States could see the obvious learning possibilities in the expedition which my father proposed. They even thought the experience worth a certain amount of academic credit, if only I agreed to keep a thorough daily journal. I did so, writing each evening in my diary when we had stopped for the day. The following passages, adapted from its weathered, worn pages, tell how I remember "crossing the Rub'."

February 6-10, 1982

I have spent these past five days entirely in preparation for the trip. Since most of the rear space in our Blazer will be taken up by heavy-duty plastic jerry-cans of gasoline and water, it was necessary to build some sort of frame to support them. I welded hollow steel box-beams into a frame that would fit into the car, and then removed the rear passenger seats and bolted the frame onto the floor. We can tie our heavy containers down to this structure with nylon rope to keep them from falling over onto the fragile navigational and photographic equipment that we'll pack just behind the front seats.

Next I inflated the special sand tires to the most efficient air pressure to support the fully-loaded car on the paved roads leading south toward the dunes, topped off the Blazer's main and auxiliary fuel tanks, and filled the supplementary gasoline and water containers. Total amount of fuel, about 570 liters (150 gallons); total amount of water, lots and lots! I also assisted my mother, a genius at food preparation and organization, in planning menus and shopping for provisions. We packed the food into labeled cardboard boxes, which we loaded into the little remaining space.

My father's meteorological equipment consisted of an anemometer (wind-speed indicator), a psychrometer (humidity indicator), and a thermometer to record maximum and minimum temperatures. We also brought a theodolite, a time-signal receiver, navigation tables and a calculator for celestial navigation, a net for capturing reptiles, collecting jars for insects, lizards and other small animals, and presses for plant specimens.

February 11 - 1st Day

We woke up at 4:45 and I finished packing, or rather cramming, our sleeping gear and the remaining boxes of food into the back of the car. We met Hal and Greg at the company dining hall, and after a hearty breakfast we drove out of Dhahran's main gate at 8:00 a.m. It was clear and cool, a perfect day to start.

This morning's driving was on asphalt roads. When we stopped in the village of Haradh, however, at the last gas station we'd encounter before leaving the blacktop for the desert, I discovered that one of our 75-liter (20-gallon) gas containers had a leaky seam. It had to be replaced immediately, before we could strike out for the Empty Quarter, and very fortunately we found and purchased from a little store three 25-liter (26-quart) gas cans which we filled in place of the larger, damaged container. As far as I could tell, none of the other fuel containers had begun to leak.

At around 2:30 p.m. we drove off the pavement into the desert on a southeasterly course of approximately 145 degrees. It is evening now, and we are about to eat. More tomorrow.

February 12 - 2nd Day

Today, after a luxury breakfast of scrambled eggs, we reloaded the cars, then spent a couple of hours investigating the immediate area. Greg and Hal found a spider's nest woven into the stems of a bush, and we noticed that, due to the almost total lack of rainfall in this area so far this season, no vegetation was in flower. Maybe we won't see any plants in flower during our entire crossing, but Dad nonetheless collected his first plant specimens this morning.

Yesterday evening clouds obscured the sky from 7:00 until about 10:30, so it wasn't possible to take star observations with the theodolite until later at night. The overcast didn't prevent us from taking readings of the wind speed and relative humidity, however. We plan to record weather conditions three times each day: morning, noon and evening.

We spent most of this morning driving across flat gravel plains which paralleled long belts of sand. At one point our compass heading of 155 degrees required us to cross one of these belts. The surface of the sands here was quite soft, forcing us to travel at high speed in four-wheel drive. By the end of the day all the cars but Greg's Land-Rover had been stuck several times.

At around 3:00 this afternoon, we came across a small, dry lake bed speckled with fossilized shells. Hal said that it was probably of middle Holocene age - a geological period dating from approximately 10,000 years ago to the present. Lake beds such as these suggest that the Rub' al-Khali, now an almost completely barren expanse of sand and gravel nearly the size of Texas, was once a flourishing grassland with ponds and lakes of fresh water. (See story, page 28.)

Just after lunch, when the vertical sunlight had erased the shadows and flattened out the landscape, I hit an unexpected and very severe bump. The heavy fluid containers and boxes of food piled high behind us lurched backward against the car's rear window. It literally exploded, sending splinters of glass all over the inside of the Blazer. Luckily, neither my dad nor I was cut. We rigged up a web of rope to cover the broken window and keep the sleeping bags and food from flying out the back. Later, when we had stopped for the night, I completely unloaded the car and swept out as much of the broken glass as I could.

It's odd that the window broke in that particular area of the desert. It reminded my dad of an event which happened at nearly the same spot back in 1967, when our family and the Bateses made the trip to the meteor craters. The vehicles had ventured into this area of sabkhah (salt flat) called Jawb al-'Asal - despite a Bedouin folk tale that the flats were haunted by jinn, that is, mischievous spirits or ghosts. And indeed, the engine of the big Kenworth had suddenly stopped running just as it approached the middle of the sabkhah. My dad remembers that our Bedouin guide Hadban was not surprised. With a weak smile and a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders he said something like, "Some of these bushes are probably jinn in disguise, and maybe a branch of one of them got into the engine and jammed it."

February 13 - 3rd Day

It has been a very long day. After collecting a few beetles this morning, we set out on a southeasterly course that brought us into barren dune country. The sand became exceedingly soft and forced us to leave our course in order to find firmer ground. We got badly stuck again today. Although the sand is very unpredictable in places, I am beginning to be able to recognize and avoid the softest areas. I had forgotten how tricky driving in this desert can be at times.

This afternoon we found a raven's nest perched on top of a dry hadh bush. The mother was not home - she was probably out looking for food for her babies - so we were able to look very closely at both the nest and the young birds.

The sky was completely overcast for most of the day, and we ran into several severe but beautiful thunderstorms. There are places in the Empty Quarter where no rain may have fallen in more than 10 years, but today it seemed as though it began to pour every time one of the cars got stuck, and we were forced to give up our pushing and shoving to take shelter in the vehicles until the storm passed.

We ate chili and cornbread for supper tonight. It's only 6:45, but everyone but me has gone to bed. The sky is too cloudy for star shots. I drove for eight hours today and I'm exhausted.

February 14 - 4th Day

We started off this morning after a theodolite observation of the sun, which gave us one line of position. Yesterday, encountering the extremely soft sand, we turned east with the hope of finding firmer going. The terrain was so difficult that in eight hours of driving we traveled barely 50 kilometers (30 miles). Still the easterly course had fortunately brought us out of the soft, fuel-consuming country of steep-faced dunes and into gently rolling hills of firmer sand. Our goal for today was to find the well of al-'Ubaylah, which would confirm our southern heading in the direction of tomorrow's destination, the meteor craters which the Bedouins call al-Hadidah - in English, "the iron" (See Aramco World, November-December 1986).

It was impossible to drive a direct compass heading of 180 degrees because of obstructing sand ridges with steep leeward sides - slipfaces - dropping abruptly from the crests of the dunes. Driving was especially dangerous today because we were moving downwind and were thus unable to see the slipfaces until we came on them suddenly from above. Although I was able to anticipate most of these sharp drops, several times today the Blazer (with me and my dad inside!) had to come to a sudden, sliding, dusty halt at the very lip of a dune.

The hard rain last night made the sand more firm, and we covered 110 kilometers (70 miles) today in five hours of driving.

After dinner this evening I helped my dad with the star observations. Then I went for a long walk. The sky is clear now, after the rain, and the stars are pinpoints of cool, blue light. How wonderfully remote and quiet the Rub' al-Khali seems: naked, apparently sterile - and beautiful!

February 15 - 5th Day

We started the morning with a breakfast of French toast and tea, collected a few insect specimens, then left camp in the precise direction of the meteor craters. Last night's star fix showed them to be just 5.6 kilometers" (3.5 miles) away. Soon we spotted chunks of black matter in the distance, looking on the light-colored sand something like pepper on mashed potatoes. Although one feels that it's a definite accomplishment to navigate to a tiny spot in the desert using only stars, maps, a theodolite and a compass, it is even more amazing to me how the guide Hadban had been able to find this place with nothing more than his eyes, his memory and an uncanny sense of direction.

Here, where a long time ago an object fell from space and crashed into the earth, charred bits and pieces littered the ground. Many of the blackened fragments - Hal called them "coesite ejecta" - had a shiny, glass-like appearance and texture. Some of the most unearthly-looking pieces were a glossy blue-gray stained with reddish-brown patches of iron oxide.

3:00 p.m. - We spent the morning exploring the crater site and collecting little pieces of meteoritic slag and iron. After a closer look at the ground, we began to find tiny, astonishingly smooth, round black beads, created by the meteor's blasting the desert sand with fantastic heat and force. To my mind, these small pearl-shaped rocks were - because they were a thousand times less common - also a thousand times more precious than any string of white pearls in some jewelry store's showcase.

7:00 p.m. - We found a good place to camp behind a dune near the craters. We spent the afternoon calculating how much gas we have used, how much will be needed to compete the crossing, and how much fuel is still left in the plastic containers in our cars. Because we used so much gasoline in the soft sands a few days ago, we worried that we might be forced to abort the latter part of our trip. After much discussion and map study, however, we decided that we have sufficient fuel, with just enough in reserve, to reach the western edge of the Rub' al-Khali. Greg and Hal, because they have less gasoline than Dad and I do, may have to camp near the road at the far end of the crossing while we drive on to the nearest gas station to get more fuel for their cars. I'm glad we've decided to continue the trip!

February 16 - 6th Day

A very long but good day. With roughly 960 kilometers (600 miles) left to go, we are now camped in the very heart of the Empty Quarter. Except for some dried camel dung, which indicates that Bedouins have passed by here on their way to some remote well, there are no signs of human life. The Rub' al-Khali remains today as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years, and I have to admit that it's really kind of a neat feeling for me to think that I'm among the handful of Western travelers ever to explore this desert. Though it has been penetrated by certain Bedouin tribes for centuries, as well as by small crews of oil-hunting geologists in the past few decades, the Empty Quarter has been actually crossed by few European explorers - by H. St. John Philby and Bertram Thomas, who made their separate trips in the early 1930's (See Aramco World, November-December 1973). Wilfred Thesiger was another desert traveler who traversed great tracts of the Rub' al-Khali in the 1940's and 1950's (See Aramco World, July-August 1981). All three of these men were guided by Bedouins and lurched along on camels for the duration of their long and arduous expeditions. For our part, we drove seven hours today through irregularly shaped dunes. Slipfaces were unpredictable again, and driving, consequently, was very tiring. Being the lead driver takes mental and physical energy to hold the compass bearing, to negotiate the terrain and, most importantly, to stay conscious about conserving gasoline, avoiding racing the engine while creeping along in low gears. My father spotted two dhanun (pronounced "tha-noon") plants today. These spike-like plants of the broomrape family are parasites which tap into a host plant's root system and send leafless stalks to the surface to flower. In the spring broomrapes, sometimes called "sand candles," are covered with small yellow flowers. Those we found today had no flowers yet, but were very much alive. Bedouins sometimes eat the juicy stalks for their moisture.

The air is dry tonight, and there is a gentle northeasterly breeze blowing. It is pleasant and tranquil out here. Hal suggests we send out for Chinese food!

February 17 - 7th Day

11:00 a.m. - Fantastic country and and very firm going. We are cruising along a corridor between two sand ridges. Their Arabic name, irq, plural 'uruq, means "vein." The terrain has made it possible to maintain an average speed of 65 kilometers (40 miles) an hour. We hope to sight gazelle, which were reportedly seen in this part of the Rub' al-Khali 20 years ago. They have been hunted virtually to extinction in much of the Arabian Peninsula and thus forced to retreat to the parts of the desert most inaccessible to human beings.

During my lunch of canned fish and fruit cocktail, I spotted a desert warbler in a nearby 'abal bush. I also saw a pied wheatear and a desert raven, both commonly seen in other parts of Arabia. We spotted a rare long-legged buzzard this morning - but no gazelles so far, and our chances of seeing any are pretty slim.

2:15 p.m. - Coming across another fossilized lake bed, we saw and followed a young fox. Hal drove up and said that he had spotted another fox that was startled by our lead car. I felt it was a privilege to come upon these harmless little creatures!

4:30 p.m. - We have stopped for the night. We covered a good 120 kilometers (75 miles) in our six hours of driving today. As we were waiting for our cans of stew to warm, a little swallow suddenly appeared and is now hovering and darting around our camp.

February 18 - 8th Day

11:00 a.m. - The weather was fine last night until a strong northeasterly wind blew in at three in the morning. Because I have been the only member of the group to sleep outside, I got the worst of it. I woke up half buried in sand, my eyes so full of grit that I couldn't see, at first, to find my watch and shoes. What a blustery day it was today!

In addition to finding more lake beds, we came upon the bony remains of several camels - probably dead of starvation due to the lack of grazing in this area. Oddly, beside two of the dead camels were two dead ravens. Maybe the birds died from eating the spoiled camel meat. What a grim reminder of how far we are from civilization! We also found fossilized fragments of ostrich egg shells, remnants of a greener past.

1:00 p.m. - Lunch was canned beans and fruit. The wind is still very strong, visibility about half a mile. Hal is out looking at a lake bed, my dad is out for plant specimens, Greg is listening to a tape on his Walkman, and I am going to take a nap. Driving has been tedious today because of the poor visibility and unexpected slipfaces. Sand and wind blowing through the rope-webbed rear window opening does not make it any more comfortable, either.

February 19 - 9th Day

Another long, windy, and cloudy day today. We had a light breakfast of homemade granola and went for our usual exploratory morning walk. We collected two beetle larvae and put them into a small bottle. Lately, I have started to question if the capture of these tiny creatures is really necessary. The Rub' al-Khali is so desolate that any life that has managed to adapt to its arid climate may, it seems to me, be worthy of more respect than being drowned in some curious human's vial of toxic preservative. On the other hand, I also realize that our specimens will be of scientific value.

Many of the plants and animals collected by Greg and my father will be sent to the Museum of Natural History in London. Also, my dad is working on a book dealing with the flora of eastern Saudi Arabia, work which over the years has resulted in the discovery of several new species. And much of the research Hal is doing on this trip will be used for his doctoral dissertation.

It seems to be getting difficult for me to record full pages of my thoughts or even events. I think my mind is starting to get tired from all the desert driving.

I refilled the Blazer's 150-liter (40-gallon) gas tank for the last time before we expect to reach the paved road. We spent the day crossing steep sand ridges to find long, smooth gravel plains. These plains, which Hal says are the remains of alluvial deposits formed thousands of years ago, are covered by millions of colorful, beautifully weathered igneous stones.

Greg got stuck on top of the first sand ridge we crossed today when the differential of his Land-Rover bottomed out on the ridge's sharp top and left him hanging. We pulled him free with our car and a steel cable. In the early afternoon we took wind-speed and relative-humidity readings.

As we stopped to camp this evening, Hal suddenly leaped out of his car yelling, "My engine! My engine's burning up! I can smell it!" When we ran to help we found that the burning odor was from his parking brake, not his engine: To his chagrin and relief, he had forgotten to release it after our last stop.

Except for reporting that I burned my finger while making a fire to heat our canned soup and bread, I'm too tired to write more.

February 20 - 10th Day

It is much nicer now that the naggingly strong and dusty wind has died somewhat. The air was still enough this morning to cook pancakes over the fire, a welcome change after having to go inside the tent on other mornings just to boil water for tea on the propane stove.

10:00 a.m. - Hal found some shells preserved under the surface layer of a lake bed. He expects that the radiocarbon date will be very accurate because the shells are unworn enough to have retained some of their original color.

6:00 p.m. - Driving became very difficult this afternoon when we came into areas of soft, loose sand. I was so tired when we first stopped for the night that I didn't want to do anything but lie on the cool ground to rest. Hal is off on a walk somewhere, and my dad and Greg look hilarious (perhaps even a little ridiculous) in their frantic and - so far - unsuccessful attempts to catch a lizard. The sand feels good on my bare feet.

This afternoon, in the high ground above a fossil lake bed, we found cylindrical protrusions of fused sand. Called fulgurites, these finger-long glass tubes were formed by bolts of lightning that struck the ground many years ago, melting the sand along their paths. We extracted a few and carefully packed them in cotton to protect them from breaking.

February 21-25 - Days 11-15

As I write this we've been back from the Rub' al-Khali for one week. The last days of the expedition were so tiring that I couldn't faithfully keep my diary up to date. But regardless of the fact that we were all exhausted, the days from February 21 to 23 were the most interesting of the trip. After leaving the great sand systems behind us, we made our way along plains covered with gravel which was coarser than what we had encountered earlier. These plains were also different in that their flatness was occasionally relieved by hillocks of quartzite rising from the pebbly surface. Scattered near lake beds in the vicinity of some of these island-like quartzite mounds, we saw curiously shaped nodules of flint and found large chunks of petrified wood.

At this point, we were only about 200 miles from the paved road, but still had one area of extremely soft sand to travel through before completing the desert portion of our journey. Al-Mundafan, "the buried one" in English, is, as its name suggests, a place of deep, soft sand. Dunes in this area were entirely unpredictable, and I had to scout a good bit of the terrain on foot before attempting to drive through it in the car. I felt as though I had run a marathon by the time al-Mundafan and the Rub' al-Khali were behind us. We had traveled 1,395 kilometers in the sands alone, and 2,869 kilometers in all (871 and 1,791 miles).

Once home, showered, and fed some of Mom's "real" food, I felt both happy and sad that our trip already seemed like the memory of a dream. Like the swells and moving tides of a vast ocean, the shifting, constantly changing sands of the Empty Quarter are beautiful in their barren wildness. How lucky I am to be among the few to have crossed them!

Erik A. Mandaville is earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramics and ceramic sculpture at the Rochester Institute of Technology's School for American Craftsmen.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the May/June 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1989 images.