15-Feb-2002 -- For a number of years, while the moving `Īd religious holidays have fallen in the winter season, lovers of Saudi Arabia’s desert countryside have taken the opportunity to organise 4x4 holidays to the less accessible areas. This `Īd (Ḥajj 1422 = February 2002), a group of us planned a trip to near the mid-point of the Empty Quarter (the country sized Rub` al-Khāliy desert). This was to include approximately 800 km of tar-road driving and 800 km of off-road driving. We'd recently become aware of the Degree Confluence Project and tuned our route to take in up to 4 confluence points, if things went well. Axel and Sylvia led the convoy to this confluence point and wrote up this part of the journey. For an account of the other confluence points that we visited, see 22N 51E, 23N 51E and 24N 49E.
As we were going to be many kilometres from tarmac and any known settlements we took preparation seriously and met to agree rough timings, fuel, and shared equipment. We were all practiced at self-sufficient trips, and between us had experience of about half of the off-road areas through which we were to journey. After the normal last day worries prompted by (imagined?) strange sounds from our cars, we met at 8:00 am for a 4 hour / 440 km dash via al-Kharj and Ḥaraḍ to Yabrīn. The road between al-Kharj and Ḥaraḍ is enlivened by a couple of well-known attractions; a set of ornate dove cotes (the al-Kharj end) and the wrecked train (the Ḥaraḍ end).
Yabrīn is notable for the acres of burial mounds on the hills nearby, and for one of the largest sabkhas (treacherous salt / mud flat) in Saudi Arabia. The tarmac passes straight through it - one is always intrigued by the tracks of vehicles heading out off the tarmac and then disappearing!
Just south of Yabrīn was the last reliable petrol station before the trip proper. After this fuel and water (as always) were the main constraints on our route. We had our first picnic lunch waiting for the end of prayer time at the petrol station, and were recruited by some locals to try our skills on a lifeless Toyota pickup. Expatriates have many times benefited from the well-known helpfulness of Saudis in the desert so we always try to reciprocate. Sadly, mechanical knowledge mostly gained at university keeping up old cars to visit girlfriends in out-of-town colleges was not up to challenge of an excessively modern Toyota engine, with no recognisable distributor, etc!
Our first 70 km over the desert was a morale-boostingly easy ride. The first target was another wreck, "The wrecked Land Rover", standing, Ozymandias-like, in a large plain. (By the side bulge, wide set headlights, and non-protruding door hinges, we sagely hazarded a later Series 2). We then had no reason not to make a straight course for our first Confluence. However, after another 20 km the dunes got difficult enough to trap us a couple of times, so as it was camping time we picked a spot and struggled there. The flies dispersed when it got dark and after an animated and prolonged evening meal we crept into our tents / car / outside camp bed for a refreshingly windy night.
The next morning we adjusted our route to the terrain, successfully swinging south to approach our target. After a great 60 km over mini erg country, with scenic vegetated sand valleys in between, we were rewarded by a photogenically positioned Confluence on an East slope of sand, with a line of high dunes as a backdrop.