Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia's Great Southern Desert

by Bruce Kirkby

Published by McClelland & Stewart

219 pages, 2000

Buy it online






Dancing in the Empty Quarter

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


In 1997, adventurer and photojournalist Bruce Kirkby was browsing in a Toronto bookstore just before Christmas when he saw a title that intrigued him. The book was called Arabian Sands and it had been written some 40 years earlier by a venerable British explorer named Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Back in 1949 Sir Wilfred undertook a hazardous journey by camel across the "Empty Quarter," a huge stretch of barren desert in southern Arabia. Eschewing modern conveniences that would make the trip easier, the expedition traveled in the ancient manner, relying on wells for water and following the wisdom of skilled Arab guides.

Kirkby put the book back on the shelf and almost forgot about it, but the seeds of adventure had been sown. Within a year Kirkby and his two friends, brothers Jamie and Leigh Clarke, would be seriously planning an expedition to recreate Sir Wilfred's famous trek. They would be the first people brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, to attempt this feat in over 50 years.

Bruce Kirkby was no stranger to hazard, leading whitewater rafting expeditions in remote areas, exploring jungles in Central America and acting as photographer for an Everest climb. He only lasted a few months at his one and only desk job. Restless for more adventure, he began to discuss the possibility of a desert trek with his friends: "There was something intangible we sought, something beyond the physical challenge of crossing barren and desolate wastes... I did not know exactly what I had been seeking, but I did know that, until that moment, I had not found it."

The three were not deterred by the fact that none of them were familiar with the desert, its searing temperatures and radically different culture: "We were staring at a blank page. We knew very little about Arabia. None of us had ever ridden a camel before or traveled in a major desert. There was only one Western man alive in the world that had ever crossed the Empty Quarter by camel, and his journey had been in another era. Where could we possibly start?"

Part of the enjoyment of this fascinating account is watching these men encounter one obstacle after another in the long, intricate planning of the journey and overcoming even seemingly insurmountable barriers through sheer persistence. The preparations for the two-month trip took well over a year, an ordeal which would serve as a test of character in itself.

Simply obtaining permission to enter the several Arab countries they would be traveling through was a nightmare. Several knowledgeable people they consulted warned them that the trip would be impossible. Even Sir Wilfred Thesiger, now 88 years old, darkly warned Kirkby: "It will be difficult to find Bedu who want to do it. They will say, why on earth should we do it on a camel when we can get there in a few days in a car? They all drive trucks and automobiles now, you know. Very few Arabs today have ever ridden a camel."

Even the camels had changed. Over and over again they were warned that modern camels were bred for meat and racing, not weeks-long treks in flaming heat with limited water.

But sometimes passion must supersede logic and these three adventurers pushed ahead, learning enough Arabic to get by in a culture totally different from anything they had ever known. The Bedu (a more correct term than "Bedouin") were a strange mix of ancient ceremony and up-to-the-minute technology. They drove Land Cruisers and used cel phones, but still retained elaborate greeting customs, intensive Islamic prayer rituals and three-day feasts. In fact, the trip was held up more than once by the Bedu's insistence on long celebrations.

Kirkby and his companions found the Bedu warm and vibrant, but also confusing and frustrating. Direct statements were almost considered bad form, which held up the planning considerably. Their sense of time was completely different, based more on the position of the sun than a wristwatch. Much was left up to the will of God. The slow adaptation of these three rigorously disciplined Canadians to a more relaxed rhythm of life is a kind of psychological adventure which runs parallel to the journey itself.

Nearly half the book is taken up with the preparatory phase, but even when the men finally set out with their three skilled Bedu guides and a troop of camels, holdups continually slow them down. Local Bedu insist on following them by Land Cruiser with cold cans of pop, when the whole idea of the journey is to travel unsupported. The details of the route are constantly under debate, with the guides often wanting to take a shorter or safer way.

The scope of what these men hoped to accomplish was huge: "Our proposed route traversed twelve hundred kilometres (745 miles) of the Arabian peninsula, from the Indian Ocean in the south to the Gulf in the north, and passed through three countries: Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates."

There were sandstorms and scorpion bites, recalcitrant camels who vomited cud when provoked, continual disagreements with the guides and even squabbles with each other. Kirkby and the Clarke brothers were all "alpha-type" adventurers, individualists not used to the art of compromise. They subsisted on a monotonous diet of camel jerky crawling with bugs and endured bone-deep thirst such as they had never known before. Their carefully rationed water supply was stored in foul goatskin bags that turned the water brown and slimy.

The monotony of the desert provoked distracting fantasies. For the first few weeks all Kirkby could think of was "every female I had ever known, briefly met, or even hoped to meet." These visions gave way to cravings for "vegetables, crisp baby carrots... and the simplicity of a cool, clear glass of water."

But entwined with the hardship were moments of incredible beauty: "Today, as every day, an unusual fringe of reddish purple ringed the entire horizon just after sunset, a last reminder of the sun's glory." There were joyous feasts of boiled goat, dates and rice, and the fascination of contact with an entirely different kind of culture. At one point an inquisitive crowd hurls questions at them: "Did we listen to Michael Jackson? Why did he not sing about camels? Were there camels in Canada? Why not?.... Were we married? How many wives did we have?"

Kirkby slowly came to realize that the true rewards of this arduous journey lay closer to the spirit than the mind. The ordeal acted as a sort of refiner's fire for the men, particularly Kirkby who reflects at the adventure's end:

The comforts of home that we had dreamed of for so long didn't seem important any longer. The sufferings, privations, and discomforts of the journey seemed to pale in comparison to the beauty of the land we were leaving and the simplicity of life we had been touched by there.

Kirkby finds that one of the hardest tasks is saying goodbye to his stubborn camel, Crazy Dancer, with whom he had formed a deep bond: "Losing the battle to fight back tears, I drove off quickly. As hard as I tried not to, I kept looking back.

Loaded with brilliant color photographs and brimming with insight, Sand Dance is an adventure on many levels -- physical, social and spiritual. More than that, it carries a deeper cultural message which should speak to every one of us: "The challenges to the Bedu highlight a greater challenge facing us all, the spread of a generic world culture, a shocking loss of diversity, a growing sameness.... And as these unique cultures are absorbed by the planetary juggernaut, we all suffer an intangible loss." | August 2000


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.