Shouting from my shed

Get the latest news, updates and happenings via my shed-based newsletter.

desert cart

Ben and James versus the Arabian Desert

Shortly after returning from the Empty Quarter last year, I heard that Ben Fogle and James Cracknell were heading out to exactly the same place as I had been to record their latest adventure show for the BBC. Before they departed I chatted a few times with the producer who was putting together their plan. Their trip – I guessed – would probably be quite similar to ours. But it would be filmed properly, by a professional team. So I have been intrigued, all year, to see what the resulting programme would look like. 

Ben and James versus the Arabian Desert was a two-part series shown on primetime BBC this week. (You can watch it here on iPlayer for the next few days or various excerpts on YouTube). It’s the only TV I watched over Christmas and I was fascinated by its contrast to our film.

I was amused by how similar were the openings to our respective films (clips of Atlantic rowing and Arctic journeys) before the action cut to Oman. It’s always fun to see familiar places on TV and their show brought back fabulous memories for me. Oman is such a great place. I remember arriving at Salalah airport feeling very intimidated by the heat and by the vastness of the desert we had just flown over. I loved traipsing around the town arranging our supplies before walking out of the city and beginning our adventure. All these memories, and many more, came flooding back as I watched the stunning desert landscapes from the comfort of my own armchair.

But other than the identical terrain, everything else about their film was very different to our own experience.

Their difficulties with camel-handling were wryly amusing to me. I spent over 5 years trying to hatch a plan to cross the Empty Quarter by camel. But cost, logistics and much else made it unfeasible for me (hence why I ended up using the world’s worst homemade cart!). The struggles poor Ben and James endured with their camels reassured me that my cart wasn’t so bad after all!

Much of their film revolved around the relationship between Ben and James. It was a far more tangled affair than that between Leon and me. Leon and I got on very well, (despite Leon and I both being tied to the same cart just 18 inches apart for 1000 miles and 45 days!) which is not always the case on difficult, stressful expeditions.

I was more interested in the physical challenge they undertook and the landscapes they crossed. I was very envious of the gorgeous long-range shots their camera guy was able to capture. It really highlighted well the enormity and emptiness of the landscape. I don’t know how much involvement they had with their support crew, (Note to TV companies: we don’t mind the fact that there is sometimes a support crew / back up vehicle / camera crew involved – that’s fine. But please just acknowledge the fact. Alternatively make a much bigger song and dance for people like Ed Stafford and Benedict Allen who do it all by themselves) but I was really impressed with the amount of dune climbing the poor cameraman had to do to get those long shots. So well done, whoever you were!

I got the sense that James Cracknell didn’t care two hoots about Thesiger, but Ben Fogle said that he had been inspirational to him. The voiceover guy made a couple of tenuous claims about the trip being tougher than Thesiger’s because they were there at a hotter time of year – I suspect that was just TV hyperbole as an 11-day trip (in two phases) doesn’t really compare with 4 years of journeys. But, overall, I was delighted that both the Empty Quarter and Wilfred Thesiger were broadcast to a far bigger audience than my film will ever reach. It’s a beautiful part of the world and the Omani people were wonderful.

So well done Ben and James – I know how hot and hard it is to walk in those conditions. You can watch Ben and James versus the Arabian Desert  here on iPlayer for the next few days.

And, if you are curious to compare their film with our attempt, you can watch the trailer or download the film here:

Download Into The Empty Quarter Now:

Read Comments

You might also like

A map can be many things. A map can be many things. It can give you a hint of what is where. Or it can be a memory of what used to be there. A map can be an idea, a cue for curiosity, or an […]...
Find. Map. Save: join the search to save thousands of miles of lost historic paths. Find. Map. Save: join the search to save thousands of miles of lost historic paths. Our paths are one of our most precious assets, hidden in plain sight, and often taken for granted. They are part of our history and […]...
One Thing at a Time, as Beautiful as Possible – Living Adventurously 14 Thom Barnett runs Mamnick, a clothing brand passionate about cycling. The tagline is “one thing at a time, as beautiful as possible”. I cajoled Thom out of bed at early o’clock and we cycled out of Sheffield together, nipping down […]...


  1. I must admit that the lack of acknowledgement of an accompanying film crew really does frustrate me in programmes such as this. On the one hand, the voiceover is always explaining the peril or jeopardy the participants are putting themselves in – “only enough water for two days” – all the while obviously accompanied by at least one additional person who is often filming with both of them in frame. Indeed you can see tyre tracks in the sand.

    I know that once upon a time that was the way all documentaries were made, but we’re much more media-literate as audiences. We know that somehow, someone holding a camera is filming participants. (An aside: the Leo Dickinson Everest “Endeavour” films getting an airing on BBC Four are worth watching well aside from being spruced up for HD. There’s also a detachment there, and no real explanation of how they logistically carried out the operations. In the canoeing film, I’m pretty sure that nearly all the sound was dubbed on later for example. All three are on iPlayer.)

    I remember many years ago seeing a documentary featuring, I believe Jonathan Miller of all people, standing on top of a mountain somewhere in Switzerland, and proclaiming at length the great appeal of the loneliness up there. Except there was clearly a large gaggle of people just the other side of the camera!

  2. lee minhyeong Posted

    It is amazing and beautiful. Also I like the simple life.

  3. My wife and I enjoyed your film much more than the camel crossing, Alastair. It’s not really fair to say one is better than the other, because they’re very different, and the older guys were dealing with a whole different range of issues, from having young families at home to the camels, not least of which was the one guy’s brain injury.

    All of that was so serious. Their relationship came across on film as constantly aggravated, frequently trying to undermine each other, doubting their own reasons for doing the trip, even after being in the desert for just a day or two.

    As above, the situations were very different. But it was a grind to watch, depressing really. Did they even really want to be there? Both of them? Didn’t seem like it.

    With you and Leon though, we never doubted you wanted to do it. No camels, not ‘authentically’ Thesiger, but you put your own fun spin on it with the cart. Plus you guys had fun, and showed it. Maybe it was boyish exuberance, but the bouncing along sand dunes, the sand angel, those were some of my favourite bits. My favourite bit was Leon, bitching in his very dry way about guys who went by and honked the horn but wouldn’t stop ad give you guys ice cream. That was just great. I can totally imagine it, and it came across as fun and light.

    Plus there was depth. You wept. I wondered as I was watching it- did he have to amp himself up to weep? You surely expected it, knowing weepiness can happen on such expeditions. Documentary is hard t do authentic. But anyway, I only mention it because I think it worked.

    The BBC should be filming you. Keep the fun going, keep the light touch despite the gruelling undertow, and we’ll buy any subsequent movies you make!

    Therefore- congratulations on a really interesting, genuine, and entertaining movie!

    • Alastair Posted

      Thanks so much – I’m really glad you enjoyed it.
      I have a bit of a tendency to blub on expeditions, I’m afraid!

  4. You home made cart looks pretty good to me. Although I can’t help wonder why you didn’t use fat-bike wheels?

    I watched the BBC program, too. Made for good TV and well done to them. But I don’t mind being a bit more frank than you in saying that the presence of film and support crews seriously impacts the nature of a challenge like that.

  5. Without wanting to draw comparisons myself, I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed and agreed with explorer Mikael Strandberg’s comparison of your adventure with Ben and James’s….

  6. I look forward to watching yours as my husband and I were actually very disappointed with the Ben and James trip. The support crew presence as mentioned by you and others was one thing but the other the thing that really annoyed me (as someone who owned horses and rode camels in sudan) was the fact that they insisted on not bringing guides yet with only a few days ‘camel training’ under their belts. That struck me as foolhardy and asking for trouble – hence the broken rib which further highlighted what a ‘light’ adventure it was that they could get to hospital so quickly. I doubt someone would ever do that with horses so why camels? It also struck me as neither here nor there. They talked of eating traditional foods but then used silly non authentic saddles. I think in the end there was little point other than showing the precarious nature of the two men’s relationship. Have you seen cannibals and crampons? A far more extraordinary feat and with a feeling that there were real dangers rather than dangers which would soon be rectified by a support crew…

  7. l watched Ben and james across the sands and like many other people l get fed up with being treated like a fool, the narrator says in the beginging how it’s two men and four camels alone, but you soon see the men talking all the time to a film crew and a back up crew soon step in to help and even the owner of the camels is following with food for the camels, why why can’t they just tell it how it is? l love these kind of programes a lot, but these days they do the same things, which really can spoil the enjoyment, when you are being lied to.And Ben and James constant arguments spoiled the programe for me and my husband who couldn’t watched the second part, has l did. So l hope such programme makers will see these letters and tell us how it really is, l’m sure we will enjoy it even more not thinking has l do whats real and what isn’t.

    • James BENTLEY Posted

      What a pair of plonkers together, they deserve each other but would have trouble getting a ‘normal’ job, but they should try as they are pretty useless at adventure!



Post a Comment

HTML tags you can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Shouting from my shed

Get the latest news, updates and happenings via my shed-based newsletter.

© Copyright 2012 – 2013 Alastair Humphreys. All rights reserved.

Site design by JSummertonBuilt by Steve Perry Creative