Today's post is written by a guest writer, Sarah Ratcliffe, who asked me if she could do a spot of freelance writing. I'm always happy to have someone help out with the blog and this today is her piece on a documentary called Footsteps of Thesiger.

Following in Thesiger’s Footsteps

Venturing across the Empty Quarter with camels as your means of transport is not something that most of us would consider. A cruise and stay in a luxury hotel might be more up your street. However, in the 1940s British explorer Wilfred Thesiger undertook such expeditions in what we now know as Oman and the other countries in the area. At the end of last year, another Brit set off to repeat the challenge with the same means of transport. Now Adrian Hayes’s adventure can be seen in a documentary called ‘Footsteps of Thesiger’.

Sand, camels and dependence

Just to remind ourselves, the Empty Quarter or Rub al-Khali is a desert that covers parts of Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. It is the largest sand expanse on the planet and experiences extreme temperatures. It is one of the harshest environments on earth. No wonder it is uninhabited. The Bedouin, with their extensive knowledge of desert terrain and vegetation and camel behaviour have made crossings feasible.

That is what Thesiger relied upon for his travels. Their expertise found the wells that would quench their thirst in the sands. He depended on them, and sometimes the use of disguise, to keep out of tribal conflict. His journeying was almost always uncomfortable – “always hungry and usually thirsty” – but incredibly satisfying, and he looked back to these times as among the best he had known. Though frustrated by their constant chatter, he loved and deeply respected his Bedouin companions and what they had helped him to achieve.

Hayes was one of a three-man team with Emiratis Saeed Rashed Al Mesafry and Ghafan Mohammed Al Jabry, who first trained him in camel-handling and desert survival. They set off from Salahah in early November with seven camels, a compass, basic medical provisions, some food and water, a knife and a rifle. Their camels, nature and Bedouin hospitality were to be, as they were for Thesiger, their lifelines.
The route was similar to that taken by Thesiger. Hayes did not attempt to re-enact the journey, as he felt that was impossible given the sixty-seven years that have passed in between. Rather the attempt was to follow in his footsteps. The route was from Salalah to Mughshin, Umm Zamoul, Liwa, Al Ain then into Abu Dhabi. They avoided GPS and satphones unless absolutely necessary. They did use satellite communications to provide updates on their progress.

A hiccup and concussion

Day One presented an unexpected hiccup when a combination of vehicles, onlookers, wild camels and a brewing storm “spooked the camels” as they were entering their first wadi. The three men were dismounted and two had to go to hospital for treatment for concussion. Not put off, they got back on their camels. Within a week they had navigated two wadis, travelled 100 km and were enjoying goat roasted before them on a fire, thanks to Sheikh Khalid who had invited them to his farm.
Hayes said he was overwhelmed by the visitors who joined them on his expedition to share personal stories of Thesiger. “Just like‘Mubarak Bin London’ [Thesiger] , I feel privileged to be seated at a campfire feasting on traditional food and listening to Arabic poetry and songs with the great people
I have encountered along the way.”

The team travelled an average of 45km per day, sometimes for eleven hours a day, to complete the 1,500 kilometre trip. They entered the UAE in late November and arrived in Abu Dhabi in mid December after a trip of around 45 days.

You can view a clip of the documentary Footsteps of Thesiger The documentary premiered in the UAE, which sponsored the expedition, earlier this month. It is set to begin touring, sometimes with Hayes and Q&A sessions, so watch out for further announcements.

Alternatively, Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands” makes a fascinating read if you want to get a taste of what it is like to rely upon others, camels and a little luck to survive. It tells the story of his journeys across the Empty Quarter. He was very aware that the region was on the verge of change and his book preserves the desert he knew. In his own words “a memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people”.
Reviewed by Sythe on Tuesday, May 01, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. Why did I just read that? How is it different to the press releases in the paper 2 months ago when he did it?

  2. The English version of the documentary premieres this month.

  3. I think you need to look up the definition of freelance.

  4. Will it be shown in Oman ?

  5. Where does the documentary premiere? Could be interesting as I enjoyed Thesiger's books.


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