All I knew about the biggest sand desert of the world, before moving to UAE, was that it’s the world’s biggest sand desert.
Soon after moving here, I read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. The book describes his attempts to map the sand desert and his adventures while crossing the Empty Quarter. It was my introduction to the “sea of sand”.
Discovering the Empty Quarter
Rub al Khali, as it is called in Arabic is shared by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen and Oman. The punishing temperature of the desert and the height of the sand dunes make it one of the toughest terrains to cross. One has to be quite passionate to want to cross it.
The Empty Quarter is full of interesting facts.
- It’s larger than France, Belgium and Netherlands.
- It’s smaller than the Sahara desert but has more sand than the Sahara.
- The sand dunes can reach 300 meters in height.
- Not only that, they can also move at a speed of 30 km per year!
Even though the Bedouin life described by Thesiger is no longer commonly practiced, there are still a few Bedouins around who live in the desert and follow the same lifestyle. Don’t be surprised though if you see them traveling in a 4×4 though. They may still cling to the original bedu lifestyle but they aren’t averse to modernity that simply makes better sense. Having adapted to the changes the discovery of oil has brought to the region, they’re now as comfortable in the cities as they are in the desert.
Exploring the Empty Quarter
So if you’re into adventure traveling and wish to see what it’s like in the Arabian Quarter first hand, you have a few options. None of them include braving Rub al Khali on your own though.
You can enter the Quarter through each of the counties that share it. If you’re traveling via UAE, you’ll need to go through Abu Dhabi to enter the Liwa Oasis in the Arabian Quarter. Not only is the highway excellent, you also get a luxury resort smack in the middle of the Quarter! Qasr al Sarab – a 206 room resort, is located 120 miles from Abu Dhabi (about a 2 hours ride). Now how’s that for a unique desert experience?
If it’s Oman you’d like to enter through, take a flight to Salalah and drive through Jabal al Qara and arrive at the lost city of Ubar. Drive farther from there and you’ll reach the Empty Quarter. Travel agencies, like the Oman Travel Ltd, are your best bet to experience the Arabian Quarter. Choose your travel agency wisely.
While it is certainly possible to travel through Yemen and Saudi Arabia, it is easier to go through UAE or Oman – simply for the ease of access to good travel agencies. There’s less hassle of bureaucratic red tap in case of KSA and much more safer and politically stable in case of Yemen.
Traveling or camping in the Empty Quarter is no east feat – unless you’re in a luxury resort of course. The temperatures can rise up to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade and there’s barely any vegetation.
Rub al Khali is as beautiful as it is cruel. The paradox is enough to entice the adventure traveler in us. As fascinating and captivating as the Quarter is, I for one can’t see myself traveling through it extensively. It was definitely love on Thiselger’s part to have done so for so many years!
Personal Essays about traveling through the Empty Quarter
Camping in the Empty Quarter (This essay is from 1967. It’s interesting to see how different traveling to the Quarter has become in all this time.)