It is one of the hottest, driest and inhospitable places in the world, stretching more than 1,000 kilometres across four countries; but Rub Al Khali was also one man’s dream to cross.
Max Calderan, 52, has been planning this adventure since he was seven. The Italian first learnt of the Empty Quarter after stumbling across it in an encyclopedia.
At his home in the small city of Udine, in northeast Italy, Mr Calderan was struck by a photo of Bedouin man stood with his camels. The caption said legend had it that the desert was so treacherous; it even scared camels and migratory birds.
"I told my mother when I grow up I will be the first man to go inside those deserts; from that day on I became a desert explorer," he told The National.
Forty-five years later, Mr Calderan has achieved his goal to become the first foreign man to trek the 1,100km desert alone, from West to East, on foot. Setting off from Najran in Saudi Arabia on January 18, he arrived in Liwa this week — four days earlier than planned. But the desert was not without its challenges.
“Rub Al Khali is a very pleasant and marvellous desert, until it is not,” he said.
Battling hallucinations and even a sandstorm one night, Mr Calderan started every day at 2am and would walk for 18 hours straight.
To stay on route, he followed a GPS map by day and the stars by night.
The inclines, he said, were the worst, describing Moreb dune in Liwa — famous for being one of the tallest sand dunes in the world — as "like a theme park ride for my four-year-old son" compared to the “mountains of sand” he had to climb.
The most difficult part was not knowing when it will end.
“You would be going up seeing the tip in front of you, then you realise the tip is on your right.
“You always hope that after the next dune you will see something, but you don’t see anything, just sand.”
To prepare, Mr Calderan kicked his training into high gear — having spent years working towards this goal.
As a child, he learnt to ski and began extreme free climbing. “When I was 16 I was already climbing without a rope.”
He also began to study the Middle East, spending his holidays trekking its deserts and moving between its provinces, until he eventually moved to Dubai six years ago.
“I trained a lot during the past few years, depriving myself of food and water and sleep, knowing that I would have to trek 16 to 18 hours a day, many of which will be during night hours.”
He also trained in Italy, where he would climb the mountains while carrying a 20kg backpack.
“I spoke to many Bedouins before doing it and they gave me very useful information.”
When he first applied for permission, from Saudi authorities, to cross the desert in 2012, they turned him down.
“They said you are going to commit suicide; we will never give you permission you are going to die going from West to East.
“I was lucky [they declined] because I was not ready.
“I was stronger and younger, but I did not have the same experience to be capable of doing it.”
He said the hardest part of the trek was the last 200km.
“It was like a trip to hell.
“I started praying to come out [alive].”
The first thing he did after reaching the end was call his wife, who is pregnant with his fourth child.
“If I was doing an expedition, she was going through a double expedition being alone at home alone expecting a child, while her husband was in the middle of nowhere.”
Mr Calderan now plans to dedicate his time to his family and saving the environment.
After being out in the wilderness, he has learnt to become more appreciative and protective of nature.
“I saw many plastics while I was in Rub’ Al Khali,” he said, “It could have been blown by the wind.”