Max Calderan,
son of the desert

Interview with Max Calderan, explorer and superman, holder of fourteen world firsts in desert exploration.

For the average person, the desert means nothing more than sand. But Max Calderan is not like the rest of us and for him, the desert is everything. An extreme sportsman and explorer, Max has made history by becoming the first person to single-handedly cross the 680-mile Rub’ al-Khali, Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter and Planet Earth’s final unexplored frontier.

Max, how do you come up with a challenge like crossing the Rub’al-Khali?

By allowing myself to dream. To dream big, but really big, on a scale greater than you’ll actually be able to manage. When I was small, I dreamed of going to Mars, and I was rewarded when I crossed the Empty Quarter, a place in which no one had ever dared to venture. 

54-year old Max Calderan holds fourteen world records in desert exploration. Before crossing the Empty Quarter, he spent 90 consecutive hours crossing Oman along the line of the Tropic of Cancer, and more than 22 hours climbing up and down the Moreeb Dune in the United Arab Emirates.

How did you prepare physically for such an extreme challenge?

With years of very varied physical experiences, such as ski mountaineering, climbing, volleyball and skateboarding. And increasing levels of deprivation. For me, training means reaching the point of total exhaustion, taking my body to the limit, and reducing the physiological and natural reliance on food, water, and sleep to a minimum.

And you’ve done it, in fact you’re now known as the “Mahdi”.

Yes, that’s what the Bedouins call me. It means “the Guided One”. According to Islamic belief, the Mahdi is the prophet who will appear in the desert and save the world when the end-times begin. I’m very proud of this name because it is testament to the connection I have with these people. Exploration is not only a physical feat. It is culture, knowledge, social relations… To explore a land, you must first speak with those who live there. Hear their stories.

“I chose the desert because it’s more unexplored, both geographically and culturally.”

Before Max, other explorers have successfully crossed shorter sections of the Rub’al-Khali, by camel or in an off-road vehicle. Max completed his trip by foot, taking an unexplored route that will now be marked on maps as the Calderan Line.

How has exploring the Rub’al-Khali changed you, if at all?

It hasn’t changed me. I’ve been a full-time explorer since 2006, when I travelled across Qatar. This is what I am in my everyday life and even more so during a challenge, when I put myself in Desert mode.

And what exactly is Desert mode?

Desert mode revolves around the concept of deprivation. You need to remove anything that’s not strictly necessary, stripping yourself of the superfluous and becoming like an animal, alone and in total harmony with nature and its elements.

How does it feel to be alone in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest human?

In the desert there is nothing but sand. The silence is absolute. You hear only the beating of your heart, the blood pumping through your veins. It is in that moment that you’re able to harness all the energy that nature presents you with. And that’s why you never really feel alone, not even in the desert.

Are you already organising your next exploration?

No. With three children, one of whom was born right after I got back from Rub’al-Khali, the endeavours I want to take on now are more family-oriented. But I am developing various training and promotional activities for kids. I want to give them the chance to re-establish a healthy relationship with nature and use science and technology as a way to expand our horizons and open up new and infinite possibilities.

Last question. Of all the extreme lands, why the desert specifically?

Because it’s the most unexplored, both geographically and culturally. I’ve never wanted to follow in anyone’s footsteps. If anything, I’d like others to follow in mine.

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