'Looking for Nothing' in Iraq's Desert
At the end of a research trip to an oil field in east Iraq, Ruba Husari took a detour to visit a site she had wanted to see for some time. When she arrived it was barren -- but still she was delighted.
Less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Iranian border, Husari's destination was nondescript and unremarkable -- a 20 minute walk from a pothole-filled road and several kilometers (miles) from the tiny village of Qalaat Muzeibleh, with the Badra oil field barely visible in the distance.
But the spot marked the exact geographic intersection of a latitude and longitude point -- 33 degrees north and 46 degrees east -- one of several in Iraq and around the world that adventurous travelers are looking to document as part of an Internet-based project.
"It's a fantastic way of exploring the country," said Husari, whose day job involves running the iraqoilforum.com website.
After successfully managing to locate and stand at the precise spot where the two lines intersected, she triumphantly raised a clenched fist and jokingly declared, "If they ever discover oil here, I'm claiming it!"
"It's a risky adventure, but at the same time for me, it's very rewarding," she added, after taking a photo of her GPS receiver with the precise coordinates to show she was standing on the exact intersection.
"It allows me to visit so many places, to do things you wouldn't do anywhere else."
The visit to the "confluence point" was her sixth in Iraq in the past three years, having first been told about the Degree Confluence Project by Dubai-based friends who spent weekends camping in the Emirati desert and driving off-road vehicles, often in search of the points themselves.
Due to Iraq's chronic instability and insecurity in recent years, few of the country's confluence points have been documented.
Indeed tourism in Iraq remains in its infancy, with many prospective travelers wary of violence and poor infrastructure.
And so despite the country's historic attractions, the vast majority of Iraq's tourists are Shiite pilgrims visiting the many shrines to key figures in Shiite Islam.
Of Iraq's 40 confluence points, just 14 have been "discovered", many by Husari but also by others in the oil industry, and some American and British soldiers who were stationed near confluence points after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
The Degree Confluence Project began in 1996, the brainchild of Alex Jarrett, who visited the intersection of 43 degrees north and 72 degrees west with a friend in the American state of New Hampshire after buying a GPS receiver.
It was the first of 15 such visits he made to various confluence points in the United States.
"It was a fun journey (to the first confluence point)," Jarrett, who is no longer actively involved in the project, told Agence France Presse by telephone.
"And I came up with the ridiculous idea that we should just randomly post a website and let's visit all these points in the world and see what happens."
"I had no inkling that there would be very much interest."
Since the project was founded, more than 6,000 confluence points from around the world have been documented on www.confluence.org, a volunteer-run website, but around 10,000 are still to be found, even after discounting intersection points in the oceans and near the Earth's poles.
Husari's own efforts have taken her on a multitude of adventures in Iraq -- she has rowed a tiny canoe through the southern marshes and driven through the desert of Najaf province south of Baghdad, all armed with her Garmin GPS system and an array of Google Maps printouts.
She even had to abandon one attempt because those accompanying her refused to go further, warning she was straying into territory west of Baghdad where Al-Qaeda-linked militants still held significant sway.
Sometimes, though, while the trip can be an adventure, the destination itself yields little in the way of photographs or novelty.
"One time in Algeria, I had to cross beautiful big rolling sand dunes, I passed old antique Arab wells of water," said Rod Maher, a 54-year-old seismology expert now living in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil.
"But then when I hit the confluence point, it was all flat. There was nothing around. Getting to it was fun, though, and I saw things I wouldn't have otherwise."
Maher, a native of Dover in England, noted that the fun in searching for confluence points was the fact that you never knew what you would see.
"When you go to a country for the first time, you say, 'OK, we'll go see this temple,' or something like that. But these confluence points are so random, it's like a mini-adventure."
"You're going to a specific point, but you have no idea what's there."
"It's quite a bit sad, if I can say that," he joked.
According to one former American soldier who managed to visit two Iraqi confluence points, part of the appeal of making it to one is the fact that "everybody wants to be Christopher Columbus."
"Some of my relatives and friends don't get it," said the ex-intelligence officer, who asked that he only be identified as Scott because of restrictions involving his new job as a drone pilot.
"If we were settlers in the 1800s, I'd be the guy going to the new frontier, I find that appealing."
In 2005, while stationed in Iraq, Scott visited two confluence points -- one with an American convoy that had to make a small detour in south Iraq, and another on a boat trip organised by British soldiers he was working with at the port of Umm Qasr.
Among the most difficult conversations many confluence-hunters face are those with perplexed locals, especially in remote locales where residents are suspicious of outsiders who claim to only be looking for otherwise unremarkable points on geographic maps.
"It's difficult to tell them I'm trying to find a place that's only recognizable on a map, on a piece of paper, or on my GPS," said Husari, a British citizen of Palestinian descent.
"Usually people, they think I'm mad."
"Some of the drivers and guys I take with me think I'm just mad, to go to the middle of the desert to look for, what is to them nothing."
"Actually," she added, "I am looking for nothing."