22-Mar-2014 -- This Confluence 23°N 53°E is situated on the Arabian Peninsula within the Deserts of al-Gharbiyya, Western Region of Abū Ẓaby, UAE, approximately 12 km due north of the Saudi Arabian border fence, 40 km due west of the village of `Arāda and 100 km SSE of the town of Ghayāthiy. 23°N 53°E is part of the deserts of Rub` al-Khāliy or the Empty Quarter, which is 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) long and 500 kilometres (320 mi) wide. Our expedition, albeit exciting and difficult at times, cannot compare with the likes of Wilfred Thesiger who most famously and extensively explored the Empty Quarter between 1946 and 1950, crossing the desert several times collecting information as well as mapping vast areas of this very remote and sparsely populated region.
23°N 53°E is a remote location, yet it has a surprising desert eco-system that is devoid of surface water but is home to a variety of flora and fauna. At an altitude of 124 metres above sea level, 23°N 53°E is amidst medium sized dunes between 50 to 70 metres high. These dunes are visually stunning and sculptured with fine sand, mostly light in colour with a blush of fine reddish sand adding contrast to the contours of the bowls and their ridges. At the bottom of some bowls, small jagged outcrops of what looks like sandstone juts up from the normally smooth surface of the sand reminding all to take care. These dunes are wild and crafted by Mother Nature, consequently the topography changes with the seasons.
Our approach to 23°N 53°E was made from a SSE direction, beginning in the desert approximately 100 km away and ten kilometres west of the desert community of Bid` al-Muṭāwi`a. As 23°N 53°E is situated in a remote desert region, access is limited to camel, horses or Off-Road Vehicles. The latter being our choice for our expedition, comprising of 8 vehicles with their avid and experienced drivers. From our group DESERT BUCCANEERS, our party comprised of people from India, Chile, Australia, China, Sweden, and UK. The route to 23°N 53°E was planned months in advance, starting from Dubayy with overnight stops in Mirfā' and 23°N 53°E, on through to `Arāda, then, back to Dubayy.
By 21:00 all drivers had reached the first meeting point at Mirfā' and settled in for a good night’s rest after a little laughter and friendly banter about the trip ahead. At 08:00 the following morning all drivers were ready and had assembled their cars and passengers for the customary group photo before setting off. The night before, various discussions were had about fuel consumption and our respective carry-on spare fuel because we had to drive about 100 km before the planned deflation point or desert entry. Everyone’s concerns were laid to rest at al-Ruways, a coastal town along the way, where we squeezed as much fuel into our cars and jerry cans as was possible. "Did we really have enough fuel?", was the question that was still lingering in the back of a few minds, time will tell.
Our route lead us through Ghayāthiy, past the many farms that the town is known for before finally and quite literally, reaching the end of the road where the black-top vanished into the desert. Deflation point, finally! With a burst of energy all drivers meticulously made last minute checks and adjustments to their machines to ready them for the ‘real’ adventure. No one seemed to pay much attention to the rising temperature and gave even less thought to mention anything about the very soft powdery sand we had just driven into. Nonetheless, with flags raised we set off in our typical convoy format.
Statistics tell the tale about the first 3 hours into our adventure: 1 hour moving and 2 hours stationary! Soft sand was causing havoc amongst the convoy. The sand was so soft in places, it was as if the brakes had been jammed on as soon as you drove into it. If you were unlucky enough to touch the brakes at the same time as coming into this super soft sand, you could have easily hit the windscreen if not wearing a seat belt. The sand was a very light colour throughout most of the drive and with the sun at its peak, it was like being snow blind with your eyes straining to catch glimpses of hidden pockets that might easily find you stuck in and halt the convoy or worse, cause damage to our vehicles.
The afternoon wore on with the air temperature firmly fixed at 40+. The glare of the dunes was so intense it would affect our ability to judge the distance. We had no idea how far this section of dunes would persist. However, change was inevitable and the landscape morphed with striking images of jagged rock strata jutting up from valleys floors as well as at the base of the dunes. Eventually, at around 16:00, we emerged on to a plateau or plain with long vistas to very distant high dunes with stark similarity to the American mid-west prairies. With this terrain came firmer, less challenging sand and the rate of progress came on in leaps and bounds.
This day was rapidly drawing to a close and the distance travelled versus time spent ratio was, thankfully, back on track. However, we were yet to reach 23°N 53°E as planned plus we needed to pinpoint a camp-site. Our expedition leader, Thanseer, told us over the radio that we were in fact quite close to our goal, which is one of 11 confluence points in the UAE. This was a very uplifting moment after a long and difficult day, so with raised spirits we set-up camp over the next dune.
The following morning, each of us was taking care to take out what we brought in plus spending some time recheck our vehicles before heading off. Looking around the campsite that morning, there were a number of different animal and insect tracks around that had obviously visited through the night to investigate who had invaded their home. Loaded up, we set off back to the confluence point to complete our records and to document the point, 23°N 53°E.
The final desert section of the drive was at around 40 kilometres. It was a mixture of more familiar dune structure; steep drops and sabkhas. The sand seemed more compacted than the previous day’s dunes but it may have been that we had become accustomed to the soft sands, too. With 18 km yet to go before we would reach a made road, some cars were virtually running on only petrol fumes. We made a final stop to refuel and distributed our remaining 40 litres of petrol into the most desperate vehicles. At just 2 km from our planned desert exit we arrived at a vast, scruffy camel farm, so we knew we were close to a village and our exit. We took down our flags to reduce drag and selected 2WD to conserve as much fuel as possible, then, headed off on very rough old desert tracks that would inevitably lead us out to a tarmac road and a much needed petrol station.
We made it! Our expedition was over and together we had achieved our goal, 23°N 53°E was in the bag! The journey was tough and route very challenging with lots of awkward and unforgiving terrain. Thanks go out to all members of this expedition team, the camaraderie forged on these types of adventures is as fulfilling as completing the objectives themselves. So, with full tanks of fuel and an ice cream in hand, the next stop is Dubayy, 350 km return journey.