21-Feb-2009 -- The bait of almost 1400 km offroading trip into one of the most beautiful deserts of the world, the great Rub` al-Khāliy, was enough to have a group of 14 confluence baggers hooked on the idea.
Our plan was to follow the elusive Kharkhayr trail from the al-Šayba road and head down as far south as possible before departing through the dune corridors to the confluence point and then zigzag our way back via a more north easterly route passing around the Ḥadīda meteorite site and finally, try to latch on to one of the rig roads taking us out to the gas station at al-Ghazāla. Here we would be able to refuel, and rejoin the blacktop.
With all eight vehicles all fuelled up, we all met at the rendezvous point, aptly named the Horses Gate gas station, in the south eastern corner of Saudi Arabia on a cool Thursday morning. We drove on the al-Šayba road for about 32 km before turning in at the inviting sign proclaiming the "Kharkhayr Trail". After just 13 km, Tom Owen's Landrover started overheating and continued to do so after minor repairs. It was a big blow for Tom, who had prepared thoroughly for the trip to the ounce. Mushtaq and AbdulMateen escorted Tom out to the Šayba road whilst the remaining 5 vehicles continued on.
Meanwhile Nabiel, having been left stranded as he was riding with Tom, jumped into Mushtaq and Waheeda's Landcruiser. Mushtaq and AbdulMateen then tried to catch up with the rest of the group. This turned out to be quite a nightmare, because they were following a set of waypoints which were different to the ones used by the rest of the group, however after an excruciating 110 km, the two groups finally came into contact over the walkie-talkies to the relief of everyone, where the two separate waypoints finally merged. All this time there was no sign of the Kharkhayr trail!
We continued heading south and made good progress before finally stopping for the day. With stars for company it was a lovely campsite. Over the fire we talked about the day's events.
Next morning we were all woken at 5:00 a.m. by the alarm sounds of a cockerel coming from Nabiel's tent, we were on the road again by 6:15 a.m. Bert lead the group and we were progressing well until at around 11:30 a.m. we heard over the radio from Paul who was behind Bert, that Bert had "disappeared". Bert's Landcruiser had nose-dived over a sand dune cliff and had the front of the vehicle smashed in. The airbag had been activated and possibly saved Bert from going through windscreen. It was indeed with a great fortune that Bert walked out with only a bruised chest and a bleeding nose.
Another miracle came our way when we managed to contact the Sinopec base camp S54 with our satellite phone, who in turn contacted their fly camp 10. The fly camp team came to our rescue within 3 hours of the accident happening. The Sinopec crew decided that the recovery of Bert's Landcruiser would have to be done the next day, so we all followed them back out to their fly camp some 45 km away, where we arrived just after dark. Nigel who was driving with Iwan, realized at this point that his spare tyre from underneath his Landcruiser had gone missing when he went over a small sand bump as we were approaching the fly camp.
Anyhow, we were welcomed warmly by the Sinopec fly camp 10 manager, Mr. Wang Jian Xun who made sure that we were looked after to our every needs and therefore it was such a great pleasure to receive such attention and courtesy in the middle of Rub` al-Khāliy. We take this opportunity to convey our deepest gratitude to the Sinopec staff.
Bert was also examined by Sinopec's medical staff, and after refreshing ourselves, we set up camp in a flat area nearby. We then held a brief meeting on what to do next, either to abandon the quest for the Confluence and return home with Bert, or to go ahead with the confluencing challenge which was still about 160 km away from the fly camp. Finally we decided to go ahead towards the Confluence.
Early next morning after dropping Bert off at the fly camp where he would arrange for the recovery of his Landcruiser, Mushtaq lead the group, with navigational help from Nabiel, and made good progress over the dunes and occasionally passing next to ancient lake beds. On one such occasion, when we stopped briefly to examine the lake bed, Nabiel found a couple of beautiful Neolithic stone tools.
Once the more pronounced corridors oriented in northeast-southwest direction appeared betweens the dunes, the kilometres were just eaten away. Finally at around 1:00 p.m. the group arrived at the confluence point, which was on one of the ancient lake beds in the middle of a corridor. We celebrated the moment with great jubilation.
With the close proximity of the border in mind, we turned around to head back northeast towards the Sinopec fly camp 10. Paul took over the lead and weaved us magnificently through the dunes and across the corridors until we were some 78 km from the fly camp, but the light was fading fast, so we decided to camp and it was yet another pleasant night of camping with virtually no wind.
Having had the Confluence bagged, the urgency of getting up early had vanished and we were more relaxed in breaking camp, and therefore ambled out at a much later time of 8:00 a.m.! We travelled the rest of the distance to the fly camp in two hours. Nigel managed to rescue his spare tyre and Bert jumped into AbdulMateen's FJ Cruiser. We were also given an escort to put us on track towards the Sinopec's base camp S54, which was a further 100 km north. AbdulMateen took the lead, with Bert navigating, and negotiated a route through the multitude of tracks. At the base camp we were welcomed by Mr. Cheddy who was the first person we had spoken when reporting Bert's accident. We were offered soft drinks and free petrol which some of us took advantage of.
From the base camp, we were once more given an escort for about 10 km on the tracks that would lead us to a rig road some 160 km away in a northwesterly direction. After about 120 km, we were passing by the famous Ḥadīda meteorite site, which was 10km away to the west of the tracks. It was 4:00 p.m., and we stopped to decide what to do. The group decided to split into two groups, one consisting of Tom/Ruby, Nigel/Iwan and Mushtaq/Waheeda/Nabiel who wanted to visit the meteorite site and camp there, whilst the other group consisting of Paul/Lou-Anne, Bob/Lori and AbdulMateen/Bert wanted to head home and maybe camp on the way.
Mushtaq lead the meteorite group to the meteorite impact site over the rolling sand dunes and the short distance was covered in quick time. The surface of the impact area partly consisted of "Insta-Rock" or "impactite", a bleached-white, coarsely-laminar sandstone-look-alike, black glass slag and pellets, and very rare "bollide" – the original iron-nickel meteorite. Unfortunately, the main impact crater is now almost covered up by a moving sayf dune.
After exploring the impact site for a while, the group setup camp nearby as the sun set with all its glory, and very soon the last camp fire was lit. The night started off calmly but in the middle of the night a slight wind intervened. The next morning was spent scouring the site looking for interesting material, when Ruby found a beautiful 2 inch piece of the original meteorite. This find was indeed the icing on the cake for the whole trip. The group also briefly visited the second impact site, which now has been completely covered by sand, before heading back towards the rig road.
This particular rig road ran almost east-west (from a water well to al-Šalfā) and then north to al-Ghazāla. The early part of the rig road still had a lot of loose sand which stunted the progress, but as the group neared al-Šalfā, it improved and good progress was then made on it, arriving at a petrol station in al-Ghazāla at around 2:15 p.m.
After refuelling, the group started the long road back home on the blacktop road, stopping briefly at Ḥaraḍ for a late lunch. The final drama came when Nigel was given a speeding ticket near the notorious cement factory in al-Hufūf!