The Gulf: The Empty Quarter

Darryl Campbell gets lost (metaphorically speaking) in the Arabian desert.

Most people come to Dubai looking for a good time, which is why driving alone into the desert is usually not on their to-do list. Adventurous souls can buy an overnight “dune bashing” package, which involves sunset photography sessions, a barbecue dinner with a cash bar, and belly dancing—not exactly historically authentic or intimate, and definitely not ecotourism. Then again, Dubai is a testament to the triumph of civilization over climate, and everything about it promises that comfort and instant gratification are only a few hundred dirhams away, even in the world’s fourth-largest desert.

Emirates airplane

All the amenities of tourist safaris allow you to keep the desert at arm’s length. Get more than twenty miles away from the city (which, as a rule, dune bashers don’t) and you might start to understand why, in Arabic, the Arabian desert is called the Rub’ al Khali—the “Empty Quarter.” In the remotest parts of the western U.S., at least you get periodic rest stops, gas stations, and road signs. Not so in the Rub’ al Khali, where you can go for dozens of miles with only the company of telephone poles and the occasional billboard of Sheikh Zayed. Highway hypnosis is just about guaranteed. And when it dawns on you that you’ve passed the last car twenty minutes ago, you’ve got about a quarter tank of gas left, and you’ve forgotten whether the emergency services number in the UAE is 999 or 777, for some reason you begin to fixate on the phrase “you’re on your own.”

Desert road More desert road

One of the UAE’s best-kept secrets is that there’s more to the country than glamorous hotels and commercial skyscrapers. Obviously, people have lived in the desert and mountains for millennia, and still do. Seeing this outside world first-hand, however, would require the would-be desert tourist to leave behind the convenience and constant stimulation of the emirates’ major cities. Instead of skyscrapers and underwater hotels, there are watchtowers and fortresses that raiders and tribal leaders used as bases. Instead of stretch limos and car dealerships, there are camel stables and dune buggy stands.

But mostly, there is calm: towns where you might sit for an hour and not see anyone on the street, although all the shops are open; heritage sites where you might be the only visitor all day; and enough quiet that you can hear footfalls from a half a mile away.

Watchtower

As much as I wish it were otherwise, my trip wasn’t quite picaresque. I drove for about four hours total, going southeast from Dubai to the town of Hatta, and then northwest to Al Aqah, a resort town in the emirate of Fujairah. In Hatta, I bought a smoothie made from UHT milk, nearly brown bananas from the town’s only food stand, and a tire-size piece of Arabic bread from its only bakery. I went into its general store, which had its last shipment of fresh fruit two days ago and was mostly full of canned food and preservative-filled loaf bread. I wandered around its watchtower and its reconstructed seventeenth-century village, seeing no one else except the caretakers, from whom I bought a little toy camel. I walked up and down the 40-meter-tall M5 Dam. Everything was dusty.

Right about now, I’m fighting to keep down two crutches of bad travel writing. The first is the sweeping generalization about how life is like “out here,” the mark of the wannabe cultural anthropologist (or maybe capital O Orientalist?) that I’m trying hard not to become. In other words, my trip didn’t exactly produce National Geographic—quality observations, or even ones that translate into pithy axioms about life in the Empty Quarter.

Hatta

The second crutch, that well-worn truism about how traveling is about “finding yourself,” is a little harder for me to shake. I don’t know if I felt any more self-possessed after being in the desert for most of a day, and I certainly didn’t feel enlightened about anything except the dangers of flash flooding, thanks to a few histrionic road signs. But as I leaned on the dam’s railing and stared at the reservoir for a little while, I realized that this was the first time in days, if not months or years, that I had been surrounded by complete, utter silence.

The bridge

Although I’d only spent the better part of a day in the desert, I began to sympathize with the sort of person who, 1,700 years ago, left civilization behind and went into a desert not much different from the one where I was standing to become the very first Christian monks. Faith of any kind is no longer a prerequisite for wanting to strike out into the wasteland of the Rub’ al Khali, but it’s still something that very few people choose to do. And it’s still true that out here (okay, I guess I didn’t escape that first cliché after all), you have nothing to keep you company—no people, no animals, on some days not even the wind—except your thoughts.

The next day, fresh from my trip into the Empty Quarter, I looked again at the overnight “desert safari” website. I’d just started to gloat about how much more “real” my trip had been when I noticed, hidden among the promises of fresh dates and unlimited soft drinks, the warning that “the whole experience of the desert is to listen to the sounds of the sands and the night.” Here was proof that not everything in Dubai is designed around the stimulus-response behavior—and the briefest acknowledgment that, even on the most contrived packaged tour, going into the desert is always a contemplative experience.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.