The year 2020 was a rollercoaster for many people, but no one more Dubai-based explorer Max Calderan. In February he became the first person to cross Saudi Arabia’s fabled Empty Quarter desert on foot. The next month, Calderan was joining the world in Covid-19 lockdown.
After the freedom of the vast desert, the shift felt “like a prison sentence.”
Calderan had dreamed of undertaking the expedition since reading about the desert in an encyclopedia when he was just seven. His Empty Quarter expedition was a rare journey of genuine exploration in today’s eminently more accessible, globalized world. Over 16 days, the Italian trekked 1,100km, traversing mammoth sand dunes up to 300m high in the unforgiving desert, known in Arabic as Rub’ Al Khali. This year STXfilms and Fox acquired worldwide rights to the Empty Quarter Studios film about Calderan’s crossing, Into The Lost Desert. Check out the trailer for the feature-length documentary, executive produced by Billy Sprague and directed by Christopher Cassel.
If this whole pandemic experience has you thinking of your own dream journey, here are Calderan’s top tips for getting started – and to keep going once you do.
Seize the day
The Covid-19 lockdown has given a lot of people the opportunity to think about what they’d really like to do with their life. And when lockdown was lifted, for some people this felt like a new chance. Whether it is to get fitter, to see family and friends more, or even to plan a crazy adventure – the time is now. Ignore social media and junk news and focus on what you want to get out of your life; ask what you can do to make yourself a better person. If you haven’t taken this new chance yet, what are you waiting for?
Read books by explorers
Of course this is how many people are inspired to take up their adventures, but it is important not just to read about someone else’s expedition but to really take in their experience. What did they go through? How did they achieve the goal they set for themselves and how did they overcome challenges to reach that goal? The more you read, the more you can absorb and try to apply these lessons to your personal situation. These books are inspirational but they can also educate and entertain. Marco Polo, the great Italian explorer, used to say he only told people 50 percent of the things he saw because they would think he was crazy if he spoke of the other 50 percent.
Train, and train hard
The training I put in was almost animalistic in nature. I was very dedicated and this focus on your goal is so important. You need to train yourself in deprivation – food deprivation, water deprivation, sleep deprivation, comfort deprivation. For three months before the expedition, I woke up at midnight and walked through the night until 8am, uphill, with a 20kg backpack and no food or water. Then I did four hours again in the afternoon. If you aren’t physically ready, how can you take on a challenge that is overwhelmingly physical?
Prepare for emotional challenges
In the desert there was nothing – no animal tracks, no aircraft noise, just silence. You can’t imagine it. This simplicity is so beautiful and it makes you feel like a different person, like your blood is being cleaned and you are somehow transforming into a new man with each step. Then a storm comes or you come to a dune that appears totally impassable. Going from these moments of pure joy and enlightenment to moments of fear and doubt is always part of exploring; you experience many different emotions and need to prepare mentally for facing adversity. We have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic that life can be unexpected and as an explorer you must always be ready for that.
Understand what makes you happy
A clue: it shouldn’t be material things. When I think of what made me happiest in the Empty Quarter, it was not even finishing the challenge itself. One of my happiest moments was when I came across a Bedu man in the desert, about 100km into the crossing. He was scared that if I remained alone I would not survive, so he offered me dates, food and a blanket and asked me to come to his camp. He didn’t care about my politics, my skin color, he cared only that I was out in the desert alone and he wanted me to be safe. To understand that we share this brotherhood made me so happy. These are moments you can’t always find in everyday life so it may take something like this to make you understand your own happiness.
Ignore the naysayers
This is the absolute most important rule. When you have an idea to explore somewhere in the world, it is normal for people to tell you “don’t do it, this is not right for you”. When this happens you have to stop, look them in the eye and just politely say “I am not you, you are not me – please let me live my life.” Everyone is different and for some people the idea of adventure is scary rather than exciting. But if adventure is what you want, then you must ignore those people. It is difficult because they might be a close friend or a relative, but be strong and explain how you feel. The moment you are really ready to be an explorer is when someone is telling you it is impossible but you are certain that you can do it.
• This story originally ran on October 15, 2020.
Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.