Heart of Arabia: 1,300-km expedition across Saudi Arabia to retrace Philby’s 1917 trek

Oman-based British explorer Mark Evans will lead journey by foot and camel

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Latest: Heart of Arabia expedition arrives in Riyadh after two weeks in the desert

A team of explorers will embark on a 1,300-kilometre expedition across Saudi Arabia in November, retracing the route first documented by the British explorer Harry St John Philby in 1917.

The Heart of Arabia Expedition was announced by its patron, British royal Princess Anne, in London on Tuesday.

Oman-based explorer Mark Evans will lead the group by foot and camel for 30 days across the Arabian Peninsula, from Al Uqair in the east, to Jeddah on the western coast.

The route will take the group across the kingdom's vast deserts, where temperatures can exceed 50°C and water sources are scarce.

Mr Evans, who heads the NGO Outward Bound Oman, has previously led a range of desert expeditions including a 49-day crossing of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter in 2016.

He will be accompanied by Saudi explorer Reem Philby, the granddaughter of the man who crossed Arabia in 1917.

She cited “the great opportunity to follow the footsteps my grandfather walked over a century ago and the chance to learn some stories about him” as her motivation for the trip.

Philby’s original expedition provided valuable information about the geography and landscape of central Arabia that led to the drawing up of new maps of the area. He published a detailed account of the journey in his 1922 book, Heart of Arabia.

The trek was one of many undertaken by Philby, who was based in Arabia for several decades in various capacities. Originally a British military officer sent to Arabia in 1917, he stayed in the region after the First World War and became an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

Philby converted to Islam in 1930, taking the name Abdullah. He had a deep interest in the history, culture and geography of Arabia, which he explored on various trips and wrote numerous books about.

A photo of Harry St John Abdullah Philby in 1925. Photo by Harry St. John Bridger Philby / Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images

Mr Evans' Heart of Arabia expedition also aims to gather data from the route for various research projects, including monitoring the distribution of bats in the desert and the long-term effects of environmental change.

Photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache, who has previously shot the desert landscapes of Oman’s Sharqiya Sands, will be documenting the journey.

While the 2022 expedition will benefit from easier access to supplies than Philby — the walking and camel-riding team will be supported by cars — logistics head Alan Morrissey predicted the group would still face challenges.

“Every day, there will be reminders of the challenges that must have faced travellers 100 years ago. Our own challenges may be very different … but nevertheless we will proceed with a sense of the unknown on a daily basis,” he said.

The expedition is set to begin on November 15. It is divided into two legs, with the first ending in Riyadh on November 30.

The team will then set out from Old Diriyah, close to Riyadh, on January 15 — with the aim of reaching Jeddah on January 30.

Updated: November 28, 2022, 7:39 PM
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