RIYADH: Think the age of exploration has come and gone? Think again. At an event organized this week by the Saudi Arabian Scandinavian Society (SASA), Muscat-based British explorer Mark Evans enthralled the audience who had gathered to hear him recount his journey across Rub Al-Khali (the Empty Quarter), the largest continuous sand desert on earth.
Evans was following in the footsteps of fellow British explorer Bertram Thomas, who successfully made the grueling journey. Thomas, guided by Omani Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, took 60 days to cross the Empty Quarter in 1931. Evans’ expedition set off on the same day, Dec. 10, 85 years later.
Evans, alongside Omani explorers Mohamed Al-Zadjali and Amur Al-Wahaibi, took 49 days to make the trek, traveling on foot and accompanied by four camels. They began their journey in Salalah, Yemen, and ended it in Doha, Qatar, following the same trail as Thomas.
Marie Louise Sodemann, chairperson of SASA — a nonprofit and nonpolitical organization dedicated to building relations between individuals and groups in Saudi Arabia and Scandinavia — opened the event with a few choice words.
“In a way, coming to Saudi Arabia, for me, can be compared to (crossing a desert),” she said. “The people I met all looked similar, in a way. They wore the same clothes, and spoke a language I didn’t understand. But I slowly realized that all I was seeing was my own negative shadow. And that there are as many different destinies as there are people. And that a beautiful soul can be found anywhere.”
Over the course of their journey, Evans explained, his team faced challenges including heavy sandstorms, extreme climate changes (temperatures in the high forties during the day and below zero at night) and temperamental camels. Nevertheless, they emerged triumphant, reportedly the first people to do so since Thomas and his team.
At the end of the presentation, “desert-survival food,” which included traditional jareesh and camel meat, and more humble options such as tinned baked beans, a staple in the desert explorer’s diet even when Thomas set off on his expedition, was available for the audience to sample.
Evans — who is also the founder and executive director of Outward Bound Oman — grew up “captivated” by the idea of exploration and discovery. He spent his childhood, he said, “exploring” the fields around his house with his dog, making his own entertainment.
He has traveled extensively across the world and has been involved in outdoor education for over 39 years. Queen Elizabeth II honored him in 2012 with an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his work.