The second expedition in Rub al-Khali

Mark Evans tells us about his achievement of the the year: The crossing of the desert of Rub al- Khali.

A second achievement has recently been added to the explorer’s list. Along with his team, Evans headed to the famous Rub al Khalo, seeking to retrace the route of the first legendary expedition of Bertram Thomas in 1930. Bertram Thomas and teh Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, successfully completed their adventure with very few resources and means.

The project was launched thanks to the patronage of His Highness Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said of Oman, Prince Charles of Wales and His Highness Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad bin Kahlifa Al-Thani of Qatar. The expedition was in honour of the 45-year-reign of His Majesty Qaboos bin Said, who partook in the festivities of 18 November 2015. The initiative has also strengthened the friendship between Oman, England , Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The project was funded by the Omani government and by private and public companies.

The desert: The deserti s known as Rub al Khali in Arabic, Quarto Vuoto in Italian and Empty Quarter in English . The name refers to the fact that it covers a quarter of the Arabian Peninsula in Saudi Arabia and Oman. As one of the world’s harshest deserts, 65,000 sq. Km of its barren surface is still unexplored, snubbed to the Bedouins too.

The expedition team is comprised of Mark Evans, famous British explorer, backed by numerous achievements and 2 Omanis, Amour Al Wahaibi, a Bedouin of Bidiya and Mohammed Al Zadjali, of Outward Bound Oman. These men left Bait Mirbat Salalah on December 10, 2015 and finished the journey on January 27, 2016 at Doha, after having travelled 1,300 km on or alongside camels, in an ode to the tradition of the first expedition.

picture of the team by John C. Smith
picture of the team by John C. Smith

Medical and scientific research: the team underwent medical and psychological tests to predict how they would respond to extreme and isolated environments. Nathan Smith, lecturer of Sport Psychology at the University of Northampton, in collaboraton with Gro Sandal, professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, are carrying out research to ascertain how Mark and his teammates reacted when exposed to extreme conditions. Part of this research was analysing the personal details of participant behaviour, recording daily mood swings and how they would react to stressful situations. The results of the exams will help in better understanding potential strategies to use in extreme conditions and the body’s response after such a challenging journey.

Michael Petraglia, professor of Human Evolution and Prehistory at the University of Oxford, is working with a team of archeologists of the project Palaeodesert. The expedition has contributed to their studies by sharing photos and locations of cave inscriptions found along the way, precisely in the Dhofar zone, shortly after the departure from Salalah. The outcome of the studies will help our understanding of who lived in those areas, in which period, their lifestyle and their communication system.

In 1930, the 60 days were not easy: sandstorms and unfriendly encounters with tribes on the way made the journey an arduous and sometimes unpredictable one.
In 2015-2016, the team took only 49 days to complete this mammoth task. Equipped with gear and technology that preceding explorers did not have the luxury of, the modern journey carried a different look to it. Modern adventurers have access to instruments like GPS navigation, satellite telephones for emergency calls and social networks to share the journey at every step.

We were able to interview Mark Evans, the expedition’s team leader who recounted his experience in Rub al Khali.

When did you begin preparations for the expedition?

Two years ago. As for the food and equipment, a few weeks before the departure, on 10th December,2015.

Did you have problems during the preparations?

Yes, we had a few issues, resolved thanks to the remarkable support of some important authorities: first off, it was complicated to get permits to cross Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Today, there are boundaries that did not exist some time back. It used to be possible to move about more freely. The doors were open for us, however, thanks to personalities like the Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Qaboos bin Said. Secondly it was difficult to find the right camels because no one had used them for an experience like this before. For these animals to make a long, 49 day journey, was not easy. Then, we found 4 specimens that seemed excellent travelling companions.

What kind of difficulty did the camels face?

Unfortunately. one of them gave us a lot of problems during the journey and we were forced to send it away, to avoid compromising the entire journey. But the other three were magnificent!

pictures by John C. Smith: one of the camels of the second expedition in Rub al-Khali
pictures by John C. Smith: one of the camels of the second expedition in Rub al-Khali

Did you encounter other problems during the journey?

I must say that everything went well. We had two sandstorms, and then, towards the end of January, the camels struggled to advance because of the extreme heat and lack of wind. Then, the temperatures suddenly dropped: two more days and we would have been in serious trouble.

When did you get the idea to set out for this journey and what inspires you about Thomas Bertram, the man who made the first expedition?

I began to consider this venture about five years ago. I really admire Thomas Bertram, because no one before him had been put to this test, He succeeded without a map, without help and support, He financed himself. My expedition was definitely easier, even if the weather conditions are just as challenging as 85 years ago, with extreme heat during the day and biting cold at night.

picture of the first expedition in Rub al-Khali taken in 1930 by Betram Thomas himself
picture of the first expedition in Rub al-Khali taken in 1930 by Betram Thomas himself

How did you choose your team members and how were they during the journey? Not having your experience, did they have any major problems?

We had already worked together in the past, so for me it was easy to trust them. The choice of the right companions is essential, because you can always count on them and vice versa. They were wonderful. Being Omanis, they did not have any problems withstanding the temperatures. And they were able to cope with stress in a remarkable manner.

What was your diet like during the journey?

We ate very light to avoid carrying too much weight. We had muesli and milk for breakfast and peanuts, dates and water for lunch. For dinner, we were offered 5 different menus, including pasta, rice and spaghetti. Not to mention that when we arrived in small villages, there were many who hosted us with food and water. One time, 27 goats and 9 camels were slaughtered in our honour. Unlike Bertram, we never had problems with food.

picture with locals by John C. Smith
picture with locals by John C. Smith

Before leaving, you declared in an interview: “the expedition will be a big opportunity to meet interesting people”. Now that you have completed this experience , can you tell us something about the people you met?

Certainly! There were many people whom we met and with whom we had the fortune of sharing this incredible achievement. One in particular made a great impact on me in Saudi Arabia, i.e. Sheikh Mubarak Saleh bin Kalut, the great grandson of the Omani who participated in the first expedition, back in 1930, Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut. He joined us in Saudi Arabia, wearing the same Khanjar (dagger) and armed with the same rifle that his great great grandfather wore 85 years ago. Many people from the villages hosted us, refreshed us, quenched our thirst and fascinated us with their stories. Thanks to Mohammed Al Zadjali, we always had translations in real time from Arabic to English and vice versa, making the communication with the locals easy.

Will you miss the nights under the firmament and the peace of the desert?

Yes. A great deal. We always slept under a starry sky! It is amazing that there exist such beautiful landscapes in nature. It is truly unique and it gave us indescribable emotions throughout the journey. Fortunately, Sim Davis and John C. Smith, two very brilliant and enthusiastic photographers immortalised the project. I am really grateful to them.

Picture of the desert by John C. Smith
Picture of the desert by John C. Smith

Now, summing up. What new discoveries have you made?

We have proof that many animals have disappeared, as victims of overhunting. 10 days after our departure, we found rock inscriptions in the region of Dhofar. These are now being studied in France, in an effort to identify their period of origin. They are not in Arabic, but they may have a link with the inscriptions found in the same area, at Sumhuram and South Arabi.

What made you decide to stay in Oman?

I lived in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia for 10 years. I have always been a lover of Arab culture. I came to Oman 15 years ago on vacation. I was fascinated with the values, such as hospitality and respect on the part of the natives. It has now been 12 years since I moved here and this is now my home. Not to mention, its leader, His Majesty Qaboos bin Said, the peace maker. He doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries and he is extremely tolerant. Not to mention all that he has taught his country, helping it become the amazing and safe country it is today.

Do you have plans for other trips?

For now, we still have lots of work to do for this expedition and that does not leave us with a lot of time to plan other trips. But maybe in a year, who knows? A document which narrates our journey will be ready within a year’s time.

One last question, I like what you said in an interview before leaving : “First of all, I hope to see that look of satisfaction on the faces of my teammates, which I had the fortune to experience in my previous trips”. It’s really a nice thought. But what were your feelings during the trip and what are they now?

Well! Fulfilment. The emotions change continually. In the beginning, I couldn’t believe it, I never realised what I was doing. Then, after about 20,000 kilometers. I began to question myself, to reflect. One must always be positive and never be put off by negativity. Today, I am overwhelmed by interviews, press conferences, trips and various commitments. I am happy. One can conclude with the words of Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Albusaidi, Secretary General of the External Affairs Minister of Oman, “The strongest message that comes from this project is that the human qualities of teamwork, loyalty, perseverance, courage, hospitality and brotherhood, are timeless”.

2 comments on “The second expedition in Rub al-KhaliAdd yours →

  1. Un piu che piacevole articolo che fa sorgere il desiderio e la curiosità di partire e “attraversare” il deserto! Eppoi ho appreso eventi storici che non conoscevo.

    1. Grazie mille Paola. È un piacere condividere questa splendida avventura e farla vivere direttamente da chi l’ha vissuta in prima persona.
      A presto con nuovi articoli!!

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