Trekking through the unbroken sea of sand in the Empty Quarter

Italian desert explorer Max Calderan said his life-long dream has been to cross the Empty Quarter’s Rub Al Khali desert, spanning an area from Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi.
Sunday 26/01/2020
Extreme desert explorer Max Calderan warms up next to a fire in Abu Dhabi. (Caline Malek)
Extreme desert explorer Max Calderan warms up next to a fire in Abu Dhabi. (Caline Malek)

ABU DHABI - Crossing a 1,200km sea of sand by car is no easy feat. It can seem even more daunting and seemingly almost impossible when considering doing it on foot.

That, however, is what Max Calderan, a 52-year-old Italian, has set out to do. The extreme desert explorer said his life-long dream has been to cross the Empty Quarter’s Rub Al Khali desert, spanning an area from Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi.

“It’s always strange before I leave,” Calderan said before his departure. “I feel as if I am a witness rather than the explorer. I don’t believe it’s me. Until I set foot on that sand and get started, I am an ordinary man but as soon as I start and my feet hit the sand, I change immediately.”

The trek of the unbroken sea of sand in the Gulf has never been done but Calderan is taking on the challenge. “I am very excited,” he said January 18 in Riyadh before starting his journey.

“We had a meeting to discuss safety as we are heading towards an area that is near Yemen, so we discussed the best strategy in that regard and whether it is better to move by night. Everything I see before leaving — the people, cars, food, phones and the internet — is very comfortable but, at a certain point, everything will disappear immediately: from a 100% comfort zone to zero.”

Calderan spoke of feelings of disbelief as he checked his materials, including a satellite and GPS coordinator, before setting off from west to east, starting in Najran, 880km from Riyadh, in temperatures of 4C. “I will become an animal of the desert,” Calderan said.

“There is a specific procedure during my crossing,” he said. “Sometimes, I will meet my team but I will be alone and the truth is that, even with all these materials, I will still be alone and I want to be alone, so I will wait for that moment when the cars will disappear. I have been waiting for this moment to be totally alone.”

Calderan said he felt called to such adventure as a child, reading the story of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

Although explorers have crossed shorter sections, on camels or in off-road vehicles, no one has walked alone across the more than 1,000km of sand.

During his 20-day journey, Calderan will carry enough food and water to continue independently for at least 450km. “When I will be alone, I will feel free,” he said. “I am mostly here with my body and my soul [will start] to move at the beginning of the Empty Quarter.”

Challenges are inevitable, from shifting dunes towering 60 storeys high and blinding sandstorms, as well as poisonous snakes, spiders, scorpions, extreme heat and lack of rain.

DNA tests indicated that Calderan has extremely low cortisol levels, which means his body can handle extreme stress better than the average human. He has mystified doctors by crossing the most insidious and impassable sands in the world alone, surviving in conditions thought beyond human limits.

Among his 11 world records in desert exploration is his running 90 consecutive hours in Oman, covering 437km following the Tropic of Cancer. He traversed Wahiba Sands in summer — 365km in 75 hours. In the United Arab Emirates, Calderan explored the Tropic of Cancer, 368km in 128 hours; a trip he said was the toughest he has done, in preparation for the expedition he set his sights on when he was 7 years old and is now undertaking.

By January 21, he had completed 234km, with 780km to go. He described conditions as very windy and sandy, with no bandwidth to transmit pictures or video. “Only Thuraya calls are working,” he said in a message. “The 2D imagery used for planning the trip does not reflect the reality on the ground.”

Two days later, Calderan had covered another 72km, applying a cold compression on his right foot but keeping his spirits high.

Over the past century, explorers have ventured into the Empty Quarter, most along its fringes in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Only three are known to have entered the Saudi desert, taking the shortest north-south route across. No one has travelled Calderan’s proposed west-east route, which cuts across the desert horizontally, through its longest stretch. Of the 1,200km, at least 800km will be virgin territory.

Islamic tradition holds that the Empty Quarter contains the ruins of a great lost civilisation — the Atlantis of the Sands. The Quran refers to a city called Erum of the Pillars that was unlike any other city created by man, buried in the desert sands.

Bedouin tradition talks of two rivers flowing through remote stretches of the desert, while maps from the Middle Ages and ancient Rome depict their routes and arrowheads and dry riverbeds found by scientists attest to a wetter past.

To most, however, the Empty Quarter seems like another planet — impossibly dry, hot and devoid of vegetation. Within three decades, if action to reduce climate change is not taken, many of those landscapes will be much closer to home.

Climate scientists warn that, by 2050, more than 25% of the Earth will experience serious drought and desertification, transforming permanently into lands no longer habitable.

Calderan and Empty Quarter Studios, which is filming a documentary of the expedition, are committed to using the journey to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

travel
Italian desert explorer Max Calderan poses for a picture in Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter Desert.(Caline Malek)
24