The Rub Al Khali in Oman is unbelievably remote, yet to the properly prepared it is reasonably accessible. The area has cast such a spell on me I have felt compelled to cross it every year since 2012. I suggested to my keen fat-biking friend, Nikos Koumanoudis, that he may like to attempt to cross the Umm As Sameem on two wheels and that he may be the first person to achieve this feat.
Al Ain-based Nikos, a regular rider with the AA Cycling Club was keen to give it a go, so plans were made and he and his friend Yannis joined our expedition group at the Ibri Oasis Hotel one Thursday evening early in February. During the night we could hear the wind gusting to 30-50kph, but we decided to continue with the trip since there were no safety issues and better weather was forecast for the evening and also for the Saturday.
The convoy snaked its way towards the Empty Quarter and upon reaching the wettest part of the sabkah/quicksand which is the Umm As Sameem, we dropped Nikos and Yannis with their bikes. Before leaving them alone on this 500 square kilometre expanse of salty mud, we equipped them with a satphone so they could call for assistance should they need it. Nikos also had the track to the camp downloaded to his gps, particularly useful in an area with little or no landmarks, especially during a sandstorm!
Nikos said: “It really was the closest experience to riding on Mars – it was like a different world. The emptiness, solitude and even the storm added to the experience.”
Once everyone made it to camp we settled down for the night in the most sheltered spot we could find, where we had a bbq and our guests chatted late into the evening in the majlis tent. The wind continued unabated for a few more hours but we woke to a lovely sunny morning with just a few clouds in a beautiful blue sky so Nikos and Yannis took the chance to tour around the huge dunes close to camp. Nikos observed, “the dunes are very impressive, all the more so following on from the bleak landscape of the first day’s ride; they are both majestic and spectacular and all the more so when you explore them by bike”.
When asked if he would recommend riding in this area Nikos commented, “I would definitely recommend riding around the huge dunes near the camp for any fatbiker as this area is truly unique. Unlike most of the desert areas I have seen, the Oman Rub Al Khali’s dunes are huge sand islands in a sea of sabkah and the views are amazing.” On crossing the Umm As Sameem by fatbike, Nikos continued, “it is a mental as well as physical challenge for hardcore riders. The route to camp is around 100kms and you have to be very motivated. Unlike other long distance rides, there are no physical landmarks to tick off mentally. I am glad I did it but it is so remote that I have never felt so attached to my GPS before!”
As it turned out, someone else, Maxime Chaya, did fatbike through the Rub Al Khali last year; however he was on a different route and I bet he did not have to contend with a sandstorm and 300 metres visibility!
My next trip to the Umm As Sameem and Rub Al Khali with Ibex Adventures is scheduled for the weekend of 17-18 March. Overnight B&B at the Ibri Oasis Hotel for Thursday 16 March is included to ensure our guests are rested and ready for an early start the next day – briefing will be over breakfast at 0630 hours on Friday morning before we move off at 0730 hours.
If you would like to take your fatbike along, please get in touch and we can arrange logistics support. On the Friday afternoon, highly experienced long-distance cyclists can opt to cross the Umm As Sameem or choose to have a long ride out near the campsite. Less experienced cyclists may prefer to do one or two shorter rides near the campsite. There is also an option of dune hiking on the Saturday, or two scenic self-drive 4×4 drives in the Rub Al Khali. To reach the campsite a 4×4 is essential. We can arrange local car hire if required, or can arrange for you to be a passenger in one of our tour guide’s vehicles.
To most people this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip – to follow in the footsteps of Thesiger, to be so far away from civilization yet have the safety of experienced desert guides with satphones, and to gain an insight into desert life in of Oman and the UAE just 50 or 60 years ago. For full info, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words by: Marina Bruce
Photos by: Ahmed Al Mansoori