We spent our Eid al-Adha break, Thursday to Sunday, at the famous oasis at Liwa, about 150 km from Abu Dhabi to the southwest. A crescent of date palms and other green brush that stretches for about 100 km from east to west, the Liwa oasis is the traditional home of the Bani Yas tribe, the Bedu who have ruled this portion of the Arabian peninsula for centuries. In 1793 the Bani Yas relocated their tribal base to Abu Dhabi, where they fished for pearls, but the oasis and its date farms remain an important part of Bani Yas identity. Although the area is now a tourist destination, it feels a little more timeless than the bustling cities on the gulf coast. We visited mud forts, camel and date farms, and pristine red and white dunes in between long stretches poolside at our hotels. The area’s attractions aren’t very well detailed in the guides we had; at one point we stopped at an Emirati home, with half a dozen cars parked outside, to ask for directions to a historic fort. While a group of teenagers supplied us with information, a younger kid slipped into the house and returned with a bunch of bananas, two apples, a pomegranate, and three bottles of water.
I’d read about Liwa last year when a group of honors students I was advising began planning a spring break trip to Abu Dhabi. One of our preparatory texts was the travel narrative Arabian Sands (1959), by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who had crossed the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, in the late 1940s. Thesiger, who at times in his travels had to pretend to be a light-skinned sheikh from a northern tribe, in order to avoid a threatened death penalty for Christians in some parts of the peninsula, is revered in the UAE today as a documentarian of bedu life prior to the discovery of oil here. Arabian Sands, published after it was clear that oil would open this region to western development, reads as a lamentation for a world that would rapidly pass away. Thesiger lived until 2003 — long enough to see the UAE transformed into glistening cities of skyscrapers.
It was hard not to think of Thesiger while we were there. We traveled by modern highways in an air-conditioned SUV, covering ground in a matter of hours that took him and his party days in the scorching sun by camel. Last year, in celebration of the UAE’s 40th anniversary as a country, the British adventurer Adrian Hayes, with two Emirati companions, retraced Thesiger’s crossing. (I haven’t yet seen the film that resulted.) When Thesiger first traveled in this region in the 40s, he and one of his companions nearly starved, having gone for three days without food. A year later, he and his companions approached the oasis again and were close to running out of water. “Liwa was written in large letters across the map,” Thesiger later wrote,
but it was marked from hearsay, for no European other than myself had been near there. I puzzled over this map. Each time I fixed a bearing, some reason or other made me think I was wrong. The others sat round and watched me as I worked in the failing light. We all knew that if I went wrong and we missed Liwa we should be heading back into the Empty Quarter. It was a frightening thought, but to look for Liwa seemed to be our only chance.
They sighted the oasis the next day, but only stayed long enough to stock up on supplies and secure a guide who would take them the rest of the way to Abu Dhabi. Here’s a compilation of Thesiger audio recordings (made for the BBC) set to his photographs from these journeys, to give you a better flavor of the kind of travel he had undertaken:
Our accommodations were considerably different than Thesiger’s. We spent our first night — a serious splurge — at one of the finest hotels in the UAE, an incredible desert paradise. The next day we drove halfway across the Liwa crescent, where we stayed two more nights at a much more modest establishment, a little 70s kitsch around the edges, but for years the only option for Liwa tourists other than camping.
On our last evening, we raced the sunset, driving 20k or so out into the dunes, as far as the paved roads would take us. The blacktop stops at Moreeb Hill, 300 meters high, the largest sand dune in the UAE. We saw a few hikers in the distance, a couple other SUVs looking for a place to take in the view, and two dune buggies that hummed and spun huge rooster-tails of sand on the hills across the highway from us. A helicopter circled the area a few times before coming to rest on white salt flats below. We snapped pictures, took video, ran barefoot in the warm sand. We watched the sky turn red and the sun become a perfect circle before it slipped behind the farthest dune. And though Charlie did work up the courage to ride a camel the next morning before we headed home, it was in the safety of the hotel parking lot, and I think we were all glad to have seen the edge of the Empty Quarter without feeling compelled, like Thesiger and company, to cross it on foot or even on one of these magnificent, towering, smelly beasts.
Black and white photo above: Thesiger and his companions near Liwa in 1948. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.