It’s a Boy! Fat and free in the not so Empty Quarter
Words & pics Alex Harris
In February of 2013 I led a small team across the Empty Quarter. Our goal was to be the first to walk cross this stretch of sand unsupported and unassisted. It was a suffer fest from first to last. Weeks were spent trapped in a prison of self-deprecation and dwindling food. Somewhere, in the midst of that misery a rather pleasant thought took root. To return, and do it all on a Fatbike.
I suppose I fell in love with the sand. Truth is, having spent 40 days walking across it, I knew it well. And so, almost a year later, in the company of two other adventure-hungry riders, I set off from the edge of the Arabian Sea.
From Salalah in Southern Oman, I thought 12 days would be enough time to cycle 1200km north across the desert to Dubai. In retrospect, this was unrealistic. Nic Jordan, Justin Mcleod and I were riding: Humood from Oman, and Dino De Angelis from our South African office provided vehicle support. Dino was the general dog’s body and scapegoat if things went pear-shaped.
Day 1 saw us climb up into the Dhofar Mountains and eventually reach Wadi Arun. It was a good introduction to Fatbikes as the first 50km were tar. How these bikes with wider wheels were going to work was still a question. But for now we were content to put some miles between the ocean and us. Early into Day 2 we turned onto a remote military track where we had our first encounter with the Oman army. They were intrigued with our bikes but happy to let us go on, as long as we turned right at the fork. Left would take us towards the very remote Yemen border and potential trouble. We had no problem turning right.
Once on the other side of the Dhofar Mountains, we were technically on the edge of the Empty Quarter. We were now in an area called the Nedj. Miles and miles of open gravel plains led to the sands proper. Progress was fast during these first few days with the vehicles occasionally getting lost. They were not always able to go where the bikes went and would sometimes take a detour that would leave us thirsty and hungry for hours. By day 6, however, things were more complex. The previous day we had entered an area of closely linked dunes and soft sand, dotted with countless saltbushes. In fact, the previous year when we walked through the area we dubbed it Wurglewood, home to the notorious Wurgle monster. The soft sand and constant punctures were almost our downfall and we struggled at a snail’s pace for four days before we were at last free.
This time I headed further north from the small village of Mughshin before turning north west, hoping to avoid most of the mayhem. Now, once again, Wurglewood was casting its disastrous spell. We had cycled about 50km that day before we got the call that both our Landcruisers were stuck in soft sand. Fortunately, we had ridden past a Polish seismic survey camp and they rescued our support crew. The night was spent in the company of the Poles swopping whisky and war stories.
We set off the next morning feeling a little under the weather but mindful that we needed to somehow make up time. We followed a track towards the Saudi border and into the heart of nowhere proper. It was a glorious day even if the wind continued to pound our resolve. We were now in big dune country and around us the majestic red sands soared and swayed as far as the eye could see. We were buoyed by the fact the Fatbikes were working better than we could ever have hoped. Whether it was the small dunes of Wurglewood or the endless soft sand plains between the bigger dunes, there was not much we were unable to ride. But it was grueling stuff.
And then came Day 8: one of those bittersweet days - sweet, in the sense that the dunes were now a glorious red, but bitter as it would be our last day in them. We were now basically following military tracks close to the Saudi border, and half the time rode on them and half the time off. Why you might ask? Well the tracks were mostly hard, bumpy gravel, and while the going was faster, it was hard on the legs and rump! The gravel plains between the dunes always offered a softer passage, but inevitability at the cost of speed or energy. And so we mixed it up, constantly trying to find the best line.
Just before lunch I decided to ride about 100m off the track and visit one of our campsites from the previous year. It brought back deep memories of that special but desperate time. However, what totally stumped me was the complete lack of any evidence that we had ever been there. Not a sign, not a print in the sand, nothing. It was like we were never there.
Shortly after we stopped at an army base to refuel, we were picked up by the army again and ordered to accept an armed escort for about 120km. It turned out that just the previous week ago the Oman army had caught a group of smugglers trying to sneak across the Saudi border, right here in this very remote part of Oman. As a consequence, they worried for our safety and felt personally responsible for us. No amount of explaining that we were trying to be the first people to ride the entire way across the desert would dissuade them. We were left with few options. It was now almost 6pm and time to call it a day. They said we were quite welcome to ride on through the night with the escort to a base about 160km away. Or we could jump into their jeeps. We simply could not camp where we were. We had already ridden 115km, in about 10 hours, our biggest day yet. To ride on for another 160km was simply not tenable. And so, resigning ourselves to whatever fate lay ahead, we sadly climbed in.
Two hours later we were dropped in the middle of nowhere. We made a call to drive on to the town of Ibri, spend the night there and then decide in the morning as to what we should do. The next day dawned with dissention in our ranks. Nic was keen to bail and felt that if we could not achieve the world first and ride all the way, there was no point continuing. Justin was in the middle. I was adamant we should press on.
After much debate it was decided that we would return to a point roughly where the army had said it would be safe for us to continue, and carry on from there. Of course this meant a late start, but we pressed on into what had now become a pounding wind. That day sand got into every exposed part of our body. We rode 70km before finally crawling into camp for some sandy but delicious chicken. It was a tough day for all, both physically but also emotionally. It’s hard enough to psyche yourself up for something grueling if there is the promise of glory at the end. But it’s even harder when all that waits is a step into obscurity.
Preparing for our longest day yet, we rose early and in the faint light pedalled off into a surprisingly cold morning. Dino and Humood had to drive back to Muscat and drop off one of the vehicles while we cycled 140km to the border. Here we would change over into another vehicle and meet Mahmood on the UAE side. We knew it was going to be a long and complicated day as we left Oman and entered the United Arab Emirates. The first 60km was the now familiar desperate, rutted and bumpy gravel road that took us past a Petroleum plant. Stopping for some water we were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed in and given a buffet lunch! This seemed to galvanize Nic and Justin. W pedalled off with renewed vigour. Finally, just as the sun was setting we arrived at the Oman/U.A.E border and begun the formalities of crossing over.
Once on the other side it was dark. It had been a long day for everyone and no one was too keen to camp. Dino mentioned there was a Hilton in Al Ain, a town about 20kms away. And so, with a frenzy not unlike a swarm of hornets, we pedalled like mad to this newfound oasis. All told that day we rode for 13 hours and 160km. A record we were not about to break any time soon.
The Hilton served as an elixir of sorts and as we rolled out of town the next morning everyone was chirpy. A tar road added to the enthusiasm. I had a most unusual but very pleasant surprise sneak up on me out of the blue. Nadia, my wife, had been toying with the idea of finding out the gender of our unborn child. She was seven months pregnant. It was going to be a surprise but the last month or so she had been contemplating giving in. I got an sms the night before to such effect, but I thought it was the usual banter and so said, as I had before, ‘just go find out’. I didn’t think more of it. Now, two hours into Day 11, my phone suddenly beeped. When I casually turned it on, I read “It’s a boy!”
I was stumped. Shocked almost but I let out a yelp and with teary eyes shouted out the news to Justin and Nic who were a short way up the road. Buoyed along by the news, we upped the pace until, finally, late that day, we had to cross a few kilometres of short sand dunes. It was arguably the most fun yet with the Fatbikes making short work of the ups and downs.
Just 50km from Dubai we settled on an area that was suitable for our final night camping out in the sands. As Dino and I went about making a fire, Mahmood was called out time and again on rescue missions to pull stranded expats from Dubai out of the sand. It was the weekend and many had made their way out into the nearby desert with ‘normal’ cars. Mahmood told us the next morning that he rescued the same group of German girls three times the previous night! Hmmm…
A thick, damp mist lay low over the sand as we made our way onto a tar road and off towards the mayhem that is Dubai. Two hours later we faced what would be unquestionably the most dangerous part of the expedition, crossing Dubai’s nine-lane highways. Mahmood followed close behind to try and give us some relative safety but it was still a nightmare. Luxury vehicles sped past at 150km/hr, completely oblivious to our presence and totally indifferent to our plight. Finally, at around 11am we rolled into the reception of the Park Hyatt on the old Dubai creek and completed our crossing. All told it was an epic journey of 1130km and 12 days. Unfortunately though, we missed those crucial 120km that would have allowed us to claim a world first.
As Thesiger said, the sand makes its way into a man’s bones. And while it is true that in our case it made its way into absolutely everything, not just our bones it did so in a lasting and powerful way. The sand of Arabia is a lonely and forgotten sand; humble and quietly spoken that whispers of an age past when people lived with nothing more than each other and their dreams and aspirations. Sadly, it also speaks of a time past. We were privileged, just for a while, to be part of this very special place. I have no doubt that our tracks are no more, gone with the wind and covered by the inexorable flow of the sand. What is left in us is lasting. Something to take back to the hectic hustle and bustle of a known world, and remind us that even as strangers in an unknown world, it is possible to come alive!