Camping Under The Stars In The Yemeni Empty Quarter
Updated August 2023, Camping Under The Stars In The Yemeni Empty Quarter was originally written in April 2020
On my return to Yemen, we made the decision to do something a little different, as if traveling in Yemen wasn’t obtuse enough. Rather than take the coastal road through Mukalla from the dusty fishing-cum-border town of al Ghaydah, we decided to take the northern route to continue to the remainder of our adventures in Central Yemen from al Ghaydah to Seiyun- with some time devoted to the Yemeni Rub al Khali- the rarely visited Yemeni Empty Quarter.
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Read up more on Yemen: Everything to know about travel in Yemen
Arriving Into al Ghaydah
Our leader, Kais, had scoped out the area the day prior as we settled into al Ghaydah after the long journey from Salalah and across the Yemen-Oman border at Surfeet to secure Bedouin guides and locations. Traveling in Yemen, even in these areas deemed not as dangerous as others these days is still no easy feat (so if you’re going to complain to me later about the costs involved with traveling in Yemen- this is a large reason why). Much baksheesh (bribes) change hands, payment to those that keep a watchful eye and give reports, and remittance to those that handle the logistics of this type of journey all add up.
The next morning, after a breakfast of shakshuka and qawa (Yemeni coffee) we were bound north into the barren cliff and idyllic rock formations on the fringe of the Yemeni Rub al Khali.
Let’s talk about the Rub al Khali though for a minute. The Rub al Khali, or as us English speakers know it: The Empty Quarter- actually spans four countries, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen, and makes up a part of the larger Arabian Desert- the fifth largest desert in the world. And while it’s much more accessible from Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, there’s an allure to the Yemeni Empty Quarter that attracted the four of us that joined our Yemeni team to explore the vast area that is widely known to be one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
Read more on traveling the Al Mahrah region
Into The Yemeni Empty Quarter
After flapping down niqabs to breeze past checkpoints along the road (three of us four foreigners were women) and eating several spicy potato chip snacks along the way we eventually passed a dusty border down near Yemen’s exit-only border crossing to Oman where we’d meet our Bedouin cohorts at the roadside before hitting a track that would take us out into the scrubby deserted abyss.
After an hour or so of busting down windy paths in the desert, passing countless camels of varying hues (did you know there are black camels?), we arrived to our Bedouin leaders’ camp comprised of a large cloth Bedouin-style tent and a fenced-in pen circling with camels in the distance.
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Milk, Camels, & Frenzy
After the arduous journey, our Bedouin friends along with our North Yemeni guides prepared a lunch in the late afternoon sun. Before the sun completely dropped we went out for a camel milking lesson by our hosts. Before long most the camels had escaped the enclosure and wandered out, dotting the hills around us.
As the sun dipped lower we knew we had to get the camels to come back, and that’s when a frenzied stampede occurred- did you know camels eat fish? Me either. And that brought camels running full-bore from just about every direction to us as we laughed at their funny sound effects upon their passing by.
Our hosts had decided that they wanted to take us to meet the remainder of their families back at their permanent home. Many families out in inhospitable deserty locations such as the Empty Quarter divide their time between the old traditions and the modern world, still raising camels and moving nomadically around in the desert, while maintaining a permanent home with electricity, and sometimes even satellite television and weak mobile phone signal.
Old Ways Meet Modernity
We all hopped back in the cars as dark set in to journey out to the family home. Upon arrival, family members popped out and graciously welcomed us in. The men into the front room of the house and the women back to a separate room.
Immediately we were gifted Bedouin abayas to wear in the home with a lesson on how to properly wrap our headscarves. I have a tendency to wear mine how Persian girls do with a bit of hair showing, which was met by a tsk tsk and a giggle by one of our lovely young hosts that shook her head and said “haram” in an exhale as she wrapped me up in a more acceptable manner (meaning none of my hair could be seen) as I laughed at her commentary.
We spent the bulk of the evening sat round cups of shai and memorizing each other’s names while an old televised screening of the Hajj played in the background with a sea of Muslims lapping around the Kaaba in Mecca. Eventually, the action moved into the kitchen as our female hosts prepared dinner for the night before we were taken to the men’s room in the front of the house to join together for the meal.
The evening ended with us all sat in a ring around a bonfire outside the front of the house laughing with teenagers of the family.
In Search Of Endless Sand Dunes In The Yemeni Empty Quarter
We got quite an early start in the morning and said our goodbyes to our hosts after breakfast and set off north with our two Bedouin guides.
We bashed around in scrub desert and sandy plateaus for much of the morning before finding an injured camel left to die in the desert. When camels no longer serve a purpose to their owners, they’re typically left to die. We asked why they aren’t slaughtered for their meat and were told that adult camel meat is extremely tough, so camel meat is almost always that of a baby.
Adult camels are predominantly used for packing around heavy loads, or in the case of females, for milk. I already was aware that camels had bleak, tough lives, but this really brought it full circle. It’s not an easy lifestyle out here.
We had a large water tank with us, so we filled a giant metal bowl for the camel and let him drink until he limped off into the midday sun.
Time To Turn Around
Continuing our journey north with winds lashing the car windows with grains of sand we eventually reached an area blanketed in sand as far as you could see, where we ended up getting one of our cars stuck. Eventually, we got going again but our plans had to abruptly change. Word was that the Saudis were headed down from one of their border outposts in our general direction. To avoid the impending pain in the ass meeting these guys would entail, we turned back around to the south.
Later in the afternoon, we made way for that dusty border town again, this time to grab lunch at a small canteen. We were welcomed in to a lunch of kebab, ful medames, malawach (Yemeni flatbread that’s perfectly crispy and soft and chewy at the same time), and shai (Yemeni sweet tea) as we deliberated what our next steps would be.
Learn more about travel in South Yemen
Into A Safer Haven In The Empty Quarter
We hit the road again before bailing off down a 4×4 track into a different area of the Empty Quarter from what we explored earlier in the day. This time in search of the perfect campsite.
In a short while as the sky began to get that periwinkle hue to it we perched up to a flat plateau high on a sand dune that was crowned with rock formations. Initially, we planned to set up camp right there but changed our location to a less prominent and lower down pitch just behind.
The main concern out where we were cropped up wasn’t necessarily the terrorists that most people associate with a country like Yemen, it’s bandits that are more likely to be an issue. An area so vast and so desolate is bound to be quite lawless.
We arrived to our new camp as the sky faded from pale pink to peach and eventually to fiery orange before blue hour set in. We flopped out a red and white mat as our hosts started a fire, and eventually all scattered into the nearby dunes in search of any dry grasses or broken branches to add to the fire. We cooked dinner and told stories under the pitch-black sky as one by one star after star began to illuminate the ceiling above us.
Check out what it was like to travel in neighboring Wadi Hadhramaut
It was an incredibly clear night as you would expect an arid Arabian Desert, so before bed, I took a few photos of the Milky Way. We all opted to sleep sans tent that night under an open sky with nothing more than sleeping bags, and thick, heavy blankets thrown atop us.
If you’ve ever camped in a desert in winter or spring months, you likely already know that this was not the most comfortable night. February in the Yemeni Empty Quarter is frigid. But a little discomfort was more than okay for the once-in-a-lifetime experience we had out there.
Morning came too soon and shortly after sunrise We set off back to that nearby dusty border town for one last time to have breakfast at that same restaurant from the day before, in the same dingy family room in the back that would make my mother cringe, but seems quite normal to me given the amount of time I’ve spent traveling in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia at this point. After a breakfast of shai, qawa, and shakshuka we hit the road, yet again. This time to delve west to make way to Yemen’s Hadhramaut region.
Have Questions About Travel In The Yemeni Empty Quarter
If you want to set up your own adventure Mainland Yemen, contact me at adventuresoflilnicki @ gmail.com.