Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Adventures in the Empty Quarter

OR: How I Came to Flee a Thunderstorm Running Over Sand Dunes While Holding My 2-year-old.


So, yes, we went camping in the Rub Al-Khali, the "Empty Quarter." There is a strip of oasis centered on Liwa that borders the Empty Quarter to the north. From there on out, through Saudi Arabia, it's all vast emptiness.

I've zoomed in and approximated our camping position with the blue circle.



Our UAE Off-Road guidebook (yes, there is such a thing as an off-road guidebook) warned of the beauty of the Empty Quarter and told us how fascinating we would find it. I was a bit skeptical. I mean, I've seen huge piles of sand before, you know? How amazing could it be?


Turns out it was pretty. dang. AMAZING. 


There was actually a nice road that ran 20km into the Empty Quarter...

...even if the sand was doing its best to reclaim it.

We found a site, set up camp, and then explored to our hearts' content. The girls went absolutely wild. It was one of those camping trips where their feet never saw the inside of a shoe.

Since we were traveling on our own, we did not want to take the chance of getting stuck in the sand. So we drove only a little way off the road, and then hauled our gear up and over the sand dunes to the site.

After cooking up some halal hot dogs on our little grill, we explored some more and then settled in for the night. That's when things got really interesting.

As soon as the girls had finished running wild in the tent, scattering sand on every possible sleeping surface, we settled them down to sleep. It was quite warm, so this process involved, at one point, me rolling a cold can of Coke up and down Miriam's back until she cooled down enough to rest.

Not long after they'd finally fallen asleep, the wind picked up and a storm blew in. It was at once hilarious and unnerving. Hilarious, because hello, EMPTY QUARTER. They don't get much rain - maybe half a dozen times a year? Maybe? We picked a winner of a night to camp.

And unnerving, because we were out in the vast, wild openness and feeling really exposed when the lightning started up in earnest. There is something majestic and beautiful about lightning and thunder when you're observing said phenomena from a well sealed window inside a sturdy structure. Out there in the wilderness, it was increasingly quite terrifying.

Suddenly I found myself frantically rummaging through my mind, unearthing every tidbit I'd ever learned about lightning in second grade. I knew it was possible to survive a lightning strike, but I hoped it wouldn't come to that. I had some vague idea of tents attracting lightning, but then I decided that I probably learned that back when tent poles were made of metal. Ours were made mostly of plastic, except there were those metal pins near where you drive in the stakes. And what about the camp chairs? Were those spindly things metal or plastic?? More thoughts, coming too fast to process - we were technically under shelter, and we weren't next to a tall tree, and we weren't in a prominent position. So we were safe, right? I thought we were. But I wasn't sure. Was I?

Fortunately, Jeremy had a strong opinion, and it was that he was pretty sure we were in danger, and he wanted to get to the safety of the car immediately. Even though said car was located up and over a large sand dune. Even though we'd have to risk absolute exposure to the storm to do so. Even though our kids had just barely fallen asleep after a protracted struggle.

I didn't even have a chance to ask him what he learned about lightning in second grade. We each grabbed our phones and a kid, waited for a gap in the lightning (which proved to be a ridiculous effort), and ran for it. I have to say, it was one of the more terrifying things I've had to do in my recent life. Right as I reached the peak of the dune, with a sleeping Magdalena in my arms, she struggled awake and stretched out her arms high to the sky, just as a huge bolt of lightning hit somewhere in the near desert. The whole area was lit up brighter than day, so bright it hurt my eyes. I held her tighter and ran down the dune as fast as I could manage without toppling over, my legs sinking in to the sand up to my knees at times.

Jeremy came behind with Miriam, and we tumbled into the car. It felt so good to be safe. We were wild-eyed from the excitement and terror, and giddy with relief that we we were OK.

We watched the storm for a long time. We debated driving to the road to get on solid ground before the falling rain mired us in the sand. We considered seeking out a hotel. We calmed down the girls as they woke up, confused. We got thirsty and tired and wished we could have brought a pillow or a water bottle with us when we evacuated the tent.

We also improvised an in-car potty when Magdalena had to go "so bad." There wasn't much left in the car to work with, but there was a cheap, disposable-ish, soft-sided cooler from Costco. We hoped it would work. Jeremy set it up on his lap and I held Magdalena over it. It worked...and then Jeremy discovered first-hand that cheap, disposable-ish, soft-sided coolers from Costco are not quite watertight. (But it was still worth it, which tells you how bad the storm was.)

After a couple of hours, the storm let up a little, but it still hadn't stopped. That's when we decided that we had had a lot of fun on our camping trip to the Empty Quarter, and that even if we went home right then, it had been a success. When the lightning died down enough to be only mildly instead of moderately frightened of lightning-based bodily harm, Jeremy and I made a run for our campsite to gather our gear. What Jeremy ended up doing was dragging our tent up and over the dune, with most of our stuff still inside it. It worked quite well and saved us many trips up the dune.

And then we drove home.

We definitely want to go back there to camp again. I'm sad I missed out on the experience of waking up to a view of sand dunes stretching out in every direction. But it will have to wait for a time when there will not be a hint of a ghost of a chance of a storm. Which we actually thought was true for April, but now we know better. Until the lightning drama, it was one of those family outings where I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe how much fun I'm having! This place is amazing!" So we'll be sure to give it another chance.

13 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

Holy scary, Batman! That sounds insane! And I'm with you - how random is it that you got stuck in the storm of the year out there? I mean, really? That is amazing.

I'm so glad that you guys didn't end up buried alive in sand, which, to be honest, was my #1 fear for you when I saw that picture yesterday. I mean, all that sand?! What if the wind blows?! And your legs get stuck in the sand?! And you end up being swallowed alive?!

I cannot be the only one who is terrified of this, right?

Crys said...

That is almost as good as knawing your hand off. Did you get any video? Glad you made it out safe!

Jeremy Palmer said...

When we arrived at the car I looked back and saw three bolts of lightning strike the ground off in the distance. It wasn't right next to us but close enough to freak me out. I quickly got in and closed the door. I was partially afraid knowing how loud lightning (thunder) can be. Once, walking home from BYU to my apartment I experienced a horizontal bolt of lightning that cracked not far above my head. The resulting sound reminded me of lighting a whole pack of black cats (firecrackers) in one go. It was super loud. I'm relieved we safely made it back to the car. It must have been quite the sight. Lightning flashing across the dunes and salt flats like a strobe light as a young mother with a small child runs up and then down a sand dune followed by a father with a slumbering girl. We left our food and water behind. We just needed to get out!

Bridget later read online that tents do not, in fact, offer much protection in lightning storms.

Nancy said...

That is an incredible story—not your typical camp-out, but what great memories. After the fact, I mean, knowing that you all survived and everything. :) It's really kind of funny...

Kathy Haynie said...

Good for you to have an adventure. So glad everyone is safe and sound.

robin said...

wow. that is a crazy story!

Jessie said...

Crazy!!!! I'm glad you survived.

Bridget said...

Liz, there was too much to write about on this camping trip. One of the things I left out (but including here) is that since it was warm, we had the tent windows open. But since it was so windy, that meant that sand was constantly blowing in the windows. I would brush myself off, lie down, and a few minutes later be covered in a layer of sand again.

So yeah, I'm sure it was just a matter of time until we were completely covered :). Really, though, we realized that even if we go back to that same spot in a few months, it might look completely different. That is the nature of sand dunes, after all.

Matthew said...

Jeremy instincts for the win:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/lightning8.htm

Also, this only happened because you used a caffeinated beverage on your daughter. I hope you realize the message you were being sent. =)

Tony F said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Familia said...

Well, good thing you told us where you were going beforehand (sort of), so we could mount a rescue party if you disappeared in the thunderstorm. I think you can now lay indisputable claim to your title of Bridget of Arabia, having camped in the empty quarter for at least half a night.

I have to say you're pretty brave to want to go back and camp in the same spot. Those dunes are pretty amazing, though. And I thought WE lived on Tatooine!

Liz Johnson said...

Matthew, your comment re: caffeinated beverages just made my week. Maybe even my month.

Eevi said...

LIttle different than camping at Mt. Lemmon huh?:)

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