Walker ends Empty Quarter journey

Jalal bin Thaneya, an Emirati student, overcomes traffic fumes, cement dust and food poisoning to raise awareness for the work of Senses Centre.

DUBAI // Having slept rough for two weeks and walked 550km through some of the most hostile terrain in the world, it was little wonder Jalal bin Thaneya slept like a baby on his return to Dubai this weekend. The 23-year-old Emirati student left for the Empty Quarter on December 26 in a bid to raise awareness for the work of the Senses Centre, a full-time residential care home in Dubai for children with special needs.

The journey took him from Dubai to Abu Dhabi along Sheikh Zayed Road before heading down the long Hameem Road to Liwa and passing through the Empty Quarter to the Aradah Fort in Umm Al Husn. It ended on Friday at 9.30pm. And while he managed it all blister-free, Mr bin Thaneya, who has completed several missions for children's charities before, said this was his most challenging venture so far including the daunting experience of walking along Sheikh Zayed Road.

"It is not built for 23-year-old walkers," he said. "It is a very dangerous road so the challenge was moving through that road and then, when in Abu Dhabi, having to pass the industrial area to reach Hameem Road with all the traffic." He covered up to 60km a day at the start of his journey, walking up to 11 hours daily, before slowing his pace to 40km a day. The traffic fumes and cement dust, he said, made him ill for the first few days of his trek.

And just as he was recovering, a bout of food poisoning hit on day four as he made his way along the Hameem Road, which had no lights, people or toilet facilities. "It is a very brutal road, it is just tarmac and very long half of the trip was along this road," he said. "The driver who was accompanying me had gone to get me breakfast. I usually walked 10km before eating in the morning. I am not sure where he got the food because I had not seen any restaurants for some time.

"An hour after I ate, it reacted with my digestive system and I was just walking and vomiting. I stopped for that day but I never considered giving up. I said that this is part of the challenge." As the road was unlit and quiet, Mr bin Thaneya walked with a glow-stick attached to his waist. His driver, who followed him along the route with food and medical supplies, carried a torch. He spent most nights sleeping in the passenger seat of his driver's car.

While there were several occasions where he suspected he narrowly avoided trouble, mostly from bored young men posing as police officers, he was touched by the overall kindness afforded to him by strangers and the authorities he encountered en route. In the early hours of New Year's Day, he met a soldier on the dark Hameem Road. "He wanted me to go somewhere warmer, gave me water and both he and police officers I met always gave me their numbers and insisted I call should I encounter any difficulties."

Mr bin Thaneya spent New Year's Day sleeping at the Emirates Auto Museum on Hameem Road. Although he had been criticised for spending his holiday embarking on the mission, the Middlesex University student does not regret a moment of the experience. "I felt liberated; I was walking into the new year doing something good for a centre that helps physically and mentally disadvantaged children," he said.

"It was a great feeling. I feel it is an athletic thing which gives the message to be healthier, to think about people who are less fortunate and to suffer a little for your country." Mr bin Thaneya also said the journey helped him reconnect with his ancestors and his country, and encouraged all Emiratis who have not yet visited the Aradah Fort in Umm Al Husn to do so. "It was a very emotional moment, walking to the fort," he said. "There is a palm cultivation and the wind was blowing. I could hear the palm leaves moving. It made me think of my ancestors struggling in the desert trying to live, sometimes having to leave their children to walk 10km for water."

His experience passing briefly through the high red dunes of the Empty Quarter will also remain with him forever. "I believe my heart changed when I entered there," he said. "I had travelled from a civilised city to this place where very little survives, it really hit me. I found abandoned camps. You see the development that has taken place in the Arab world, the way people are living now. "In the Empty Quarter there was a sort of peace; you can hear God's creation. It is just a miracle."

Back in Dubai he hoped his journey will help bring the work of the Senses Centre to the public's attention. His next mission is to become the first to climb to the top of the Burj Khalifa. It is a feat he has been petitioning for since 2008 and one which he believes Emaar, the building's developer, will support when the time is right. "I have to be patient," he said. loatway@thenational.ae