National Geographic : 2005 Feb
What happens, I ask, if someone approaches in an unfriendly way? At that moment, four bearded and robed young men file into the tent. Each carries an assault rifle seemingly held together by duct tape. They set their weapons in a pile next to bin Has san's Kalashnikov. "We saw you coming from a long way away," he says, handing me a steaming cup of sweet tea. "My sons and nephews"-bin Hassan nods to the newcomers-"surrounded you as you approached. If you had showed hostility, our shots would have come nearer to you with every step. You would soon see the wisdom of retreat." W elcome to the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter-a world of harsh extremes that may rank as both the least, and most, hospitable place on Earth. I arrived in Arabia last January with photogra pher George Steinmetz and a plan to explore the Empty Quarter. Before our eight-week expedi tion is over, we will cover more than 5,300 miles on a journey through Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. We will also be shot at-in the most genial of ways-not once but several times, invariably followed by an invitation to drink tea. For thousands of years this territory has resisted settlement as one of the Earth's hottest, driest, and most unyielding environments. Yet it's also home to a culture on the edge, a proud Bedouin society working to adapt its mix of Islam, ancient tribal custom, and new found oil riches to a demanding and fast-paced modern world. Taking up a fifth of the Arabian Peninsula, the Rub al Khali (literally, "quarter of empti ness"), or the Sands for short, is the world's largest sand sea. At more than 225,000 square miles, it takes in substantial portions of Saudi Arabia, as well as parts of Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates to create an arid "Getting stuck was sometimes an hourly occurrence,"says photographerGeorge Steinmetz, whose guides digout duringa sandstorm in the Empty Quarter-alsoknown, appropriately,as the Sands. He and authorDonovan Webster explored life alongthe edges of this nearly Texas-size desert, plottingtheir 5,300-mile route (map, opposite) by villages, water holes, and military outposts.