After five days of driving thorough some of the most punishing desert in the world, we've made it safely back to Riyadh, but not without a few battle scars. The trip into the Empty Quarter was an incredible experience. I've travelled deserts before...the Sahara, the Sinai, the Mojave...and have been in some desolate and/or out of the way places before...Somalia, Bolivia...but I'm pretty sure that nothing I've experienced so far can compare to this place.
This trip had just the right amounts of fun, excitement, danger, drama, and uncertainty to be the perfect adventure... We were never at risk of making it back safely, but we did have some unexpected moments that caused us to have to change our plans significantly.
In all, we drove almost 3000 km, and went from Riyadh all the way down to within sight of the Yemen border in the far southwest part of the country. We saw huge sand dunes, rocky plains extending to the horizon, canyons, and mountains. We found Neolithic arrowheads, spearheads, scrapers, and other tools, fossils, and drove through petrified wood forests. We looked at petroglyphs that were thousands of years old. We got bogged down to our wheel hubs in the sand, had a bumper and hood bashed in by a flying shackle (mine), and ripped off a bumper (not mine) jerking a truck out of a sand dune. We got detained by the authorities, got stopped by the police at checkpoints, spent the night in the villa of a National Guard general, and overall, had an truly great time.
"Are you carrying guns? Because I don't want you going out there if you don't all have guns!" said my sweet little silver haired mother. "And shoot to kill! Don't fool around and just wing them!"
"Don't worry, Mom. We'll be fine, and we know how to take care of ourselves. We are all in the Army, you know..." I said.
"OK, then. Just be careful! I don't want to see you in an orange jumpsuit." Which is strange, because according to her, I'm a "Fall." Orange should be one of my best colors.
Day 1, 13 November 2004 Petrol and Petroglyphs
I got up at about 3:30 AM and finished loading my truck. I'd put most of the equipment in the night before...two 5 gallon cans of water, 3 boxes of bottled water, another 2 cases of 1.5 L bottles (can't have too much water, you know...), sand ladders, a shovel, tow straps and shackles, portable air compressor, first aid kit, tool box, and bunji cords all in a big plastic box. I grabbed the steaks out of the freezer, vegetables and cheese out of the fridge, and threw them into the cooler with the bottled water. Once all my gear, food, and personal stuff (sleeping bag, poncho liner, clothes, camera and lots of extra batteries) was stowed, I locked up the house and headed to pick up my buddy Ron.
We headed first for the ice machine, and loaded up the cooler, then ran quickly by the office to pound out a couple of last minute emails to our families, just in case we disappeared into the desert or were captured by Al Qaeda terrorists. Then, we linked up with the rest of our party.
There were 8 guys, 7 spare tires, 5 trucks, and 2 dogs heading out on this epic journey. We discussed briefly the general route we were to travel, and had a quick once over on the agenda for the trip. We were going to the aptly named "Triangle" area of the western edge of the Empty Quarter (near Najran on the map). We'd spend our first night on the west side, looking at petroglyphs, then move into the central part for the second night to look for stone tools from the Neolithic age and drive the dunes, then off to the eastern side of the triangle to look for fossils and more arrowheads. The fourth night, we'd drive north of the dunes and look for petrified wood and desert diamonds. Finally, on the fifth day, after a half day or so driving around the desert, we'd head back north for Riyadh.
We drove out of the front gate of the compound, and turned south. We had nearly 800 km in front of us, 10 CDs in the changer, windows down, and we were wearing sunglasses. It was going to be a great day.
The first stop was about 2.5 hours into the trip. We gassed up, and rapidly became the focus of attention because of the two Dalmatians with us. Most Arabs and Muslims don�t have much to do with dogs (kalb) because of the requirement to be clean prior to prayer. And, as we found out, a lot of them were afraid of the spotted beasts. Not that there was much to fear from these...they were mostly bark. After they warmed up to you, they were really sweet dogs.
We made 2 more stops for gas moving south. After the third stop,
we moved into the desert a few hundred meters, and deflated the tires. Traveling through sand for the next few days, it would be essential. The added surface area made driving on the sand much easier.
All of us got stuck at one time or another, though. On two occasions, we had 3 of the 5 trucks stuck at one time. We got pretty good by the end of it in extrication techniques. Fortunately, several of the guys had lots of past experience. It came in handy more often than we'd have liked.
We started heading northwest into the rocky desert. We drove first to a rock outcropping that was covered in petroglyphs. Unfortunately, it was also defiled with Arabic graffiti as well...
After scurrying around on the rocks for a while, we mounted up again to go find our campsite. After a few wrong turns, we finally ended up in the small canyon that was to be our home for the night. We checked the area out to make sure that it was going to suit our needs, then continued exploring the area. We first checked out some more petroglyphs in a small box canyon. Prior to getting there, we ran into a small camel herd...I being a sucker for camels of any sort, had to stop for pictures. This one had more of the same...camels, cows, and antelopes, mainly, but also pictures of ostriches, hyenas eating cattle, and a guy fighting a lion. It was also here that we met the mysterious screaming woman...The 8 of us guys figured she was yelling at the guy standing near her (her husband? "How many times do I have to tell you to take the dead camel parts out to the curb!?!"). We would have rendezvous with her for the next day or so...
Afterward, we drove about 25 km across the desert to go see ET, a sort of space alien looking petroglyph. This one unfortunately was in pretty bad shape from being shot at by Bedouins over the years. One particularly accurate shot was lodged in his head. We also saw the mysterious woman again, this time yelling at an ostrich.
"Stupid Ostrich! Look what you did on my nice dirt floor!" The ostrich seems to be trying to get away...
With sunset rapidly approaching, the shadows and sun made for some beautiful contrasts...We sped into the sun, bouncing all over the desert at about 90 kph. Arriving at our campsite just as it was getting dark, we set up our cots, broke out our disposable grill and fired it up. Figuring that the ice would melt long before we were done with the trip, we only packed one meal that needed cooking. The rest could be eaten cold, or in the case of our Army rations (Meals Ready to Eat � MREs), heated using the included, water activated heater.. Ron and I grilled the steaks and wrapped up some sliced onions and bell peppers in foil and threw the packages on the fire too. As supper cooked, we sat around, played with the dogs, and talked among ourselves.
Following our mostly cooked steaks, and crunchy but warm vegetables (we couldn�t wait...we were famished), we all sat around the fire, smoked cigars, and haggled about who would pull what guard shift. Since we were out there, alone and unafraid, and considering how close we were to Yemen, and the current state of the Kingdom, we deemed it prudent to keep someone up at all times to make sure we didn�t get surprised in the middle of the night. What worse way is there to wake up than with a sore throat caused by a knife sticking into it? Fortunately, other than the huge flickering shadows cast by the fire on the walls of our canyon occasionally freaking me out, and the awe of the incredibly starry night, our guard shifts passed uneventfully. The dogs proved their worth as guards as well when they�d bark incessantly any time you made the slightest noise. There was little chance we could have been surprised.
Stay tuned for Day 2!Posted by djf on November 13, 2004 12:43 PM
Category: The Magical Kingdom