In (one or two of) Thesiger’s footsteps – part II

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Middle East » Oman
December 5th 2019
Published: March 28th 2020
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We had stopped in Sinaw earlier in the day, primarily so Nawaf, Ahmed and Idris could shop for the next few days’ provisions. Sinaw has the raw-ness of a border town, which in a sense it is. It is here that the Bedouin come to trade their camels, stock up on modern amenities, and sell their crafts to the few tourists who make it this far. Sadly, it wasn’t camel-market day when we were there, though there was a solitary animal “parked” by the near-empty arena, cheek-by-jowl with somewhat less photogenic 4WDs. Wandering around the main souq, we encountered Bedouin women wearing a variety of burqas – not here the mesh-faced, body-covering sky-blue garment of Afghanistan, but a form of face mask, originally designed in pre-Islamic times for sun and sand protection. I’d first seen them in the Musandam when a group of abaya-clad young women were disembarking from a boat trip, and the exaggeratedly moustached appearance of two of them caused me to do a double-take. Here the burqa (or batula) has made the transition from traditional garb of the nomadic Bedouin to fashion item, although many modern designs have their origins in specific tribes and regions. It may cover
viewpoint just before Ras Madrakahviewpoint just before Ras Madrakahviewpoint just before Ras Madrakah

photographs simply can't do it justice
as much of the face as the niqab; it may simply outline the upper face in a delicate double-square whose midline runs down the nose and whose lower edge flares over the top lip. I’ve even read that some are designed to mimic the falcons that Bedouin men still occasionally use for hunting, beak-like over the nose and rising to a peak above the forehead. With heavily kohl-lined eyes, the effect is dramatic.

But time was getting on. I negotiated the purchase of a colourfully brocaded key ring, declined the opportunity to have my own eyes lined in kohl – the sharp metal implement with which she was gesturing towards my face looked a touch alarming – and joined the others in piling back into the three vehicles.

Nawaf had been relaxed about the wearing of seat-belts in the back while we were on tarmac or dirt roads, but now we were in dune country, and we had some distance to cover before nightfall. As we had first witnessed in the scamper up the mountainside after our wanderings around Al Hamra, Nawaf was always keen to get us a great sunset. Everyone hurriedly buckled up for a drive
catching up with my diarycatching up with my diarycatching up with my diary

(c) Debra Anthony
that at times reminded me more of quad-biking the grey dunes outside Namibia’s Swakopmund than the average overland trip.

Sand dunes move. We all know this in theory, but here we were seeing it in action, or at least dealing with its effects. From satellite images, the Wahiba Sands look like a narrow fan of near-parallel dune ridges, but this suggests a misleading degree of order. This was Nawaf’s first time here this season, and the tracks took some finding. Occasionally he would stop and ask another vehicle or a bored guard at one or other of the few semi-permanent tourist camps, and occasionally we did a bit of improvised cross-country. No need to worry overly about causing damage to dune structures here. A breath or two of wind would soon wipe out all evidence of our somewhat irregular passage.

The sands were bewitching in their endless patterns, and we clamoured for photo stops. A vista of reddish crests and slopes largely devoid of life stretching away in every direction, the colour changing with the shifting clouds and sunlight; nearer at hand, sand-slips from ridgelines, and wind-waves exaggerated by darker and lighter colours of sand; in the distance, a camel silhouetted against the late afternoon sky, and a mosque improbably solid amidst this shifting terrain. The next morning, an intriguing collection of tracks around our tents suggested small mammals and lizards had been having a ball while we slept. Our resident serious-amateur photographer wasn’t the only one with his finger on the shutter.

The next day, we had a very different Bedouin experience as we made our way down the coast. I’m told that many Bedouin regard fishing as tantamount to begging, but in this particular region of Oman, the fishermen themselves are Bedouin, as soon evidenced by their ramshackle and temporary-looking villages around the top of the beaches. Yet this is modern fishing, with 4WDs to launch and land their boats. A little boy entertained himself – and, inadvertently, us – as he scampered in and out of the waves. Later, his grandfather came over, bearing a gift as a thank you for our interaction with the lad: a somewhat dauntingly large cuttlefish which the ever resourceful Idris (nicknamed “Mama” by his colleagues) would later turn into stew to supplement our dinner. Our Scottish retired-GP companion was given the chance to hold the cephalopod – illustrating, with the grandfather’s help, the tenacity of the grip of the animal’s tentacles – and was heard muttering afterwards, “Its eyes, I looked into its eyes…” They were certainly hypnotic, but not sufficient to prevent her sampling a little of Idris’ stew that night.

While I’d found the north and Muscat itself to be impressively litter-free, it was not the same down the coast, much to the distress of Nawaf who seemed to take the slovenly-ness of his countrymen as a personal affront. However, the tides were also to blame, bringing onto Oman’s Arabian Sea beaches detritus from across the water. Whatever the cause, it was particularly sad in this age of hyper-plastic-consciousness to see every stretch of sand above the high-water mark covered in plastic bottles.

Camp that night was supposed to be on the beach, but, instead, Nawaf found us a perfect site nestling behind the outer row of white dunes on the other side of the track from the ocean. Close enough for the swimmingly-inclined to go for their evening and morning dips; far enough away for us to feel that, once again, we were in amidst a dune field. Here the wildlife was a little more obvious. I watched up close a remarkably sanguine small lizard in the glorious late afternoon light, spotted prints the next morning that, later, back in internet-land, I identified as probably those of a Ruppëll’s fox, and on the beach the next morning there were desert wheatears and little stints, as well as a sadly quite well deceased humpback dolphin.

That evening, we temporarily mislaid our serious-amateur photographer. It was before dinner was served so people were milling around, and it took a while before anyone thought to ask where he was. We gave him another few minutes – after all, life on the road, and changes in water and food don’t agree with everyone’s insides – but then a couple of search parties went out, hollering his name as they went. He duly emerged, independent of the search parties’ efforts, and protested that he had simply been practising his harmonica. We laughed, assuming that this was a novel euphemism for what we’d suspected he’d been doing – until he produced a small mouth organ from his pocket. But the euphemism stuck.

The next night’s camp was on a beach, but we did not pitch our tents as far along as Nawaf had hoped. Recent storms had cut up the beach dramatically, and two of the three vehicles couldn’t have managed the much looser sand further along. (As it was, Ahmed had to come back and help liberate his colleagues’ cars the next morning.) Instead, we found ourselves with the distant twinkling lights of the village of Ras Madrakah behind us, and a seemingly unmoving line of headlight-density lamps out to sea. These were the local fishing boats. They land catches twice a day, with smaller boats shuttling between them and the shore to bring the fish ashore. Again, 4WDs are used to launch and land the shuttle-boats, and, judging by the over-revving and screaming engines that woke us the next morning, there’s not much time spent worrying about vehicles’ ability to tackle changing beach conditions. I woke to Dave’s laconic tones: “Well, that’s taken several years off that car’s life.”

Our route that day had taken us past Duqm. Exactly midway along Oman’s Arabian Sea coast, the erstwhile fishing village is being transformed apace into a modern shipping hub for the entire Arabian Peninsula in order to reduce the Gulf countries’ reliance on the easily sabotaged Straits of Hormuz. From a distance, the currently well-over-capacity multi-lane highway, it appeared to be an oasis of cranes and skeleton buildings at the far edge of a barren gravel plain. Dubai it was not. Yet. In the selfish manner of tourists, we blanched at the thought that this project is supposed to involve the construction of a road through the Empty Quarter. The logistics are staggering, but Chinese money is there. Meantime the developers have at least kept clear of Duqm’s older claim to fame, a bizarre “garden” of curious small rock formations. With nothing like the grandeur of Burkina Faso’s Sindou or Moussono Peaks, it was nevertheless oddly intriguing, as if the giants who had constructed the African formations had given the offcuts to their kids.

The next day we would turn away from the coast, to which we would not return until our final couple of days in Salalah. It would be our longest day of driving, journeying to the fringes of the Empty Quarter, so Nawaf surprised us with a stunning farewell view from the cliffs above Ras Madrakah before we set up camp that night. Truly this is one of The Views of my life, enhanced by its unexpectedness. We had turned off the main drag to bump along a nondescript track that appeared to head towards a military or telecommunications installation. It was only when we got out of the cars and walked around the edge of the don’t-mess-with-me fencing that we realised we were so far above sea level, yet so close to the sea. In common with much of this part of the world, the rock is fragile, easily fracturing and shattering, so we took care to stay well back, but that could not detract from the stupendous vista in front of us. Barren, brutal and stunning.

At Muqshin, we rejoined Thesiger. He had visited the town on several occasions, using it as a meeting point for his Bedouin companions, replenishing supplies, and drawing breath. So too had Bertram Thomas, much less well known than Thesiger, but the first documented Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter, having done so in the early 1930s. Thesiger is generous in his praise of his predecessor, however different the two were in style: “I should have liked to meet him again before he died, to tell him how much I owed to him”. Muqshin is border country, with nothing and no-one, bar the fluid movement of nomadic peoples, beyond, but I found it disconcerting, in common with several towns at the fringes of the Empty Quarter. It was deserted and felt oddly sanitised, its new mosque and the surrounding buildings looking more like a movie set than somewhere inhabited by real people. But maybe that’s because the real people really weren’t there. Many of the brand new developments in this area are government-built, attempting to entice the Bedouin in from the sands, whether simply over the hot season or on a longer-term basis. I was reminded of the Russians’ attempt to corral the nomadic Mongols in Ulaanbaatar, the result a sprawling town of fenced-in yurts, giving the inhabitants the comfortable illusion of temporariness, even if the government had other intentions. We picnicked under a large marble rotunda, as out of place as ourselves in the middle of what might one day be a park, but for now was simply walled-in bare sand. But we weren’t disheartened for long: the next stop would be inside the Empty Quarter.

And we were not disappointed.

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