Following in the footsteps of historic explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger to cross the mighty Rub’ al Khali was far from a walk in the park for two intrepid TV stars, reports Kate Ginn
Sunburnt, dehydrated and exhausted to the point of collapse, the caravan of two men and four camels wound its weary way through the last few kilometres of sand.
Their epic journey crossing the vast expanse of the Empty Quarter by camel without guides was made even more challenging by the fact that every tortured footstep was captured on camera for a television programme.
These particular travellers were not professional explorers with years of knowledge. Ben Fogle and James Cracknell are British television stars and complete novices when it comes to crossing deserts and tackling this sort of inhospitable terrain.
To be fair, James Cracknell is a rowing champion and double Olympic gold medalist, so he wasn’t completely ill equipped.
The pair had also previously taken on two other feats – rowing across the Atlantic and trekking to the South Pole, in the snow prints of Captain Scott, pulling 90 kilogramme sleds for 700 kilometres.
But a three-week trek through the largest sand desert in the world was a different matter altogether.
James Cracknell described it as ‘the hardest challenge of my life’, while Ben Fogle admitted that it pushed him to the absolute limit.
Their task was daunting: to recreate the journey of legendary explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who travelled in the Empty Quarter in the 1940s.
It meant walking and riding across 600km of harsh desert and huge dunes for almost three weeks, surviving on Thesiger-style rations of dates and bread. Following was a film crew, recording their extraordinary trip for a BBC television series.
Along the way, the duo battled tempestuous camels, boiling temperatures, sandstorms, frayed tempers and a potentially calamitous accident.
There were also some hilarious moments – such as James having to chase his runaway camel – and poignant ones along the way.
Added to this was the fact that James, 41, had been in an accident three years ago, knocked off his bike while training for a triathlon and sustaining brain damage.
It’s left him suffering from epilepsy, which can be triggered by stress and dehydration – both of which he was likely to encounter in bucket loads in the Empty Quarter.
Their 18-day expedition set off from Salalah bound for Umm as Samim, the fabled quick sands known as ‘Mother of Poison’, made famous by Thesiger, the first Westerner ever to reach them.
First, they had to buy some camels. Two apiece were needed, one to ride and one to act as ‘Sherpa’ for supplies.
Guided by their mentor, Mussallem Hassan Masoud al Mahri, who told them “The most beautiful place in the world is to be alone in the desert with your camel”, they bought three males and a female (named Otto 1 and Otto 2, Captain Barnacles and Janet).
“The advice of our Bedouin guru Masalan (his Western moniker) was to ‘choose strong healthy ones’,” says James.
“Learning how to select and buy a camel before you’ve even ridden one is like buying a car before learning to drive.” (continued on page 26 & 27)
They had one week to master the basics of camel owning. Along the way, they also learnt how to chase stubborn camels, tie them down with a sack of sand and what it feels like to be bitten by one.
Food supplies were dates and ingredients for making their own bread, accompanied by dried camel meat and sweet tea or water from goatskin containers.
In the first few days, they struggled to navigate to the first water well and nearly lost their camels down a steep dune. They argued about how best to make progress and after three days, were hardly speaking.
Then disaster struck. On day four, Ben, 40, was thrown from his camel, resulting in a fractured rib and had to be evacuated on a plane back to Britain.
They refused to give up. After six weeks recuperation and with levels of stubbornness to rival their humpy travelling companions, they returned to conquer the desert and their personal differences.
“James and I both share a strong trait: determination,” says Ben.
“It’s been one of the keys to our adventures together, and is the reason that James will always be my best friend. It took an extraordinary journey across the Arabian desert to remind us of that.”
Their Daily Routine
EMPTY QUARTER – THE FACTS
Also known as Rub’ al Khali, it’s the largest sand desert in the world covering some 650,000 square kilometres. It covers most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Measuring 1,000 kilometres long and 500 kilometres wide, the terrain is covered with sand dunes up to 250 metres high. Due to minerals, the sand is a reddish-orange colour.
The region is ‘hyper arid’, in that it hardly ever rains with a typical annual water fall of just 30 millimetres. Daily temperatures average 47°C and can reach as high as 56°C.
Unsurprisingly, the only creatures that can flourish there are scorpions, rodents and the odd camel spider.
There’s also oil. Vast reserves have been discovered under the dunes. Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world, extends from Saudi Arabia into the northernmost parts of the Empty Quarter.
CAR VERSUS CAMEL
Y’s photographer Jerzy Wierzbicki has travelled into the Empty Quarter many times but explains why his preferred mode of transport is a 4×4
I have very limited experience of using camels in the desert. I am more comfortable, and much happier, behind the wheel of my faithful Toyota Land Cruiser.
A few years ago, I set out on a camel in the Empty Quarter at Ramlat Muqshin. It was very uncomfortable and I quickly noticed that I had no control over my beast. Nowadays, even local Bedouin use 4×4 cars to tackle the desert. The preferred choice is a Toyota Land Cruiser. Toyota pick-ups have high enough suspension to drive across the piles of sand and with a double fuel tank, it can hold 180 litres of petrol, enough for a long trip. Camels, of course, can keep going indefinitely – though you need to feed them lots of fuel (food) to keep them going too.
Land Cruisers can be equipped with special sand tyres. Camels too are well equipped for walking on the hot sand, with those wide, hard-skin feet but I like letting four wheels do the work rather than four feet.
It’s true that by camel you can probably go further and reach places that perhaps a 4×4 cannot.
Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that driving in the Empty Quarter is easier than traveling on a camel. For a start its much more comfortable – as anyone who has suffered sitting for long periods on a camel hump will agree.
It’s also easier to load up your car with supplies. For the equivalent, you’d have to take several camels. With a car, you can also sleep inside if need be, whereas by camel, it’s the great outdoors.
Any mistake by car, however, and you can quickly find yourself in trouble. Camels, of course, don’t break down with mechanical problems but I find them more wilful.
My beloved Land Cruiser is my travelling companion. I can’t see myself changing that for a camel any time soon.