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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Off-road driving on the Wahiba sands en route to desert camp

Charles Garside

Off-road adventure: 4x4s career across the wind-carved landscape

The only let-down on this trip came from a mechanic deflating the tyres of our 4x4 to give the traction needed to bash the spectacular, shimmering dunes of the Ramlat Al Wahaybah - Wahiba sands - en route to our desert camp.
In 1970, the Sultanate of Oman in the south-east quarter of the Arabian peninsula had just six miles of asphalted roads, when the Sandhurst-educated Sultan Qaboos bin Said assumed power in a bloodless coup at the age of 30.

The Sultan had already travelled the world and studied local government in England.

But the transformation he and his advisers have achieved for a country about the size of England and Scotland combined is almost as astonishing as its natural landscape of soaring mountains, grand canyons, empty deserts, lush wadis and more than 1,300 miles of coastline with often totally deserted beaches.

Today, there are thousands of miles of top-class roads to explore a countryside honeycombed with ancient forts and archaeological treasures, and now visitors are being encouraged to explore the landscape beyond the Oman roads - on dirt tracks through tortuous passes in the majestic Al Hajar mountains or off the tarmac into vast desert wastes.

So, for a small cash consideration, the employees of Salem and Salim Sons Of Sultan Bin Mohamed Alwa Haibi (as the sign above their auto repair shop in the tiny village of Al Wasil proudly proclaims) let down our tyres.

Then, turning right at a small mosque, we headed off road.

Salah, our driver, suddenly morphed into 'Top Gear' mode and we realised why the car was fitted with an inside roll cage. As if the ride into the desert wasn't exhilarating enough, we also seemed to be involved in a most unusual race.

Ahead of us were three flat-back Toyota trucks, each transporting a strapped down sedentary dromedary nonchalantly riding backwards on the way to their desert pens.

Camel racing is big in Oman, but usually not motorised. While these ships of the desert seemed to appreciate the lift, our driver was not going to be passed or surpassed by a one-humped camel going backwards.

After six miles, we were delighted when Desert Nights, one of the newest 'campsites' in Oman, appeared like a mirage on the horizon. We were welcomed in traditional style with cold towels and Khawa coffee and dates, and our luggage was whisked to the tent.

The 30 chalets may have been modelled on nomadic Bedouin tents, but with sumptuous queen-size beds, air conditioning, en-suite bathrooms with showers, a fridge in the sitting room, tea and coffee makers and cushions on the front porch, it's hardly the deprivations and rigour that faced Lawrence of Arabia.

From our desert camp base, we joined in the dune-bashing as 4x4s criss-crossed the wind-carved valleys and peaks; some guests went sand-boarding down dunes as high as 200m, others quad biking or camel riding across the ridges before being ferried to the highest dune above camp to watch (cold drink in hand) the sun set on ripples of red, orange, yellow and golden sands.

Dinner, a five-star buffet affair, was taken at low tables outside the tented dining rooms, where guests gathered round a blazing fire beneath a spectacular starlit canopy.

As the sounds of local musicians drifted across the camp and out into the darkness of the desert, there were whispers of speculation about the identity of a member of royalty whose bodyguards had been able to drive their 4x4 right into the camp instead of leaving it outside the barrier like the rest of us.

Oman is the fabled home of Sinbad the Sailor and, considering its extraordinary mix of ancient and modern, the very presence of a mystery potentate seemed exotically appropriate, even if the retinue arrived not by camel caravan, but in a black BMW.

Torches thoughtfully provided in each room were not required, but the incense burners - complete with locally produced frankincense and myrrh - added their own sensory contribution to a fairy-tale Arabian night.

Leaving next morning after an excellent breakfast, we were welcomed by a nearby Bedouin family to their desert home with Omani coffee and dates on a floor of magnificent carpets. Then we returned to Al Wassil, and with air restored to the tyres we were ready for the pristine highways and rigours of the mountain terrain.

All signs are in English and Arabic, so getting around Oman is not difficult. But driving through the mountain passes near Jebel Shams  - the 3,000m highest point - is not for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced driver, as loose shale, sheer drops and herds of goats are often just around any of the hairpin turns.

Salah, thankfully no longer in Stig mode, had three kids waiting for him at home, it was reassuring to learn. We trusted he meant children.

The mountains are magnificent. Huge jagged fingers of rock lying so symmetrically one behind the other give an illusion of camera shake.

At the foot of Jebel Shams (it means 'sun peak') we went off-road in another way: underground.

The Al-Hoota cave complex is part of a spectacular three-mile subterranean chasm discovered in the Eighties when a goat fell through a crack in the mountainside.

Today, the caves boast the only train in Oman, taking visitors just about 400metres from the comfort of a visitor centre to the entrance of the show cave. Unfortunately, the only train in Oman was also the only train not working in Oman on the day we went. They were waiting for a part. Wrong kind of sand, possibly. The walk did us good.

Brilliantly designed paths and walkways and a clever lighting system allow visitors to explore the natural columns of stalacmites and stalagtites that have built up over millions of years in the biggest cave and to see the edge of an underground lake where small, blind and almost transparent fish thrive in large shoals.

For those in search of bigger fish, as it were, Oman offers dolphin and whale watching tours, some of the best surf fishing in the world, and October to April is best for big game fishing. The best weather is between November and mid-March when temperatures will average 25c.

Locally caught fish is the top culinary speciality. Apart from the outboard motors, it seemed little had changed for the local fishermen delivering their catch to the market at Barka, where we watched traders haggle as their forefathers have done for generations.

International dishes, Arabian, Indian and Chinese specialities abound both in the local cafes and restaurants as well as the five-star hotels.

We had started our visit with an early check-in at the stylish Grand Hyatt in Oman's capital Muscat, having flown overnight on Oman Air's direct flight from Heathrow.

With eight hours flying time and a four-hour time difference, we were still ready to make the most of our arrival day, visiting the Sultan's spectacular Al Alam Palace.

The Sultan Qaboos mosque is the second-largest in the Middle East (after Mecca) and is the breathtaking result of the combined skills and architectural contributions of 26 nations. To prepare us for the journey to the desert and mountains, we had spent one night at the surprising Al Nahda resort, less than an hour from Muscat but inland from the fishing village of Barka.

In 30 acres of gardens, it is a green oasis, with pools and water features, where guests from the 108 villas and rooms can explore the complex by bike and have restorative sessions in one of 22 luxury chalets offering massage and spa treatments.

After our exertions and excursions, we returned to the Zen-like haven of the world-class Chedi hotel in Muscat, with its private beach and adult-only infinity pool.

We visited historic Nizwa, Oman's second city, which like Muttrah on the edge of Muscat boasts gold and silver souqs where - it is said by royal insistence - visitors can haggle without hassle; none of that overbearing pushiness which so often features in crowded markets around the world.

Every shop, business and hotel seems to have pictures of His Royal Highness, the Sultan, and there is without doubt much genuine affection for the man they hold responsible for the renaissance of Oman, which has thrived without bling or skyscrapers and has a vision for the future that seems to protect and revere the past.
For his 39th anniversary and 69th birthday last year, miles and miles of the highways were decorated with lights and flags.

The three English language papers and their advertisers vied seemingly without embarrassment to outdo each other in the level of their effusive praise of the Sultan.

As Supreme Commander of the Oman armed forces, he presided over a military parade, while the nation's artists were invited to paint his picture in a 'beat the clock' fine art portrait competition, and a two-day futuristic 3D exhibition used holograms to assess the strengths of Oman today with the technology of tomorrow.

No plans have yet been announced about this year's celebrations, but the advice has to be: book early.

A new UK business monitoring report says Oman can still lay claim to being 'one of the great undiscovered destinations'.

Even though the Sultanate plans to attract 12 million visitors a year by 2020 - a four-fold increase on last year's numbers - there will still be much to discover. I have never left anywhere with a stronger feeling of knowing there was so much more to see and do.

Meanwhile, with the magic carpet mouse-mat by my computer, I only have to click on Desert Nights and, by the Genie of the Camp, I'm transported back to the sands of Arabia. That's the joy of Oman - ancient and modern.

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