I looked down at my smart phone then ahead at the dirt track illuminated by the headlights of our Mazda.
‘It should be on our left any time now’, I reported to Laura at the steering wheel.
It was late Wednesday night in Oman and we were driving through a tiny village in the dark, trying to get to the waypoint I’d marked on my GPS before setting off earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the app I had downloaded for free didn’t have the facility to display roads even if the trail of dirt we were following had constituted one, so we had to use our imaginations a little with the directions.
A set of tyre tracks led off to the left and we followed them on a whim. Moments later our eyes fell upon our goal. Laura took her foot off the gas and let the car roll to a standstill. We sat, motionless and silent in our seats, staring forward as our eyes confirmed what our GPS reported: in front of us lay a huge sand dune and the start of the Wahiba Sands desert.
A version of this article originally appeared in Geographical Magazine. It’s based on a trip I did across the Wahiba Sands desert. To plan your own, you might like my How To Cross A Desert ebook.
The plan was simple: park the car at the first dune, fill our rucksacks with enough food and water for three days, walk east across the dunes until they run out, then make a beeline for the road and hitch a lift back to the car. When planning the trip, we had scanned ahead through the calendar for a weekend that coincided with a full moon. This would allow us to walk at night when it was cooler. That the weekend also happened to land on one of Oman’s many National Holidays was an added bonus meaning that our low budget expedition didn’t even require any time off work.
We got a few hours’ sleep by the car in a flimsy single-skin tent bought alongside our groceries from one of the French hypermarkets that proliferate Muscat, the capital of Oman. It was not waterproof and wouldn’t stand up to much wind but it pitched in seconds, weighed very little and cost less than a DVD.
We rose early beneath the moon, shouldered our heavy packs and trudged towards the first big pile of sand. For a map, we had printed a satellite image from Google Earth. Navigation would be easy – we simply had to keep heading east, perpendicular to the rows of parallel dunes that run north-south the length of the desert. As well as logging distances on my phone’s GPS, we measured progress by counting dunes. Judging from Google Earth, there would be 26 in total.
Even in the small hours of the morning, it was baking hot, and as the sun rose it only got worse. There was no shade, no wind and no respite. Despite this, or rather because of it, I wore long sleeves and long trousers throughout. Minimising water loss in a hot desert is key. Many of us are used to selecting expensive clothing that ‘wicks’ away moisture quickly to keep us dry and warm but that is the last thing we wanted in the Wahiba. Instead, I wore a cotton shirt I picked up on the cheap from a department store in Muscat. It felt clammy to wear but I knew the moisture would be keeping me cool and would otherwise have been lost to evaporation and required replacing by drinking more. I applied the same logic to my trekking trousers, desperate though I was to unzip them at the knee. My all-body-coverage was completed with a wide brimmed hat that cost one rial (£1.50) from a souk market.
Walking up hill is tiring at the best of times. Doing so with a heavy bag on your back makes it a little harder and doing that on sand is purgatory. Struggling uphill was like fighting against an escalator, trying our damnedest to maintain upward momentum but without over exerting ourselves and sweating unnecessarily. To aid with this, we carried walking poles and never have I been more grateful for them than on those steep, hot, unstable walking platforms of the Wahiba. The poles served a second purpose too and, with the midday heat fast approaching, we headed for the nearest scrap of tree to make the most of it.
Many are the times that my friends have ridiculed the ex-army desert camouflage tarpaulin I ‘won’ on ebay, laughing at its incongruity, for example, on a wet Cornish cliff-top. Now, at last, its colour scheme came good as I tied one end to a tree trunk and propped up each corner with an extended walking pole. Standard tent pegs are useless in deep sand so to secure the tarpaulin in place we filled half a dozen plastic carrier bags with sand and used them as dead weights. Our foam roll mats laid on the ground, we collapsed in the shade and did our best to rest while waiting for heat of the day to pass.
We continued our march through the late afternoon in our socks. We had been recommended ‘Bedu socks’ (socks made by Bedouin) which have tiny hairs sticking out to fend off scorpions. Unfortunately, there are some things that even ebay can’t provide so we made do with hiking socks during the day. You don’t need grip or a solid sole to walk on sand and sometimes it’s just easier without the weight of shoes. Indeed, legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger completed his journeys through these lands barefoot. When the sun went down however, we’d slip on our trainers to give some protection from spiders, snakes and other nasties that we might miss under moonlight.
Mouthfuls of food during our final snack stop in the evening were tainted by the all too familiar feeling of grit between the teeth. The wind had picked up and was filling every exposed orifice with sand. The Belgian adventurer Louis-Philippe Loncke, who dragged a cart 500 miles across the Simpson Desert in Australia, has since recommended using swimming goggles as a cheap way of protecting your eyes during such episodes. I had to make do with squinting behind my sunglasses.
The following morning we took stock of our water supply. We had rationed ourselves to three and a half litres each per day – a figure reached by researching how much other desert explorers used and testing ourselves on previous excursions. Just as important as water are the minerals lost through sweat: primarily sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. You can replace these minerals using expensive bottled sports drinks (which tend to come with lots of added sugar, sweeteners and other chemicals with long names) or you can just sprinkle a little unrefined salt into your water (and food) for the same effect. Coconut water, ubiquitous in Oman, is even better but we made do with salt and some powdered cordials for taste.
I knew all of this but still felt terribly sorry for myself as I took another mouthful of unpleasantly hot water. I steeled myself, however, with a recollection of Thesiger’s accounts of crossing Oman and the Empty Quarter desert in the 1940s. Thesiger survived on far less water than we did, seeking refills from watering holes which have long since dried up, and sharing his rations with his camels. Emphasising the need to look after your water stores properly, Thesiger lost water on more than one when his goatskin containers sprung a leak. Laura and I each had one tough water bladder made from a more animal friendly Cordura material. They are excellent pieces of kit (the MSR models have better seals and pouring mechanisms than the Ortlieb ones) but disproportionately expensive, particularly in bulk, so the rest of our water was carried in a mixture of wide-necked Nalgene bottles and large re-used fizzy drink containers.
Morning passed and another rest beneath tarp and tree. Afternoon’s sluggish arrival was marked with a wall of heat and a continued sea of dunes. Night came but its respite from heat was outweighed by the fatigue in our bodies as we churned up dune after dune after dune. We had lost count and with each summit’s arrival, silently hoped, believed, knew that it would be the last. But of course it never was. We stretched nylon over two bent poles, lay down and fell comatose completing calculations of water supplies in our heads. We woke to the teasing wet layer of dew laid down by night, folded away our shelter and walked away from the moon.
Where the dunes on western side of the Wahiba had clearly defined starts and finishes, the eastern edge was more a sprawling sea of continual choppy waves which made route finding more interesting and counting impossible. But I think we both somehow knew that we were approaching the eastern edge as we fell into a respectful silence. Laura drew away from me for some reason that escapes my recollection and I captured on my camera her tiny silhouetted figure staring eastwards over the gravel plains to the east as she stood atop the last wave of sand.
We embraced on the far side of the final dune, emptied several bucket’s worth of sand from each shoe then marched on a bearing towards the nearest road. It was remarkable how easy it was to walk on solid ground after so long in sand. As our feet hit tarmac we inventoried our remaining fluids: 150ml. No sooner had that touched the back of our throats than the very first passing vehicle, in a typical display of Omani kindliness, pulled over and picked us up.
Half an hour later, anyone passing the petrol station forecourt at Al-Qabil would have witnessed the most peculiar of spectacles. Two shabbily dressed, white-skinned Westerners stood with wild-eyed, ferociously imbibing almost simultaneously the contents of several large bottles of fruit juice, sports drinks, fizzy pop and strawberry milkshake.
Equipment List for a Desert Expedition
1. Swimming goggles for sand storms
Perhaps the last thing you’d think of when heading to an environment whose defining feature is a lack of water but swimming goggles are an excellent way of protecting your eyes during sand storms. Just look for any pair that have clear lenses and feel comfortable.
2. Cotton shirt to retain moisture
For a shirt you want long sleeves to stop sun burn and evaporation, a light colour to reflect heat, and cotton or linen to maximise water retention. For more details, see my comparison of base layers article.
3. Walking poles for the sand dunes
In my opinion, trekking poles which have clamps rather than screwing closed are more reliable, if a little more bulky. Similarly, the much rarer triangular prism is a stronger design than the more common cylinder. However, for a short, low-budget desert trek, any poles will do.
4. Tarpaulin for shade
A lightweight tarp and a few walking poles will allow you to instantly erect shade anywhere in the desert. Alpkit make a good one but ex-army tarps are cheap and common on ebay. Desert camouflage optional. Read more about tarps here.
5. Cheapest tent you can find
One thing you don’t need to worry about in the desert is rain so a single-skin tent is fine. All you want is a little respite from sand blowing in your face all night. We picked ours up from the supermarket for about £10. We took both the tarp and the tent which served two different purposes but was probably an unnecessary burden.
6. Woolly socks to walk in
If you can find a nice Bedouin to make you a pair of scorpion-repelling socks then go ahead and fill your boots. Failing that, any old walking socks will do to give you a little protection from the hot sand.
7. Free GPS app for your phone
Mictale.com GPS Essentials
If you already have a handheld GPS then use that but if you don’t then there’s no need to fork out for one when your smartphone will do the same job with a much easier interface. The app we had – GPS Essentials from Mictale.com – is free to use, doesn’t require phone signal or an internet connection, and won’t incur any roaming charges to use overseas. We plotted start, finish and one navigation point in advance then checked our progress when we stopped at lunch and at night.
9. Google Earth print out
Maps for remote regions can be hard to obtain and for certain areas, like dense jungle or desert, they offer very little useful information. A printed screen shot from Google Earth, however, can be a great help. In our case, it allowed us to see how many dunes we had to cross.
10. Plastic fizzy drink bottles
Tough water bladders like those made by MSR and Ortlieb (but definitely not a puncture prone Platypus) are perfect for lugging your supplies but they are expensive. A much cheaper alternative is just to use empty plastic drinks bottles. The tapered 1.5-litre types have a stronger design than the bigger 2-litre variants and the ones used for fizzy drinks tend to be tougher than mineral water bottles.
And don’t forget…
A stash of plastic carrier bags to fill with sand and use instead of tent pegs as anchors.
If you’re interested in desert travel and want to know more, I have recently launched a short ebook called How To Cross A Desert. Have a look…