In the film Lawrence of Arabia, Mr Dryden, the man who first enlists Lawrence’s services, alleges that these are the only two creatures that have fun in the desert. Lawrence of course disagrees and thinks he is going to have loads of fun. We decided to see for ourselves.
Graeme has been to every country whose name begins with every letter of the alphabet, except for countries that start with O, X and Y. He and his buddies call this the Alphabet Game. As of today, they’ll never get to an X as there is no country that begins with X. There is a civil war going on in Yemen. That leaves O so taking advantage of the 3 hour direct flight from Delhi, off we hopped to Oman.
From a 2010 trip, I remembered very hospitable people, effortlessly kind and dignified, and a laidback country of 4 million people, with a landscape completely opposite to the glitz and vertical magnitude of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Roads are excellent and places are well connected in Oman. We toyed with the idea of hiring a 4WD (also fancied a chance to break out our trusty tent that hasn’t seen daylight since 2013!!), but chose instead to hire a driver and be driven to our hotels and luxury camps, leaving the self-drive to a future trip.
After two days in Muscat, we headed for the Al Hajar mountains. We drove through a barren mountainous region without seeing another vehicle, bumping though terrain that was challenging, as unseasonal rains had left the track damaged passable. Seven hours later, we arrived at the edge of Wahiba Sands. Just as the sun was setting, three goathair Bedu tents come into sight, shimmering in the distance like a mirage. We had arrived at our desert camp.
A crew and truck had been sent ahead to strike camp and prepare for our arrival. There was sleeping tent with a King-sized bed, a shower and toilet tent, a majlis tent and a dining tent. All recalling the splendour in the Tales of the Arabian Nights (and there was a copy here too). All for the two of us.
I was slightly embarrassed by this. I imagined it must have been how Arabic royalty or British officers travelled back in the day. But I got over that pretty quickly and was soon very pleased for all the creature comforts the camp provided – drop toilets, bucket showers, three-course meals and bottomless drinks. We plopped ourselves down on the floor cushions in the majlis and made ourselves at home.
From our base in the desert, we made forays to nearby attractions including Wadi Bani Khalid and Al-Mudayrib village, returning in the evening to sandboard down the dunes framing our little valley in the sunset.
Two days later, it was time to move to our next camp by the coast. Our driver enlisted the help of an old local Bedu for our 200km desert crossing, a man known only as “Sayid’s father”. This man of few words with excessive skill at navigating dune and desert, did the 5-hour drive in his pickup truck with no air conditioning and the windows down. 200kms, 5 hours, 38 degrees and blazing sun without breaking a sweat!! We, on the other hand, were ensconced in our air-conditioned comfort.
The Bedu are some of the oldest tribes of the world; herdsmen living off the products of their animals, adapted to their hostile environment in the hottest, driest areas on earth. They traditionally moved following the sparse rains, grazing their animals on small patches of grass wherever they could be found, enduring hunger and thirst and traveling great distances to obtain water. It was a harsh, nomadic life, driven by pure survival necessity. They are hugely hospitable as in a land where people are few and far between and there is little to sustain life, hospitality and word of mouth was the only means of exchanging news and information.
Today things have changed.
In the past the Bedu relied entirely on the camel for milk, transport, wool and transport. The advent of motor vehicles has irrevocably altered this, as has the emergence of sovereign nation states over whose borders they were formerly wont to wander. Bedus still keep camels but are now used mainly for camel racing. Herding and transport is now done using white Toyota pickup trucks. Huge regional wealth has allowed them to escape the privations and poverty of former generations. Mobile phones means news travels fast these days, although the old hospitality and old-fashioned salutations survive. The younger generation are branching out into different professions; Sayid (whose hardy father escorted us through the desert) himself is a tour guide, his brother is a teacher.
We finished our camping leg (or rather, glamping – can’t call sleeping on a King sized bed camping) with two nights at Al Khaluf on the southern coast of Oman, where our new crew and new surroundings brought different amusements. Lulled to sleep with the familiar and comforting sound of waves crashing, we woke early and watched the sun rising over the dunes on our morning beach stroll. It was nice to breathe some clean air after months of Delhi pollution. The local fish market provided a bounty of seafood, including a freshly caught Omani lobster which our chef cooked on the BBQ. That night, we were treated to a magnificent display of lightning extending miles out to sea, accompanied by gusty winds and storm clouds. It felt wild and liberating to be out in the elements.
Beach camping is something we enjoy immensely and this trip reminded us of our last camping trip back on the dunes of South Australia. With better food, showers and people to look after us. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the beach. But tear ourselves away we had to.
Postscript: Oman is a beautiful country however I was alarmed to see the amount of plastic pollution in the desert and on the beaches. On reflection, it was little in comparison to what we see in other parts of the world but because of the great distances between settlements and the lack of human encounters in between, I was very disconcerted by it. Most of it was single-use plastic – discarded drink bottles, engine oil containers, jerry cans, fishing nets and food containers. It pained me that I couldn’t do much about it then and there apart from pick up bits of it, but it made me realise I had to do better with refusing single-use plastic.