Heart of Arabia

Press Releases

Heart of Arabia Expedition Arrives in Jeddah

30 January 2023

Wind, rain, blistering sun and 1300 kilometres after leaving Al Uqair in November, the Heart of Arabia Expedition team have arrived in Jeddah this morning to be warmly welcomed by top ranking officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Culture as well as by family and friends.

On arrival they received a message from the office of The Princess Royal, Princess Anne, Patron of the Expedition. The message said: “The Princess Royal congratulates all members of the expedition and their support team, for successfully finishing the Heart of Arabia trans Peninsular expedition. Her Royal Highness is well aware what a demanding feat this was, and congratulates the organizers and participants. The Princess Royal would also like to thank the supporters of the expedition who made this journey possible. Her Royal Highness looks forward to receiving a report of the full journey in due course.”

Team leader Mark Evans said: We are delighted to finally have arrived – by foot not an camels like Philby. It has been an amazing and memorable expedition and experience which none of us will ever forget. As for Philby, a challenge for us has been the cold and sometimes wet weather, but as for him, the comradeship of a shared journey has more than overcome those hardships”

Mark was accompanied on the expedition by Reem Philby, Harry St John Philby’s granddaughter; Ana Maria Pavalache, photographer and Alan Morrissey, logistics expert.

The expedition has been supported by HSBC, Al-Jazirah Ford, Leica, Saudi Satellite and Telecommunications, the Camel Club and by the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia and by the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London and KAUST.

Philby family gathers at Heart of Arabia Expedition Riyadh launch

Mark Evans and Reem Philby on the Heart of Arabia Expedition 2022

15 January 2023

The British and Saudi sides of the Philby family will come together for the first time this weekend in Riyadh as the Heart of Arabia expedition team, following in the footsteps of Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby prepares to set out on the second half of their gruelling 1300K trek across Arabia.

It is the first time any of Philby’s British grandchildren have visited the Kingdom where their grandfather made his home. Their Saudi cousin and expedition team member Reem Philby said: “This leg is preceded by a very special event where the British and Saudi sides of the family come together for the first time in Riyadh celebrating our grandfather’s life and legacy in his second home.”

She is eager to begin the second part of the expedition: “I think I’ve had enough of the luxury of a bed and I’m ready to be back in my tent in the desert for leg 2 of the Heart of Arabia expedition exploring new parts of the centre and west of Saudi Arabia in the harsh cold of January.”

She and the other team members will be joined at Al Diryah where the team start the second phase by two of Philby’s British grandchildren. British grandson Michael Engelbach said: “It is difficult to summarise all our feelings and emotions. We are so looking forward to being in Riyadh and also going to Al Hofuf which was an early stopping point for our grandfather on his 1917/18 voyage across the Arabian peninsula.” He is visiting the Kingdom with his cousin Mandy Oates.

“Our experience of our grandfather was through holidays spent with him as schoolchildren in London and Cornwall. Having read many of his letters and his books giving the account of his travels and his love of Arabia we are very excited to be finally viewing the country and the people first hand.

“Mark’s expedition has brought this long Arabian period of his extraordinary life alive in our imaginations and following its progress closely has enabled us to identify with the scale of his achievement. We are enormously grateful to Mark for that and for enabling a heart-warming introduction to our Saudi cousins. We are looking forward to spending time with them in Riyadh and excited to be meeting their parents for the first time. We hope that the two families can maintain a close contact going forward as well as a common interest in our grandfather’s legacy.”

The second leg of the Expedition, which is led by explorer Mark Evans, will set out from Al Diriyah just outside Riyadh on Monday morning (16 January) and take the same route through the hills towards Jeddah. “Abdullah Philby is considered by many as one of the greatest early explorers of Arabia,” said Mark. “He not only set out across uncharted land, but took time to record everything he saw, something not done before with as much detail, increasing our geographical knowledge and understanding of the region.”

He said the second leg of the expedition would be more challenging physically than the first. “It will be longer, the terrain more varied, colder and wetter. Historically perhaps this leg of the expedition is more significant as this was where Philby saw the opportunity to demonstrate that Ibn Saud had the allegiance of the tribes to the west. It was a journey that was pivotal in understanding the Kingdom and in the evolution of the modern state of Saudi Arabia.”

Mark and Reem will be joined of the second leg of their expedition by fellow team members, logistics expert Alan Morrissey and photographer Ana Maria Pavalache.

The expedition is supported by HSBC and the Saudi Arabian British Bank. Other team sponsors and partners are Al Jazirah Ford who have supplied the team with trucks, Leica who have supplied Ana Maria’s cameras and STC, the Saudi satellite company providing telecommunications in the desert. “We are sincerely grateful and indebted to our official partners and sponsors who have made this historic expedition possible,” said Mark.

To interview team members before or during the expedition please contact either Ann Morris: ann@mia.gb.net or Wajod Al Khamis w.alkhms@gmail.com

The Heart of Arabia expedition begins

14 November 2022

The trucks are packed tight: water, fuel, emergency equipment, a ton of food from rice and baked beans to coffee and dates, and the team is ready to set out tomorrow (Tuesday 15 November) for the first stage of their 1300-kilometre expedition across the Arabian Peninsula from East to West.

British explorer and team leader Mark Evans MBE, Saudi explorer Reem Philby, British logistics expert Alan Morrissey and Swiss photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache will leave Riyadh at 6am to drive to their first base camp at the remote port of Al Uqair where they will camp before setting out early on Wednesday in the footsteps of Reem’s grandfather explorer Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby who started his journey from the same coastal village 105 years ago.

“This is a journey with purpose, “said Mark Evans. Like Philby the team will be using the expedition to expand our knowledge of the desert. “We are undertaking research for three important international science projects which look at how our world has evolved and learning from that look towards our future, leading to greater understanding of our world.”

Philby closely mapped and monitored his journeys enabling cartographers, botanists and zoologists to gain a much more detailed knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula. Mark said: “We are carrying the Explorers Club flag that went to the moon, a great privilege only given to those expeditions where the aim is to expand human knowledge. I think Philby would approve.”

The expedition was launched in London by its patron HRH the Princess Royal. A send off reception and press event is being held by British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Neil Crompton.

The three science projects being carried out by the team

  • Extreme Environments and Remote Location psychology. The DRIFT project led by Dr Nathan Smith at Coventry University looks at our understanding of the psychological impact of living in extreme isolated environments. The aim is to produce a psychological support tool to enable humans to thrive on the moon, mars and beyond. Mark will lead this research
  • Bat Distribution – a project led by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. More than 30 species of bat live in Arabia and play a vital role in desert ecology, controlling insect populations and pollinating and dispersing the seeds of date palm. Reem will lead research into their roosting sites.
  • Green Arabia – a project headed by Michael Petraglia, Director of the Australian Centre for Human Revolution. Recording archaeological artefacts found in the desert. This research will lead to better understanding of environmental changes in the desert over the past one million years. Alan will carry out this research.

The expedition will be recorded on camera by Ana Maria who has been lent cameras particularly suited to the desert environment by Leica.   She will also lead on social media. The team will communicate daily using satellite communications provide by STC the Saudi Telecoms Company.

Careful preparations for the expedition have included mapping of the route and preparing for any potential hazards the team and their 4 x 4 support vehicles – lent to them by Al Jazirah Ford – will face. It’s the sand dunes that worry logistics expert Alan Morrissey the most. He’s packed four pairs of sand ladders and six different types of rope as well as several shovels in case the vehicles get stuck in soft sand of the Rub Al Khali.

The trucks will be heavy with 28 jerry cans of additional fuel as well as equipment and food. As well as an allocation of 5 litres per team member a day, their desert diet will include foul (cooked fava beans) and local Tamees bread for breakfast which they will make over the camp fire.  They will also carry a supply of Arabic coffee for hosting guests visiting them as well as several different date varieties for an energy sugar boost, items Philby also survived on during his expedition. 

Each of the team are taking something with them that they consider essential to their expeditions. Mark is taking his farwa a fur lined camel coat which he bought in Riyadh 30 years ago. “It is perfect for the desert and is extremely warm when huddled around the fire at night.” Daytime temperatures in the desert can soar to well above 40 C in the desert and plunge to below  -5 C at night. 

Reem is taking reminders of her home: “I tie two bandanas which belong to my kids to my trekking poles and wear an old faded bracelet I got before my first big trek and have worn ever since.”

Alan is taking a Saudi headscarf or shemagh: “It serves for heat protection, sandstorm protection and helps keep me warm at night – it’s my favourite comfort item.”

Ana Maria – the team photographer – will pack a small pouch of pebbles that she has collected from expeditions she has undertaken across the world. “And a bottle of tea tree oil for its multi-purpose use as everything from an antiseptic to an insect repellent.”

While preparing physically for the journey, walking, hiking, jogging and climbing, Reem and Mark have been inundated with requests to join the journey and with offers of help. “I’ve had numerous friends who offered to be my personal bodyguards or porters or even cooks!” said Reem. “It’s a great reminder of how truly lucky I am to be part of this team and expedition.”

Mark’s aim is for the expedition to inspire young people to explore the world around them. “If we inspire one person to get out and ask questions then we will have helped to move society forward.” Students from both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom will be invited to spend the penultimate night in the desert with the team before they reach Riyadh where stage one of the expedition will end at Al Masmak Fortress at the end of this month.

Mark said: “We are grateful to the British Ambassador Neil Crompton for hosting a send-off reception for us and to all the support we have been given by so many organisations and people including particularly the Saudi Ambassador to the UK, HRH Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud.  We are also very grateful for the significant financial support and enthusiasm of HSBC SABB. This expedition would not have been possible without them.”

NOTE: There will be a Photo Call with the team members and the expedition trucks at the British Embassy, Riyadh at 4.30pm on Monday, 14th November. To attend please contact Saba Said in the British Embassy press office   Saba.Said@fcdo.gov.uk

To interview team members before or during the expedition please contact either Ann Morris: ann@mia.gb.net or Wajod Al Khamis w.alkhms@gmail.com

Into the Heart of Arabia - Expedition Launch

HRH The Princess Royal attends the expedition launch

27 September 2022

An extraordinary expedition across the desert heartland of Arabia was launched today at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London by HRH The Princess Royal. The 1,300 kilometre Heart of Arabia expedition from Al Uqair on the East coast of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to Jeddah on the West, follows in the footsteps of one of the earliest expeditions into the region in 1917 by Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby and celebrates his remarkable achievements.

Launching the expedition The Princess Royal said she had studied geography at school: “ I always  thought it had such scope and it was such an important place to start.  If you want to understand where you live and who you live with.

She said travelling with her mother the late queen was ‘real geography to me because you had the opportunity to see and speak and understand a bit more about other places.’

She said she admired Philby’s attitude to learning about places and his “attitude and belief that you only really achieved something if you made really good records of what you did and to use that skill of observation, to leave what we now simply call data which is now collected automatically and robotically and which we just search it later.

“One of the reasons I am so delighted to be a part of this expedition is that it underlines the importance of observation, physical observation. It’s not about the narrow view of what is on the end of your phone. This is about real observation about taking in things and understanding how you fit and all the things that went with it. How did people live in the environment that he observed? What was different about it? It is  important in modern terms to understand what has changed what existed before.”

She said that many of those following the expedition would envy the involvement of the explorers taking part.

She said she hoped the expedition would be inspirational for the younger generation and to “understand the importance of observation and that that is the key to being able to understand the planet where we live and the people we share it with and that has much greater long term value than almost anything else.”

She said expedition was as important today and in the future as it was in the past.

Following the launch, the Princess Royal, met the expedition team and member of both the British and Saudi branches of the Philby family.

The 2022 expedition will be led by Oman based British explorer Mark Evans, MBE, who will be accompanied on the journey by Philby’s Saudi granddaughter Reem Philby. Others on the expedition include photographer Ana Maria Pavalache who will be using a Leica camera and logistics expert Alan Morrissey.

This is the second time Mark will have traced the route of one of the great desert explorers across the Arabian desert. Seven years ago he followed the route taken in the 1930s by Bertram Thomas from Oman through the Rub Al Khali to Qatar, which was the first crossing of the vast moving sand dunes of the Empty Quarter.

Philby’s journey across this previously uncharted heartland of Arabia provided much needed geographical information about the region and resulted in new maps being drawn up and in his receiving the Founders Medal form the Royal Geographical Society, awarded by King George V.

“He is considered by many as one of the greatest early explorers of Arabia,” said Mark Evans. “He not only set out across uncharted land, but took time to record everything he saw, something not done before with as much detail, increasing our geographical knowledge and understanding of the region.”

“We are thrilled to be a part of the Heart of Arabia Expedition to support ongoing scientific research programs aimed at showcasing the geographical aspects that distinguish Saudi Arabia and the Saudi people’s cultural and social heritage,” said Tony Cripps, SABB Managing Director and CEO. “This journey is an extension of the two kingdoms’ strategic collaboration in various fields, which reflects the depth of the shared historical tie.”

In line with Philby’s commitment to add to our understanding of Arabia, the Heart of Arabia Expedition, supported by HSBC and Saudi Arabian British Bank will gather data in the field to support a variety of ongoing scientific research projects.

Like Philby the expedition team will either walk or travel across Arabia by camel with support from the Ford Expedition Timberline provided by Al Jazirah Ford.

HRH The Princess Royal is Patron of the Heart of Arabia Expedition which sets out on November 15th, exactly 105 years after Philby stepped out into this unknown territory. The launch will be her first public engagement following the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

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