Home for less than a week and some much-needed family time, a positive 20-week scan of my unborn, catching up on office admin and my bumper caving trip (see previous post) ensued. As always, too much to do, too little time and before I knew it, I was back on the road again.
The boys have passed Umm Zamool and now tread firmly in the United Arab Emirates, home turf for Ghafan and Saeed. I know they were all looking forward to returning to home soil. For the first couple of days, they were hugging the UAE / Saudi border fence making good progress amongst the dunes. I caught up with them on Monday afternoon on their last stretch of the fence line. Getting there alone was an adventure. It’s a four hour drive to Hameen which has the last fuel station before you head into the wild. I passed Qasr Al Sarab (for those with cash to splash, this is a must visit resort) and headed straight for the border. Passing an army post on top of the dunes, I was expecting an easy ride to catch up with the expedition team but entering such a sensitive border area proved to be a little trickier than envisaged. Here, a wave and a hello just doesn’t cut it!
According to my GPS, I wasn’t far from where I planned to hook up with the boys. I noticed a white Toyota pick up approach me from behind, flashing his lights, honking and seemingly in a hurry. I thought perhaps a farmer, in a hurry to milk his camels. Being used to the driving standards on Dubai’s Skeikh Zayed Road after all, meant this kind of behaviour is the norm. I pulled over and the pick up did same. Emerging from the vehicle came a guy in a pristine white dish dash telling me I shouldn’t be here. Little did he know that he was wrong but the language barrier prevented me from enlightening him with a detailed explanation. We tried to converse, both convinced we were right … yes, no, yes, no …
Within minutes an army patrol car pitched up and two burly lads emerged, with hefty machine guns swung around their shoulders. ‘Ahhh here comes help’, I thought. They requested my passport which they handed over to the ‘farmer’. I thought this strange but it transpired that the farmer was an off duty army major. Matters didn’t seem to improve so I got on the phone to Alexis and Tim in the hope that their driver, Sultan could translate and explain. Luckily, they were close by and could come in person.
With their car in sight and my telling the army guys that they are my friends all tension resolved in an instant. ‘Aaahh, you with camels?’ they asked. ‘You with captain Saeed and Ghafan?’ Yes indeed. The ice now broken meant my passport was returned and I had the green light to continue on my way.
I hooked up with Adrian, Ghafan and Saeed at dusk. Their spirits were high which meant much singing and laughing. We camped near the fence with the Kingdom a mere stones throw away. Even here, in the Empty Quarter, Saudi retains its mystical and exclusive identity. There was little exclusivity to be had on our side of the border however with big camera’s every few kilometers. I later found out from Saeed that his commander followed their every move, knew exactly what they had for dinner, what time they went to bed and when they sipped their tea in the morning. I guess then they also knew that Alexis, Tim and I had healthy NKD pizza for dinner with ice cold green can beverages (code word mountain dew) and watermelon for desert; a much appreciated treat I brought with me from Dubai.
Our journey alongside the fence the next morning was spectacular. What a project to build and maintain. A lovely lunch was brought in by the armed forces followed by tea and dates at their base a few hours later. From there, we left the fence behind us, heading north towards Mazeirah to celebrate the UAE National Day festivities on the 2nd December.
Early on Wednesday morning, we geared up to join the guys on foot for the next two days. With no support and the absence of our wheels, this meant stripping down to the most basic of photography kits and the bare minimum camping gear. These two days turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the expedition so far and offered me a great chance to really immerse myself in what the expedition was all about. I could switch off, engage with nature, embrace the remoteness and enjoy a liberating sense of freedom. Just my thing. Plodding up and down the giant dunes gave me a real taste of what Wilfred Thesiger had experienced 60 years prior.
As we were setting off, the skies were overcast and rain looked imminent which rendered my images a little flat but the dramatic clouds made up for it. By 4pm we were seeking suitable places to set up camp and as we popped over yet another dune, we saw the day’s first camel farm in the far corner of the subkha. Luckily the owner spotted us on the horizon and with his two sons, drove towards us to find out what we were up to. Expressive and animated chatting was followed by an invitation to tea. Alexis, Tim and I jumped into the farmers Landcruiser (a welcome rest), assuming he was going to drive. Wrong! Instead we were driven by his 9 year old son who could barely reach the pedals. 21st century Bedu lifestyle at it’s best!
The hospitality shown was, as always, amazing. Sweet tea was accompanied by Arabic coffee, dates, more dates and fresh camel milk. There was no turning down the camel milk so I had my first taste of the fresh produce. Tasty! Sundowners were followed by a welcoming invite to stay the night, so we settled down on pillows in his tent, drinking more tea around the fire.
A huge dinner of camel meat and rice was a welcome replacement to my ‘meal in the bag’ after which time we slept through the chill, cosy in our sleeping bags. Come morning, we were fed again and ready to take on another big day in the mighty dunes. There is a golden Bedu hospitality tradition of looking after roaming travellers for three days; feeding them, sharing the little they have, hearing their stories and advising them on the journey ahead. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an entire three days but we squeezed in a lot into 16 hours!
All that remained was more sand, more dunes, tired feet and scorching sun. And as we topped the last big dune, catching the Liwa oasis ahead, I knew this glorious adventure was coming to a close …