The Empty Quarter, otherwise known as Rub’ Al Khali, is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world. It is so-called because this huge stretch of unbroken sand has defeated kings, adventurers, and nomads for thousands of years. In a region defined by deserts, the Rub’ Al Khali has come to be known as among the most daunting and inhospitable. And it is on an unfathomable scale.
The desert is 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) long and 500 kilometres (310 miles) wide. It effectively separates the southern countries of the region, Yemen and Oman, from the rest of the Middle East.
On our brief visit of just a few hours we could barely penetrate at all. Nevertheless I got a strong sense of being in the middle of nowhere, even just a few kilometres into the desert; and even here the sands seemed endless. I tried to imagine what it would be like to cross another 990 kilometres, on a camel as in the past!
We had driven inland from the southern coastal city of Salalah, stopping briefly to visit the small archaeological site of Wubar, also known as Ubar or Shisr. This was a former resting point on the frankincense trade routes and is included in the UNESCO listing of Oman’s ‘Land of Frankincense’. These ruins were only discovered in 1992 when they were picked up by satellite imagery. The satellite images also reveal ancient trade routes converging on the site, apparently made by the passage of hundreds of thousands of camels.
Looking into the history of this place it is hard sometimes to separate fact from fiction. The original discoverers of the site, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Nicholas Clapp, suggested it was Ubar, the so-called ‘Atlantis of the Sands’. This is a legendary city said to have sunk beneath the dunes of the Empty Quarter much as the other Atlantis sank beneath the sea. But even if such a city exists, some historians dispute Wubar’s claim to be it. They argue that its role was more that of a caravanserai than a complete city; a trading post where caravans of camels laden with frankincense would load up on water and other supplies before heading into the daunting Empty Quarter on their way to the ports of the Mediterranean.
Archaeological evidence is inconclusive. From the ruins it appears that there was a fort here surrounded by an eight-sided wall, with a tower at each corner. This description matches that of the legendary Ubar in ancient documents. It seems that part of this fort collapsed when a sinkhole formed underneath it, and several feet of sand eventually covered all the ruins; so it did sink into the desert sands as the legend describes. While some say that it appears far too small to have ever been described as a city, others argue that people quite likely lived in tents at that time; it would not have been uncommon for a fort to be the only permanent structure in a city.
So far however excavations at the site have revealed nothing old enough to verify the claims. Indeed, some of the items found indicate a much later period of habitation.
While we had looked around Wubar, our driver Issa had let air out of the tyres. Soon afterwards we left the tarmac and found ourselves driving across a vast empty plain, the huge gravel desert of Al Nejd. This plain stretches for 800 kilometres between the Hajar mountains in the north of the country and the Dhofar range in the south. There is little to see here but I found the landscape mesmerising.
This region is famous for its black camels (in practice more dark brown than black). Near Thumrait we had passed the place where, Issa told us, each year camel competitions were held. There are prizes for the fastest, best yield of milk, and best-looking – a camel beauty contest. Apparently the black camels of Dhofar win all three contests every year, because of their larger size. Now as we crossed the plain Issa spotted some and left the track to drive over to the herd.
Into the sands
Near a small Bedouin camp the gravel track turned to sand; we were among the dunes of the Empty Quarter. A fence more than half buried in the dunes showed just how much the landscape here shifts with the winds.
Issa drove in among the dunes and part way up one of the largest. There was one other car in sight, another tourist guide with a French family whom we had already seen in Thumrait and Wubar.
Up on top of the dunes there was no vegetation; but in the lower parts there were small bushes and grasses. Issa explained that there was more vegetation than usual because they had a cyclone a few months ago and a lot of water flowed in the desert for a while.
As we drove back down through a dip between the dunes we could see the cracked sand where it had hardened when it dried out again. It must have a high clay content I reckon because it was just like broken pots!
In these dips there was a lot more vegetation because of that rain. One was this plant which Issa called the storm apple, with a melon-like fruit which he explained was poisonous to the animals. A bit of digging on the internet has revealed this to be Citrullus colocynthis. It is related to the watermelon but, according to Wikipedia, ‘bears small, hard fruits with a bitter pulp’. In addition to Issa’s ‘storm apple’ (presumably because it only appears here after a rainstorm) other popular names, again according to Wikipedia, include bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, vine of Sodom, and wild gourd.
Another plant seemed even more striking in this desert environment, perhaps because it was in flower or perhaps because we only saw a single one. I spotted it in one of the dips as we drove out of the dunes; so I called to Issa to stop for photos, which he did.
When I posted this on Facebook during our trip my friend Ann did some research on my behalf. She found out that it is Cistanche tubulosa – popular name the desert hyacinth. This is a parasitic plant which grows on the roots of other desert shrubs. It is often used in Chinese medicine with a whole range of claims made for its benefits including improving memory, improving the immune system and preventing fatigue.
Leaving the desert
At my request Issa stopped again by the Bedouin camp on our way out so we could take photos of the small shop selling ‘Food stuff and luxuries’.
We then drove back along the gravel track, across the plain; with mirages giving false impressions of green-fringed lagoons and oases on the horizon. Just after we re-joined the tarmac Issa stopped at a small roadside workshop to have the tyres re-inflated. This was another opportunity for photos, naturally.
It was now after midday and the sun was beating down. Although we were back on the tarmac, the landscape continued flat and almost empty, apart from the regular mirages. As we drove back to ‘civilisation’ I couldn’t help wishing we had been able to spend longer in the Empty Quarter and penetrate further. But I was also extremely grateful for those trappings of civilisation that ensured we couldn’t have got lost there or had to spend many days crossing its vast expanse!
I hope Terri will agree that the colour of these sands matches her brief for the Sunday Stills colour challenge of burlywood. It’s a colour I confess I had never heard of until now. Wiktionary defines it as a ‘brown sandy colour’, and there’s certainly plenty of brown sand in the Empty Quarter!
I visited Oman in 2019