Sand dunes (photo)

The Empty Quarter, or Rub al Khali, is the world's largest sand desert.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

By Carl Hoffman

“It was very still,” wrote Wilfred Thesiger, “with the silence which we have driven from our world.”

The British explorer was sitting alone on a ridge overlooking the desert in 1947, on one of two epic journeys with the Bedouin of Arabia that took him through the massive dunes of the Empty Quarter and the oasis settlements of Liwa that dot its southern flank. His book of the experience, Arabian Sands, stands as one of the classics of travel literature.

While others saw the desert as an empty void and the Bedouin as unsophisticated tribesmen, Thesiger saw them as they saw themselves—noble men for whom the desert was a sea upon which they roamed freely and found refuge. To them, and to him, the desert was life itself. Beautiful. Harsh. Epic. The "desert Arabs," as he called them, full of an "austere dignity."

Those dunes still exist, as do the oases of Liwa, just an hour and a half south of the city of Abu Dhabi by smooth highway, and to camp in them or drive over them in a four-by-four is to experience one of the sublime beauties of the Earth.

The sand is soft, fine, multicolored hues of khaki and orange, and it rolls in windswept hills hundreds of feet high as far as the eye can see, unbroken by tree or shrub or the rarest of clouds. Driving off-road into its vastness is to experience that penetrating silence, whether it’s for an hour or a night. The night sky erupts with stars, sparkling and falling, the Milky Way like a thick swirl of tapioca, and time evaporates.

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