Soaring heat across Australia over the past week has me thinking about the hottest times I’ve experienced on my travels. Temperatures experienced in the Australian Outback certainly make my list but the high point of hotness for me is in the Empty Corner, the Rub’ al Khali, a sun-blasted quadrant of desert covering a quarter of a million square kilometres of the Arabian Peninsula.
Awesomely inhospitable and practically uninhabited, a land of relentless excoriating heat, the Empty Corner is the sort of place where the indominatable explorer-author Wilfred Thesiger thrived. He traversed this most formidable land not once but several times more than 60 years ago, long before the advent of air-conditioned Landcruisers and ice-stuffed Eskies.
Thanks to the latter comforts I suffer none of the ordeals Thesiger overcame. And mine is but a brief venture into the Rub’ al Khali. Yet with the thermometer nudging 51C (123.8F), the blinding light and a horizon-swallowing expanse of sweltering landscape play havoc with my mind. My senses are sent reeling as soon as I swing open the car door and step out onto superheated dirt.
Sweat drips off my forehead and stings my eyes as I stand squinting in the glare and panting like a dog, all thought of further movement snuffed out on the spot. The fierce heat from the sun makes my skin smart and my head spin. I dare not remove my sunglasses. Even my tough Tilly hat wilts. More than a few moments of this would surely result in madness.
How did Thesiger cope? Was it any cooler in those far gone days when caravans regularly plied the frankincense route?
I step back into the truck and slam the door. The blast from the aircon is an immediate shock, chilling my sweat. Involuntarily I shiver in my seat and stare through the windscreen.
How is it possible that a layer of glass is all that separates me from what, in my feverish imagination, was surely a brief taste of the fires of hell beyond?
Click here to hear Thesiger talk about his Arabian adventures
Read Thesiger’s seminal Arabian Sands