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Wandering Across the Wahiba Sands of Oman

  • Samantha Libby
  • 11 August 2011

Early in the morning the call of the Bedouin wakes even the soundest of sleepers. The throaty siren is centuries old, dating back to a time when tribes ruled the desert and the fastest way to get from point A to point B was on a well-trained camel, not in a 4WD vehicle.

Drive, Dhofar region, Oman

An expedition by Land Rover can take you into the farthest reaches of the Omani desert (like the Dhofar region above), retracing the footsteps of the famous Royal Geographical Society survey in 1986. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Land Rover Our Planet

Other changes have also taken place: the Bedouin have moved from tents to houses, traded hunting for supermarkets and accepted uniform government over their traditional, complex justice and power-sharing system. The tipping point came in the 1970s, when the Sultan of Oman passed a number of laws regarding nomadic people, aiming to provide them with schooling, modern facilities and economic benefits. In favour of advancement, though, an ancient way of life looked like it was under threat and the romantic vision of the camel trader under the Arabian nights seemed all but lost.

Today, however, thanks to new innovations in tourism, the nomadic life is here to stay.

The Sultanate of Sands

What is Oman? This stable Middle Eastern country balances on the eastern nose of the Arabian Peninsula, where it has welcomed outdoor enthusiasts for decades.

One attraction, especially for explorers, has always been the desert. The Wahiba Sands, now also called the Sharqiyah Sands, of the Sultanate of Oman are a geological and ecological wonder that burst onto the international scene in 1986 after the Royal Geographical Society led an expedition to the region. There they found a 12,500-square-kilometre carpet of rolling and shifting dunes, home to an astonishing 16,000 species of invertebrates, flora and fauna, and a rich mix of nomadic people, all of which had adapted to living in this seemingly inhospitable place.

The sands take their name from the Wahiba tribe, whose paternalistic society dates back millennia. Some larger clans, like the Bani Khalid, even claim to be descendants of the prophet Mohammad’s companion, Khaled ibn Al-Waleed.

Wahiba sand dunes, Oman

In Oman, the dunes (these are of the Sharqiyah Sands, reaching nearly 200metresin height) make a wide variety of sports possible, from sand skiing and sand boarding to the more tranquil camel ride or foot trek. Photo courtesy of Flickr/larawan ni tianaman

Desert Considerations

The word “Bedouin” translates loosely as “those who live in bādiyah” or “those who live in the desert.” While the Bedouin lifestyle is no longer strictly necessary due to modern conveniences, the practice is still alive and available as something in which travellers can dabble, if they know where to go and stay.

One thing is certain, though: The desert is a dangerous place. It is possible to cross it, for example, but this is highly inadvisable. Because of a lack of any resources at all, such as gas stations, provisions or water, venturing into the desert, especially alone and even more so during the summer months (April to October) when weather in Oman is at its fiercest, is so far beyond fearless that it’s reckless. Many people therefore choose to enjoy the comforts of a ‘base camp’ for exploring the surrounding desert.  Even then, Bedouin women, reputed for their surprisingly good driving skills, have been known to rescue tourists trapped or stuck in the sand.

Desert Camps

Most desert travellers therefore choose to base themselves in what are known loosely as ‘desert camps’. Little more than oases in the middle of vast tracts of nothingness, desert camps offer a daytime of adventure and a nighttime of comfort. To stay in a desert camp is therefore generally safer and more relaxing than nomadic camping, although, for the more adventurous, there are tours that will guide you across through the open desert, generally from north to south.

Much attention has been paid to making desert camps as authentic as possible, featuring natural textiles, traditional Bedouin camp layout, and locally sourced food (and famous Arabian coffee), as well as local staff that has been raised in the area and can read the sands as well as they can the stars.

Bedouin tent, Wahiba Sands, Oman

Many desert camps in Oman are adorned in the traditional Bedouin manner, like the Safari Desert Camp (shown here), which favours lush Omani textiles. Photo courtesy of Elite Tours

There are several desert camps from which to choose, their service offerings covering everything from the bare necessities to real Arabian-Nights style luxury. Tourism in Oman has developed significantly over the past two decades, allowing for all the modern comforts even in the remote desert, so most camps come equipped with toilet tents, Omani-style restaurants, campfires and comfortable tents well appointed with local textiles, artefacts and rugs.

Probably best known of all the Wahiba camps is the luxurious Desert Nights Camp, where you can enjoy en suite bathrooms, air conditioning and a DVD library, as well as a host of personal-guide and transport services. If you’re not looking to break their budget, however, there’s always the well-regarded Desert Safari Camp, known for its authentic design and welcoming staff.  Or try the isolated Thousand Nights Camp set among the famous cineraria trees and complete with its own private pool.

Desert Day Activities

In the morning of a typical day, as the sun heaves toward its zenith, you have a lot of Wahiba Sands activities to consider. There’s actually much more to do in the desert than ride a camel (although the Bedouin are exceptional camel guides).

You can try your hand at Dune Bashing, the practice of exploring the desert sands in a 4WD. Similar activity is illegal along the fragile coastlines of the USA and Australia, but it’s a thriving tourist draw in Middle Eastern countries where the desert is more expansive and less threatened.

When that’s done, if you’ve not had your fill of trying to navigate the up-and-down terrain, there’s always the reckless freedom of quad biking or the elegance of sand skiing. Experienced guides offer treks across the miles of lunar-like isolation and if you’re lucky and arrive between October and April, you may even catch one of the legendary camel races.

Bedouin dining, Wahiba Sands, Oman

When meals are served at desert camps in Oman, guests are usually seated on low cushions in typical Omani style. Typical servings include saffron Maqbous and delicious yogurt drinks flavored with pistachios or cardamom. Photo courtesy of Elite Tours

Desert Night Rhythms

As everyone settles in for the evening at a desert camp, a live Arab Omani band plays, while, in the guest lounge, you recline on massive throws and pillows set up around the campfire. Everyone’s sampling locally grown dates and strong Omani coffee. The music is both classical and lively, ushering in the night in traditional nomadic style.

While women visitors can choose to adorn themselves with ornate Omani henna or barter for brightly coloured woven textiles and camel bags, everyone usually gathers outside to watch the sunset, a notably breathtaking moment as the sun disappears behind the towering dunes.

Then, a far more spectacular sight is about to begin. Far away from city lights and with little or no pollution or cloud disturbance, the desert night sky is said by some to be the best in the world. Many earth communication stations are housed in the Omani desert because of the clarity of reception and vision. In addition, many astronomers use the desert night sky to conduct research and track star movements. Of course, long ago, the stars were guides to the nomadic people, indicating changes in season, coming fortune or doom, or just simple direction. Telescopes are available at most desert camps.

Staring out at the sands of Oman, it can be startling that something as barren as a desert could hold so much life and culture. The complex social and justice systems of the Bedouin are testament to the time spent living in this inhospitable place. The Bedouin ability to tame and use their environment shows the skill of traditional people happily distant from the comforts of places like Muscat (Oman’s capital city), Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Like the oceans, deserts are a challenging frontier for man; to be sure, there is much there yet to be discovered.

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Samantha Libby

Samantha Libby is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she works for a contemporary art gallery. She is also an artist and the author of numerous short stories, plays and, most recently, a novel. She loves the crazy, the random and the weird, as well as places and people that some would deem 'uncivilized'. She received her BFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, in New York City. She likes cake, too.
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adventure travel, Asia, deserts, indigenous culture, local knowledge, Oman, outdoors, weather extremes, Western Asia,

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