Shaybah: Sand Dunes on the Edge of the Empty Quarter




Nature and geography were the two subjects that I loved to read about when I was a kid. For me, reading about (or simply looking at pictures of) mountains, forests, canyons, out-of-this-world-terrains, felt like I was visiting those places. I loved searching and knowing trivia about the highest, biggest, deepest this-and-that, and what-not.







    Shaybah and the Empty Quarter

    Shaybah is an oil field located on the edge of the Empty Quarter or Rub' al-Khali, the world's largest contiguous sand desert.

    I can’t recall when I first encountered the name Rub' al-Khali but I always remember it as being significant during the ancient times. Probably mentioned in high school World History about the nomads and trade routes (shout out to Sir Tan!).

    It may sound shallow, but being here on the edge of the world’s largest contiguous sand desert is really a milestone for me!








    Rub' al-Khali What?

    Rub (‘quarter’) al Khali (‘empty’) is translated as... 'the Empty Quarter' (shocking!).

    With an area of around 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 sq mi), this desert occupies almost a quarter of Saudi Arabia, and also includes parts of United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Oman.

    That’s an area enough to cover the whole of France!


    Extent of the desert of Rub al-Khali (the Empty Quarter). Source: reddit.com


    I thought I have seen enough sandy deserts in many parts of the Kingdom until I entered the edge of the Empty Quarter. It’s astonishing and hard to fathom how much sand there is in this place.

    What fascinates me the most about the Empty Quarter is the sand dunes’ formation especially when seen from a higher perspective.

    The roads in Shaybah are constructed at varying elevations, passing on hills (I assume they compacted and cemented over some dunes) and the low-lying sabkhas. The different road elevations will allow you to see the surrounding landscapes from different heights.




    Sabkha

    On the picture below is a sabkha, a low lying, flat ground between sand dunes. Gas plant facilities and other establishments are built on sabkhas.




    The Empty Quarter is not totally empty, though. There are still some seasonal plants that thrive here.






    There's even a small area that has water and some plant life surrounding it. A small oasis, if you may.



    Take a look at the Google Maps satellite imagery. (Current Google Maps image shows much more water, suggesting this 'pond' actually gets filled with water occasionally.)


    Travel Mission

    Our company had a project in Shaybah many years ago and a former colleague Sir Tibo would always tell stories about their life here.

    I had no idea where Shaybah was back then (circa 2012) and so I looked it up on Google Earth.

    I was thrilled to find out that Shaybah, which is an oil field, is on the edge of the Rub' al-Khali. The aerial imagery showed the interesting sand patterns throughout the Rub' al-Khali. Since then, I would always imagine myself seeing the Shaybah sand dunes myself.

    Shaybah is around 350 miles (760+ kilometers) away from Al Khobar, our home base, and travel time is about 8 hours. It’s a long trip and the interesting and more intensely colorful sand dunes don’t appear until 7 hours.


    Gas Stations Around the Area

    That being said, you need to know the locations of the operational gasoline stations in the area. It is also advisable to bring a container filled with gasoline in case you miscalculate your mileage or have a sudden unplanned trip.

    SASCO Gas Station - 24.361303, 51.239113 

    This is the last 'modern' gas station after the town of Salwa. Be sure to gas up from here no matter how much gas you have after passing Salwa (approximately 75 kilometers from the said town). You won't run out of gas, for sure, from here to the next station, but you don't want to take that for granted. 

    Shaitah Gas Stations - 22.680541, 53.272725

    Shaitah is a place about 320 km from the SASCO Gas Station, and is near to Shubaytah Airport. Here you can find a small shop (bakalah), a mosque, and two gas stations.



    Camera Restriction

    Well, it’s not new that photography is prohibited in many parts of the Kingdom, especially in Saudi Aramco or government-secured areas. Though, how I wish I could bring a DSLR in a place like this to take tighter (zoomed) and clearer shots, but I can’t.

    So, what to do yani but use what I have.






    Almost Caught

    Mark, a colleague who has worked in Shaybah for a long time told me that one time the Security inspected his bag and found his GoPro and was asked about it. He explained that it was for personal use only. Thankfully, another security saw his PlayStation discs and their attention was diverted.

    Who knows what they'd do to my camera or to me? I don't wanna know.


    A Remote Haven

    Perhaps Shaybah is the 'remotest' area that we could ever reach while working here in Saudi Arabia. We’ve traveled farther by land from Al Khobar to some other places (like Madinah) but this one’s the farthest from any town or city.

    (Read: Affinity For The West: Madinah Province's Rocky Landscape)


    And maybe that’s why I’m liking it here… for now. It’s away from malls and many modern distractions. Just the beautiful desert.




    I can only imagine going out on a night and doing some night photography with the dunes and the stars. Seriously, the night sky here is much different from other Saudi cities and is a great location for some astrophotography. (Read: My First Milky Way Photography Experience)

    But maybe I can say that because winter is just ending and it is still great to be outside even in the afternoon hours. (It’s 5 AM, below 10 degrees, and my fingers are struggling to type these words).

    Climate in Shaybah is 'extreme' and is in a hyper-arid desert (extremely dry). Temperature here could reach beyond 50°C during summer. I heard from older colleagues that they even experienced 60°C and above!


    More Photos

    Here are some more mobile photos taken since day 1.

    We are staying at a camp near the gas plant areas.



    One time when we finished the work relatively early and the sun had just set.


    The first night in the camp.



    Sun rising behind the sand dune. The camp is practically surrounded by sand dunes from all direction as it is in a 'sabkha'.



    The camp during the day.



    Self-portrait or it didn't happen!



    How I wish I could zoom into that bird with a telephoto!




    Fun with shadows.



    Three dogs playing outside...



    and a bird watching them.



    Jumpshot bago pumasok.


    Sand dunes after sand dunes after sand dunes.

















    On Taking Sand Dune Photos 📷


    Sand color throughout the Arabian Desert varies and the Empty Quarter's is characterized to be orange to reddish due to feldspar.

    The color of the sand comes out best when the sun is low on the horizon. The low light also adds drama to the sand formation by producing shadows between the slopes.





    On the other hand, the sand tends to become paler and appear whiter when the sun is at its highest. Though, a cloudy sky may add some interesting touch to the sand dunes below.





    Conclusion

    Checking Rub' al-Khali off ✔️ from my non-existent bucket list.

    Feels good to write something again on a whim. I did not write for a long time and I hope I can sneak again a post soon, something unplanned and sudden like this one.

    Here's an interesting site if you're interested about the Rub' al-Khali: The Empty Quarter

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