I wouldn’t be the first to remark that the feeling of being in a desert is not too different from that of sailing through wide-open ocean. The horizons are vast, stretching to the very limits of your vision. The sky becomes larger and commands as much attention as the landscape when the sun slinks down in the evening. The dangers of such an unforgiving landscape, or perhaps simply the humble feelings it prompts, compels the few people you find to gather together, to huddle and break the steady silence with conversation and stories.
We stayed in an organized desert camp, one of the several that have popped up in the Wahiba (or the Sharqiya) Sands over the past decade. The Wahiba stretches from the coast of the Indian Ocean in eastern Oman to deep in the interior, covering almost 13,000 square kilometres. While much of the Omani desert is sun-baked gravel plains, flat and featureless, the Wahiba Sands is marked by its endless waves of dunes, some rising many metres high. The colour of the sand ranges from pale white to fiery orange, shifting and transforming with the light of the ever-present sun.
Up until recent years, the Wahiba was the domain of the few who were hardy enough to live in it. The Bani Wahiba tribe, a type of Bedouin who gave this particular desert its name, raised camels and goats, traversing the desert constantly in search of the next source of water or grass. Some Bedu continue to inhabit the landscape they love so much, raising camels for racing or for tourists, but now they can cover greater distances than ever before with Japanese 4x4s. In fact, the Bedu’s fierce love and respect for their camels has shifted to their love of their Toyota Prados and Land Cruisers (dubbed “Japanese camels” when they were first introduced to the local nomads), which they drive through deep, sinking sand with an impressive degree of skill and knowledge.
Our camp was a collection of large black and white tents, made in Syria out of goat hair the traditional way, with the other traveller’s SUVs gathered in the center by the main dining tent. Giant ochre-coloured dunes towered over the settlement, which lay in a narrow depression kilometres from any road or town. Climbing up these dunes was challenging; think of running through sand, but vertical. However, the views from atop the closest dunes were staggering.
The setting sun bathed the landscape in gold and warmed the breeze that blew across the sands. Whether out of awe or out of respect for the comforting silence that hung over the desert, the voices of other travellers seemed hushed. When the stars came out, the campfire cooled and tent flaps were closed for the night, we slept more soundly than we had in a while.
Waking up at sunrise allowed us to go for some dune-bashing with the camp’s owner, who flung his pick up into the dunes with relish. With tires aired down, the truck basically floated over the dunes, spitting up clouds of sand behind it as it climbed up and down over dunes, up and down, like a desert roller coaster.
After the ride was over we piled into the bed of the truck to rip over to a neighbouring Bedu encampment to ride their camels. As amazing as riding a camel was, the discomfort and soreness of it made us question how nomads had been able to take epic journeys on them without losing all feeling in their groin.
We only spent one day camping in the Wahiba Sands so it was soon time to load up our SUV, shift into four wheel drive and trace our tracks from the previous day to make the journey out of the sands and back to tarmac. The peace of the desert, it’s remote beauty coupled with the culture of the people who called it home, was beguiling and we were sorry to say goodbye.