Almost as high on the must-do list was visiting the Empty Quarter.
The Empty Quarter, the Rub' al Khali, is one of the largest deserts in the world, about 250,000 square miles of utter, desolate, burning, and utterly inhospitable sand.
The only reason to go there is for oil, or, like us, to marvel at the desert.
It is hauntingly beautiful.
Our plan was to get as close as one can to the Empty Quarter by staying in Liwa, the southernmost settlement of the UAE. All of our previous explorations had been to the north of the country for the simple reason that that's where things are.
To the south, the Empty Quarter is just that. Empty.
So there we Americans were, to finally explore the real desert and to celebrate a birthday as well, Mike's, who has three years seniority on the UAE and counting.
The United Arab Emirates, for all its glamour, riches, and economic influence will be celebrating all of 40 years since its 1971 union in a year. It will be quite the party. The anniversary is something else as well, a very tangible reminder of how recent the UAE's exposure to the Western world is.
Mike, on his birthday, in one of my favorite photos of all time, at the edge of an oil field and the Rub' al Khali
We drove through a whole lot of not very much to get to Liwa, an oasis best known for its dates and as the birthplace of many of the ruling family of the UAE.
Wilfred Thessinger was the first non-Bedouin to lay eyes upon the Liwa oasis after trekking thought the Empty Quarter in the late 1940's. Can you imagine? That was only 50 years ago.
Thessinger undertook not one but two epic journeys through the desert, an unheard-of and inhumanly arduous feat, hungry and thirsty beyond compare, with tribal Bedouins who undoubtedly thought him an insane Englishman for wishing to traverse the desert that even they of short and hard lives feared.
Reading his book, Arabian Sands I'd say, yes, he was an amazing man, thoughtful and also completely, admirably, and unquestionably nuts.
In Liwa, after two months of crossing the sands. Thessinger found "clean, almost tasteless" water. It must have been the best drink in all of history. While we were there, even in our air-conditioned Jeep and with all possible modern luxuries, we found ourselves thirsting for water on a deep, primal level, the desert striking some survival chord that tells you, stay near water.
Something as simple as setting out without bottled water in the car made us nervous. Blacktop road, GPS, no matter. Every day it became the first order of business to go find some.
There is simply no describing the dunes upon dunes, flowing away forever, and the heat. I had brought my SLR camera with (crazy, I know) real film and at one point stood cooking in the blazing heat for about half an hour to get shots of a herd of camels against reddish-orange dunes, while Mike and the kids waited for me in the Jeep. It was not a comfortable wait for them: heat was radiating from the metal roof into the car and the air conditioning couldn't keep up.
My camera was acting up, but I was really reluctant to stop shooting because what I was seeing through the viewfinder was amazing, and I knew that this was probably my last chance to take desert camel pictures. I only took a few photos with my little digital.
Back in the car, after some poking and prodding and finally cracking open the back of the SLR, the horrible truth. While I was trying to take photos the desert sun had melted the film in my camera. Mike, thinking there was nothing to be done, pulled the rest of the film out of the SLR before I could stop him, exposing any photos that might have been on there.
Sometimes you just have to shed a tear or two and move on. The digital shots were OK, and I was happy to have them, at least, but as you can see from the last shot, the heat and brightness started to overwhelm even that tough little camera too.
Mamma and sweet baby white camels
Camel herd huddling together to keep cooler.*
*No, really. The camel has the ability to lower its body temperature under hot conditions, and then they reduce surface area exposed to the sun and heat by being close together. Along those lines, did you know that the fat in a camel being stored in its hump avoids having it function as an insulator?
In fact, after that day, my digital camera has never been quite the same.
(to be continued...)