Near Buraimi the mountains give way to large sandy plains separated by low fossil bearing ridges. If it is still early in the day, large bushes of Convolvulus deserti can be found showing off its white flowers. The extended palm groves of Buraimi and Al Ain nestle at the foot of the 1000 m high Jebel Hafeet, an imposing piece of rock, that rises from the plains like the back of a beached whale, as Thesiger wrote when he first saw it. The mountain is not as empty as its name indicates, but one needs mountaineering skills in order to find all the species of plants that grow on its craggy flanks. However, since a road has been constructed a good way up the mountain it is now relatively easy to reach the summit, and although much of the natural plantlife was destroyed during the construction work, some has made a come-back. It is the easiest place to see Capparis cartilaginea . Echiochilon thesigeri, Salsola rubescens, Launaea spinosa, Farsetia aegyptiaca, Helichrysum somalense and Gymnarrhena micranthus are but a few of the many species that occur along the top ridges.

At the foot of the mountain a sandy plain is the only location, that I know of, where Anvillea garcinii, a crinkly-grey-leaved woody perennial, occurs. The area where the plant thrives is only a few hundred metres square and road construction is likely to destroy the site.

From Al Ain a tarmac road leads to Al-Wigan at the edge of the empty quarters. Row upon row of red sand-dunes are the waves of an endless sea of sand. But again, the sands are not completely empty. Between the dunes are salt plains with bright green Zygophyllum bushes as the dominant species, while sedges are the main vegetation on the dunes themselves. From Al-Wigan there are tracks across the dunes, that become higher and more forbidding as you go on. Only seasoned drivers venture across these drifting dunes, and it is a relief to reach one of the vast sandy saline plains that lie in an east-west direction and are used as the main roads for travelling here. It takes far more than four hours to do the circuit from Al-Wigan to either the Liwa oasis in the middle of Abu Dhabi's western region, or the main road leading to the north from Liwa to Tarif.

One of the finest surprises of travelling in the dune habitat is to encounter a stand of Tribulus omanense, the flower that gave its name to the Emirates Natural History Group magazine, and which should be a major contender as the still to be declared national flower of the UAE. The beauty of the yellow flower on a plant that manages to survive the extremes of heat and drought and provides a favourite fodder for the gazelles and oryx that (used to) live here, symbolizes, for myself at least, the very essence of the desert.

Driving north from the Empty Quarter back to the coast road where we started the trip, leads us through the central desert area, where we can find patches of the desert squash Citrullus colocynthis , the spreading bush Tribulus megistopterus and the greygreen bushes of Indigofera intricata, as well as the high broomlike shrubs of Leptadenia pyrotechnica , that often provide a shady lair for the delicate gazelles. Spring rains herald the appearance of endless fields of grasses like Stipagrostis plumosa, Coelachyrum piercei, Setaria verticillata and Cenchrus pennisetiformis as well as the popular fodder grasses Pennisetum divisum and Panicum turgidum.