Road Trip Oman: Foray Into the Desert
We wake up on the beach in Ras Al Hadd, having met a large yellow fin tuna and having enjoyed a peaceful night camping next to the ocean. The Omani sun burns bright white after closing out yesterday with a blaze of pink over the dark blue ocean. We make coffee and pack up the tent while noticing the paw prints and thievery of a small army of stray cats that came calling late in the night.
We drive from Sur toward Wadi Bani Khalid and Wahiba Sands. The coastal landscape changes to a bleak but mountainous panorama of blues and grays — practically a moonscape with minimal vegetation and only an occasional goat or camel. The road climbs up and finally transitions into canyonland with a lush border of date palms along each side.
We park the Pajero and venture by foot into Wadi Bani Khalid, one of Oman’s most popular wadis. We could be in Utah or Arizona — the colors and the canyon are reminiscent of Zion and Havasupai — were it not for the young boy hiking with us in his kuma, leading the way to Moqal Cave. We reach the entrance and peek inside, but the prospect of crawling around in the dark is overshadowed by our attraction to the numerous swimming holes dotting the canyon. We hike back to the water and stop for a swim in Bani Khalid’s crystal clear water.
We’re once again racing against the Omani afternoon, knowing we need to get to our next destination before sundown. We pack up and hike out of the canyon, and get on the road to Safari Desert Camp in Wahiba Sands. It’s 2:00 p.m. so we know the camp’s main office in Bidiyah is closed for the afternoon. Luckily, I’ve got a map — printed from the camp’s website and beautiful in its simplicity. Looks like a few left and right turns, and then 20 kilometers farther into the desert and… we’re there! Right?
We make those left and right turns and come to the literal end of the road. As we stop, gobsmacked at the adventure we’re about to embark on with 20 kilometers to go, I vaguely recall the brief but important words of the camp’s booking agent: “Requires a four wheel drive. Hope you have!”
Yes, we do have, but something tells me we might need a little more than just a four wheel drive. So, this is the road? For 20 kilometers? Shake it off. This is OMAN. I guess if we need help we can ask a Bedouin for a camel ride to the nearest outpost.
We push the gas and drive forward into the frontier of Wahiba Sands. The Pajero, as skittish as we are, reacts with squirrely tires and a slight tendency to steer left. But after a kilometer, we settle into the routine and begin to enjoy the wilderness of the desert — a new experience for us.
And then, like a video game, the terrain becomes more difficult. Small hills appear, with deep sand tracks indicating the struggle and success of people who have come before us. We start to understand the importance of speed — going as fast as we can bear, into ruts of shifting earth, tail end sliding left and right, with a hope and a prayer that we’ll make it to the next crest.
And then… the Mount Everest of dunes appears before us novice drivers of the desert. We stop — mouths agape — look at each other and laugh at the audacity of what lies ahead. Not only is this the hill of all hills, but the tracks lead left AND right, leaving us with no idea which way to go. It’s nearly 4:00 p.m. so turning around won’t do us much good. J revs the gas and we decide to give it a go, slightly aghast and slightly exhilarated by what we’re dealing with.
We make it halfway up before the tires on the left side sink in and force us to stop. We hop out and hike up the hill, deciding we’ll try again and follow the tracks to the right. J backs down the hill and guns it a second time while I take photos of our dilemma. No go — stuck again.
J backs down the hill again, this time continuing halfway up the next hill so he can get a good run at it. He’s just about to hit the gas when a truck comes barreling over the crest of the hill and down toward where he’s parked. At this point I realize the potential of the situation we’re in. I’m on the hillside, he’s in the car alone a fair distance away from me, and all I can do is hope the people who have stopped have good intentions because there is nowhere to run and nothing we can do.
The passenger of the vehicle gets out of the car and crouches down next to the front tire of our Pajero. Exhale. Divine intervention has arrived — these people are here to help us. Yay! They deflate our tires and then show us how it’s done, powering straight up the hill in a sandy blaze of glory. As luck would have it, one of these men is Ali Salem, owner of Safari Desert Camp. He asks if we have ventured toward the camp without an escort from the office. When we say yes, his reply is simple: “Brave.”
J bravely tries the hill a third time and gets stuck again, and the men reiterate the need for full gas — pedal to the metal — to get to the top. A fourth time gets the Pajero nearly there, and with one last right-turn push from just below the crest, J finally conquers the mountain as I watch and take pictures. Good job, honey! No pressure!
The owner and his passenger tell us to follow them, and leave us in a trail of dust because we’re in Oman and that’s how they do it here.
We finally arrive at Safari Desert Camp as the sun gives everything a warm glow, shifting the sand from taupe to rust. We’re greeted with Omani coffee and dates, and decide a sunset camel ride is the perfect way to decompress after our foray into the desert.
The camp is perfectly sparse, with a variety of small huts sprinkled around a large dining hall. We’re staying in a yurt/hut with a huge open-air bathroom. We’re elated to learn that just seven people will be staying here tonight. We chose this camp hoping it wouldn’t be a manufactured desert experience over-run with tourists. It is nothing of the sort. Ali Salem has created an authentic experience — quiet and basic, just as the desert should be, with no electricity except for a generator used for cooking.
The dining hall glows with candlelight and dinner is a beautiful buffet of covered dishes — grilled meats, fresh baked breads and homemade desserts. We are far away from anything familiar, and completely enthralled by the magic of a starry night in the desert. After dinner, we climb into the netted bed — one of the most comfortable of our entire trip — and sink into the eerie sensory deprivation of desert silence and darkness.
Morning reveals a chalky landscape with a drape of fog extending along the dunes. It is surprisingly cold until the sun gets high enough to warm the desert floor around the camp. We visit the camels nearby and drag the sleds up a dune for a few slides down the hill. We spend an hour getting to know Mohammed, the reception manager, who comes from India but much prefers the isolation of the desert in Oman.
We say goodbye and drive confidently back toward civilization, knowing there’s no dune we can’t conquer now. We arrive back at the edge of the pavement — a visceral boundary between one lifestyle and another. J stops the car and in his typical, lovable, selfless way, pulls out the ring Frisbee he’s been carrying in his backpack. Kids instantly appear from nowhere — beautiful, curious, shy, competitive — and pretty soon they’re all chasing after the latest greatest toy to appear in Bidiyah, as we get back in the Pajero and drive on to the Saiq Plateau.
This is the third post about touring Oman. You can read from the beginning starting here.
Next up… Road Trip Oman: Secluded Luxury at Jabal Akhdar