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Reliving an epic journey.

"Ten thousand years ago, the biggest sand desert did not exist. It was green like Salalah during the khareef season," Mark Evans says of the Rub al Khali which he will attempt to cross, starting December 10, with Mohamed al Zadjali and Amour al Wahaibi. Sheikh Mubarak bin Kalut, the great great grandson of Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut who partnered with Bertram Thomas on the original expedition in 1930, will join the team from Saudi Arabia where he is based now, completing the link to the historical feat.

With just days to go, there is still much to do before the expedition is flagged off from Salalah. "The easy part will actually be when we start, there is much more work involved in putting all of this together," Mark says.

The crossing of the Empty Quarter, the largest continuous peninsula of sand, first happened unbeknownst to the world when Bertram, who was finance minister to Sultan Taimur al Said in 1925, and Sheikh Saleh set off quietly from Salalah, as they were sure they would not be granted permission in the winter of 1930. Bertram had his heart set on becoming the first European to cross the largest sand desert on earth.

Now 85 years after what put Oman on the global map, Mark, Mohamed and Amour, are aiming to re-enact the feat to celebrate the 45th National Day by travelling on foot and camels. Mark is thrilled already at the buzz over social media. "Much has happened since news about the expedition was announced on November 1. We are now being followed by 80 countries. Sheikh Mubarak got in touch with us. He will have Sheikh Saleh's khanjar with him on the trip."

Almost as if to make amends for the recognition that came to Bertram and Sheikh Saleh only after the journey, besides H H Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq al Said, Qatar's H E Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al Thani and Prince Charles of Wales are patrons of the expedition. Saudi Arabia is expected to announce a patron soon.

A team of Qatari youth will lead the adventurers into the country through the border to the fort in Doha where the original team ended its journey. "A small portion of the fort still remains. That is where we hope to end the journey as well. It is important to involve the youth as much as possible as that is what Outward Bound stands for -- showing them what can be achieved through team effort," says Mark, 54, who is the general manager of Outward Bound Oman, the only branch of the organisation in the Arab countries, set up in 2004 to train young people in challenging environments outdoors.

Sheikh Saleh and Betram had different tribes guide them through the treacherous journey, the members taking them till where their territory ended which meant they had a new team of people accompanying them every few days. The risks were enormous but the two men surely had an excitement that overpowered them.

Photographers John C Smith and Sims Davis will accompany the team as support staff on the trip, driving two Toyota LC-70S, shooting pictures, deciding on food rations and handling communications when the team sets up camp every day.

The Empty Quarter was considered to be the broadest expanse of unexplored territory outside of Antarctica by The Explorers Club of New York in 1930. Cut to 2015, the team has satellite phones and GPS. Apart from live tracking feeds, Android and iOS users can download the Tahaddi Arabia app to follow the crew on their journey. "There is a predictability that comes with so much equipment to support a trip but looking back, explorers have always made the most of the technology available during their time. Bertram Thomas took a cine camera. We have nothing to prove by dressing up in clothes from that period and the like as we are trying to connect with young people today. We will wear regular clothes save for a bisht when it gets very cold," Mark says.

The team will be covering 15km initially, building up to 30km, taking into account the fitness levels of the team and the endurance of the camels. Mark says the last nine months have been the busiest of his life what with Outward Bound Oman set to have its own building as a national training centre in 2016. "I haven't been getting the physical fitness needed but think back to 1930, none of those people did any training. They just started walking, so we will just walk ourselves fit. Amour lives in the desert so he has the genes but we are not as fit as we should be. Ideally there should have been more morning runs and swimming as part of training."

"The camels are like the people now, soft, unused to tough conditions. But Amour has been training them too, not feeding them every day so that they can tolerate the harsh conditions out there."

It is the camels that Amour is worried about too, hoping that the animals won't have a fracture or any other kind of injury during the journey.

Amour, 38, a true man of the desert, is quite the hero in Sharqiyah where he hails from. "There are some people who think I am crazy while others consider it a great achievement and are proud to have me represent Sharqiyah," he says in Arabic as teammate Mohamed interprets in English. Amour will do the walk mostly barefoot, relying on shoes to tread the rocky terrain from Salalah to the beginning of the Empty Quarter. In case of extreme hot or cold weather, he will wear socks commonly worn by bedouins, made of wool as it is light and will allow the sand to seep through.

Mohamed, training manager with Outward Bound Oman, named his son, who was born earlier this year, after Sultan Taimur to commemorate the trip. He has instructed school groups on several educational and life skills courses in the outdoors.

Mark says the team, including John and Sims, came together for their different skill sets. "It is much more easy than it was 85 years ago but it still is a committing journey and you need people around you whom you can trust, people who have the sort of experience when things might not always go according to plan. Mohamed has been the main instructor at Outward Bound Oman. Amour has looked after us through expeditions we have done in parts of the Empty Quarter the last six years. He understands the values behind undertaking something like this and is a very proud Omani, a proud bedouin. He is more excited than anybody. Sims is extremely talented and can do everything on a computer at 500 miles an hour. He is happiest sleeping on the sand under the stars. John and I have done an expedition together in the past. He brings a maturity and caution to everything. He is the grandfather of the trek."

As John makes a list of supplies which will go into the trucks, he needs to make sure chances of the vehicles tipping over remain slim. "As is common practice, we try to keep the lower part heavy with food and fuel while lighter material like grass for the camels go on the roof," Mark explains. John has made numerous trips to the supermarket and laughs, saying he doesn't want to see another one in a long time.

"We will have rice night, bread night, mash night, noodle night, pasta night, and on Day 6 start over again," John says. "Breakfast -- muesli in milk and some juice, and lunch- dates and other little bites, will remain the same every day. So we will be sick of it in 50 days," he adds laughing. Any plastic or non-degradable items will be carried through the trip so that the desert is not littered. He presumes that there will be days when Sims and he will have to catch up with the others after dismantling camp even with minimal cooking time. "It is one thing to walk, but driving a fully- laden vehicle is dangerous. If it tips over it will be difficult and it will get stuck in the sand time and time again."

The trucks have been prepared with special tyres to help travel easily through the sand apart from two spare tyres on each vehicle. There will be two batteries on one vehicle to power all the equipment, besides solar panels. Apart from the safety supplies in the vehicles, the team will have live access to two doctors in New York and New Zealand. "So one of them is always awake where it is day time," Mark says.

John chose the trip over a post-retirement job and time with his family. "Hopefully, I will have lots of stories for my grandchildren and maybe by the time we are in Doha, I will have lost some weight," he says. At 68, John confides that this may even be his last big trip which is why he is intent on doing it. "My knees are slowing me down now. In my head I live up to 145 but the reality isn't so."

John and Sims are no strangers to the desert. As the oldest and youngest members of the team, they bring varied experiences to the journey. John has visited Oman 18 times after falling in love with the country when he first drove in from Riyadh where he lived at the time in 1994. "I come back here on every holiday. I love the people. It is so peaceful, I feel safe here."

Twenty-six year old Sims has been making sure that all the equipment is working so that post production work can be carried out smoothly. Amour's company is one that Sims looks forward to, having previously accompanied him on a trip from Salalah. "Amour has many riddles he likes to ask which will easily keep you guessing for hours," Sims says.

The team's adventure is also going to benefit scientific research as they will be the subject of study by researchers at the University of Northampton on how humans cope in extreme conditions. "They are studying us in the desert and another team that is going to the Artic." The University of Oxford and University of Riyadh are relying on the team to work with paleodesert teams on a project called Green Arabia to record and share images and locations of artifacts they may find along the route. "Arrowheads," Mark says, are a regular find in the desert. "But we will have to photograph, record their details and note the location, leaving them as they are, for the researchers to assess their age."

A book and a documentary to be aired on a television channel are the projects awaiting the team once the journey is over. Mark will be maintaining a daily diary. "I will make bullet point notes along the journey as I walk with the camels."

The enormity of the journey is not lost on him. "If things go wrong, we are on Google Earth and can cry for help. But we are still out there for 50 days. It is hard work to get yourself going for 30km every day. I am sure at the end there will be a lot of tears when we see those towers of the fort in Doha that Bertrand and Sheikh reached."

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Publication:The Week (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:7OMAN
Date:Dec 3, 2015
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