The Empty Quarter Expeditions


Background - The nature and dangers of the Rub' Al-Khali:

The size of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined, it is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, populated by huge 150-km-long 'Irq ("vein") dunes, 700 meter-high horned Barchan dunes, wall-like Zibar dunes blocking movement down the Shugs (corridors). There are also large areas of lag-gravel plains with seif ("sword") dunes marching across them. In the eastern margins there are sabkhas: dry-crusted, lithium-rich brine-mud lakes. We measured temperatures to 61 degrees C. (142 degrees F.), and encountered humidities down to 2% (20% is considered dry in the southwestern US). Around the edges of the Empty Quarter we encountered jerboas, camel-spiders (see photo below), sand-vipers, and translucent scorpions; the central core of the desert, where even Murra tribesmen don't venture, was absolutely lifeless. We also found thousands of ancient dried lakes between the huge 'Irq dunes, clear evidence of two previous pluvial periods, elegant flint arrow-heads, and evidence of huge water-buffalo-like bovids (see photo of skull below), even hippos.

Life for us in the Empty Quarter followed a routine of morning ablutions from a canteen, a light breakfast, then we would pack our Hummer vehicles and move on, typically covering 250 to 500 km before our next camp-site. We brought all our water and all our fuel with us: 700 litres of diesel per Hummer, 100 litres of water per person. The average weight of each Hummer was thus about 11,800 lbs (5.4 metric tons). The temperatures reached 55-61 degrees C (130-142 degrees F) during the day, and some of our vehicle airconditioners failed from the terrible overload... in those vehicles, moving wind was the only coolant, and we rotated seats because a day in that heat would exhaust everyone. For 10 months out of the year, the winds in the Rub' Al-Khali pick up around noon local time from the north-northeast and reach a screeching crescendo around sunset; during the February-March Arabian Sea monsoon season, the winds reverse direction and come from the south-southwest. As the sun would set, we would set up tents in the late afternoon sand-storm, some of us wearing swim-goggles to protect our contacts from the stinging grit. Dinner was almost always mixed with flying sand; you could feel it grinding in your teeth: sand-burgers, grit-goulash, sand-pudding. Sleeping at night consisted of first securing the tent against scorpions and camel-spiders, which would leave tracks during the night showing that they were constantly searching for a way in. We then slept on top of our sleeping bags - the temperature normally didn't go below 40 degrees C (100 degrees F) during the night. We had to carefully brush the grit from our eyes before we dared to open them, and burning throats in the extremely dry conditions (down to 2% humidity) forced us to drink from our individually-issued water-jugs at least 5 times every night.

In the profound, windless silence of the mornings, Jeff walked into the desert with a video-camera to photograph the tracks left in the sand: a mute record of the life-and-death struggles that took place during the night between lizards and snakes, scorpions and camel-spiders, dung-beetles and jerboas.

The harsh survival-mode existence, and working shoulder-to-shoulder cemented permanent bonds of friendship among us, a comaraderie that crossed cultural and religious barriers. It was not quite devoid of humor, the exhaustion at the end of each day notwithstanding.

Beyond the circle of our tents stretched the featureless, rolling dunes of the emptiest place on earth, looking for all the world like the great rollers of the North Atlantic, only motionless - and white.

History of Previous Empty Quarter Expeditions:

* Bertram Thomas, 1931 (south to north through the eastern lobe - a true crossing).

* Harry St. John (Abdullah ) Philby, 1932 (north to south and back, then west - two true crossings).

* Wilfred Thesiger, 1946-48 (crossed part of the eastern lobe, later traversed along the northern edge). Note: we sadly announce the passing of Wilfred Thesiger, "Al Mubarak bin London" on 24 August 2003 at age 93.

* ARAMCO: incursions for oil exploration, 1937 - 1962.

* National Geographic/ARAMCO Expedition, 1965, from Dhahran to Wabar and back.

* Mandaville et al., 1984, Dhahran south to Wabar and west to As-Sulayyil - a very long, true crossing.

* Lothingland and others, 1988, Dhahran to Wabar and back.

* Three Zahid Expeditions, 1994-1995 (see below).

* NEC Empty Quarter Expedition, 1999, Crossed the eastern lobe - a true crossing (see for more information).

* Halloran-Mikati-Ro-Ro Expedition, February 2003, Crossed the northwestern lobe - a true crossing. See photo below:

Tom Ro (S. Korea), Mohamed Kheir el-Mikati (Lebanon), David Halloran (UK), John Ro (S. Korea)

* Footsteps of Thesiger Expedition, November - December 2011

Started at Salalah, Oman, on 31 October 2011, Ended in Abu Dhabi, on 14 December 2011
- Adrian Hayes
- Saeed Rashid al-Mesafri
- Ghafan Mohammed al-Jabri
Traverse (South to North) ending on Abu Dhabi's National Day:
Salalah, Oman -> Dhofar Mountains -> Wadi Marhit -> Mugshan -> Qsr al-Sareb -> al-Nashash -> Liwa -> Jebel Hafeet -> al-Ain, Abu Dhabi

1200 kilometers, 6 camels

* Hajar Ali Expedition (First Female Empty Quarter Expedition) March 2012

Started in al-Ain, Abu Dhabi, on _, Ended in Salalah, Oman:

Day 1: Landed in Dubai Airport via a red-eye flight from SIN-DXB and
headed straight to the Empty Quarters, stopping for lunch at a local
restaurant en route. The roof rack was dislodged and slid down whilst
navigating mild sand dunes, hitting the bonnet, bringing the water
supplies and petrol crashing on the sand. Fortunately only half a jerry
can of water was lost and that the windscreen was not smashed by the roof

Day 2: Planned for today is the much anticipated Umm As Samim (mother of
poison), one of the ‘most feared deserts known to man'. Bedus have
interesting beliefs surrounding Umm As Samim. Its legendary quicksands
similarly merited a place in Lawrence of Arabia's and Wilfred Thesiger's
imagination. Thesiger, the first foreigner to cross the Umm As Samim,
skirted its eastern edges.

Day 3: Camped for the night at Ramlat Gharbaniyat, the first campsite of
dunes approximated to reach as high as 400m. Certainly one of the
prettiest campsites on the journey. The third night also marked the
beginning of sandstorms during the night. The sandstorm in the first night
was mild but disturbed my sleep. At times it felt like someone had walked
past my tent and dumped a bucket of sand over its porous top. That and the
violent flapping of the tent contributed to wretched sleep for the night.

Day 4: Ramlat Mughshin.

Another pretty campsite. The trick to moderating the flapping of your tent
is to place large boxes/containers/bags around the edges of your tent.

Day 5: Ramlat Mithan.

Wadi Qitbit: Repaired tyres damaged during the journey. Refueled.
Re-stocked on water.  Continued on to Ramlat Hashman. Having been told
that there are ‘crystal balls' to be found in Ramlat Mithan, in the areas
close to the Yemeni border, had altered the route to include Ramlat
Mithan, not  knowing what these ‘crystal balls' looked like.

Managed to identify and find a few crystal balls and a round of bullets.
The temperature by then had gone above 40 degrees. The round of bullets,
along with stories of how Yemenis are smuggling themselves across the
border lent delicious frisson to the afternoon. Surreal landscapes
combining plains and high dunes.

The worst sandstorm tonight and the high temperatures of the afternoon had
curiously not cooled down. The landscape of plains and dunes do not afford
any protection from the sandstorm. Set up the tent, if only to stuff
everything in the car into the tent to create space to sleep inside the
vehicle. The sandstorm came suddenly, seemingly without notice. Sand has a
way of seeping into everything.  Kept my head down to minimize the amount
of sand getting into my eyes. A few times, overwhelmed, I'd opened my
mouth to breathe, which only allows sand into the mouth. Took refuge by
sleeping in the vehicle for the night which gets quite claustrophobic.
Left the vehicle at 5am to sleep in the tent, convinced that the sandstorm
had abated.

Day 6: End of expedition in Salalah.


Longitude: 55.299782
Latitude: 22.811950

Longitude: 55.906097
Latitude: 21.906976

Longitude: 55.394250
Latitude: 20.948340

Longitude: 55.022302
Latitude: 19.805997

Longitude: 53.074610
Latitude: 18.546092

Hajar Ali Expedition Track, March 2012

Ramlat Hashman, on the road from al-Ayn to Salalah. Photo by Hajar Ali.

The Zahid Expeditions:

Expedition 1: May 16-22, 1994 (Crossing from west to south, then south to north).

We entered the Rub' Al-Khali driving from Abha to Shorurah ("the town at the End of the World"), examining ancient lake-beds with hippo teeth, ostracods and freshwater shells, and elegant flint arrowheads. Attempting to follow the map provided by the Harris Al-Hodood (Saudi Border Patrol) we inadvertently camped in Yemen during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, returning via the Saudi border post at Kharkeer with help from a local Bedouin. Inside the tent-circle of our first camp we encountered 9 scorpions, two camel-spiders (which actually have 10 legs, so are technically not spiders but belong to the Arachnidae family and are distantly related to scorpions - see the photo below), and one sand-viper. The Major assigned to us from the Harris Al-Hodood, badly spooked, gave up on us then. He commandeered the Al-Hodood Nissan and drove back home. We had several interesting encounters with Jerboas, a kangaroo-mouse that we discovered ("first-hand", literally!) is a carnivore. From here we entered the dangerous, dead core of the Empty Quarter and made our way - under the guide of an incredible desert tracker from the Murra tribe - to Al-Hadida (the Wabar Impact site). This strange place of black glass and white rocks represents a Hiroshima-Atom-Bomb-scale meteorite impact explosion; we have gathered evidence that this event is very young - it probably happened in 1863. There are at least three crater rims still visible, and the exposed wind-sorted ejecta field is about 500 by 1,000 meters in size, caused by an explosion-cloud that probably reached the stratosphere (see photos of the amazingly dense ejecta field below). We then visited the eery, highly radioactive, wrecked weather-station and dead airplane at Ubayla, and finally encountered civilization again at Umm Bakh on the 6th day, ultimately landing in a luxury hotel in Dhahran. At least one of us took two showers and one bath that first night back.

This expedition was an extraordinary accomplishment, for we had crossed an area as dangerous - and logistically more difficult - than Antarctica. If an accident had befallen anyone, no helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft could have ever reached us. Seventeen people in 6 Hummers covered 1725 km of continuous sand dunes in only 6 days. At Wabar, Jeff Wynn completed a magnetic profile over the two largest meteorite craters - when the temperature reached 142 degrees F. (61 degrees C) in the shade. This was:

Expedition 2: November 30 - December 3, 1994 (Survey Grid Set-up)

We raced into the Wabar site from Riyadh, taking 17 hours one-way to get there, set up a precise survey grid, and returned in only 3.5 days. It required driving at night for much of the time, using flame-thrower halogens to avoid the dangerous, south-facing dune slip-faces. Ray Maybus, the US Ambassador to Riyadh, accompanied us and took photographs.

Expedition 3: March 14-20, 1995 ("The Shoemaker Expedition")

With Gene Shoemaker, we drove in and camped at the Wabar site for 5 days and 6 nights, completed detailed geological and geophysical mapping, and reported results at a news conference in Riyadh (see photo of Gene below). On the way into Wabar we encountered a zone of dunes that had been rained on - leaving weird 10-cm gray/beige contours on the dunes (each band representing a day of sand-movement in the diurnal windstorm cycle) that looked for all the world like a billowing topographic map. Temperatures on this expedition reached 131 degrees F. (56 degrees C. - see photo below) while we worked at the site, and our camp was destroyed twice by raging sandstorms, one of which nearly killed our cook Gabriel. As we would eat our gritty meals we would be seranaded by Dr. Jaffrey's organ keyboard, while periodically lifting our feet to allow the hunting scorpions an open path to the occasional wind-blown insects that represented their dinners. On the way out, we were rained on so hard north of Haradh that we had to drive down wadis full of water - in an area where it might typically rain once in 10 to 100 years.

Zahid Expedition Scientific Publications:

1. Shoemaker, E.M., and Wynn, J.C., 1997, Geology of the Wabar meteorite craters, Saudi Arabia: Proceedings of the XXVIII Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, 17-21 March 1997, Vol. 3, pp. 1313-1314.

2. Wynn and Shoemaker, 1997, Secrets of the Wabar Craters: Sky & Telescope (November 1997)

3. Wynn and Shoemaker, 1998, The Day the Sands Caught Fire: Scientific American (November 1998)

4. Wynn, J.C., 2002, Mapping an iron meteorite impact site with a magnetometer, and implications for the probability of a catastrophic impact on Earth: Journal of Environmental & Engineering Geophysics, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 143-150.

5. Prescott, John; Gillian Robertson, and Jeff Wynn, 2003 (in press), Luminescence age study of the Wabar meteorite craters, Saudi Arabia: Journal of Geophysical Research - Planets, 11 pages, 5 figures.

Selected Images (click to expand them):


Note: a more detailed map can be obtained by clicking HERE

Geologic map (by Wynn) of the Wabar meteorite impact site, Rub' Al-Khali, Saudi Arabia.

An image of the Wabar Impact Event by Don Dixon, one of the world's premier Space-Artists,
from the Nov '98 issue of Scientific American.

Where They Are Now (Zahid Participants & Expedition Number)

Special Tribute to Sheikh Walid Y. Zahid:

A special tribute is due Sheikh Walid Y. Zahid, who supported the three Empty Quarter expeditions. Sheikh Zahid is a manager-owner sufficiently visionary to see that profound new scientific information - information that would benefit all mankind - would come from a second and third expedition, and he firmly supported them. When push came to shove, he also supported his people with maturity and determination. It is a measure of the man that without a single exception, everyone who worked under him could offer only the highest praise.

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Maintained by: Jeff Wynn, Research Geophysicist, US Geological Survey

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