Things may have changed since explorer Wilfred Thesiger crossed Oman in the 1940s, but Lyn Hughes was still awestruck by giant dunes, emerald seas and the exorbitant price of camels
"A good camel has to be tall, with a good figure, big lips and pretty ears."
Abdullah was explaining the intricacies of camel beauty contests, now popular in Oman. Even though "the Toyota Land Cruiser is the camel of today", the original ship of the desert still holds a special place in the country: "We have the best camels here in Oman!"
I'd arrived in Muscat, clutching my well-worn copy of Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, with romantic dreams of proud nomads crossing the desert on magnificent steeds. Abdullah, my guide, brought me back down to earth. "There are no truly nomadic Bedouin left - there is no fun in an empty stomach. Thesiger travelled in the winter - he should have tried it in the summer. Thesiger was a great man but we can't go back."
At first sight there was little sign of ancient Arabia in the capital. Muscat sprawls along the coast for 50km or so, with dozens of new buildings being constructed. But there were few skyscrapers - this is no Dubai. The Sultanate of Oman is ruled by the visionary Sultan Qaboos, who came to power in 1970, back when the country had only 10km of tarmac roads. The Sultan is credited with bringing the country into the modern world and, while his policies are not without dissenters, overall he is very popular. Abdullah was a fan: "After God we praise the Sultan. We have one leader, one vision. He pumps money into schools, hospitals and development."
We visited the fascinating fish market, the souq, Old Muscat and the Grand Mosque, home to the second-largest carpet in the world ("It was the biggest until a year ago!"). But the reasons why Wanderlust readers gave the country a resounding thumbs-up in this year's Travel Awards probably have more to do with the country's natural wonders - its magnificent mountains, marine life and desert.
The Hajar Mountains run for 500km, and are the highest range on the eastern Arabian Peninsula. Within a couple of hours of leaving Muscat we were snaking up a mountain road.We'd stopped to take a photo at the first of many incredible viewpoints when, oddly, I heard my name being called by a family on the way down. As so often happens when travelling, someone I knew just happened to be passing by. "That," my acquaintance enthused, "is one of the most amazing drives I've ever done."
Sure enough, the twisting road revealed stunning views at every bend. It was too hazy for decent pictures, but that was almost a relief as I could just drink in the spectacular canyons, gorges and rock formations. This whole area is developing a reputation for great climbing, trekking and other adrenalin sports - we caught a glimpse of Snake Gorge, famous for its via ferrata routes of rock-face cables and ladders.
We descended into a pretty, dry wadi (river valley), where goat herders walked their herds past the date palms - a scene unchanged for centuries. Thesiger steered clear of nearby Nizwa, a former capital of Oman, having been told it was too dangerous for him to visit. Today it is a friendly, if conservative, town dominated by its fort, perhaps the most famous of over 500 scattered throughout the country.
Nizwa's souq, with lower prices and fewer pushy salesmen than Muscat's, was full of traditional souvenirs, including khanjars, the curved daggers that appear on the national flag. Rhinos were nearly wiped out by the demand for horn handles in Oman and Yemen, and even now it is possible to buy an antique rhino-horn khanjar; I was offered one for £2,000.
That's chicken feed compared with camels, however.
These beasts are as important as ever to Oman's economy: camel racing is big business and a top performer can sell for £100,000. We'd arranged to visit a training camp but the directions - "Turn after the acacia tree" - were not the most helpful. The acacia-dotted plain was bordered by mountains in one direction, sand dunes in the other, with small clusters of tents, a wire pen or two, and a huddle of camels scattered here and there. "They're all racing camels," Abdullah explained. "They're looked after better than children."
We eventually found the right acacia tree and were introduced to Said bin Jabir bin Hlais Al Wahaibi, who has 20 racing camels, trained by one of his seven sons. Surprisingly perhaps, female dromedaries make the best racers, and are pampered like queens, fed a diet of alfalfa and dates.
From here it was a short journey to the Wahiba (or Sharqiyah) Sands. We stopped in Bidiyyah to pick up a local driver then took a track out of town. And suddenly we were surrounded by dramatic orange sand dunes. This was desert - real desert, the stuff that you imagine when you hear the word.
We drove through an attractive, broad valley scattered with old acacia trees before turning off into the dunes to a spot where our driver, Said, kept his goats and camels, and then on to his home. His brother, Salem, and his children greeted us by touching noses, and we were invited into the tent for coffee and figs. Said's wife appeared, face hidden by a traditional mask, with a baby; she sat silently at the back before passing over a bag of handicrafts, her husband giving the prices.
Sitting amongst the sand dunes it was hard to know what the family's livestock found to eat here. Even though it was winter, the midday sun was strong and conditions seemed harsh. "God gives you oil or rain," said Said. "We've got oil but would rather have rain!"
Ironically, one part of Oman is famous for its rain. The Salalah area is celebrated throughout the Gulf for the khareef - the south-east monsoon, which hits Dhofar and southern Yemen in the summer. Omanis and other nationalities flock here to enjoy the novelty of rain, happily picnicking in the drizzle.
It is nearly 1,600km from Muscat to Salalah. A long drive - or you can cheat like I did and take an internal flight. My Bedouin guide, Musallam, was waiting at the airport, nonchalantly chewing frankincense. Frankincense has been used in religious rites and curative potions for thousands of years, and was once as valuable as gold. Oman was an important centre for the trade, providing the best in the world.
My first stop was a grove of frankincense trees. Frankincense comes from their resin, as Musallam demonstrated by scraping the bark, letting some rich sap ooze out. He uses frankincense daily as chewing gum, convinced that it's good for the digestion, for breathing and for boosting the immune system. Since Roman times it's also been believed to help treat cancer; recent medical testing suggests this could indeed be effective.
The region is dotted with traces of the old frankincense trade. We visited what is believed by some (though it's hotly debated) to be the ancient remains of Ubar, a fabled lost city buried beneath the sands. On the coast at Khor Rouri is the archaeological site of Samhuram, a former frankincense port. Once a bustling city, supposedly visited by the Queen of Sheba, it is now an atmospheric spot, home to witches (locals believe jinns convene here) and water birds.
Exploring the coast we passed sardine fishermen who'd just returned to shore, their catch drying in the sun. This is a good time for these fishermen (and presumably dolphins and birds, too) as Somali pirates are keeping fishing boats from other nations, such as Japan and China, away from Oman's waters.
Dolphins were patrolling the shore as I strolled along a pristine beach, deserted except for gulls, waders and crabs. Driving up to a cliff top, the incredibly green water below was so clear that I could see a dolphin and its calf, twisting and turning round the shoals of fish. A turtle entered the scene from stage left, then a reef shark sauntered past. It was like looking into an aquarium.
The next day we rose early to explore the coast south-westwards, towards the border with Yemen. Just outside Salalah a row of camel-meat stands were setting up, smoke beginning to rise from the braziers and, as it was a Thursday - the most popular day for weddings - alfresco sites were being erected for the day's celebrations.
We stopped at Mughsail beach, which was empty save for an eagle soaring overhead and a dozen or so camels browsing on the seaweed. From here we took a vertiginous road up the mountain, before turning down a rough track. It took us through a little valley dotted with limestone outcrops and down past several gorgeous white-sand beaches, unspoilt coves and the aquamarine sea. We looked for a shady spot, ending up lunching at the base of a limestone arch, overlooking a pretty valley and grazing goats.
On the way back Musallam pointed out rows of social housing, built for the Bedouin and overlooking a beautiful bay. Very few looked lived in. "The government is moving Bedouin into villages," he explained. "They want them to have schools, houses and electricity."
Thesiger would have been bitterly upset at the changes. He explored Oman in the late 1940s, twice crossing the infamous Rub' al-Khali - the Empty Quarter - during what he called the 'happiest years of his life'.
Today Musallam knows the southern part of this giant desert as well as anyone. We drove through a gravel plain, featureless except for shimmering mirages and occasional groups of camels, the only visible vegetation the toxic shrub known as Sodom's apple. After three hours we turned off and were soon driving through dunes, paler in colour and more forbidding than the Wahiba Sands.
"I was last here six months ago and it has changed a lot," said Musallam as he found his way through the sandy obstacle course. He reversed down one incline - "That sand is too soft" - and paused to consider an alternative route. We were surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery I've ever seen, but it was possibly not the best time to ask if we could stop to take a photo...
We skirted the troublesome dune and then headed up another. Turning into a natural sand amphitheatre, Musallam announced, "We'll camp here. Do you want a tent?"
"Will you be using one?" I asked.
"No," he smiled. "My family were nomadic. We had no tents when I was growing up. We would sleep in caves or out in the open. Sometimes we were in the mountains, sometimes the desert. My mother and aunt still live in the mountains with their goats and camels."
Despite his omnipresent mobile phone, Musallam was nostalgic about aspects of the old way of life. "Everyone would help everyone in those days. If you had no goats, someone would lend you one so that you had milk. Now it has changed and people are more selfish.
"It was too hard a life being nomadic," he continued. "We had no belongings, just blankets and water. But it was simple. Now, they want tents, shelter for the animals... so they need Land Cruisers to move everything."
We explored the area by foot and by vehicle, not seeing any sign of life other than a solitary black crow. It was hard to measure distance or height, to get any true sense of perspective. As the sun slowly sank in the sky, the changing colours of the huge dunes held a fascinating grip. I could see why Thesiger wrote: 'This cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.'
Dinner was cooked over an open fire and washed down with mugs of tea. There was little to do afterwards but to lay out the mattress next to the fire and gaze at the clear night sky. There were stars - layer upon layer of them. Orion was crystal clear; I spotted Sirius, Betelgeuse, countless others.
I woke several times in the night. Each time the dazzlingly bright moon was in a different place, and shooting stars crossed the sky. The gentlest of breezes was blowing, but other than that there was silence. Yet in the morning the camp was surrounded by tracks - beetles, lizards, rabbits and a mystery set. Musallam speculated that they could be the pawprints of jerboa, the long-eared rodent with kangaroo-style legs. However, he hadn't known them to be found round here before. He scratched his head.
I smiled at his puzzlement: it was good to know that the Empty Quarter isn't completely empty after all - and that it still has its mysteries and secrets.
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