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Rub Al Khali – where Allah wouldn’t go

Česká verze tady.

Bedouin in Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Bedouin in Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

I am sitting atop a dune in the Rub Al-Khali desert. Sand as far as the eye can see. Only in the distance I note our little camp crouching in the desert – two cars, two tents and fire – the only sign of civilization for miles. The wind lifts the sand off dune ridges and the setting sun is dying it red-hot – as if flames of fire were leaping around me. After dark, the wind subsides and utter darkness and silence surround me. Through all my senses I am privileged to perceive the meaning of the words “Rub Al Khali” or “Empty Quarter”.

Text and photo (c) by Frantisek Staud/www.photostaud.com

This story was published in a Czech Geographical Magazine – Koktejl. Full royalty pament was sent to Medecins Sans Frontieres


Omani woman in traditional costume, Oman

Omani woman in traditional costume, Oman

I am in the middle of my voyage through the Sultanate of Oman, a country of Sinbad the Sailor and the Queen of Sheba, a country of breathtaking sceneries, volcanic mountains, chiseled canyons, secluded beaches and ……deserts. My journey begins in the capital, Muscat, and after several hours of comfortable asphalt road we turn the steering wheels towards the north, filling up the tanks of both 4×4 cars and ten reserve canisters to the brim and releasing some air out of the tires. Sand, in all imaginable forms, will be our home for the coming two weeks.

The infamous gateway to Rub al Khali on the border with Saudi Arabia is called “Umm Al Samis” (Mother of poisons). It is a hazardous area of loose sand, salt marsh and no signs of life. The tight-looking crust is very treacherous if it breaks under the wheels of a car. From a distance it looks like a freshly plowed field; if you set your foot on it, it crunches and reveals a snow-white salt under the layer of brown clay. Committed to its name, the Mother of poisons looks very unhospitable and Bedouins have avoided her for ages – so have tourists. Flat horizon all around me is disturbed by occasional projections of fata morgana; and one of them reflects the first contour of Empty Quarter.

Tent camp in Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Our camp in Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

With an area of 650,000 square kilometers, the Rub al Khali is the largest sand desert in the world. If you can imagine the whole of France covered with sand, you can imagine the dimensions of the Empty Quarter. “Not even Allah has been there,” Bedouins warned the oilman Thomas Barger, when searching for oil in the late 1940s. Dunes can reach heights of up to 300 meters and their slopes are decorated with symmetrical wrinkles – as if combed by a snowgroomer.

4x4 Offroad stuck in the sand of Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, Oman

4×4 Offroad stuck in the sand of Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, Oman

Driving here without experience would be a nightmare, but for our veteran drivers, Tom and Stephan, the steep sand-hills present no obstacle and our offroad whisks us surprisingly easily to any top. Driving across the dunes resembles an elevator ride: someone accidentally presses the buttons and I’m just waiting to see if my stomach is buoyed up or pushed in the opposite direction. It will take me a few days before I get used to this buzzing rollercoaster and will be able to take photographs and write notes. With increasing mileage the desert changes its texture and color – immense red dunes are replaced with wind-formed dunes of barchan type, which are traveling with the wind. My shoes had for long been left abandoned deep in the trunk of my car and I’m enjoying the barefoot luxury. The fine grains of sand, pleasingly chilling in the morning and nicely warm in in the evening, give me the most satisfying caress.

Bedouin children in Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, black and white, Oman

Bedouin children in Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, black and white, Oman

When a “petrol station” appears behind one of the dunes, I can hardly believe my eyes, but a sign on a wooden pole says so, with an empty canister lying in the sand. A twelve-year old Bedouin girl sells her souvenirs to passing tourists. Yet, I see neither petrol, nor tourists. We meet more Bedouins after a few kilometers, adults sitting in the shade of their tents and offering handmade hats, carpets, or sandals. Behind the tents, their children play baseball in the dust, with branches of the palm trees instead of bats. They react to my presence by throwing stones in my direction, which I attribute to their passion for the game and decide to withdraw.

Every evening before sunset, we look up a spot for camping, usually high in the dunes. If you could imagine France covered with sand, then the glittering vault of stars above the desert is simply beyond imagination! Every night I fall asleep by the fire and burning frankincense, gazing into the deep black sky, hesitating if it is Cassiopeia or the Pleiades, who put me to sleep tonight – in the best hotel in the world, the five-(billion)-star hotel “Under the Milky Way”. The night-wind sweeps sand into my sleeping bag, ears, eyes, nose and all other body openings – but I couldn´t care less.

Stars above Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, Oman

Stars above Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, Oman

Rise early, for the hour after sunrise is borrowed from paradise,” an Arab proverb speaks, and here in the Rub Al Khali’s it´s doubly true. Therefore, every night my alarm clock wakes me up at 2 a.m. and, surrounded by sand and stars, I set out into the bowels of the dunes in search for nighttime photographs and the deafening silence. Silence, which we have voluntarily urged from our lives, and which we cannot listen to any more. The mirror and shutter of my camera cuts the night like a gunshot; I feel sorry to disturb the peace and harmony so I carefully consider each exposure. At least I have time to thank the desert for giving me the honor to stay in such a beautiful place, bigheartedly tolerated by scorpions, snakes and spiders.

Bedouin in Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Bedouin in Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

We continue west along the border with Saudi Arabia, towards Yemen. Along the way we meet abandoned Bedouin shelters, regrettably filthy and full of plastic garbage. Like the rest of the country, the Bedouins have undergone an unprecedented transformation over the last few decades. The famous British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, who traveled here in the middle of the last century and spent “the most beautiful years of my life” with Bedouins, would hardly recognize them. They drive pickups in the desert, with camels resting on the back of the car as if enjoying a family outing, they shop in the markets, wear jeans, carry plastic bags and communicate with mobile phones. The government has built several settlements for Bedouins all around Oman, each of them featuring hundreds of homes, a mosque, school, hospital and police station. Bedouins do not have to pay rent, only electricity and water. Still they prefer their traditional huts in the desert – barasti – built from palm trees. Barasti have one definite advantage for the nomads; they can be rolled up in no time, like a carpet, thrown on a pickup and driven a few miles away.

Landscape of Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Landscape of Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Scattered like cauliflowers, forgotten and long fossilized, thousands of geodes are peeping out of the salt plains between the dunes. Hollow spheroids crack under the weight of our cars and let me peek into their bowels; while the outside is uninvitingly gray, eroded by wind, sand and sun, inside I see glittering crystal of limestone, being formed over hundreds of thousands of years.

Two cars in the landscape of Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Two cars in the landscape of Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali Desert, Oman

Several points of the dessert are crisscrossed by dried-up rivers, wadis, in the footsteps of ancient streams. One of the longest, wadi Dawkah, stretches hundreds of kilometers from Saudi Arabia to the Arabian Sea. The entire length is lined with mimosa trees that keep their chance to live only through their roots, searching for water as deep as several tens of meters. Semi-wild camels, as far as they can reach, nibble the green crowns of mimosas, making the trees look like heads with carefully trimmed afro-hairstyles. Completely different is the rocky Wadi Al Haugh, a paradise for geology teachers, witness of the immense volcanic activity and geological chaos. One does not need much imagination to see in every rock formation the face of the last of the Mohicans, or characters from fantasy stories. They all seem ready to run or take off – thousands of years waiting for a command.

Wilfred Thesiger once wisely said that no one leaves the Rub al Khali unchanged. After two weeks of wandering through the sands, the last dunes are disappearing behind the shimmering horizon and the wind has wiped out my footprints. On my cellular I see the first signal of a local operator. Dirty, dusty and boyishly happy I put on my shoes again and step into a luxury seaside hotel near Salalah. Lined with polished marble and scented with oriental fragrance, it opened just a few months ago. Still, I am afraid that its five stars will be infinitely too few for me tonight!

Stars above Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, Oman

Stars above Wahiba Sands, Al Sharqiya, Oman

 


 

To see more photographs from the deserts of Oman in higher resolution, click on the photo-gallery below:

 

Sultanate of Oman

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Oman has made more progress than any other country in the world in the last 40 years. Oman has achieved stability at home and peace with its neighbors”. (H. Clinton)

Until the 1970s, Oman lived in deep feudalism: three elementary schools, one hospital with twelve beds and a single piece of asphalt road from the sultan’s palace to the military base. Sultan Said bin Taimur apparently did not have the right gift for development and kept the country in the darkness of feudalism. His biggest mistake was, as it later turned out, that he gave his son Qaboos education in the United Kingdom. After his return, he held him in isolation for a while, but in 1970 the then 28-year-old Qaboos solved generational conflict by bloodless coup and sent his father into exile to London (where he died two years later). Thanks to his visionary intelligence and absolute monarchy supported by oil revenues, Qaboos has led his sultanate among the most developed countries of the world, with more than thousands of schools, several universities, hospitals in every town and thousands of kilometers of highways. On her visit to Oman, Hilary Clinton praised the progress Oman has made since Qaboos came to power after overthrowing his father.

I was fortunate to travel the beautiful country in January/February 2015. Here I am presenting some sample photographs to give you an idea of what the Sultanate of Oman can offer to visitors. A full-size travelogue from my voyage through the sands of Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali Desert) is coming soon.

Sudan in darkness

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Naqa temple by night, Sudan

No, do not worry, I am not going to bore you with a political study and lament on Sudan future… What I want to show you are some photographs that I made between sunsets and sunrises while wandering northern Sudan.

Apart from standard travel photography, I aimed to put some of the Sudanese (pre)historical monuments, dating thousands of years back, into the center of the galaxy and give them a different dimension than the one we know from books, magazines and postcards (not that there are many).

Lion temple of Musawwarat es-Sufra under circling sky, Sudan

Lion temple of Musawwarat es-Sufra under circling sky, Sudan

In most cases I arrived at the locations around noontime to scout the area, to find the right angle for composition and to measure the distance from the temples (as there is no way to focus at night). I also consulted Sky Guide app on my mobile phone (highly recommended) to predict the times of sunset, moonrise and position of stars (Polaris in particular). I placed a big stone to where my tripod would be standing at night, enjoyed the rest of the day taking pictures of people and returned after dark.

Stars over Ghazali, Sudan

Stars over Ghazali, Sudan

For still Milky Way photos, I set ISO on my Nikon to about 3200-6400 and exposed for maximum 20 seconds. For star trails, I usually took one long exposure (60-90 min) or a set of 30-sec-frames that I would later stitch together in Photoshop like this one below.

Jebel barkal pyramids under startrails of the northern sky, Sudan

Jebel barkal pyramids under star trails of the northern sky, Sudan

After pressing my cable release, I would lie down next to my tripod and enjoy the deep darkness and silence in the proximity of the ancient temples or pyramids, gazing to the stars circling above…..needless to say, I almost always fell asleep while my camera was working.