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Monday, November 22, 2010

Desert Tourism in Oman

In the Omani desert of Sharqiya Sands, Sean Mooney crosses an ocean of dunes to reach the water.

The secret to a successful desert crossing lies in the preparation. You need plenty of food and water, spare tyres, extra fuel and a shovel in case you have to dig your way out of trouble. But we find much more than the basics in the Sinaw Provisions Store, our last stop before we enter the Sharqiya Sands, a great sea of dunes covering much of the Sultanate of Oman's eastern flank.

Advertisement: Story continues below Forget your hardware-chain warehouses; this cluttered little shop on the fringe of one of the Middle East's great deserts is the real deal. Here you can stock up on animal-hide water skins, silver-tipped camel sticks, buckets of shell grit, shards of sun-dried salt crust and old oil canisters filled with mountain honey. Then there's the maritime section, with its anchors, nets and coils of rope, which seems strange in a desert market until you remember that fishermen cross the sands from the coast to sell their catch here.

The aroma of dead shark, live goat and the pungent oud oil worn by some of the more affluent shopkeepers is as I remember from my last visit to Sinaw almost a decade ago. And it still feels like a frontier town, where rusty four-wheel-drives fitted with fish-slick iceboxes jostle for space with Japanese pick-ups carrying hobbled camels. The kohl-blackened eyes of tough Bedu matriarchs in beaked masks continue to blaze with mock fury at anyone who dares to haggle with them. The market's mix of desert nomads, fishermen, farmers and camel herders - some of whom, in time-honoured Bedu fashion, perform all these jobs at different times of the year - creates a unique and enthralling dynamic.

But some things have changed. There's now a sealed road that runs the 100 kilometres or so to the coastal towns, meaning the longer route we're about to take across Sharqiya Sands is less travelled these days. It is still used by the Bedouin as they move between their settlements in the northern date-palm oases and the fishing villages on the desert's south-eastern edge, so our driver and guide, Salim, is confident there will be enough of a track to follow.

Another change is the area's name. When I was last here it was known as Wahiba Sands, the Wahiba tribe being the dominant force in the region. However, the complaints of smaller tribes such as the Al-Amr made it to the ears of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, Oman's leader for the past four decades. And so, by royal decree, one of the most beautiful dune landscapes in the world is now known by the more democratic moniker of Rimal Ash-Sharqiyah - the Eastern Sands.

This most romantically Arabian of deserts is much like Oman itself; little is known about either of them outside the sultanate's borders, which it shares with Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

This is changing slowly, as more travellers discover Oman's surprisingly diverse terrain and crowd-free sightseeing. But, for now at least, it does mean mass tourism has yet to have a substantial impact on this remote 12,500-square-kilometre desert, its own borders being the Indian Ocean to the east and south, a stark mountain range to the north and the great wasteland of the infamous Empty Quarter to the west.

When we've finished shopping for supplies, we head east to Al Mintarib, the last settlement before the dunes begin. On the way we watch a convoy of military vehicles throw up a veil of dust while crossing a wide, rocky plain.

Then the armoured gun trucks and all-terrain vehicles disappear into a mountain range, its copper-rich flanks glowing green in the late-afternoon sun. Bedu families in the battered Toyota pick-ups they call Abu Shenab (father of the moustache) veer off the road to follow the more ancient paths of long-dry river beds. Eventually we, too, leave the highway and before long we're driving on sand, a wall of red ochre dunes rising before us.

After reducing the pressure of our tyres to give them a wider footprint (''We will float over the desert,'' Salim assures us), we sit idling before the first dune.

Salim chooses one of several possible routes over the near-vertical sand wall and then floors it. Hitting the dune's base at speed, we are suddenly pointing at the sky, the LandCruiser's engine roaring and its back end squirming as it struggles for grip. We leap over the lip of the dune and come upon an unexpected blanket of green. Islands of brilliant foliage are scattered throughout a rust-red sea, the result of recent rains.

I've never seen the Sharqiya quite like this but deserts can often surprise you. It reminds me to avoid the mistake of confusing a harsh environment for barrenness; more than 200 species of birds, reptiles and amphibians live in these sands, many coming up with wonderfully inventive methods of survival. I'm particularly fond of the water-basking beetle that drinks whatever surface moisture it can find at dawn before burrowing deep into the sand to avoid the heat of the day.

We cross more dunes until we reach a peak overlooking a compound of small huts, which turns out to be the camp in which we will spend the night. We stop to watch snaking lines of sand spinning up from the dunes' feathering crests, light and shade in constant interplay in the valleys and troughs below. The sun settles into a dusty haze born of a breeze that arrives most days just before sunset. A distant marble mountain reflects the fire of the setting sun and, for a moment, becomes a glistening super-dune towering above the countless smaller ones now fading into darkness.

The evening is spent under the palm-frond roof of the Al Areesh desert camp's majlis (meeting place). The camp's owner, also called Salim, joins us for an after-dinner smoke. As we puff away on apple-flavoured shisha or hubbly bubbly, Salim loads a small wooden pipe with shots of pungent-smelling powdered tobacco. Talk turns from the safer topics of family and football to differing definitions of terrorism and the cultural misunderstandings that divide people. This leaves us feeling philosophical as we drift off to sleep under a star-spangled sky.

Contemplation turns to consternation when my alarm wakes us before dawn. It's painful but if there's one thing you don't want to miss in a desert of rich, red sand, it's the rising of the sun.

We stagger to the car and roar up to the highest peak we can find, where we wait for the first rays to hit the dunes. Soft morning light is soon illuminating the slopes, ripples, dips and drops that surround us.

An hour later it's all over, the harsh flat light of the day now settled until nightfall.

That's our cue to begin the desert crossing by following a wadi, or valley, south between two sets of dunes. We pass a handful of Bedu settlements - one in which a group of racing camels is being exercised - and several other tourist camps. Then the wadi disappears and we spend the rest of the morning getting over or around dune after dune, ensuring we are always heading south. Salim works hard to avoid hidden troughs of soft sand and to pick out the less-vertical dunes.

Later in the day we find an oasis of colour in the now lighter, grittier sands. In front of a ragged hut with green fabric at each end is a wooden pallet, half covered with bright woollen tassels and other camel trappings. A small figure leaps out of the hut and flags us down. She's a beautiful, wild-haired Bedu girl who tells us her name is Hamda and that she'll soon turn five and will be starting school next year. To do so, she will need to rise every day before dawn to make the long journey to town with her father and brothers. She adds that her grandmother is in the hut and that there's no way she's coming out to meet us. We leave with a handful of woolly key rings and Hamda skips back to her granny with some cool treats from our esky.

As we drive on, the dunes become choppier and the sand more bleached, indicating that we've almost made it to the coast. Next thing we know, the vegetation has all but disappeared and we're among towering beach dunes. I realise the blue of the sky has now joined that of the ocean. Four hours and 150 kilometres from our starting point, we've made it across the sands. Skirting a wadi filled with great white boulders, we cruise into the fishing village of Qihayd.

Heading north on the coast road, we pass coves filled with empty fishing boats. We find their crews having lunch in a nearby village. The roadside cafe is a rogues' gallery of weather-beaten skin and startlingly white teeth, the food on offer a typically Omani fusion of east African, Arabic and Indian influences. The saffron rice is flavoured with cardamom, cloves and sultanas. The pickles are plentiful and the chapattis wickedly hot and oily. We think the fish of the day might be red emperor and it's as fresh as it gets.

A monster of a man at a nearby table laughs out loud as our table is loaded with a plate of biryani and several whole fish. He gestures towards our meal with an enormous hand covered with rice and chilli sauce. ''This is fish from my village,'' he tells us in heavily accented English. We laugh, too, and, in halting Arabic, reply that, if this is so, then his village is truly blessed.

Sean Mooney travelled courtesy of Sultanate of Oman Tourism and Emirates.


Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Muscat for about $1950 low season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, flying to Dubai (about 14hr), then Muscat (1hr). Australians obtain a visa on arrival for 30 Omani rials ($77) for a stay of up to 30 days.

Staying there

A fully inclusive private desert excursion departing from Muscat costs from $691 a person, twin share; see

There are a number of desert camps of varying standards in Sharqiya Sands. Try the basic but comfortable Al Areesh, which has simple huts with beds inside and outside, so you can sleep under the stars if you wish. Many rooms have their own bathrooms. It costs from $120 a person including all meals; see

1000 Nights has a range of luxury tents with bathrooms, a bar and swimming pool. It costs from $130 a person, half-board; see

When to go

The Sharqiya Sands are best visited in the cooler months from October to April; it's most comfortable from November to February. Summer temperatures can be extreme.

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