Dom Joly: Lost in the Empty Quarter (with apologies to Swindon)

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I'm just back from five days in the Empty Quarter. No, this wasn't a mammoth shopping trip to Swindon but to the largest sand desert in the world that takes up a whole quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. (Damn, I just said something rude about Swindon and I can't do that any more. I've declared a ceasefire with the town and am the public face of a campaign to get £50m of Lottery money to open up a new science museum there.)

Anyway, back to this desolate, godforsaken place (The Empty Quarter, definitely not Swindon). All was going well, and I had acquitted myself fairly well in front of my military escorts by using the knowledge that I'd gleaned from watching too much Ray Mears. I appeared comfortable with desert life, adapted to the great heat, and even managed to bring out a smattering of my long-forgotten Arabic to chat to a couple of Bedouins about whether Jordan and Peter Andre would go the distance. Unfortunately, I let myself down very badly on the last night.

We had set up camp in the Empty Quarter under vast, colour-shifting dunes. The setting was stunning, even more so in the knowledge that there were zero tourists out here. I had now gone way beyond tourist, I was a traveller, an explorer – maybe I would write a book about this epic journey across Arabian sands? I sat and watched the sun set over the kaleidoscopic dunes puffing away on an apple-flavoured hubbly-bubbly and started to feel just a little pleased with myself. Surely, this trip would help me in my campaign to unseat Michael Palin as National Traveller In Chief?

Dinner was served by the Omani cook, Khamis. He was in a good mood as he had been fasting all day for Ramadan and was looking forward to his "iftar" – the traditional evening meal that breaks the fast. This was when things started to go a bit pear-shaped. I was about to sit down when I noticed some movement near my bare feet. I looked down to see a huge scorpion resting exactly where my toes were about to settle. I froze and called out in a slightly high voice. One of our military escorts came over and casually buried the offender under a mound of sand.

I tried to look cool and sat down for the meal, but secretly kept my feet perched on the wooden slats that ran under the table. Our appetites sated, we all reassembled around a huge campfire to drink delicious sweet, cardamom-infused coffee and puff away on the hubbly-bubbly. I was listening to "Colonel M" tell a particularly hairy story about some skirmish on the Yemeni border when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I looked, and suddenly I saw it again – something huge was scuttling towards me. I screamed and jumped up on to my chair, gibbering like a baby.

It was a camel spider, a huge, horrible-looking thing that moved very fast. Within seconds I had spotted two more whizzing around the fire in that totally unpredictable way that puts the fear of God into me. I was now fully erect on my chair with everyone looking at me as if I'd just announced that there was nothing wrong with a bit of paedophilia. I pointed to the spiders with a shaking hand. I couldn't speak. I have a crippling phobia of the things. The soldiers howled with laughter, as did the two Pashtuns and the Bangladeshi who were with us.

My desert dreams collapsed. You wouldn't see Michael Palin screaming like a girl at the sight of a spider, yet here I was, petrified, unable to get down off my chair. "Hope you zipped up your tent after you unpacked or there'll be hundreds of them in there," said Colonel M, collapsing with laughter.

I ran for my tent, dived in and zipped up for a sleepless night. Maybe I'm not cut out to be an explorer – you don't get this nonsense at the Hotel du Cap.

Dom Joly's new book 'Letters To My Golf Club' is published tomorrow by Transworld

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