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EMPTY QUARTER DESERT

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An inspiring journey to the Quarter of Emptiness.

The Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali) lies in the southeastern part of Arabian Peninsula and it covers about a quarter of Saudi Arabia`s land surface. Other edges extend into United Arab Emirates and Sultanate of Oman. 

The Empty Quarter is approximately 1200 km long and 650 km wide, with the total area of 650 000 square km.

It is considered to be the largest sand desert in the world.

Empty Quarter Desert (Rub' Al-Khali):

The size of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined, The Empty Quarter is the largest contiguous sand dune desert in the world, an area as dangerous - and logistically more difficult to cross - than Antarctica. If an accident had befallen anyone, no helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft could have ever reached us because of density-altitude problems and the fact that it is covered by contiguous sand dunes. A helicopter cannot operate over any significant distance, not with any real load, in temperatures of 40-61C.

The Empty Quarter is 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 between 'Irq dunes). 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.) on the first Zahid Expedition, and encountered humidities down to 2% (20% is considered extremely dry in the southwestern US). Around the edges of the Empty Quarter we encountered 10-cm-long jerboas, 15-cm-wide camel-spiders, meter-long sand-vipers, and 10-cm-long, 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 in two different levels 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, fresh-water molluscs, and arrow-heads on the Zahid Expedition page). This ancient Land of 10,000 Lakes had human dwellers, even hippos.

HISTORY

In the 1920s, the western world was obsessed with the romance and intrigue of Arabia. The exploits of T E Lawrence (of Arabia), put on a pedestal by US journalist Lowell Thomas, made the Empty Quarter a point of focus for adventurers and explorers. The race was on to become the first westerner to successfully cross this vast area of sand, and there were two people in that race; in Saudi Arabia, Philby, advisor to Ibn Saud, was busily making plans for his own attempt, but his hopes were dashed when in February 1931 he received a telegram, from Bahrain, sent by Bertram Thomas. After a journey of sixty days, Thomas, guided by Omani Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, had successfully reached the towers of Doha, and the Empty Quarter had been crossed.

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