The convoy of 4x4s was clearly silhouetted against the setting sun as it trailed
along a ridge. We watched it as it suddenly disappeared over the top. We had
stumbled by chance on the Friday session of "dune-bashing", a weekly treat for
the hundreds of thrill-seeking Omanis who gather beside a lonely sand dune in the Omani capital's Bausher district
to watch a group of daredevils hurl their vehicle down the near-vertical
In Arabic they call it tloua al ramel, or "climbing the sands". The fearless
drivers attack the gradient forwards or backwards, but sometimes fail to reach
the top as their engines scream and sand gushes out from the wheels. Those who
turn tail halfway up the towering dune are jeered by the crowds below. But when
a vehicle reaches the summit and turns around, it comes down at terrifying
speed. On that Friday afternoon, our elderly driver Saif winced at the sight,
while the youths - all male - at the foot of the dune cheered.
You won't get
far without a 4x4 in Oman. This Gulf state with a colourful history was thrust
into the modern age by its Sultan when he deposed his father almost 40 years
ago. (The bloodless coup was described euphemistically by one Omani official as
"a family affair".) But watching that dune-bashing spectacle had made me nervous
about my desert tour.
Nevertheless, two days later I found myself climbing into a 4x4 to explore
the dunes of the vast Wahiba sands. The first thing I did as we set off was to
ask our guide, a young French woman called Emilie, whether she had ever turned
her car over. I was reassured by her response. After a three-hour drive from
Muscat, with the modern road chiselling through the jagged Hajar mountains or
running alongside the wadi (a channel that's dry except in the rainy season),
the Tarmac suddenly came to an end in a dusty village. We were entering the
realm of the Bedouin.
After a quick pit stop, when the tyres were let down for better handling in
the sand, we were barrelling along at 60km/h - skimming gently on a sandy track
as Emilie explained that it's like driving on ice. You might expect to speed
through the immense desert wastes in silence. But Emilie preferred to listen to
the strains of the Gotan Project's La Revancha del Tango as she drove through
long valleys dotted with clumps of grass, where endless chains of golden and
reddish dunes - nicknamed the "strawberry" dunes - rose to about 200m on either
There was not a soul in sight, and there were just two reminders that modern
life occasionally intrudes on the desert: the occasional blue signpost pointing
to a camp where tourists could spend a night under the stars, and sporadic bags
of rubbish or plastic bottles left behind by visitors.
Lunch was a picnic of salad and date biscuits under an acacia tree at the
foot of a dune. I walked to the top, my feet sinking into the soft sand. Here I
could see the tracks of camels and scarabs, contemplate the majestic sweep of
the dunes - and try to banish the thought that I might be bitten by a scorpion.
The silence was broken only by the flies buzzing round my head and the
occasional hum of a jet overhead; Oman lies beneath some of the planet's busiest
Three-quarters of the territory of Oman is desert. Our visit to Wahiba was a
foretaste of the Empty Quarter, the huge desert straddling the border with Saudi
Arabia that is memorably described by the British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger in
his book Arabian Sands - a must-read for any visitor to Oman. I learnt in the
book that Thesiger was not the first to cross the Empty Quarter. Around 1930,
the Englishman Bertram Thomas walked across from south to north.
few months later, his compatriot St John Philby - the eccentric father of
double-agent Kim Philby - took camels in the opposite direction. Philby decided
that he liked life so much in Saudi Arabia that he stayed in Riyadh, converted
to Islam and became known as Abdullah.
Thesiger explored just 15 years later. Like Thesiger, we were offered coffee
and dates by a Bedouin family. These days, they make a living from camels and
selling handicrafts to tourists. Most of Oman's 10 000 nomads are now settled in
camps or villages, although the fishermen spend weeks away on fishing trips.
Welcoming us to his makeshift home, where the roof was covered with date-palm
leaves, 10-year-old Mohamed showed us his biology textbook and told us, in
broken English, that he is learning Arabic and English at school. Carpeted with
Bedouin rugs, the little hut had a couple of chairs and a television. And, of
course, a 4x4 parked outside. "Moo al akhbar?" ("What's the news?") is still the
first thing an Omani villager asks a visitor. It is the greeting of the Bedouin
since time immemorial.
Throughout its history, Oman has been convulsed by tribal warfare. The fabled
land of Sinbad the Sailor, Oman was long a seafaring power. In the 19th century,
it ruled the waves from East Africa to India. Omani wealth also came from the
lucrative export of frankincense, the aromatic gum from a tree found in southern
Oman. It forms the base of the heady perfume Amouage, branded as "the most
valuable perfume in the world".
The dark skin of many Omanis, whose country was once a major slave-trading
nation, reflects inter-marriage from the days when Omani control extended down
the Indian Ocean as far south as Mombasa and Zanzibar. But India has also left
its mark in the delicate architecture of the Muscat district of Mutrah, where
Indians run the gold market in the souk and sell pashminas in the stores.u o
Slavery ended officially only in 1970, after the Sandhurst-educated Qaboos
overthrew his reactionary father, Sayid Said bin Timur, in his palace at Salalah
with the covert help of the British.
Oman's mountains provide the strongest lure to visitors. The giant slabs that
dominate practically the length of the country were created hundreds of millions
of years ago by the collision of Arabian and Asian tectonic plates. Glinting in
the sunlight, they look like poured liquid.
Your first close-up view of these russet-coloured serrated peaks is likely to
be on the well-travelled road from Muscat to the fort town of Nizwa. The local
craftsmen produce elegant silver jewellery, and the Friday goat market is
another attraction. Oman has 500 forts, but the ancient Nizwa fortress has been
well restored and, tucked beside a palm grove and surrounded by mountains, it
overlooks the town.
On the road to Nizwa there is a turn-off to the Jabal al Akhdar range and the
mountain pass, which climbs to 2 020m. Once again, a 4x4 is essential, in fact,
mandatory, to access the region, once closed for military purposes. A soldier
still waves the traffic through a checkpoint at the entrance to the mountain
road. But here is the great surprise: instead of a white-knuckle ride along a
winding track, a smooth road almost as wide as a motorway eases its way to the
top. That said, it still took half an hour to reach the summit, after which the
road gradually descended to a plateau where the only hotel is located.
Jabal al Akhdar means "green mountain", and the reason for the name soon
becomes clear: the plateau is the market garden of Oman, growing peaches,
pomegranates and apples on terraces that cling to vertiginous mountain cliffs.
The Sultan owns a farm in the upper reaches, where donkeys trek through isolated
villages that offer wonderful views of the sunset.
At this time of year, if the temperature is 25C in Muscat, you can be sure it
is freezing in the Jabal al Akhdar. The night we stayed at the Indian-run hotel,
there was a howling gale. The next morning I needed my coat and scarf in the
biting wind, while our guide, Shakir, wore a winter-weight head cloth and
thermals under his fetching peach-coloured dishdasha, or long robe. I followed
Shakir into a valley of almond trees. While he leapt from stone to stone like a
mountain goat, he pointed out the mauve Oman SAS markings, to guide soldiers on
training missions. We explored an abandoned mud-brick village, one of the many
you see around Oman.
The Sultan has encouraged people to move to larger, less isolated communities
so that they can have improved access to water and electricity, health care and
education. Every modern house, some palatial, has a water tank and satellite
dish on the roof. In the lower reaches of the Saiq plateau, rich in fossils and
studded with juniper trees, there's a spot called Diana's Point, where Prince
Charles camped with his then-wife during one of his frequent visits to Oman.
The Jabal al Akhdar is home to what has become known as Oman's Grand Canyon.
The views are as breathtaking as in Arizona, but in the mountains of Oman you
are almost completely alone. There is no viewing platform and no visitor centre
(though a new hotel overlooking a precipitous drop is a year from completion.
From the Saiq plateau, the mountain range soars upwards to the country's highest
peak, the Jabal Shams, at over 3 000m, its summit dusted with snow at this time
It was time to drive the 150km back to the comforts of Muscat and the warm
waters of the Indian Ocean. As well as having the most spectacular desert and
mountain scenery, the Sultanate boasts some of the best beaches in the world.
For Omanis, however, beaches serve as impromptu football pitches. Every Saturday
afternoon, the long stretches of sand that run from the InterContinental Hotel
are filled with back-to-back football games.
We stopped en route at the village of Fanja, situated in a date grove along a
wadi. At this time of year, the wadis are dry, but in the spring they can
suddenly fill with a vengeance. In Fanja, the modern village is overlooked by
the ruined turret of a fort and the mud-brick homes abandoned when villagers
relocated down the hill to take advantage of the amenities. We walked up to the
fort. Two grizzled old men emerged through the village gate and slowly made
their way to a ramshackle house, which, amazingly, had a satellite dish on its
roof. "What's the news?" they asked Shakir and Saif. And we all laughed.