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Hajar Ali is the definition of a world traveler. A founder of luxury travel company Urbane Nomads, she has seen more places than most people can name, and isn’t big on taking the easy route for herself. In March, she became the first woman to cross the Rub Al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, stretching between Saudi Arabia, Oman, and United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Not content with that desert adventure, Hajar is already planning an even more ambitious trip, to go by foot to Antarctica’s Pole of Inaccessibility, the most remote point on the frozen continent. Discovery sat down with Hajar to find out what inspires her to go places so few have been before, and how exactly she pulls it off.
Discovery: What led you into your current career?
Hajar Ali: It’s quite complicated. My last degree was in strategic studies, in international relations. Had I not gone into travel, I would probably be in that line of work. I imagine if I wasn’t in this, I would have been a war correspondent, something like that. Something that incorporates a lot of travel. It’s related somehow.
D: What sets Urbane Nomads apart?
HA: We specialize in luxury travel to remote places. We try to incorporate adventure into an otherwise touristic trip. Where we feel we excel is providing luxury accommodations in unusual places. Let’s say you want to go hunting in Western Mongolia, the hotels there are miserable. We set up the gers [Mongolian dwellings similar to yurts], with portable showers. We get the best guides, the best cooks.
D: What drove you to cross the Rub Al Khali?
HA: I was researching the Empty Quarter as a destination. The more you research, the more you get involved. I noticed that there was no woman who had crossed it; I wanted to be the first.
Sand dunes of the Rub Al Khali. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
D: What made that journey especially challenging?
HA:Where [Sir Wilfred] Thesiger’s route [in the 1940s] was dictated by water wells, a contemporary crossing today is dictated by the presence of oil wells. Most of the water wells are no longer functioning as these well have not been maintained. There is much less life in the Empty Quarter now than there used to be. We brought our own water and did not need the water wells.
Today, if you cross the Empty Quarter, your journey is dictated by the location of oil wells. Once you see an oil well, you’re not supposed to get close to it. You cannot get access to maps of the wells for security reasons. Someone did get a copy of the maps once we were in Oman, though we couldn’t keep it or make a copy. We had to change quite a bit of our journey to fit the locations of the oil wells.
Then there are places that aren’t safe to go to, because of political concerns.
D: How will the Antarctica expedition compare to the Empty Quarter crossing?
HA: The Rub Al Khali is a sand desert, and Antarctica is the world’s largest desert. Other than that, they’re completely different worlds. The logistical planning is different. Antarctica is the longer journey. It’s mentally challenging, because the landscape is going to be monotonous; it’ll just be the same thing, day in and day out.
The Pole of Inaccessibility, marked by a bust of Lenin installed by Soviet researchers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
D: How has the Empty Quarter crossing prepared you for the Antarctica trip?
HA: The landscape will be different, but I’ve been taught to expect the unexpected. There are so many things that could change while you’re doing the expedition itself. There’s a lot going on in the Empty Quarter in terms of political, cultural things. Antarctica is more logistical things. It’s so long, and I’ll be dependent on resupplies, so bad logistics will completely damage the entire trip.
D: What are your favorite places to visit?
HA: I love Western Mongolia, I love the Burmese Himalayas. In terms of cities, my favorite is Istanbul, followed by Buenos Aires and Beirut.
D: Where haven’t you been that you’d like to see?
HA: Lots of places. I’d like to see more of Africa; I’d like to see Ethiopia, for example. I’m curious about the Congo, Southern Sudan as well. Africa is at the top of the list.