Recently I was given the opportunity to experience the true UAE. In this instance I am not talking about the culture or the recent history, but the ancient environmental history. I don't really understand the lure and mysticism associated with deserts that I have. I can't tell where my mental image of these environs was derived from. I think Hollywood had some impact with movies such as Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Rabbit proof fence (in parts) and even going right back to The Desert Rats. Then classic literature like Bourke and Wills, Around the world in eighty days and King Solomons Mines fostered an even stronger desire to see these places first hand.
Danger and beauty combined
True I have been to deserts before such as the Little Desert in Victoria, Australia but the "empty quarter" in the UAE was the real deal. The one fact that circulated around my mind on the three hour trip there from Abu Dhabi was that it is the largest continuous sand dune desert in the world. That in itself is hard to contemplate and the thought of being able to walk on it, touch it, see it and experience it was almost overwhelming.
Devoid but not lifeless
Low land areas in-between towering dunes
The trip down from Abu Dhabi allows you to see the transition of sand types and colour quite easily. Its starts off a pale white and full of shells and broken coral and eventually becomes a copper red and extremely fine. Even now I still find the red sand throughout my camera bag and clothes.
As the group of eager campers including myself ventured off road to source a suitable camp site I was able to see a very special animal species, one of the flagships of conservation here in the Middle East. The
became extinct in the wild in 1972 and has successfully been bred in captivity. It has been re-introduced into the wild and is kept under close observation by radio-tracking and sometimes aerial patrols. Hidden away in the dunes was a small breeding population of Arabian Oryx.
Pregnant Oryx in temporary enclosure
Oryx in its natural habitat. What a sight!
As a conservationist, the ability the witness these animals living as wild as they can be, was a huge moment for me. Such beautiful animals and seeing them against the backdrop of the red sand is an image I shall never forget.
Once camp was set up it was time to wander around and find my photos and connect with the landscape. It had been such a long time coming that I wasn't sure what to do first...do I shoot with the great light first or walk around and enjoy the experience of finally arriving. In the end it ended up being a little of the both.
On the flats
Little alcoves provide hidden gems
Sunset on the dunes
After a big night talking and relaxing with friends and with only 3 hours sleep, I was up before dawn to try to get my sunrise shots. Up to now the wind had been blowing quite intensely but at this time of morning the dead calm of the desert was much appreciated. Unfortunately there were still considerable amounts of dust in the air (and my wide angle lens decided to break) so sunrise photos were not to be. I took the opportunity to sit on the ridge of an incredibly large dune and watch the sunrise.
The light allows great shadow details to be seen
Black and white sunrise
Yes there is greenery here
As I sat there in perfect silence, a sense of complete calm could be felt. The history of the place is intense with millions of years of change being able to be seen, whilst at the same time the daily struggle of the organisms can also be viewed. Its like a timeline from the very present all the way back to the beginning. It was humbling and profound.
Given that the overall landscape is very overwhelming, time should be spent looking at the details of the desert. Each dune seems to have its own pattern and personality. A keen eye and patience comes with great rewards as the signs of daily life can be seen.
Imprint of a desert beetle
A snapshot of the differing types of dune "fingerprints"
All in all I loved the empty quarter. To be able to spend a week there is the next journey but at the moment I am just grateful to have been able to experience it, albeit for a rather limited period of time. Danger, heat, sand, dust and beauty is what it offered and presented, just as my mind had envisioned it.