Crossing the Land of Hot Sand – Motorcycling the Middle East

From the coastal beauty of Oman to the Holy city of Jerusalem, a journey across the Middle East is anything but familiar. Tackling 50°Cheat and unforgivable terrain, Luke Phillips rides a 500cc motorcycle on the journey of a lifetime… The Empty Quarter and the Land of Hot Sand awaited.

30th January 2023 | Words and photos by Luke Phillips @ WildBounds HQ

Like all good plans, this one was conjured up over a campfire whilst drinking some beers. I was in South Africa just over halfway through my round the world motorcycle journey and I’d already had a taste of the vast deserts of Namibia to wet my appetite for sand and adventure. The way north back to the UK through the African continent was possible, but it required a good deal of backtracking and the political situation on both the East and West routes had several border complications. Then I had an idea, why not head through the Middle East? Sure it was summer, but I thought the heat would be more preferable to motorcycling in the rain… and that’s how it started. Within a few weeks my motorcycle was in a shipping container heading across the Arabian sea, whilst I caught a cheap flight to await its arrival in the United Arab Emirates. The journey was about to begin.

Upon arrival I immediately got a flavour of what was to await me. A customary stop in the Honda garage to get my headlight fixed gave me a comment that I would hear countless times over the next 3 months. ‘You’re riding the Middle East now? It’s summer, It’s way too hot, You’re crazy’ followed by the all too familiar ‘Oh you’re from England, you guys always do ridiculous journeys, maybe you’ll be fine’… Comforting words to hear. Within a few days I’d got my headlight bodged with a bit of electrical tape and was handed a bag of spare fuses as if they assumed the fix would explode further down the road, but regardless, I set off on the journey of a lifetime. The goal was to get all the way to Jerusalem through the Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia and finally Jordan. The area to cross was huge, but the route was simple. It was so straightforward I remember jesting that I wouldn’t even need Google Maps to navigate. The main obstacles in the way were undoubtedly the heat, with temperatures hitting 50 degrees celsius (122°F) pretty much everywhere, the vast empty quarter of the Rub Al Khali desert and of course countless border crossings in an unfamiliar land.

Motorcycle - Wadi Disah, Tabuk

My first stop after leaving the familiar westernised world of Dubai was the Sultanate of Oman, riding towards the border the temperatures were cool for Middle Eastern standards, with 38 degrees Celsius (100°F) showing on my weather app. After a friendly and easy border crossing, I immediately felt my decision was vindicated. Borders can often make the worst moments of long motorcycle journeys but this time it was different. Everyone was friendly, from customs officers to dog squads, nobody wanted to impede a foreign rider trying to explore their country. This sort of feeling is something that would reflect across the whole of the gulf. Whilst I ensured I stocked up ample water supplies, every policeman, local, or Bedouin I met would hand a carrier bag of supplies towards me. Full of water, orange juice, cigarettes, anything they could do to help, anything they could do to share with a stranger in their land. It was a beautiful welcome to the Arab world and it’s a custom and kindness I will always find remarkable, but one I could never get used to.

Camping in Wadi Disah, Tabuk

Oman was only a short diversion away from the main goal, but it is a truly stunning place. A country seemingly forged in layers, from the beautiful turquoise coastline on the east to the harsh desert on the west, separated with a layer of rough and Jagged dark granite mountains in the centre. Each section of this country had its riding pleasures and despite the heat and the oppressive humidity, it worked to help create a strict riding schedule. I’d camp in the mountains at least 1000m above sea level to stop myself from melting in the tent, then I'd spend the morning riding fantastic loose gravel tracks along the mountain passes until noon where a swim in an ice cold wadi would help cool me down and dampen my clothes, before testing the beautiful twisty curves connecting the coastline towns of Mutrah and Sur In the south. This age-old method of dampening clothes and letting the wind lower my body temperature was a technique I’m told is not only used by modern motorcyclists in hot climates, it's also been used by the Bedouins in the desert for centuries past, a strange but comforting similarity.

Two weeks in the country flew by and before long the edge of the vast Rub al Khali Desert in the west was calling me. Separated from the coast by the mountains, this monster had always been looming as I knew the only way up north meant crossing 1000km of it in the highest temperatures imaginable. The longer I put it off, the hotter it would get. In anticipation, I turned off the road and spent my first night camping on the edge of Wahiba sands just south of the start. Racing my trusty CB500x over the desert was an absolute dream in the dimming sunset, the sand had cooled down and hardened, meaning my lightweight freedom machine didn’t have any trouble in crossing over the loose surface.

I pitched my tent and awaited the first sunset of many in the lonely desert. The temperature dropped blissfully below 25 degrees before the wind started and the infamous summer sandstorms spoilt my fun and filled up my open mess tin, tainting my already bland tuna pasta dinner with a sandy seasoning. A continuous blaze of sand smashed into my tent for the entire night as I foolishly left my rainfly off to try and keep it cooler. It was a disappointing nights sleep made worse by the realisation that sandstorms were almost a daily occurrence throughout summer here and they would go on to hinder my every mile, filling up my air filter and boots with an equal amount of irritation. Great start, I thought, time to head north. Once more unto the breach.

Camping in Oman, Wahiba Sands Desert

The next day I packed up my tent and headed towards the Rub al Khali Desert and the Empty quarter. It was a straight route and almost 1000km in distance to the first real town where I could stop and rest. I was told there would be nothing but sand and oil fields, so to make sure I wear my headphones and settle in for a long and monotonous ride. But as I turned out of the old towns and medieval fortresses of Oman and headed towards the Saudi border I was astonished. This wasn’t just a route through the desert or a harsh off-road track. This was a magnificent feat of engineering. A beautiful asphalt road painstakingly carved through a desert of incredible scale. Along the route humongous sand dunes towered either side of the road casting shadows like tall mountains. It genuinely felt more like a mountain pass than a super-heated highway.

The Saudi border guards welcomed me to their country with wonderful style, commenting on how my aviator sunglasses made me look like Tom cruise in top gun, before inviting me in to the customs office to smoke cigarettes and drink Arabic coffee. They refilled my water and petrol and I was away again. Riding blissfully into the desert on an almost unrealistic highway, dodging mini sand dunes on the tarmac and following the windy curves through the desert as the road design improved further into Arabia. I was almost heartbroken when the sun started to go down, a beautiful red orange glow lit up the sky as I realised I would have to complete a chunk of the journey through the night to avoid riding in the midday heat of Saudi Arabia. This, I deemed, was the only possible solution to riding through this harsh climate during summer and I was disappointed to miss some of the scenery. However, after the sun dropped beyond the horizon I was treated to another unique spectacle. The Arabian sky lit up the road as if it was some distant floodlight from the heavens, and the Milky Way floated across the sky turning the monumental sand dunes into frightening shadowed monoliths, all the while unbelievable, all the while beautiful. After finally reaching civilisation the next morning the Rub Al Khali, although being famous for a vast section of nothing, had left a lasting impression on me.

Night Sky, Isreal, Negev Desert

After passing this wonder of the world the largest country in the journey awaited. Saudi Arabia, the land of hot sand. A place with very little written about it recently and often carrying fairly negative assumptions. But as a lone rider heading out into the desert to explore, it was a real joy to ride. The entire place was a thing of beauty, pristine roads connecting pretty much everywhere, with free water bottles left in drops at rest spots on the side of the road and a local population characterised by incredible kindness. Every single person I came across wanted to offer me help. In the form of water, food, accommodation and sometimes even money. Most wanted a picture with me, some wanted a snapchat and annoyingly too many wanted a tiktok video with me in it, a gripe from the road that wears thin very quickly, but was all the same greatly appreciated. These people were surely the kindest I’d ever come across and were a true reflection of the Arab culture.

The heat of Saudi Arabia presented new problems though and the journey took its toll. Instead of swimming in wadis to wet my clothing before facing the heat, the constant 50 degree temperatures created a dangerous loop which somehow kept me cool in the day. I would sweat so much that my clothes would be damp, from which the wind would then cool me for less than an hour before they dried off, then the vicious cycle would continue. Sweat, cool, repeat. A truly testing time that made me realise that this beautiful place was not to be underestimated. It was extremely harsh and unforgiving, and even with the kindness of strangers it became a difficult gauntlet of heat exhaustion to navigate through.

Trail Riding in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Fortunately, as a reprieve from the heat, the landscape was surreal by all measures and seemed to be perfectly crafted for a rider willing to test his somewhat limited off-road skill. The beautiful paved roads connecting the country would often have a turn off into a mixture of light sand and gravel which after 5 miles would lead to countless beautiful rocky sculptures out in the middle of the desert. It felt like a just reward for all those hours of toil and the white salt stains marking my jacket. From the mystical Judah’s Thumb sitting alone out in the barren desert, to the eye watering ancient Nabatean monuments and rocky monoliths of Al Ula… It is a place like no other in this world. Crossing Saudi Arabia was already an adventure in itself and the people I came across truly made it an experience worthy of writing down. But again, the journey must continue and I found myself heading north into the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. The penultimate stop before the Holy Land.

After another friendly border crossing complete with a customary cigarette and coffee break with the officers on duty I headed straight for the legendary Wadi Rum. It’s A place famous in the western world due to its link with Lawrence of Arabia, and with being an Englishman solo on his motorcycle, the locals quickly and gleefully made the link between the two of us. Upon arriving at the Wadi Rum entrance gate I enquired if motorcycles are allowed inside, to which they looked upon the board, saw prices for all types of vehicles apart from bikes, then glanced back and said sure why not, guess its free for you. Fantastic, I thought, who doesn’t love a bargain. I rode out into the legendary red sand desert following the scattered jeep tracks through an amphitheatre of magnificent rock sculptures.

Enjoying the sheer scale and beauty of this place and not paying attention to the tracks ensured I got wedged ridiculously deep into the sand pretty quickly. After around 30 minutes of shovelling, wheelspinning and waddling I became free again with only my ego hurt and was able to rejoin the track and found a suitable campsite for the night. Shortly after drinking my two cans of Amstel that had been gently boiling in my panniers all day, a Bedouin man approached me from a distance. I could see his torch glimmering in the night and my instant thought was that I was soon to be evicted from my sandy home or maybe robbed. But straight away he put me at ease, greeting me as if I was a long lost friend who had been separated with him for a lifetime, he then spoke about how similar both of our way of lives are. Riding a motorcycle and pitching your tent to sleep each night is not so different from the Bedouin way of life, he then insisted on giving me orange juice and fruit and parted ways with a simple message. ‘Sleep well, you will be safe here tonight, you are a friend of my people and are always welcome’. A heartfelt moment that will stay with me for life. As I looked upon the Milky Way that evening with the warm Amstel and orange juice battling in my stomach, It again vindicated my decision not only to visit the Middle East and witness the friendliness of these people, but also the confirmation that whilst riding a motorcycle through these places isn’t easy, it opens the door to these beautiful and unique moments.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Now nearing the end of my journey I rode towards the Israel border and started the home stretch towards the holy land and Jerusalem. Weak, sick and again without a headlight on my bike I arrived at the mount of Olives intime to watch the sunset over the holy city. Whether you are religious or not, after such a long journey through deserts, mountains and unforgivable heat, seeing the sight of the dome of the rock and the church of the holy sepulchre glistening above the walled city was a sight to behold, and something that would have made even the hardest skinned people shiver in joy and tears.

Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, Motorcycle

Upon reflection It was a strange decision to ride the Middle East during summer. I originally imagined that it would just be a journey of sand and relentless heat. But it ended up being so much more than that. From the gravel mountain passes of Oman to the windy tarmac roads of the Rub al Khali, to wild camping in wadi rum next to the Bedouin tribes and finally overlooking beautiful Jerusalem at last light. It was a real adventure riders dream. Every day I found myself in that raw prehistoric mindset of just thinking how far can I ride today and what supplies do I need to keep me alive. It was a stone age bliss in an otherwise modern and stressful world. After riding through six continents I can safely say, if you want to go and get lost with nothing more than a motorcycle, 20 litres of fuel and some pasta in your panniers, then give the Middle East a thought. Who knows, it may just surprise you and you could even get mistaken for Tom Cruise on the way.

Alula, Elephant Rock, Saudi Arabia

Luke Phillips is a former Parachute Regiment soldier and a photographer and adventure motorcyclist from Stourbridge, England. In 2017 he sold all of his possessions and embarked on a Motorcycle journey around the world. To date he has ridden across 72 countries, 6 continents and 118,000 miles all on the same Rally Raid Products Honda CB500x.


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