Somewhere in the darkness a sharp sound pierces the veil between the living and the dead, clawing at my brain through a fog of sleep. It is 6AM, and I am somewhere in the largest sand desert on earth.
Groaning and rolling over I manage to break free of my down cocoon, stretching out across the mat to silence the two Rial sports watch that signals the start of another days work. We have been here for three weeks now, and my morning routine is well established. I sit up and look around, taking in the silence before the rest of the team begin their own rituals. It always surprises me to find dew on the outside of my kit, a reminder of the frigid night temperatures and rolling clouds that speed past overhead in search of the camel farms. It won’t be long now before the first rays of sunlight turn the dunes to gold and banish the tiny droplets back to the sky.
I tap my boots before pulling them onto still tired feet. It’s easy to be complacent when life here is so sparse, but already we have found 2 scorpions near our satellite camp. This far from base, it would be a painful wait for Doc Doc. We travel everywhere on foot here, relying on supply drops from our support vehicle to sustain us as we push through the martian landscape, surveying as we go. It is a slow pace of life, the simplicity of each day standing in stark contrast to the worlds we all left behind.
I coax a stove to life and portion water into a kettle. Everything here is measured, we live each day on less water than the average toilet uses in one flush. The realisation makes me smile as I listen to the stove roar in the silence, our ramshackle camp slowly coming alive around me. I haven’t seen a building for almost a month now. I can’t say that I miss them.
Carefully, I pour the freshly boiled water into the portable filter, letting it drip steadily into my waiting cup. Coffee is my ritual. I stand and savour the hot black liquid as eager discussions erupt around me. West or North? Do we continue as the crow flies? What about the large dune system on the horizon, can we make it there with the water we have left? Out here, in the middle of the Empty Quarter, we are the masters of our own adventure. By nightfall we will have stood where no other person has ever stood before, such is the shifting nature of the sands.
The rising sun casts its golden light on the dunes that surround us on all sides. It is this magic time, before the light becomes flat and harsh that I love the most. Around me the discussions continue but I am no longer listening. All at once the vast scale of the desert hits me and I realise what a truly special place this is. In the battered copy of Thesiger I have carried with me all this way, a passage stands out;
“For this cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match.”
I look at my watch, an LCD lion chases a kangaroo. It is 7:00AM. Time to go to work.
In 2013 I was on expedition in Oman with the British Exploring Society. I am grateful to Montane and Pink Lane Coffee for their generous kit sponsorships and to the Sandy Zorica Glen Foundation for their help in raising expedition funding.