British residents of Oman retrace Victorian explorer’s steps across Empty Quarter

Inspired by earlier generations of British explorers in Arabia, Mark Evans and his teammates are retracing the steps of the first westerner to cross the Empty Quarter in a bid to honour values from the old days.

The Muscat-based Mr Evans and his Omani team members are retracing the first crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1930 by a westerner, British civil servant Bertram Thomas. AFP
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Inspired by earlier generations of British explorers in Arabia, Mark Evans and his teammates are retracing the steps of the first westerner to cross the Empty Quarter in a bid to honour values from the old days.

When the Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton risked his life to travel incognito to Mecca in 1853, he went to great lengths to ensure his disguise could not give him away.

He dressed the part, mastered Arabic and immersed himself in every aspect of Islam.

Last week, 54-year-old Mark Evans, a British resident of Muscat, embarked on a 1,300-kilometre trek from Salalah in Oman to Doha in Qatar, in homage to the first crossing of the Empty Quarter by a westerner – British civil servant Bertram Thomas in 1930.

The expedition, which set out from Salalah last Thursday, is as well equipped and prepared as might be expected from a veteran explorer such as Mr Evans, but he has not, it has to be said, gone to quite the same lengths as Burton.

Neither will his party face the same dangers as Thomas, whose feat, in the breathless words of contemporary newspaper reports, was “fraught with peril”.

“To escape murder by tribes guarding the vast stretch”, The New York Times reported in 1931, Thomas’s crossing of “the mysterious waste” was carried out in the “closest secrecy”. He had, after all, been “foiled by hostile natives” in a previous attempt.

Like Thomas, Mr Evans is accompanied by Omani guides. Unlike his predecessors, he is equipped with satellite phones, GPS navigation and, in addition to camels, support vehicles carrying all their supplies. The party is also extremely unlikely to encounter warlike Wahhabis.

“There is nothing today that can compare with the hardships and mental and physical demands of those journeys,” says Mr Evans. “But in today’s world, where tenacity and resilience seem in short supply, it is nice to make people remember the past and consider these important values.”

He dismisses the idea that their use of vehicles and carrying modern communication equipment somehow undermines the achievement. For one thing, he says, “many recent desert expeditions that have followed the easier routes of [Wilfred] Thesiger have hidden the fact that they had vehicle support. We are completely open about it”.

But this is “not a macho journey to be the first, fastest or youngest – it is a journey to communicate values by harnessing technology”, he says.

“[Robert Falcon] Scott took tractors to Antarctica, [Ernest] Shackleton took a radio, [William] Parry carried tinned food in 1827. Expeditions have always made use of the best of what technology offered at the time,” says Mr Evans.

“We are focused on walking and exploring and only set up satcoms (satellite communications) as the sun sets each day to send out our daily updates.”

Regardless, in adding his name to the long and distinguished list of British adventurers who have tested themselves in the sands of Arabia, Mr Evans’s adventure prompts a question: what is it about the unforgiving desert that has proved so irresistible to generations of Britons?

Burton – who survived his audacious expedition to go on to seek with John Speke the source of the Nile in Africa, a quest on which he was supported, incidentally, by Omani Arabs who traded on the east coast of Africa – was never able to shake off the spell Arabia had cast on him.

After his death in 1890 his extraordinary tomb was fashioned in the shape of a Bedouin tent, a more than curious eruption in the otherwise bland surroundings of a south-west London suburban cemetery.

Here, read the inscription, lay “The English soldier and the Arab Sheikh! Oh, singer of the East who loved so well the deathless wonder of the ‘Arabian Nights’.”

In Burton’s wake came William Gifford Palgrave, who in 1862 embarked on an extraordinary “first” across Arabia, setting out from Gaza on the Mediterranean and crossing the entire peninsula from west to east. He arrived the following year on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, north of modern-day Qatar, from where he took ship to Sharjah and ultimately Muscat.

T E Lawrence – an Arabist who during the First World War helped to foment the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hejaz region – perhaps best typified the type of Briton for whom the appeal of the desert was a thrilling blend of ever-present danger and the sort of Spartan asceticism taught as a virtue at certain British public schools.

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his part in the Arab Revolt, he revels in the three-year fight for survival in “the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven”, for which by rights no pampered fair-skinned Briton of the period ought to have been so well suited – and yet so many were, as the record of Empire attests.

“By day the hot sun fermented us and we were dizzied by the beating wind,” Lawrence recalled with evident nostalgia.

“At night we were stained by dew and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.”

Thesiger, who between 1945 and 1950 made two crossings of the Empty Quarter, was neither the first nor the last westerner to venture into the great desert.

But in his 1959 book Arabian Sands he came closer than most to identifying exactly what it was that drew generations of British adventurers into the heart of Arabia. With the Bedu – Thesiger’s shorthand for Bedouins – he wrote that he had lived “a hard and merciless life, during which I was always hungry and usually thirsty”.

The monotony of long marches through wind-whipped dunes or across mirage-haunted plains was always tempered by the fear of raiders. “Always our rifles were in our hands and our eyes searching the horizon,” he wrote. “Hunger, thirst, heat and cold. I had tasted them in full and had endured the strain of living among an alien people who made no allowance for weakness.”

In short, he had a great old time. It was, he knew, “instinctively the very hardness of life in the desert which drew me back there”.

For his part, Mr Evans has entirely sensible reasons for opting to spend as many as 55 days slogging up and down dunes, enduring heat by day and cold by night, although he admits that he is also indulging his own passion for “the silence, simplicity and enormity” of the desert.

A resident of Oman, where in 2009 he set up a branch of the British educational charity Outward Bound, he says the aim of his journey “is to reconnect the people of Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to a significant event in their history that has been long forgotten by many, but not by all”.

Using social media he plans “to reach out to young people especially to consider the importance of the skills that underlie the current and the old journey, and how they are just as important today in terms of securing a job and realising success”.

That might seem a presumptuous goal for an outsider were it not for the support for the expedition of Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Oman’s minister of heritage and culture, for whom the journey “represents and recreates a significant event in the heritage of Oman, and underlines and celebrates the long-standing ties and friendship between Oman, UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar”.

He also hopes it will “serve as an inspiration to young people, and demonstrate that little can be achieved in life without hard work, determination and tenacity”.

Like Thomas, Mr Evans is relying on a team of Omanis, including Mohammed Al Zadjali, an Outward Bound trainer, Amour Al Wahaibi, a desert guide, and Ali Ahmed Sha’af Al Mshili, an army fitness trainer.

But the historic link to 1930 is Sheikh Mubarak bin Kalut, the great great grandson of Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, the man who led Thomas in 1930.

He will join the team as they enter Saudi Arabia, where he is now a citizen, and will carry with him the khanjar (a traditional dagger) and rifle carried by his predecessor on the 1930 crossing.

Thomas also had an educational purpose. Working with the Royal Geographical Society in London, throughout his 1,399km journey he collected fossils and specimens of living animals, and made copious notes about the geography and natural history of what in the West was then still largely an unknown region.

In the beauty of the golden sands Thomas found “a simple story or a beautiful picture in its every rippling feature”.

But perhaps his greatest discovery in the Empty Quarter was the stoicism he learnt from the Arabs as his party moved through “these great hungry, silent wastes”, spending eight hours a day in the saddle.

Whatever the desert threw at them, from extreme cold to heat or thirst, he wrote, the solution laid in their faith. “It is from Allah,” would come the reply to any complaint, Thomas noted in his account of the journey.

“Say not that you would wish for other,” he wrote. “It would be blasphemous. From God always, and everything. Never was there a firmer faith in the inevitability of events. Murder! raids! disease! All are part of the divine plan. The hour for each is written.”

The Crossing the Empty Quarter expedition can be followed at