The road suddenly ends. We go from tarmac to dunes; an abrupt switch from the real world to a vision from the movies. The Sharqiya Sands are where Oman suddenly becomes tantalisingly inaccessible again. Well, inaccessible to those in a regular vehicle anyway. We’re in the back of a 4WD on a private 4×4 Desert and Wadi Safari. We are in the capable hands of a man who has been driving across this stereotypical Arabian landscape for nine years. It’s a good job we are; it’s not long before we spot a less experienced driver burning out his clutch as he struggles to keep control of things.
Just being here is special enough. It’s a truly extraordinary sight, with the dunes lumbering over the horizon in huge swoops. The colour scheme keeps changing too – the sands seem to have a rust-tinged redness to them at the front, turning more yellow and white as you venture further in.
The Bedouin People
In summer, the temperatures here are regularly in excess of 50 degrees Celsius. The place becomes an absolute cauldron, and even the hardy Bedouin people who call the Sharqiya Sands home temporarily move away.
From the top of the dunes, we look down into a valley. This is where the rudimentary Bedouin houses can be found. They’re made almost entirely out of the wood and fronds of the date palms that are such a key player in Oman. Forget tents – that’s an outdated myth – they’re effectively cabins on the sand. Outside these homes are often pens where animals are kept. Some people keep goats, but by far the most prevalent creature is the camel. The camels are used as beasts of burden, and sometimes for transport, although they’re often kept for milk as well. If someone offers you some camel milk to try, incidentally, you’re probably best off passing – it’s renowned for triggering stomach upsets in the uninitiated.
Some of the camels have masks over their faces. These, according to our guide, are the highly-prized racing camels. The best can fetch prices of nearly US$1m, and the masks are put on to stop them eating anything they’re not supposed to. These comical-looking beasts get the real pampering treatment – including a full wash with shampoo and conditioner twice a day.
We make our way down the dunes to one of the Bedouin huts. Inside, it is decorated with vivid woven carpets and cushions, and we’re invited to kick our shoes off and take a seat on one of the rugs. Our host brings over a tray with a pot and a number of small cups. He pours us an Arabic coffee, made with rose water and cardamom. It’s apparently part of the traditional greeting process – guests are expected to partake in a couple of cups. It is, to be frank, and acquired taste. But the dates are better. Lifting the lid off a silver pot, we’re met with a mountain of the things. We wonder if we’re expected to eat all of them, and are told that our date feast is really just a small portion. Omanis, it seems, will think nothing of chomping through 15 or 20 dates for breakfast. And, to be fair, they are moreish. The succulent flesh keeps you coming back for one last date.
As interesting as coffee and dates with the Bedouin is, the real reason for coming out to the desert is to have an attempt at taming it. With one skilled driver at the helm, it’s time to try some dune bashing.
We bounce along the dunes at nervousness-inducing speeds. At times, it feels like we’re teetering at a 45 degree angle, sliding down the sand banks and oversteering out of control. It is, of course, all part of the ride. The car kicks up outrageous amounts of sand as we plough through, spraying the (mercifully closed) windows as if they’re enduring a blackout.
The final set piece is a descent, however. After climbing one of the biggest dunes, a steep descent awaits, and we plunge downwards at quite an angle until we hit asphalt again. We’ve only explored the very edge of this dune system, which stretches for hundreds of kilometres into the barely-visited depths of the country. But it’s time to discover that Oman has more natural wonders than just the desert.
Wadi Bani Khalid
The second major stop of our day trip is Wadi Bin Khalid – one of the country’s most famous beauty spots. On a Friday, it can be crammed as locals bring a picnic and hang out over the weekend. Mercifully, it’s far more peaceful when we arrive.
But part of the joy of Wadi Bani Khalid is getting there. The road, as with just about every other road in Oman, passes through incredible mountain landscapes. The Hajar Mountains dominate the northern half of the country, and they’re probably the least pretty mountains imaginable. This is meant in a good way – they’re brutally stark affairs with scarcely a scrap of vegetation amongst the rubble. The unremitting fierceness of the terrain is what makes it so exciting to traverse, and the views from just about every section of the drive inspire a hushed awe.
Once there, we walk along a traditional Omani water system; a man-made channel that snakes gradually downhill from its underground source in the mountains. Precious water in Oman has been distributed like this for centuries.
We go against the flow until we find the natural pools. They’re a vivid green, set in an oasis full of date palms and mango trees. It’s a wonderful spot, and when the sun gets too hot, you can dive into the surprisingly deep gorge for a swim. It’s what the great outdoors should be about, and Oman has it in spades.
The country is blessed with deserts, mountains and swimming holes that are pretty much unrivalled in their wow factor – you just need to be sure that your driver knows what he’s doing in order to enjoy them to their full potential.
Tours and accommodation: David did the Private 4×4 Desert and Wadi Safari. He stayed at the Al Nahda Resort, a five star complex peacefully set in a mango plantation to the west of the Omani capital, Muscat.