In September last year I was training hard for an expedition to the South Pole. Sadly we did not accumulate sufficient sponsorship in time, so the trip did not happen*. I found myself fit and eager but with nowhere to go. My diary was empty: a depressing sight for a self-employed person, but a glorious sight for anyone itching for adventure.
So, after a brief phase of feeling very sorry for myself and sitting alone in pubs at lunchtime, I decided to try to launch a new expedition as quickly as possible.
We’d been preparing for the South Pole for five years. The budget was more than £1000,000. This new project, whatever it was going to be, needed to be up and running as soon as possible. And as I’md be paying, the budget had to be a smidgen less than a million. I began scheming…
Picking an expedition is never difficult for someone with a giant world map on his wall and bookshelves filled with adventure stories.
I had wanted to do a journey into the Empty Quarter desert since I was at university. (Side note: it was at uni where I also hatched the plan of crossing Iceland. Good trips often take a while to ferment and germinate.) It was there that I first read the great Arabian Sands. Wilfred Thesiger made a series of journeys on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1940’s, rather tenuously claiming he was doing locust research. In reality, like all the best adventures, he was mostly doing it just for the hell of it. Ever since I first read that book I had dreamed of making a journey of my own into the Empty Quarter.
The Empty Quarter, or Rub’ al Khali, is the largest sand desert on Earth. It sprawls across Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia do not offer tourist visas. So I had to devise a new route, using sections of Thesiger’s various journeys. Right from the start then, this was a journey inspired by Thesiger rather than directly replicating any of his feats.
I considered doing the trip by myself. But I wanted to produce a beautiful film of the story and that is something better done by two people. There would be no support vehicles, back-up crew or cameramen. I needed to find someone, quickly, who filled several pretty different criteria:
- Capable, fit, focussed and driven to endure a very difficult expedition
- Non-annoying, empathetic, relaxed and interesting
- Skilled at camerawork
- Available to begin at short notice
I emailed Leon McCarron out of the blue, despite not knowing him very well at all. But earlier in the year I had successfully rowed the Atlantic Ocean with two guys who I didn’t meet until the start line, so I hoped Leon and I would get on OK.
Despite his girlfriend’s understandable irritation at Leon heading off on another expedition so soon after returning from walking across China earlier that year, Leon agreed to come along. He was a fellow fan of Thesiger and liked the idea of making another film. He had filmed his previous expedition for National Geographic.
We quickly began planning. We could not afford camels, had no idea how to drive one, and found them quite scary anyway. So instead we would be human camels, hauling a homemade cart filled with cheap supplies for 1000 miles across the Empty Quarter. We would begin in Salalah, as Thesiger had done. We would finish in Dubai.
Why Dubai? We chose Dubai because it would illustrate nicely how Arabia has changed since Thesiger’s time. And we chose it because finishing an expedition outside a Dolce & Gabbana shop felt suitably ridiculous and amusing. It doesn’t do to take yourself too seriously in the expedition world.
We designed the cart ourselves (a BIG mistake, as we would learn only too soon) and found a local farmer to build it for us. To save cash on excess luggage we wanted it to flat pack into a bicycle box for the flight out to Oman. We bought wheels online. They arrived the wrong size. We sent them back. They sent some more. We didn’t have time to test these before we flew to Oman. Needless to say these turned out to be the wrong size too!
Stuff like this happens when you try to launch an expedition in just a few weeks.
But we managed it and, six weeks later we flew out of a cold, wintry England to begin an expedition that cost only £2000. It was a cheaper, warmer outing than the South Pole would have been…
The whole story is told in our new film, Into The Empty Quarter.
*the South Pole trip is back on again this year. Sadly I had to withdraw for family reasons. But Ben and my replacement, Tarka, are out there now and doing brilliantly!
Into The Empty Quarter is available as a DVD, an HD Download, or a DVD and Download bundle. Running Length: 52 minutes.
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DVD and HD Download bundle
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