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Escape to nothingness

Desert dunes envelop you like a gently unfolding blanket

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A Range Rover Sport crosses the 'Empty Quarter' or Rub' al Khali, the largest sand desert in the world and the second-largest desert after the Sahara. It is an incredibly harsh environment -- arid and intensely hot by day with temperatures exceeding 50C.

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A Range Rover Sport crosses the 'Empty Quarter' or Rub' al Khali, the largest sand desert in the world and the second-largest desert after the Sahara. It is an incredibly harsh environment -- arid and intensely hot by day with temperatures exceeding 50C.

LIWA, United Arab Emirates -- In the dunes outside Liwa, the wind conveys nothing on its back. The edge of the Rub al Khali is so dead, the air transmits no sound and your voice carries no farther than inside the empty quarter of your own skull.

The Bedouin called these million square miles of emptiness the Sands or al Rimal. The expansive sand and sky can make one feel insignificant. But there's a certain serenity in that knowledge.

Only in the desert, the Bedouin told the British Arabist and adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, could a man find freedom. "It must have been this same craving for freedom which induced tribes that entered Egypt at the time of the Arab conquest to pass on through the Nile Valley into the interminable desert beyond, leaving behind them the green fields, the palm groves, the shade and running water, and all the luxury which they found in the towns they had conquered."

Instead of escaping green fields and palm groves to head into the desert, one now goes to the desert outside Abu Dhabi to clear one's mind, to flee the Champagne brunches in rotating restaurants atop 30-storey hotels, to escape the endless energy and hype.

Before the mid-1970s, it was a five-day trip by camel caravan. Today, the road to Liwa is a paved, straight shot through nothingness, interrupted by the occasional palm-frond home, or arish, and camel farm. It's a peek at what life in the emirate might have looked like 30 or 40 years ago before oil created this Arab el Dorado.

Along the way, you pass hundreds of emaciated palm and ghaf trees, whose tendril roots search out water 30 metres below. Greening the desert was the vision of the country's founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, but like many such notions, it was a pipe dream (appropriate because oil created the wealth to plant the trees in the first place).

The city of Liwa grew from 52 Bedouin settlements that once gathered around the water wells and groves of date palms. Most of the settlers were from the Bani Yas federation and the Manasir tribe. These were old tribes, who peopled the desert in the summer and the coast in the winter. These were Maliki Sunnis who fought the scripturally doctrinaire Wahhabis, from the lands of the house of Saud to the west. Their fighting in the 1800s and 1900s led to the creation of the frontier, a line drawn in the sand, between Saudi Arabia and what would become the U.A.E.

Liwa sits on the edge of that line.

The earliest permanent structures in the Liwa area were forts from which the Bani Yas protected their oases. These date to the early 19th century, though almost all of them were rebuilt in the 1980s, the tendency in the U.A.E. being to either rebuild or reproduce rather than simply maintain heritage buildings.

Two that remain from the 1800s are the Hayla Tower, a single cylinder of about eight metres in height, made of clay, gypsum and sarouj sand; and Um Hosn, or Arrada, an isolated three-metre-high single tower.

A more modern structure is the Liwa Hotel, a white 1970s-style elephant perched on a rocky outcrop, the only significant hill in town. The hotel itself is fair. Staff is attentive and all smiles. There's a pool of refreshingly cool water, and the restaurant serves the standard fare of Abu Dhabi: Lebanese or Arabic mezze and a variety of Indian dishes.

At night, the restaurant is a club, where a Filipina singer and her accompanist on his electronic keyboard take requests and the best-quality import is Heineken. (Tourists can drink alcohol legally in some emirates, but only in licensed hotels.) The multi-star alternative, with gorgeous views of the desert and an infinity pool, is the Qasr al-Sarab Hotel.

The Liwa Hotel is a convenient meeting point for a day or two-day excursion in the Empty Quarter. Pickup is generally toward the late afternoon, an hour or so before sunset. In a 4x4 sport-utility vehicle, you'll be taken off-road into the desert on hard-packed sand tracks that fade like a mirage until you're off-off road and rising and dipping, slipping, sliding, revving along a road only the driver knows, only the driver can see.

This is not a drive you want to make on your own. U.A.E. newspapers are filled with stories of would-be dune-bashers who get lost in the sand. Knowing the movement of these slowly shifting mounds is the secret behind desert driving. Then, a sharp left and a serpentine descent and you're in a Mars-like crater hollowed out by the wind.

Two- to three-man tents for those planning to spend the night are already set up, along with photosensitive lanterns -- the sun sets quickly and determinedly in the desert -- and a couple of barbecue drums: one for vegetables, another for chicken. While the fat drips and inflames the fire, and the aubergine, onion, carrots and red potatoes char, you drift away along the endless striations of cayenne-coloured sand.

Up one hill to the summit of another, and yet another: a gently unfolding blanket. Two hundred feet up, you stop and turn and there is no one, no thing, no sound. You, yourself, are nothing here.

There is movement, however. Tiny grains sweep over the sand, pushed forward by an invisible force, seeming to form curlicues at your sandalled feet, then stopping, then rushing away.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 E3

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