Waves of superheated air shimmer above the surrounding ocean of sand as our 4WD ploughs along the flank of a massive dune, wheels churning, throwing a red-ochre spray in our wake. Outside our air-conditioned comfort is a desert baked by a blistering Arabian sun.
From the air, our vehicle is a tiny, dazzling white dot cast adrift on swells of powdery golden-orange sand. We’ve driven across the dusty flats of the emirate of Sharjah then on into sandy wastes flanking the mountain ridges of Oman. Outcrops of razor-edged black shale punctuate the sunbaked landscape.
We’re skirting the farthest eastern edge of the Empty Quarter, the Rub `al-Khali, a merciless 650,000 square kilometres of dunes and broken rock stretching way out west beyond the bounds of the imagination.
It’s said the Rub`al-Khali contains more than 16,000 cubic kilometres of sand among which sand mountains rise 300 metres. Legend talks of a land of jinns and demons. There are many tales of those who probed deep into the Empty Quarter only to disappear forever. Our venture, thankfully, is of a milder scale, merely a day’s excursion.
By mid-morning, the temperature in the shade nudges 43°C (109F). In mid-summer, July and August, desert temperatures can top 54°C (129F) but during the Arabian autumn, from September to November, it’s possible to explore shifting dunes, superheated rocky outcrops and parched wadis of the Arabian peninsula in some degree of climate-controlled comfort.
Several hours of desert driving bring us beneath a range of pale, blistered limestone cliffs and a vast pool of dense golden sand surrounding a craggy outcrop called Camel Rock. The Landcruiser stops on the lip of a gigantic dune. It’s time to sand ski.
Sand is not a slick as snow but a dune slalom is thrilling all the same. Tackling these gritty slopes is an amusing diversion when “wadi-bashing” – ex-pat jargon for charging about a desert in a vehicle.
In his 1992 novel The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes that, “in the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you.” In such emptiness he writes, “you are always surrounded by lost history.”
Who knows what lies beneath the dunes we’ve raced over? I do know is this: spend any time within such a vast and unremitting landscape certainly alters one’s perceptions. Such experiences are best told, like Ondaatje, in terms of the poetic and the spiritual.