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Rubh Al Khali, Empty Quarter, UAE

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

The vastness of the sands at Liwa

While lying sick in hospital in Kenya with tick bite fever friends came with food and to wish me well making those few days give me a sense of home which I shall return to soon, but one friend Nick brought me a copy of Wilfred Thesigers ‘My Kenya Days’. Thesieger had lived in Kenya during his later years in place just a few hours North of Nanyuki, Maralal. I had heard of him but never read his books, the early day travel books and exploration accounts facinate me and between bouts of fever I read the book cover to cover in a week. His most famed travels where in the Rub Al Kalil otherwise known as the Empty Quarter. The largest sand desert on earth bordering Oman, The UAE and Saudi Arabia where it takes up more than half the country. With an oppertune break in the calendar a rough plan was hatched to head to the Liwa Oasis and the Morweeb dunes, some gear was thrown in the car and away we went.

We left Kalba (UAE) early in the morning taking the road across to Dubai and from there to the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi. The reason for this oppertune moment had been due to a weather cancelation. Not a common reason in this area of the world. The skies blackened between Kalba and Dubai that's morning with spots of rain but as we headed towards Abu Dhabi and then day turned to night and the skies opened with the most torrential rain, Sheet and forked lighting punctuated the dark skies above. Many where bailing off the road, a five laned motorway cutting through the desert, some however maintained normal speed apparently unaware that with a foot of vision and standing water it might affect the ability to react or brake. I pushed on slowly with the hazards on and nose squashed against the windscreen. Stuart who slept through the most of it in the back occasionally stirring to eat with Toby in the front with me where we had a catch up about Kenya as he was the first intern who came to work at RVA in Kenya while I was there. We last crossed paths in Mombassa but he had recently finished a contract in Australia and almost overnight had agreed to come to the UAE and fill a gap for the rest of the season en route home. The last time we had sped off to see what lay further beyond was to check out Olokwe in Northern Kenya so it was good to be back in a Landcrusier heading off to have a ‘look around the corner’ again.

End of the day on the edge of the Liwa Crescent

As we hit Abu Dhabi just after lunch we picked up supplies and found the rain had eased but had left a scene of destruction trees all over the road and deep standing water everywhere. Cars had been abandoned in car parks and lay bys, but the local workforce was out pumping the water and the Police where on all the roundabouts directing and keeping everything moving. We left the city heading for Tariff in the general direction of Quatar. Once you leave Abu Dhabi on this road the city literally just stops and its nothing but flat sand as far as the eye can be seen in all directions. This must be the main desert and the reason why people refer to the Rhub Al Khali as ‘the desert within a desert’ as its within the greater Arabian desert. Once at Tariff we turned left heading for the Liwa crescent. This is a crescent shaped Oasis on the edge of the Rub Al Kahli, and I should imagine somewhat of a relief to find when crossing from the Gulf of Aden. Its also the home area of the President of the UAE, the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi is also the defacto President of the UAE. By the time we hit Liwa the sun was out and things where drying up but also the huge dunes where now appearing. As we collected some firewood in Liwa we headed onwards towards Morweeb. Now just a strip of tarmac surrounded by huge dunes up to three hundred metres in height surrounded us. This famed part of the desert was starting to open up and show its vastness. As it was getting on a bit we decided to get our camping spot sorted and set up before the darkness set in. We pulled off the tarmac heading down a gravel track and selected a dune to camp behind out of sight. I span the vehicle in tighter in under the dune I got it immediately stuck in the sand. It only took a short time of deflating tyres and digging to free it but certainly highlighted how you could get in a mess far from help without much effort quite easily here. Any grand desert driving ambitions where shelved for this trip. You need a minimum of two vehicles to head into the dunes anyway, more if possible. Its very easy to get stuck in the sand, although I would think that certainly Thesieger would have been very dismissive of our air-conditioned land cruiser in place of walking. Although the idea of dune bashing here after the little I have done did seem pretty fun it has to be said. But in the empty quarter its more about skill and experience and the fact that if you blow it no one is coming to help you.

Toby in the dunes at Morweeb

We where up early the next morning and took the road to the end at Morweeb. From there we trekked around the dunes to get the best views and it was those views that made me see the extent of this desert. Its a truly empty place but I would think compared to Thesiegers days perhaps Liwa would now be emptier. The Arabs are no longer there anymore, he was the last to see the desert people as now they are in the cities and no longer nomads but oil rich and changed. When the oil came it changed the face of Arabia and the nomadic tribes. It would certainly be an impressive crossing though even today with modern kit and technology. We left there heading back to Liwa to have a look at an old Fort in the town and then headed around the crescent a bit to see what lay in the Oasis which was mainly date plantations and odly fish farms. From there we took the long drive back to Kalba. Well worth an outing and certainly if I get some time then I would be keen to return and perhaps try and get a little deeper in.

The screensaver scene at the Morweeb Dunes

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