How Max Calderan became the first person in history to cross the Empty Quarter

WT Writer
Mar 1, 2020

We caught up with Max Calderan, who recently became the first man in history to cross the Empty Quarter – the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass that spans between the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this year, Italian extreme desert explorer Max Calderan, 52, became the first person to complete a solo trek across the Rub Al Khali – otherwise known as the Empty Quarter – unaided.

Starting and ending in Saudi Arabia, his 16-day journey took him across the unbroken 1,100km sea of sand, battling brutal sand storms, 300-metre-high dunes and 36°C temperatures along the way.

A long-time Dubai resident, crossing the barren terrain that runs along thje UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia had been a childhood dream for Calderan, who grew up inspired by the life story of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. 

“I think the whole point of exploration is to finally answer the biggest question a man can face: ‘Will I be able to survive?’,” he says. The remote landscape, which even migratory birds go out of their way to avoid, was a true test.

Camel and baby camel in Rub al Khali desert, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Camel farming in the empty quarter area, Rub al Khali desert, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

“Rub Al Khali isn’t a matter of kilometres, it’s an extreme environment that nobody has done before. It was the biggest dunes, and the biggest technical and physical difficulties I’ve ever faced” he reflects.

“The most challenging part, however, was travelling alone. Every minute mattered, because a mere mistake could’ve cost me everything. The only solution is to climb the dunes, hoping to find the right path in order to go beyond them. It was the first time in my life I started to pray in order to come out.”

Frequently, the wind would cover Calderan’s tracks, and with GPS signal dropping in and out in the remote region, his support team could often not make contact with him for several hours at a time, yet his unwavering determination saw him through:

And what was his main takeaway from his record-breaking venture across the Empty Quarter? “This journey isn’t about physical ability, it’s the capability to handle a situation,” he says. “This is what makes a difference.”