Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter

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The Dubai-based Italian explorer Max Calderan crossed the vast, empty, undulating sand dunes of the Rub Al-Khali desert, the so-called Empty Quarter in the east of Saudi Arabia, on foot via an unexplored route. (Empty Quarter Studios)
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The Dubai-based Italian explorer Max Calderan crossed the vast, empty, undulating sand dunes of the Rub Al-Khali desert, the so-called Empty Quarter in the east of Saudi Arabia, on foot via an unexplored route. (Empty Quarter Studios)
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The Dubai-based Italian explorer Max Calderan crossed the vast, empty, undulating sand dunes of the Rub Al-Khali desert, the so-called Empty Quarter in the east of Saudi Arabia, on foot via an unexplored route. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 05 February 2020

Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter

  • Max Calderan has joined famous group of men who have crossed Rub Al-Khali desert
  • Calderan completed his 16-day journey on foot using unexplored West-East route

DUBAI: Rub Al-Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

It is a landscape of ever-changing endless dunes made famous by expeditions undertaken between the 1930s and 1950s by Bertram Thomas, Wilfred Thesiger and their Arab companions. Max Calderan, a long-time Dubai resident originally from Italy, has just become the latest man to join that famous group.

Previous explorers are known to have crossed shorter sections of Rub Al-Khali on camels or in off-road vehicles, whereas Calderan completed his journey on foot via an unexplored route.

With his latest feat, Calderan has realized at once a lifelong ambition and, as he puts it, “the dream,” not “a dream.” For the compulsive record-setter, the journey was also a humbling reminder of nature’s awesome power and beauty.

The father of three — and soon-to-be father of four — set off on his 16-day Empty Quarter expedition on Jan. 18 in Saudi Arabia, from Najran, located 880 km from Riyadh.

His plan was to cross on foot one of the world’s hottest and most-brutal deserts, one that covers about 650,000 square km and includes parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen.

“When I was only seven years old in 1974, I was reading the encyclopedia where it was written that Saudi Arabia’s Rub Al-Khali is the biggest sand desert around the world,” Calderan recalled during an exclusive interview with Arab News.

“No camels could enter that part of the desert, there was no water and even migratory birds were making diversions.

“So, I drew a picture and told my mother that I would be the first man to enter that area and understand why camels can’t. And on that day, I had a dream of an older man, just like me now, walking alone in the Empty Quarter.”

Calderan’s dream came true when he trekked through 1,100 km of desert from west to east, covering over 800 km of “virgin territory” armed with little more than a backpack and a sleeping bag.

He said on most days he trekked for an average of 18 hours in temperatures that ranged from 2.7 degrees Celsius in the early hours of the morning to 35 degrees Celsius during the daytime.

He routinely woke up at 1:30 a.m. and began his exploration in the darkness by 2 a.m., venturing out into the desert to cover about 80 km before setting up his sleeping bag for another night under the stars, often between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Despite planning 67 meeting points along his route, each 18km apart, his support team, which traveled by car and supplied him with food and water, was unable to ensure their paths crossed on a daily basis due to unpredictable weather conditions and diversions.

So Calderan’s exact location was tracked through his satellite phone every 15 minutes by a team based in London that oversaw his entire expedition.

FASTFACT

Rub Al-Khali is part of the larger Arabian Desert, covering 650,000 sq km and including parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen.

“From my previous experience, I was best prepared — and had the capability to stay totally alone in the desert — when I had enough food and water in my backpack to last at least 250 km,” he said.

About 200 km into his journey, Calderan encountered a community that he referred to as “original, pure and genuine Bedouin tribes.

“I stopped several times to talk to them because I needed as much information as possible about Rub Al-Khali, as what had been written in the books was not totally accurate,” he said.

He was advised to take either the north or south route across the Empty Quarter since these had been previously explored.

The tribesmen tried to convince him that walking straight down the middle of the largest continuous sand desert on Earth was extremely “unsafe” and nearly “impossible,” Calderan said.

“They said: ‘You have to understand that the more you will move ahead, the less you will find animals, trees and water. There’s nothing there.’”

Calderan said he remained undeterred by the tribes’ advice, having made up his mind to stay the course even as he began what he described as a “spiritual conversation with mother nature.”

He told Arab News: “I asked permission from Rub Al-Khali. “I said: ‘Please let me go inside, let me explore your land.’

“The desert replied: ‘Now I will gift you something so you can start to understand who I am.’”

After watching a beautiful sunset, Calderan was caught in a severe sandstorm and was unable to meet his support team at the next agreed point.

“During the sandstorm, you couldn’t see more than two meters in any direction,” he said.




It took Max Calderan 16 days to cross the Empty Quarter. (Photo by Max Calderan/Empty Quarter Studios)

“If you took seven steps and turned around, you could just about see your fifth footstep and, for sure, your seventh would be gone.”

Once the storm had passed, Calderan said he once again called out to nature.

“Dear Rub Al-Khali, I now understand your power,” he said as he as he ventured into a terrain that, to this day, has stayed largely out of humanity’s sight.

Calderan said the landscape was now barren and the silence was deafening.

“This section of the desert was totally empty,” he recalled.

“I didn’t see a single animal track. I didn’t see any other footprints or camel waste. I didn’t even see or hear the sound of an aircraft in the sky.

“If I tried to shout, the sound came out from my mouth, but within a meter from me it would be absorbed by the sand.”

Calderan said it was difficult to form clear thoughts about daily life during the journey. He felt the power of nature had had the effect of silencing his mind.

“The power of the mind cannot do anything in front of thousands of kilometers (of empty desert). You stop thinking and start communicating with nature,” Calderan said.

“I thanked nature for the sights I was witnessing and, at a certain point, I said to it: ‘Do as you want with me — clean my mind, clean my body, clean my thoughts. I have only one mission and that is to see myself with my family again.’ That was indeed my goal.”

After notching up over 100 Empty Quarter sites on his GPS instrument — areas that included waterbeds, wolf footprints and an oryx corpse — Calderan began what he calls the “toughest” trek of all: The final 200km of the expedition.




Max Calderan’s location was tracked through his satellite phone every 15 minutes by a team based in London. (Empty Quarter Studios)

He was mentally prepared for encounters with dangerous creatures ranging from wild cats to deadly scorpions. But what turned out to be the biggest danger was the desert itself, Calderan said, recalling a moment when he stood before a “mountain of dunes” as high as 300 meters.

“It was as if I had travelled to hell — and it was the first time in my life I started to pray in order to come out,” he said.

Reaching the finishing point involved negotiating many more monstrous sand dunes, as a result of which Calderan often found himself exhausted, dehydrated and in a hallucinatory state.

“I was destroyed, but what happened is I got the awareness to understand that we as human beings, with all our arrogance and technology, are nothing in front of nature,” he said.

“We are searching for water in Mars while we are destroying our water resources on Earth.

“At this point, all my training, my strength and my previous experience amount to nothing. All I can understand is that it is time to start giving back to the environment.”

As he poured out his thoughts and emotions about his epic journey during the interview, Calderan said he is still overwhelmed and will need time to fully absorb the lessons of the last couple of weeks.

His hope is that his feat will go down in history alongside other famous expeditions of the Empty Quarter, but with an important difference: The newly created west-east "Calderan Line" will be used by generations of explorers to come.


Turkish lira in freefall: What triggered the sharp decline?

Updated 5 min 9 sec ago

Turkish lira in freefall: What triggered the sharp decline?

  • While dollar/lira parity was just 1.31 in 2008 and 2.83 in 2016, it reached 7.31 on Friday morning, passing beyond the psychological threshold
  • According to experts, Turkey has already run out of ammunition for defending the lira, apart from buying gold to diversify its portfolio

ANKARA: On Thursday, two years after the historic currency crisis of August 2018, the Turkish lira hit a new record low against the US dollar and the euro despite the months-long failed interventions of state banks and Turkey’s Central Bank (CBRT) to prop up the currency and keep it pegged.

While dollar/lira parity was just 1.31 in 2008 and 2.83 in 2016, it now reached 7.31 on Friday morning, passing beyond the psychological threshold.

The CBRT announced that it is set to use “all available instruments to reduce the excessive volatility in the markets.”

According to experts, Turkey has already run out of ammunition for defending the lira, apart from buying gold to diversify its portfolio.

Last month, the CBRT overtook Russia as the world’s largest purchaser of gold. Turkey’s annual inflation reached about 12 percent according to the official figures.

Erinc Yeldan, an economy professor at Ankara Bilkent University, said that financial investors were leaving the Turkish market after seeing that the CBRT’s reserves reportedly went negative for a couple of weeks.

“They now believe that the king is naked,” he told Arab News, adding that the sharp currency fluctuations might have already benefited some rent-seeking pro-government companies in saving dollars and paying their debts.

For Yeldan, however, such a fixed exchange rate system is like a ship without a rudder — simply unsustainable.

“The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque despite international warning and the newly adopted restrictions in social media law have been all political operations to divert attention from the economic challenges in the country,” he said.

Regarding macro fundamentals, Nikolay Markov, senior economist at Pictet Asset Management, thinks that Turkey is highly vulnerable given its strong reliance on foreign capital flows to finance its chronic current account deficit.

“Within the Emerging Markets’ space, it is currently the country most at risk after Argentina,” he told Arab News. 

According to Markov, the recently renewed depreciation of the lira reflects investors’ growing concerns about a likely balance of payments crisis, the lack of appropriate economic policy measures and, lately, somewhat higher geopolitical risks.

“The significant decline of the CBRT’s foreign currency reserves due to higher currency market interventions is clearly a trigger, as is the lack of decisive monetary policy actions. To contain the lira depreciation, the CBRT should sharply hike rates now to show its decisiveness and restore investors’ confidence,” he told Arab News.

Pictet Asset Management suggests that the key policy rate should be set now at 14 percent instead of remaining unchanged at 8.25 percent.

Markov also noted that the current depreciation of the lira is not sustainable for a long period given that the CBRT has already lost a sizable part of its reserves and that this has not been helpful in restoring investors’ confidence.

“This actually generates expectations of future CBRT foreign currency interventions, in which case the endgame is for its reserves to be completely depleted,” he said.

For Markov, the best remedy in the short term would be to hike rates aggressively but only for a short period of time to contain the negative impact on domestic demand, which is already largely impacted by the pandemic shock; to reverse the lira depreciation trend; and to restore investors’ confidence and, as a consequence, receive foreign capital inflows into the country.

Nigel Rendell, a senior analyst at Medley Global Advisers in London, thinks that the pattern in the Turkish lira reflects a lack of credibility over economic policy.

“The CBRT is attempting to meet a number of mutually exclusive policy objectives: maintain low interest rates, reduce inflation, promote economic growth and keep the lira broadly stable. Intervening in the foreign exchange (FX) market to try and support the currency and using ‘borrowed’ money from the commercial banks and overseas sources is not sustainable,” he told Arab News.

Rendell noted that many investors began to question the wisdom of the CBRT’s actions when the lira even managed to lose ground against a weakening dollar and concluded that the CBRT was throwing good money after bad to try and keep the lira at an artificial level.

“The problem now is that a weaker currency will quickly feed into higher inflation and threatens to leave the current policy rate looking even further out of line at 8.25 percent. The case for hiking official interest rates is hindered by political constraints,” he said.

“President Erdogan believes in ‘voodoo economics,’ bizarrely arguing that higher interest rates somehow lead to higher inflation,” Rendell said.

Last year, the head of the CBRT was dismissed in an overnight presidential decree over his disagreements with President Erdogan in keeping monetary policy tight.

“So, a rate hike now, at a time when the government is desperate to underwrite the real economy, would be met with political fury. Doubtless, the current CBRT Governor Murat Uysal fears for his job,” Rendell said.

Despite the sharp decline and lira meltdown, the Turkish government still opposes increasing interest rates to prevent a deeper crisis, rejecting the claims that the CBRT’s FX reserves are depleted.

However, according to the official data, the bank’s gross FX reserves decreased from $81 billion to $51 billion this year following the moves to stabilize the currency.

News agency Reuters claimed that the CBRT and state lenders have sold about $110 billion since early last year to fix the lira.

Rendell thinks that, ideally, interest rates should be raised by a couple of hundred basis points, but this looks very unlikely until all other options — like changes in reserve requirements and moderating credit growth further — have been tried, exhausted and inevitably found to have failed.

Sergey Dergachev, senior portfolio manager at Union Investment, believes that the geopolitical challenges in Turkey have been also influential over the free fall and selloff of the Turkish lira over recent days.

“There are still open conflicts with Greece and Libya. Turkey is closely following the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and the situation in Syria is also ongoing. And there are still various open political hotspots between the US and Turkey, like the Russian S-400 missile system and the state-run Halkbank trial,” he told Arab News. 

Dergachev thinks that what investors need would be some signals from the CBRT to calm down markets, maybe by gradually signaling some reversion to a more orthodox monetary policy mix.

“The option to combat this situation with a one-off huge rate hike is there, but political resistance for this ‘ultima ratio step’ is there as well. I do not think that this will calm the situation down fully. Should a rate hike happen, there will be some short-term relief for the Turkish lira and Turkish assets, but investors are looking for more stabilizing macroeconomic and monetary policy-related steps to reduce volatility,” he said.