'When you start to climb these 300m sand dunes, you start to cry' - The first man to trek the Empty Quarter

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  • Picture courtesy of Empty Quarter Studios.

    From towering sand dunes 300 metres high to temperatures in excess of 50-degrees Celsius, Dubai resident Max Calderan completed a historic 1,100 kilometre exploration, unaided, across the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia.

    The journey from Najran, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia, took Calderan 16 days to complete, finishing on Monday, four days less than his original 20-day prediction.

    Several explorers have previously crossed shorter sections of the Empty Quarter, but no one has navigated these isolated 1,000 plus kilometres. And for good reason too.

    The area is one of world’s most hostile climates and, in an age when nearly every corner has been explored, this desert remains a mystery.

    The Italian national, though, is no stranger to impossible feats over the years, crossing the Tropic of Cancer in 2013 and running non-stop for 90 hours over 437km in Oman.

    However, his latest record-breaking expedition is his finest achievement yet. He dreamed of tackling the forbidding Empty Quarter as a seven-year-old back in the 1970s.

    “This was the first ever exploration of the Empty Quarter. I was not in the footsteps of someone else. This is a new line. The Max Calderan line,” said the 52-year-old.

    “This is a result of 40 years of waiting to achieve the dream of this child, which was me, after reading encyclopedias.

    “All my life I prepared to be at my best and to be capable of doing something new in the desert. It fascinated me as a child and still does.

    “When I was in the middle of the desert, I felt like I was still that seven-year-old before. I was like the kid who was dreaming. I’m living a dream.”

    An extreme athlete since he was a teenager, Calderan went through severe periods of dehydration and sleep deprivation in order to become the first man to cross the epic Rub Al Khali.

    The uninhabited stretch of desert is home to 60-storey sand dunes and blistering sand storms. No one lives there but snakes, spiders and scorpions. None of which Calderan faced thankfully.

    “It is only now that I know I have, not only the physical strength or the right mindset, but the experience. You need to have the capability to understand what is in front of you,” he said.

    “Without experience I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”

    The Udinese man walked between 16 to 18 hours per day, averaging 70-80 kilometres.

    Depending on the quality of the sand, sand dunes and wind, temperatures would drop to two degrees during the night and up to 55 degrees Celsius during the day.

    Some days the sandstorms would be so bad, he could barely see one metre in front of him. But the key, in these moments of hardship, is to keep going.

    “During the day I could see with my eyes. During the night, the exploration changes. Being alone in the darkness, you explore something you wouldn’t normally see during the day,” he recalled.

    “During the night, you have to use your instincts, you have to pay attention to a lot of things. You have to be aware, so you can discover more and more.”

    After 800km, close to Shaybah Oil field where Saudi Aramco is based, Calderan faced his toughest challenge yet.

    “It was the biggest dunes, the biggest technical and physical difficulties I’ve ever faced. You have only to close your eyes and say ‘I will arrive’,” he said.

    “They were like mountains. It was about 10 times bigger than the big ones you see in Liwa. It’s never ending. You don’t know how to approach it.

    “When you start to climb these big ones, you start to cry. You have no option. Everything keeps changing. I never saw something like that in my life.

    “At that point, I was so tired. I was totally done. I told Rub Al Khali, ‘I’m finished’. My body is exhausted. I’m not capable anymore of doing one single metre. It was a losing battle for me.”

    Picture courtesy of Empty Quarter Studios.

    Picture courtesy of Empty Quarter Studios.

    But the experience, the years of conditioning and his mental fortitude allowed him to push through.

    Some days later Calderan neared his final destination outside of Shaybah (N22.30998° E53.85419°) when a police car stopped him.

    It is uncommon for the police to see anybody near the Saudi Aramco oil fields – one of the most protected in the world – and they were forced to ring their work headquarters as a security precaution.

    “They (police) control everything around that area. I arrived from a direction that the police never thought someone would arrive from,” he said.

    “I said in my limited Arabic that I just walked nearly 1,100km, and they say ‘what? that is impossible’. Another eight cars arrived and they gave me food and drink. It was amazing.”

    Now, back in Dubai after making history again, it is difficult for Calderan to reflect after such an accomplishment.

    Achieving a life-long dream is something that will take time for this to sink in.

    “It doesn’t feel like this was me. A lot has happened since I was gone, yet it feels like I was never there,” he said.

    “Rub Al Khali isn’t a matter of kilometres, it’s an extreme environment that nobody has done before.”

    Video and pictures courtesy of Empty Quarter Studios