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The following is excerpted from Chapter Six of the Arabian Sands: Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s classic work, in which he describes the journeys he made from 1945 to 1950 in and around the Empty Quarter. Before him, no other traveller, apart from the Bedu who lived there, had dared to cross those empty wastes more than once. Thesiger’s experience and knowledge of the Arabian Sands, its people, its tribal warfare and ancient history, its daily life and landscape, are unique and will remain so, for the world he describes has since altered beyond recognition.
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On the Edge of the Empty Quarter
After our evening meal I had a long talk with Muhammad al Auf. He was the only one of our party who had been across the Sands and knew what conditions were like on the other side. He was quiet and reserved, and inspired me with confidence. The Bait Kathir were jealous of him, and he was anxious not to assume responsibility as guide until we had left the area which they knew. Young Said, who was the son of the Bait Musan sheikh, could take us as far as Ramlat al Ghafa. He knew these Sands, but the rest of the Bait Kathir had only been on the edge of them when travelling with me the year before.
I knew that Sultan and the others would join me at once if they saw me talking to al Auf. He and I therefore told the others that we were going to round up the grazing camels. Taking our rifles we walked off into the desert, hunted round until we found the camels, and then sat and talked. I asked al Auf when he had crossed the eastern Sands. He said, ‘Two years ago. I know them.’ When I pressed him for details of his journey he smiled and repeated, ‘I know them’, and I felt sure he did. He said that if we could cross the formidable Uruq al Shaiba, which he described as successive mountains of sand, we should arrive at Dhafara, where in the palm groves of Liwa there were wells and villages. I had vaguely heard of Dhafara. To the southern Bedu it stood for the ultima Thule: ‘as far as Dhafara’ they said, to imply the limits of the known world. Al Auf described Liwa to me as we sat there in the dark. It sounded very exciting, an oasis with palm groves and villages which extended for two days’ camel journey. I knew that no European had ever been there, and that it must be bigger than Jabrin, which Cheesman had discovered in 1924. Al Auf reckoned that it would take us a month to get there and was worried about the Bait Kathir camels which were in poor condition. He said, ‘They will never get across the Uruq al Shaiba.’ I asked if there was no way round these sands, and he said, ‘No, only if we went far to the west by Dakaka, where Thomas crossed. There the Sands are easy.’ He told me that to the east the Uruq al Shaiba ran into the dangerous quicksands of Umm al Samim (the Mother of Poison). Bertram Thomas had heard of Umm al Samim, and believed that the legendary quicksands of the Bahr al Safi, which von Wrede the Bavarian traveller claimed to have discovered to the north of the Hadhramaut in 1843 would eventually be identified with it. There were fascinating problems to be solved in the desert ahead of us, but could we get there? I estimated that we should have to cross four hundred miles of desert before we reached Liwa. Once more we discussed camels, distances, food, and water. We were seriously short of food. We had started from Mughshin with two hundred pounds of flour, rice for two meals; one of which was eaten, a few handfuls of maize, and a little butter, coffee, sugar and tea. This must last twelve of us for at least a month, which was half a pound of flour a day each, and nothing else. I thought bitterly of the food which the Arabs had squandered on the way to Mughshin. We should be very hungry. We could probably carry enough water for twenty days if we rationed ourselves to a quart a day for each person. Twenty waterless days was the very limit that camels would stand, travelling for long hours across heavy sands; and they would only do this if they found grazing. Should we find grazing? It is the continual problem which faces the Bedu. If we did not find it, the camels would collapse and that would be the end of us all. It is not hunger nor is it thirst that frightens the Bedu; they maintain that riding they can survive in cold weather for seven days without food or water. It is the possible collapse of their camels which haunts them. If this happens, death is certain. I asked al Auf again what he thought; would we find grazing? ‘God knows,’ he answered. ‘There is grazing as far as Ramlat al Ghafa from rain two years ago; beyond that, who knows?’ He smiled, and added, ‘We will find something.’ We rose and went back to the camp to sleep, but I lay awake for a long time. The journey ahead of us seemed very formidable and I was doubtful of the Bait Kathir.
In the morning we allowed the camels to feed for a while on the ghaf trees which grew round our camping place. Musallim had shot a gazelle the day before, and we had eaten only half the meat. He had placed the rest in a low bush to keep it out of the sand, and when we woke it was gone. Tracks showed that a fox had taken it. I was angry, for this was the last meat we were likely to have for very many days. Musallim followed the tracks, and unearthed most of the meat where the fox had buried it under another bush. We brushed the sand off it, thankful to have recovered it.
After we had saddled we rode northward to Ghanim. This country was familiar to me, from my visit of the year before. Isolated dunes, two or three hundred feet in height, rose in apparently haphazard confusion from the desert floor. These enormous piles of sand, produced by vagaries of the winds which blew there, conform to no known rule of sand formation. The Bedu call them qaid. I have only seen them in the south-eastern Sands and in modified form round Liwa. These qaid are known individually to the Bedu, for each dune has its own shape, which does not change perceptibly with the years; but all of them have certain features in common. Here in every case it was the northern face which was steep. On this side the sand fell away from beneath the summit in an unbroken wall, set at as steep an angle as the grains of sand would lie. Down this face small avalanches constantly subsided, each fall leaving a temporary, light-coloured smear upon the surface of the sand. On either side of this face sharp-crested ridges swept down in undulating curves, and behind them were other alternating ridges and troughs, smaller and more involved as they became farther from the main face. The sand on the lower slopes at the back of the dune was firm, and rose and fell in broad sinuous trenches, or was dimpled with shallow hollows. The surface of the sand was marked with diminutive ripples, of which the ridges were built from the heavier and darker grains, while the hollows were filled with the smaller paler-coloured stuff. Continuously the wind shifted the sand, separating the heavier from the lighter grail which are always of different colour. Only once did I notice sands where the large were paler than the small. Although they are the least numerous it is the large grains which give the prevailing hue to the landscape. Disturb the surface of the sand and the underlying paleness is immediately revealed. It is this blending of two colours which gives such depth and richness to the Sands: gold with silver, orange with cream, brick-red with white, burnt-brown with pink, yellow with grey–they have an infinite variety of shades and colours.
We reached the well of Khaur bin Atarit, discovered by some forgotten Bedu, but still bearing his name, on the evening of 27 November, four days after leaving Mughshin. The shallow well was in the hard, white gypsum floor that underlay the sands, and was on the north side of a high dune. It was drifted in, but using our hands, and the few basins and pots which we had with us, we dug it out before nightfall. The water tasted brackish, as I had expected, and I knew that the taste would grow worse the longer we kept the water in the skins. Surprisingly it was only mildly purgative, although it contained magnesium sulphate mixed with calcium and common salt. Next day Said and two others went to look for the Bait Musan at Bir Halu, ‘the-sweet well’. I knew from the year before that the name was misleading and that the water of Bir Halu tasted as foul as the water of Khaur bin Atarit.
I climbed to the summit of the dune and lay peacefully in the sun, four hundred feet above the well. A craving for privacy is something which Bedu will never understand; something which they will always instinctively mistrust. I have often been asked by Englishmen if I was never lonely in the desert, and have wondered how many minutes I have spent by myself in the years that I have lived there. It is true that the worst loneliness is to be lonely in a crowd. I have been lonely at school and in European towns where I knew nobody, but I have never been lonely among Arabs. I have arrived in their towns where I was unknown, and I have walked into the bazaar and greeted a shopkeeper. He has invited me to sit beside him in his shop and has sent for tea. Other people have come along and joined us. They have asked me who I was, where I came from, and innumerable questions which we should never ask a stranger. Then one of them has said, ‘Come and lunch’, and at lunch I have met other Arabs, and someone else has asked me to dinner. I have wondered sadly what Arabs brought up in this tradition have thought when they visited England; and I have hoped that they realized that we are as unfriendly to each other as we must appear to be to them.
I watched bin Kabina walking along the arête of sand which swept upwards to the summit where I sat. He carried the service rifle which I had lent him for this journey. He joined me and sat talking, while he stripped the bolt. Bedu love taking rifles to pieces. He told me that he was going to buy a rifle with the money I should give him, and I chaffed him, asking him if he had his eye on the rifle which he had borrowed when he came with me to the Hadhramaut. Then he asked me if I had met Thomas, the only other Englishman who had been with his tribe. I told him that I had, and later when he had stopped talking and gone to sleep I thought about the journey that Thomas had made. When he crossed this desert it offered the final and greatest prize of Arabian exploration. Doughty and other famous Arabian travellers had dreamt of this achievement, but the realization of the dream was reserved for Thomas and Philby, whose names will always be remembered together in connexion with the crossing of the Empty Quarter, as the names of Amundsen and Scott will be associated with The South Pole. Bertram Thomas proved that this desert was not impassable as was once supposed. His object was to cross the Empty Quarter, and naturally he crossed it by the easiest way, where the dunes were small and the wells, known to his Rashid guides, were frequent. Today this route would offer no real difficulty because the traveller would know what lay ahead of him. But I knew that to minimize Thomas’s achievement by saying that his route proved easy would be as unjustifiable as to depreciate the first ascent of a great mountain because it was climbed by the easiest face. Philby’s route had obviously been far more difficult, and the four hundred miles between wells which he covered across the western Sands at the end of his journey must always remain an epic of desert travel. Before he started from Riyadh he had heard that Thomas had already crossed from Dhaufar to Qatar. Although he was bitterly disappointed, he continued undeterred, with his plans and carried out a journey which the discerning will regard as the greater of the two. Yet Philby had certain advantages which were denied to Thomas. Once he had obtained Ibn Saud’s permission to undertake the journey – and it was the king’s delay in granting this permission that lost him the race – he had behind him the king’s far-reaching authority. As a Muslim with the backing of the widely feared Ibn Jalawi, Governor of the Hasa, he could pass safely through the territory of the powerful Murra, whereas Thomas ran his greatest risk from this tribe, many of whom were extremely fanatical. Thomas had to make all his preparations himself. The Sultan of Muscat and his Wali in Salala were friendly, but their effective authority did not extend as far as the Qarra mountains. He discovered from experience which tribes could be of use to him, but as a Christian he was at first suspected and disliked. The measure of his achievement was that he won the confidence of these tribesmen and, with no authority behind him, persuaded them by patience and fair dealing to take him across the Sands.
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