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Singaporean crosses Empty Quarter


Publication Date : 09-04-2012


Singaporean Hajar Ali, 32, has crossed the world's largest sand desert, the Middle East's 'Empty Quarter', making her what is believed to be the first woman to do so.

This is according to Dr Jeff Wynn, a research geophysicist from the United States Geological Survey who went on three scientific expeditions across the Empty Quarter in the mid-1990s.

He keeps a website documenting his expeditions and lists 12 past crossings, from British explorer Bertram Thomas' more than 50-day journey on camelback in 1931 to Hajar's seven-day expedition last month.

Dr Wynn, 65, tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: "As far as I have been able to tell, this is the first crossing by a woman."

Hajar's trip was motivated in part by her desire to find new destinations for her travel company's clients. She founded Singapore luxury travel company Urbane Nomads in 2008, specialising in luxury travel to remote places such as Antarctica and Tanzania.

Around 20 per cent of her clients are from Singapore, with the rest from places such as Europe and the Middle East.

The Empty Quarter, which spans 650,000 sq km - the combined size of France, Belgium and the Netherlands - consists of stretches of few hundred-metre-high sand dunes, and cracked salt flats with quicksand. As its name suggests, the area is almost devoid of human settlement because of its extreme heat and scarce rain.

Dr Wynn says an expedition across the Empty Quarter is "harsh and dangerous" and it is in fact logistically easier to cross Antarctica than the desert.

Hajar traversed 1,400km - almost 30 times the length of Singapore - across the desert, which spans the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Accompanied by two Bedouin drivers who each handled a four-wheel- drive vehicle laden with supplies, she braved sandstorms and scorching desert heat of more than 40 deg C, survived mostly on dried food such as nuts and muesli, and 5 litres of water a day. Sleep was in tents and there was no proper sanitation.

The drivers, who were guided by four Global Positioning System devices, had never travelled across the Empty Quarter before.

The team started from Al Ain in Abu Dhabi in the northern part of the Empty Quarter on March 22 and travelled south to Salalah in Oman, with a stop at Umm As Samim, a region of salt flats on the eastern edge notorious for quicksand.

Hajar, who is single, says: "It was very exciting. At first, it was just about being the first woman to cross the Empty Quarter, but that lost its significance during the trip because I was just living in the moment."

She took six months to plan the trip, during which she contacted Dr Wynn, who provided her with logistical advice.

Hajar, who declined to reveal the cost of her expedition, is no stranger to adventure. She has gone eagle-hunting in Mongolia and on an overland journey to what was formerly known as the North-West Frontier province in Pakistan in the wake of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year.

Even after six months of planning, nothing quite prepared her for the challenges she faced. She lost half a jerrycan of water when her roof rack broke (fortunately, she had another five jerrycans); she and her drivers got lost while looking for Umm As Samim; and they also risked running out of petrol.

Her worst experience was encountering sandstorms on the last three nights, an experience she describes as 'someone dumping buckets of sand over my tent': "On the last night, it got so bad that I couldn't look up or open my mouth because the sand would enter my eyes and mouth."

Come November, she plans to take travellers on a similar expedition, but with shower facilities and hot meals. It will be priced from US$10,000 a night for a party of four.

On completing her expedition, she says: "I felt a sense of achievement that I could relive the old-style desert exploration that was once in vogue in the 1920s and 1930s, with a modern-day sensibility."


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