Sand (Sur - al-Wasil)

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Middle East » Oman » Al Wasil
November 19th 2010
Published: November 19th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

As I gunned the Land Cruiser over the crest of a large dune, sand spraying in a wide arc behind me, I suddenly realized what I was doing: dune-bashing. How was it that I found myself following a Bedouin driver racing through the undulations of the Wahiba Sands and, moreover, enjoying it?

The adrenaline rush cooled a bit when, getting cocky – “hey, I can do this desert driving thing” – I found myself stuck in a patch of soft sand and had to be rescued by the guide. But the sunset awaiting me at the top of the next dune more than made up for my moment of humiliation. I just hoped that I would make it back to camp unscathed…

I think for most people the dominant image they have of the Arabian Peninsula is of vast sand deserts. For a large swath of the region that is very much the case, but Oman actually is, in general, more rocky than sandy. However, there are some major exceptions – notably the great patch called the Sharqiya or Wahiba Sands, a short distance inland from the coast, about an hour, hour and half from Sur.

As in other parts of the peninsula, there are still nomadic groups that live and work in this harshly beautiful landscape: the Bedouin. I couldn’t help but think that these people shared a lot in common with their coastal cousins – except here they “sail” across a “sea” of sand. On camels – or 4WD trucks! – rather than in dhows.

Despite all the time I have spent in proximity to deserts (even living in the midst of one, as I do in Khartoum), I have never had the opportunity to stay in the desert overnight. So, I decided it was about time. I signed up to spend a night at the appropriately named Nomadic Desert Camp, run by an entrepreneurial Bedouin family. They have set up a ring of barasti huts (simple structures made of dried palm fronds) deep in the dunes to give tourists an immersion experience in the desert.

The guests were told to gather at 3pm in the little village of al-Wasil, a blip along the interior highway. Once assembled, the guides began letting air out of our tires, so that we would have better traction in the sand. That accomplished, we began caravanning out of the town, crossing the dusty plain to the edge of dunes. Then off we went, into the red sands!

I have never driven in such conditions – literally shifting sand - but I found myself strangely giddy as I followed the trail of the truck in front of me. I could feel my car fishtailing slightly on the unsteady surface, but I quickly got my sea (sand?) legs. Even more thrilling was the sense that the more permanent world, the towns and roads, all that sedentary infrastructure, was falling away. We were going into a world with few set markers, save the most tenacious of trees rising bravely above the thirsty ground. Our tracks would disappear with the next major wind. The dunes would not be quite the same tomorrow.

The camp was set in a depression framed on three sides by slopes of sand, already glowing red in the late afternoon light. As soon as I was assigned my barasti hut, I climbed to the top of one of the dunes to get the panoramic view. I already knew this was going to be a highlight of my trip.

Activity-wise, the guests were taken on the dune-bashing excursion, returning in time for a hearty meal around the campfire. We also got to go on a camel-ride in the morning, after breakfast. But for me the best part was simply wandering into the desert on my own, especially at night, with the bright moon. I loved the squish of cool sand between my toes and the utter silence.

There is something clean, if dangerous, about a desert. Which is why I like them.

Additional photos below
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26th November 2010

Ahhhhh!! This is so awesome!!! Such an American response, I know, but your photos and descriptions from the sands have me awestruck!

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