Lost in Oman’s ‘Mother of Poison’

The cruelest part of the desert is its sound. In that emptiness without people, stretched across countries, you will first be aware of the soft rasping of waves of wind over sand, and sand scraping over sand. Slowly, as I spent hours lying down without hope, waiting for the night that might change my life or end it, the wind and sand seemed to take on lives of their own. I heard faraway cars coming to me, even faint, distant voices that must indicate Bedu where there were none. These are little sounds, mere suggestions in the air, and their subtlety will tease you till you cry. The only real sound I ever heard were two ghostly figures in the night that scared me enough to grab my shovel and shout out. But it was only a couple of wild camels that I soon forgot, lost in my problems, stuck in the Empty Quarter, a stretch of desperate loneliness that extends across most of Saudi Arabia, spilling out into Oman and Yemen.

If this wasn’t enough, I was in a little patch called the Umm as Samim, translating into ‘mother of poison.’ It blossomed out south of Oman’s most famous oilfields, stretching towards the border with Saudi Arabia. And it had, along with its parent desert, been made famous through history, geology and literature as one of the greatest, most feared deserts known to man. Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger had romped through, oil companies had laid claims, armies had fought and blood was spilt over its magnificent dunes, bleak salt flats called sabkha and patches of quicksand you didn’t know were truth or legend. There was only one truth for me though: I was stuck in it, alone, with very little food and water, and no one knew where I was, or when I should be expected back. The romance of the desert made fools of men, and the occasional poetry it inspired over generations took nothing away from the truth that the infinitely thin sand blew over in fitful wisps.

That afternoon, I had refused to believe that the two birds of prey that had hovered occasionally above were there by coincidence, a chance encounter over their territory that must have stretched across horizons of endless sands. I believed they were there for me, waiting for me to die like some horrible cliché in a Western that had turned terribly wrong, the hero crawling desperately in the desert, a symbolic vulture in the background. I made sudden movements with my hands as I lay in the sand, showing I was alive and strong. They called out, settling on the next dune, five stories high.

They hadn’t helped my mind, which had turned to thoughts of dying very quickly. I was on a suggestion of a road that no one seemed to use, the only vehicle in the 70km that I had travelled from the Omani army camp near the Saudi Arabian border, now stuck hopelessly in the sand. I had eaten breakfast there, invited by soldiers taken aback by the appearance of a lone civilian in an area so remote even they weren’t sure what lay around the next dune formation. And when they did venture out it was always in a convoy, armed with automatic rifles and jerry cans of fuel and water. They hadn’t thought that driving to the border was a good idea. The Saudi soldiers were unfriendly, they hinted, and the actual border seemed a little vague in the landscape of shifting sands and nothingness. I left them my business card and said I’d be back in an hour for breakfast — and to come after me if I wasn’t. Thirteen kilometres later I was there, at a lone pole by the side of a sandy road that went on further, with a plaque on either side naming its country. An hour later I was back on safer ground, eating chappatis and dal for breakfast. They had a Bengali cook, a dark, bent-over leathery old man who would later be full of visions of doom.

I would have eaten more if I had known that it would be my last full meal for the next couple of days. Hours later I was stuck in an innocent looking dune, just a few meters from hard ground, the Land Cruiser at a horrible 45° angle, threatening to topple over if I did manage to move it. I started shoveling sand away from the wheels and from under the chassis, but it was tough work and my mouth grew dry every couple of minutes. I munched on ice cubes the soldiers had filled my cool box with, but I knew I didn’t have enough water for this sort of activity to last very long. Instead, I stopped working and lay in the shade of the Toyota, on the sand and along with my backpack, and 40 liters of useless petrol — everything I’d removed to get the car lighter.

I had dug so desperately that I’d quickly shredded my soft, city slicker hands, and adhesive bandages wouldn’t stick on with the fine coating of sand that wouldn’t come off. Water was much too precious to waste on superficial wounds. Instead, I slid one sock over the handle, and tied another around further down, using them as padding to hold the shovel. I haven’t figured out what flies do in the loneliest spot of desert known to man, but they must have homed in on me from kilometers away, sitting on my face and nibbling at my wounds. I ended up with a head cloth over my face, lying in the sand with my hands tucked under opposite armpits, out of reach.

Stay with the car, I thought, someone in Muscat will miss you, and call the oil worker whom I’d met at the last town, and whose phone number I’d SMS-ed to people in the capital. He knew which direction I’d gone in, and that road would have to lead to the army camp. And the soldiers not only had my business card, but also knew the direction of travel, and car details. It would take them a few minutes to spot the car by helicopter, or a couple of hours by road. All I had to do was wait, and if they didn’t come the next morning I would sleep through the day and dig by night, again.

But the waiting was horrible, and in that emptiness of hope and desert my mind began to wander. I knew I would die very soon with the few liters of water that I had. They were enough for the couple of hours I expected to be in the car till I got to the highway, but certainly not for days in the desert. Then came plan B: I’d give myself this one night to dig myself out, and would set off walking to the camp the next night if the vehicle was impossible. I would carry my camera tripod and sleeping bag, making a tent by day so I wouldn’t have to leave the road in search of shade. I felt better immediately, now that I knew the digging wasn’t the end of the world. Luckily, though, I never had to set off on a 70km hike with a few liters of water.

I bled the tires till they were dangerously low for maximum traction, and shoved a few hard bits of earth from the road in front of and behind the wheels. After four hours of digging and trying, the vehicle moved, like some giant beast heaving. I started the car in reverse because it has more torque than any other gear, got a few centimeters of freedom and then accelerated forward out of the dune, onto the semi-hard road of gravel and sand.

I was ecstatic — true, it had been a supreme stupidity getting stuck, but I had come out of it on my own, without rescue. I had done it by keeping my head when others would have lost theirs, and life suddenly seemed fantastic. I would put on the air conditioner, connect my iPod, blast music and — luxury of luxuries — raise my bottles to the desert sky and empty liters down my parched throat. Thank God I didn’t. After half a bottle of celebratory drink and 35km of driving towards the military camp, two of my deflated tires blew. I drove the car till the rims seemed to turn octagonal. It was half an hour before midnight, and I was now 15km from a junction with a water tank, in turn 26km from the camp. The T-junction had a bit of an uninhabited reed shack and a sign that pointed towards a gas company somewhere in the third direction. It would obviously see traffic, unlike my current road that seemed like you could while away your life in anticipation. All I had to do was walk 15km this night, and then hitch a ride on a passing truck to the camp. That’s a long hike, but I had done similar distances earlier over mountains, and this was a level road in the cool of the winter desert night, perhaps 16° or so. I took out the jerry cans of petrol so they wouldn’t explode in the heat of the day inside the car, and loosened their caps so pressure wouldn’t build up. I poured the melted ice in the empty bottles I had, and drank whatever didn’t fit in. I had my backpack full of food, water, clothes, books, even papers from a geologist friend, plus my camera equipment — a huge load, but nothing that I hadn’t done in the past. Other larger gear I left in the car: shovel, tripod, icebox.

I estimated eight hours in front of me, and planned to stop after every one, sip on water and rest for a few minutes. It turned much tougher very soon. I was carrying many kilos more than I should have, and the breaks after every hour increased in frequency to once every half hour, and ultimately once every 15 minutes. I would take a sip of water and then lie down on the desert floor, looking up at the fantastic spread of stars clearer than from most other places on Earth. The ground would be soft and cool, and it seemed so much easier to close my eyes and drift off into an endless sleep of no effort, at one with the desert and the night and the sky. I fell in love with the Umm as Samim that night, and wanted to drink it in and become it, in all its life and death and terrible beauty that only I, at this one moment, could possess. I wanted to let go, to leave my things and drift away, or run amok off the track and into the dunes, gulping in that fine crimson sand that glows at dusk and turns shades of soft grey and silver at night. I would choke on that powder, and die. It would be easier, perhaps even apt.

Instead, I walked through the night till eight in the morning, stumbling to the reed shack opposite the foul smelling chemically laced water tank. It was my back that pained most, not my feet, and there must have been bruises where the straps of the haversack cut across in places I could not see, and across my chest and shoulder where additional straps of the camera bag had stretched. I had to get down to the ground in slow motion, and lay in the shade after one mammoth, triumphant swig of water.

It didn’t take me very long to realize no one was coming this way either. And then it dawned on me: today was Friday, the weekly holiday, and I would probably have to wait another day for a vehicle. If I waited through this day and night, and then realized, at the end of the next day, that no one was coming even on a weekday, it would be too late. I would be too weak, and my water nearly over. There was only one option: spend another day in the shade, hike another night. But it had taken me eight hours to walk 15km, a walk that had left me stumbling stupidly, bent over in pain and croaking for water. How could I ever manage 26km, more than I had ever done in my life at a single stretch, on two liters of water and in a single night? I lay down in the few feet of shade, battling flies and opening The Economist, which promised a tough 2006 in Iraq, the most urbanized demographic statistics the world had ever seen and vague predictions for international economies. It didn’t seem particularly well written.

I didn’t eat or drink through the day. Eating would only make me need water to wash the food down, and I was beyond trivialities like hunger and sleep anyway. My only thought was of water, enough for 26km. It was so precious I didn’t splash it into my eyes when a grain of sand got in minutes later. Instead, I poured it into the little cap of the bottle, administering it overhead like an eye drop. I wasted two caps full till I gave up, and left the sand in.

At four in the afternoon I ate a little, early enough to be digested before my walk and late enough to provide nutrition for the effort. I opened two cans of baked beans, mainly for the tomato sauce, and gulped down my three remaining oranges, licking their juice off my fingers. I was approaching the state where drinking one’s urine didn’t seem such a bad idea, the main problem being there wasn’t enough intake to produce any.

I set off at five in the evening, after ditching everything except my camera equipment and water. The geologist’s notes that I had carried so carefully went into the sand along with the clothes — if he didn’t have another copy he could come here and do his study again. I was so desperate to keep the weight down that I even threw away my food, all heavy cans and tins, the heaviest part of my load. The previous night had been hard, but not life threatening, because I was sure of rescue at the water tank. This next night seemed impossible, and dry biscuits, peanut butter and cheese seemed ridiculous. I was tempted to throw away the camera and lenses too, but these last shots of what I had seen and done were the next most precious thing to me after my two liters of water.

The winter sun was soft and low, and I was clocking a fantastic pace. In three hours I was tired in a landscape that I didn’t recognize for the first time. This time the back and feet were fine, but the mental strain of impending death was killing. I’ve heard a million people say how adverse situations bring out the best in you, or how the body draws on strengths you never knew existed. It wasn’t like that. If anything I was feeling weaker, and it was all psychological. But, at the same time, life seemed so simple: all I had to do was walk.

Perhaps people can survive days without water, and if so I envy them. I seemed to need more water now in the cold winter desert night than I had needed in the October heat climbing Oman’s highest mountains. Of course, this time I was walking after spending two days without food and with very little water, after four hours of digging and eight hours of walking and not one minute of sleep. Perhaps I did draw on something somewhere, because I did those 26km in eight hours, not crawling into the army camp, croaking, but walking in, just slightly dizzy, and at a slight loss as to what to do with the four soldiers who stood up in surprise at midnight, under the spotlights, even as the designated sentry behind reached for his rifle.

These were soldiers on a border post with nothing around, and at midnight they were surprised by a man with a head cloth, lots of straps across his torso, one backpack, another smaller bag near his hip, and a Swiss Army Knife and Maglite attached to his belt. He had a few days of stubble, was dusty and dirty and looked very desperate. If I was a soldier and saw this man I would raise my gun. The thought of surviving 40km of walking over two days and nights on two liters of water only to get shot by mistake was so deliciously ironic I had laughed aloud in the empty night. But now I raised my hands in the air, and the soldiers came forth, offering me a plastic chair, water, an entire grilled chicken, egg curry and rice.

Oman, December 7–9, 2005

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Abu Tubul, the Omani army camp near the border with Saudi Arabia, where I had to walk to