Y Magazine

Ramlat Bu Tubul

The Empty Quarter offers a tranquil slice of solitude and silence for those wishing to be far from the maddening crowds, as Jerzy Wierzbicki discovered during the Eid break

As Eid began, I found myself sitting at home leafing through notes from more than 250 trips to the Omani interior and wondering where to go next.

I always try to avoid crowds, which more often than not means I head for the desert, and with many people busy with family and their own plans, it seemed I was destined for a lonely trip. After studying my materials, speaking with friends and doing a bit of research, I settled on an expedition to the northern part of the Empty Quarter. 

Popular with the oil industry, the area boasts many well-travelled tracks – an important factor when journeying alone – and so I set about preparing, packing food and water for at least five days and storing additional fuel in jerry cans. 

For the first time in weeks, clouds drifted across the sky as I left Muscat, making the day refreshingly cooler than normal. I progressed quickly along the road to Nizwa and was soon close to Adam. Surprisingly, the sky was dominated by clouds and I found myself hoping that my destination, about 470km from the capital, would offer the sun I had enjoyed in the Empty Quarter many times before. 

In the afternoon, I pulled over at the Ghaba North filling station for a final refuel before taking a track. After an hour of gentle driving, I found myself in the small oil town of Saih Rawl. The track was wide and largely empty, allowing me to move deeper into the desert. I scaled the sand dunes that lay ahead with ease and arrived at Mabrouk for a perfectly timed and well-earned break. 

A quick look at my GPS told me that I was just 40km from my intended campsite, which meant I had arrived two hours before sunset and with time for a spot of exploring before settling down for a night under the stars. 

There is a very specific silence about the Empty Quarter. Providing it’s not too windy, you won’t be able to hear a single sound – and I love it. Venturing away from the car, camera in hand, I was immediately struck by the amazing colour of the dunes, which had been transformed to a deep red and beautifully contrasted the grey and cloudy sky. This was my ninth trip to the Empty Quarter in 12 months and my 23rd in total, yet it was the first time I had ever experienced conditions quite like those I found before me as I moved over the sands with my long and wide lens, snapping as I went.   

The sun disappearing below the horizon drew my photo session to a close and I returned to the car to start a campfire. I prepared some simple food and a pot of strong black tea, and sat back to think about the Bedouin who had once roamed the Arabian desert, living like this in years gone by. 

Night brought more problems than I had expected, with the overheated sand and lack of wind creating an uncomfortable temperature. I was sleeping in the car and had to switch on the engine and air conditioning for a while at midnight. Those who have spent a night in the desert will know that sleep is always fitful and I woke up several times – once venturing out for a small walk with the sand around me bathed in the warm, yellowish artificial light of a nearby oil facility. 

A huge cup of coffee was the first thing on my agenda the next day, before I checked my position to find I was only a stone’s throw from a small village called Abu Tubul, one of the most remote locations in Oman and close to the border with Saudi Arabia. 

The weather was back to normal and the sun was beating down strongly, even at that early hour – only a few clouds dotted the sky as I made my way back towards the main track. 

I took a slow drive back to civilisation, stopping along the way to try to capture the immense scale of the mesmeric dunes that rose up all around me. 

Travel Advice

The Empty Quarter can be dangerous to explore, although the area around Mabrouk is more approachable for travellers with less experience. The dunes are in good condition and there are plenty of gravel tracks or asphalt roads for those who do not wish to drive off-road. You can park your car next to the track and explore on foot easily, with huge dunes about 100 metres from the track. 

Always respect the driving rules on these tracks – do not exceed 80kph and do not overtake any vehicle in the dust. You must have your lights on at all times, even during the day. Mobile phone reception is good near the track, in case of an emergency.

How to get there

Take road 15 towards Nizwa, then road 31 towards Salalah. Refuel in the small village of Ghaba North and turn right on the track just behind the petrol station. Go straight to the small and sandy roundabout and turn left to Saih Rawl. Pass Saih Rawl and go to Mabrouk. Behind Mabrouk is a small road sign to Abu Tubul. Keep going on this track. The first sand dunes will be visible after several kilometres.

GPS location of the turning point to Abu Tubul:  16’0.37”N  56°16’30.56”E

GPS location of the dunes near the track:  21° 6’31.34”N  55°58’42.04”E