Into the Empty Quarter

11 Jan

Good old Wilfred Thesiger. The explorer’s five years in the heat of the UAE desert have inspired countless expats to dip their toes in the shallows of the Rub’ Al Khali, and his books and artefacts have become a small tourist industry in their own right. You can head out to the museum in Al Ain to gaze upon the man’s engraved rifle, or you can flit down to Liwa and have a go at desert camping, trying to imagine what it was like to be the UAE’s first expat explorer. You’re never going to get close, of course.

Dylan Doran, the actor who plays Thesiger in the up-and-coming documentary Shifting Sands, told me that while he relished the experience, his days schlepping up and down mountainous sand dunes resulted in badly blistered feet. Couple that with a strong risk of heatstroke and you’ll soon be looking for an easier option. How many of you can put your hands up and honestly say you’ve read Thesiger’s Arabian Sands anyway?

Until now, exploring the Empty Quarter in relative luxury was a limited endeavour. The Liwa Hotel (02 409 9999) is still perfectly adequate, of course, as is the government-run Liwa Guest House (02 882 2075). There are the desert tours, too, which throw in a decent barbecue, a belly dancing show and a fair amount of dune bashing in outsized 4x4s. Yes, you’re right – that’s the sound of an eccentric British explorer turning in his grave. Want to make him spin faster? Try the ultra-luxurious Qasr Al Sarab hotel.

Famously, Wilf berated two explorers he found in the Hindu Kush mountains, labelling them ‘pansies’ for using tents and sleeping apparatus. Turning his back on them, he bedded down on the rough ground with only the dirt for a pillow. He’d probably have been struck speechless by the opulence on display at Qasr Al Sarab. While it’s certainly located on the edge of his domain, rising like a Bedu myth from the flames of the unforgiving desert, some 40km from anywhere, this is certainly not a place for anyone who sees lack of bedding as cause for one-upmanship.

The journey from Dubai into the Empty Quarter is a lengthy trek. Take the E11 through Abu Dhabi and head for Mussafah, then turn left onto the E65 (in the direction of Hameem). Drive straight – no deviating allowed – for 150km in the general direction of Saudi Arabia. It’s the straightest, most monotonous road you’ll ever see, and it comes to an end, almost comically, just past the world’s most isolated petrol station.

It’s at this point that the fun begins. Heading off-road (albeit on a roughly hewn track), you navigate your way across 12km of increasingly mountainous sand dunes. The pristine sand is as inviting as virgin snow, and you’ll find no pressing reason to ignore your impulses. Jack Kerouac once wrote that it’s impossible to fall off a mountain (providing you run fast enough), and there’s no better place to test his theory. No matter how steep, launching yourself from the top of a dune can only exhilarate; each moonlike stride cushioned by the enveloping sand, each stumble and fall hurting as much as a mistimed leap on a bouncy castle. No one minds much as you dust yourself off outside the hotel lobby. This here is desert country, after all.

Emerging from the dunes, the first glimpses of the resort will be enough to get your pulse racing, especially if you spent your childhood immersed in Arabian Nights. The press kit describes the hotel as a ‘Mirage Palace’ and, for once, it lives up to PR platitudes. Outside, it has yet to achieve the scorched, windswept look you might expect to find on a turreted castle in the sand (it’s still only months old, of course), but on the inside they’ve taken great care to furnish it with a gaggle of antiques found across the former Trucial States. The library, in particular, is a delightful recess of books and curios, flecked with shadows of a colonial past. Take tea here, overlooking the mighty dune that dominates the right side of the vista, and let the years slip from you – you can just about reach Thesiger’s era, if you regress hard enough.

As the evening falls across your private garden, your choices are wide open. The blazing heat drops away dramatically, and the possibility of a walk in the desert valley becomes a comfortable option. The huge dune next to the hotel takes about 30 minutes to conquer, and about two minutes to descend (using Kerouac’s earlier methods). The views from the top are fairly spectacular, but the real points of interest come in the form of animal and insect tracks – scorpion trails are abundant if you climb before breakfast.

Alternatively, you can lounge in the platformed pool that separates the buildings from the wilderness. It’s a great place to be when the sun goes down, splashing the sky with purple and gold as it dips the valley into a deep darkness. Needless to say, the stars come out with real vigour. Make a post-dinner date with the lounger in the garden to fully appreciate the celestial light show.

Wilf wonders never cease
  1.  Mubarak Bin London, as he’s affectionately known in these parts, was born Wilfred Patrick Thesiger in 1910 in Addis Ababa. It’s said that he developed a nose for exploration after he saw the Emperor’s army return from a pitched battle against African tribesmen.
  2. His cousin, Earnest Thesiger, was an actor who starred in the 1935 horror classic, Bride of Frankenstein.
  3. The explorer’s initial involvement with the sands of the Arabian Peninsula was as a locust researcher, for which his only qualification was an attraction to harsh living.
  4. Thesiger is mistakenly known as the first European to cross the Empty Quarter. That honour actually goes to Bertram Thomas, a British explorer with a penchant for unwieldy book titles. It’s easy to see how Thesiger’s Arabian Sands caught the imagination over his predecessor’s The Arabs: The Epic Life Story of a People Who Have Left Their Deep Impress on the World.
  5. Stumbling out of the Empty Quarter, Thesiger found refreshment at Qutuf Fort, a small but attractive stronghold that still stands today. His chances of finding it were nothing short of miraculous. It took me30 minutes of bemused hunting before I located it off the road near Taraq, nestled in someone’s back garden.
Need to know

Food and drink
Considering your isolated location, you’re limited to the hotel’s own outlets: no bad thing given the options. Al Waha is nothing more than adequate – a buffet is a buffet, when all’s said and done; best left for a splurge at breakfast. Make sure you sit inside, though, even during the winter months – the terrace seems to have caught the attention of every fly in the desert. Ghadeer is much more like it, offering poolside snacks with a touch of class. It might sound basic, but you can’t go wrong with the burgers – nothing like a chin covered in meaty juices to tell you’ve just enjoyed a quality patty. For high-class dining, however, Suhail is quite simply one of the best new restaurants in the emirate.

Added extras
The hotel caters to the camel curious, with lengthy wobbles into a neighbouring valley. Booking ahead is a must (Dhs135 per person), and the destination is not to be missed (yet more opportunities not to fall off mountains). Desert walks, bike rides and archery bouts are also offered, each priced at Dhs60 per person.

If you’re really only here for R&R, the spa, with its Thai motif and largely Thai staff, is a necessary diversion. The price list is available on request, but we particularly recommend the aromatherapy treatments, which sent us into such a state of relaxation, we were barely capable of speech.

Essentials
A deluxe room at Qasr Al Sarab starts at around Dhs1,700 (02 886 2088; www.qasralsarab.anantara.com). Be sure to take pots of cash for any add-ons – while the facilities are top notch, the fact that the hotel has nothing in its immediate vicinity means that you’re at the mercy of its menus and price lists.

Originally published on Time Out Abu Dhabi

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