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Arabian Nights

Eloise Napier visits the far-reaching sandy expanse of Oman’s Empty Quarter and discovers a land blessed with relative anonymity and void of commercial influence

The legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger called Oman ‘a bitter, desiccated land that knows nothing of gentleness or ease … a cruel land that can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match’. Sitting on the top of a sharkfin shaped dune, with an ice-cold glass of elderflower cordial in one hand, a pair of small binoclars in the other and a bowl of fresh pistachio nuts at my feet, I have a feeling that Thesiger was exaggerating a bit.

It resembles a giant sandpit – but not like any sandpit you’ve ever seen before. This one stretches over 250,000 square kilometers, has dunes almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower and boasts plains of rippled sand that stretch forever into the horizon, like frozen oceans.

Thesiger spent four years exploring the furthest reaches of the Empty Quarter, a huge expanse of desert occupying substantial chunks of Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen; several times he nearly died and on one occasion he lay crumpled on the side of a sand dune, starving to death and hallucinating, until his Bedu companions returned to save him.

I, on the other hand, have journeyed to this remote corner of Oman in, albeit sweltering 41 degree heat, in a much appreciated, air-conditioned jeep. Evenings have been spent in a luxurious, temporary campsite, where the tents have beds with linen sheets and goosedown pillows and meals have appeared, as if by magic, on an openair table covered with a pristine, white tablecloth. The days have been spent exploring the dunes or relaxing in the shade of the maIjlis, an open-sided tent filled with cushions and divans. It all seems so easy.

And yet, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. To stay in such comfort and safety in such a remote and potentially dangerous area takes Hurculean levels of organisation and efficiency. It’s why very few people are lucky enough to visit the Empty Quarter. There are only three guests, yet there is a team of about 15 people looking after us; the roads and tracks to this isolated site are so rough that the vans bringing all the equipment have been plagued with endless blow-outs and engine break downs – sand and internal combustion engines make poor companions. However, the seamless professionalism of the team means that we remain blissfully ignorant of the logistical hiccoughs.

Instead, we are entertained by the rip-roaring tales of our host, Colonel Mike Wilson, co-founder of Hud Hud Travels (Arabic for the hoopoe bird). An ex-pat Scotsman who came to Oman in the 1970s, aged 23, to join the army, he looks like he has stepped straight from the film set of Lawrence of Arabia – a maelstrom of flashing cobalt eyes, swept back silver hair, twirling moustache and devilishly off-colour one-liners. Fluent in Arabic and with more insider knowledge than you would find on a Google search, he guides us from one extraordinary place to another.

Our trip starts in the south of Oman, near Salalah. Nowhere else will you find a geography so infused with contrast. One moment you are paddling on a beach watching dolphins play in front of you; the land around so dry that even the camels have given up and moved elsewhere. Less than an hour away by car and you find yourself in the the Jebel Dhofar, a range of mountains blessed with monsoon rains and views of bubbling waterfalls and hillsides carpeted with intensely verdant jungle. It’s said that during the monsoon season (June to September) posters go up in the local airport announcing triumphantly, “Come to Salalah and see mud”
Halfway up one of the winding roads leading to the top of the mountains, Mike abruptly stops the jeep. He points to a huge cliff and says, “That’s what the insurgents during the Communist uprising threw their enemies over. During the Khareef (monsoon) it turns into a massive waterfall.” We all look at the plunging void with horror. Ironically, it has one of the most staggering views you could imagine – an endless panorama of jagged coastline, melting into the the ruins of Sumhuram, home to the biblical Queen of Sheba.

‘Jebel Dhofar has an endless panorama of jagged coastline, melting into the ruins of Sumhuram, home to the biblical Queen of Sheba’

The road continues to climb until, suddenly, we find ourselves on an open plateau where nearly 1,000 camels of all shapes, sizes and ages graze benignly; large birds soar above us, like tea trays in the sky. It feels like entering The Land That Time Forgot.
Which – to a certain extent – is true. Oman has a rich culture that goes back over 5,000 years – it’s here that the prophet Job endured years of torment; Sinbad the Sailor took off in his dhow from the port of Sohar, near Muscat; Alexander the Great and Vasco de Gama both marvelled at the country’s potential. For generations, Oman was at the centre of the frakincense trade, growing rich off the aromatic gum that was once considered more precious than gold. But by the beginning of the 20th century, however, Oman was virtually cut off from the rest of the world; by the time the current Sultan, Qaboos, came to power in a coup in1970 the country boasted only 10 kilometres of tarmac road, one hospital and electricity in only two cities.

Since then, Sultan Qaboos has painstakingly overseen the regeneration of Oman to the point where the country has become a glittering jewel in the Middle East – sophisticated, politically secure, economically successful. Visitors are welcomed with charm and warmth; Omanis are universally acknowledged as the “gentlemen of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Crucially, from a traveller’s point of view, the sultanate’s heritage has been fiercely preserved. There are no themed entertainment parks or huge, underground malls packed with souless commercialism; instead, you discover beautiful architecture, bustling covered markets and vast tracts of beautiful, uninhabited landscape.

In many ways, there’s almost too much to see and do – which is where the expertise of Colonel Wilson kicks in. It takes an insider’s knowledge to scoop you away from the beguiling comfort of Muscat, where it’s all too easy to lose yourself in the luxury of one of the capital’s five star hotels, with their pristine beaches and world-class restaurants. It’s only by escaping the beaten track that can you judge for yourself the veracity of Thesiger’s haunting words – but, unlike Thesiger, you get the best of all worlds; all the adventure, with none of the pain.

Traveler’s Tips
• The best time to visit Oman is between October and April, when the weather is temperate in the day and cool at night.
• Many shops, post offices and other businesses are closed or work reduced hours over Ramadan, so it’s preferable to pick another time to visit. In 2009, Ramadan is from 21 August to 19 September.
• Although Omanis are generally considered to be more liberal and laid back than their Middle Eastern neighbours, it’s still respectful not to wear tight or revealing clothing, and for women to cover their arms and legs.

When in Muscat…
Stay at: The Chedi – a glorious design hotel; it’s been around for a bit but it still remains a fabulous place to stay – the spa is superb, the suites loaded with every comfort you can imagine and the restaurant is world-class.

Things to do: Go on a quadbike expedition up deserted wadis (dry creeks), into the desert and through the mountains. Exhilarating and unforgettable.

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