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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Oman: luxury in the desert

Richard Edwards
Nov 12, 2010

As we roared across the red-gold sand, dodging camels as we went, it seemed hard to imagine what luxury could look like in the middle of the Omani desert.

This was the land once explored by the late, great Sir Wilfred Thesiger, a quintessential English adventurer who sought out the secrets of Arabia before it was transformed forever by the oil beneath her sands.

His mission, 70 years ago, was to share the hardship of the life of the Bedu. In doing so, the explorer said he found a “freedom unattainable in civilisation; a life unhampered by possessions".

My motive, rather ashamedly, was quite the opposite.

I wanted to know if it was possible to enjoy the romance of the desert in serious comfort. On a short break in Oman – a cricket tour in the searing heat, of all things – we needed a retreat to rest our weary bodies, with some luxury thrown in.

As we roared across the red-gold sand, dodging camels as we went, it seemed hard to imagine what luxury could look like in the middle of the Omani desert.

This was the land once explored by the late, great Sir Wilfred Thesiger, a quintessential English adventurer who sought out the secrets of Arabia before it was transformed forever by the oil beneath her sands.

His mission, 70 years ago, was to share the hardship of the life of the Bedu. In doing so, the explorer said he found a “freedom unattainable in civilisation; a life unhampered by possessions".

My motive, rather ashamedly, was quite the opposite.

I wanted to know if it was possible to enjoy the romance of the desert in serious comfort. On a short break in Oman – a cricket tour in the searing heat, of all things – we needed a retreat to rest our weary bodies, with some luxury thrown in.

So not for us the camels that Thesiger used to cross the 100 miles of shifting sands. Instead, our team of players (and “wags”) climbed into a convoy of air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruisers (known to our driver, Zaheer, as “desert donkeys”).

The 4 x 4s set off from Muscat, the bustling capital, and within an hour we were speeding along the sand and traversing the dunes, with windscreen wipers flapping to keep the grit off the window.

Just as it seemed we were utterly lost in this vast expanse of eye-squinting nothingness, our oasis came into view.

Desert Nights Camp transports the classy interiors of a five-star boutique hotel into 30 huts, dotted 20 yards apart around a fenced square of silken sands.

This, we would discover, is what real luxury looks like amid the desolation of the desert.

We were greeted at reception with a cool glass of mango juice and a hot flannel. The majlis (“place of sitting”) had an instant charm – handmade, dark wooden tables and desks were offset by richly coloured rugs and soft lighting on the terracotta walls.

We were led to the bedroom suites, where cream, canvas roofs sit on top of square huts like pointed hats. My fiancée and I walked through the grand, teak door into a sumptuous living room area, decked out in tapestries, tasteful local artefacts and long cushioned benches.

After cooling down from a hot shower under the breeze of the air-con, the scent of a shuwa feast of barbecued Omani lamb began to drift across the camp.

We saw off the temptation to rush to the restaurant, instead building an appetite by sitting on the beanbags on our veranda, watching darkness fall and breathing in the romance of the bright moon, a sky full of stars and a glorious feeling of isolation.

It was around then, before what was to become a late night of dinner, drinks and dancing in front of the campfire, that I hatched a hair-brained plan to climb the sand dune towering in front of us for sunrise.

Sir Wilfred, perhaps, was still in my head.

So it was that at 5.30am I dragged myself and my other half out of the warm, comfortable bed and set off 150 yards up the near-vertical expanse of sand.

There were moments when we questioned the wisdom of such a venture – not least when we started thinking about scorpions and snakes.

But fears that we were alone in dangerous territories were unfounded: near the top we started to follow the unmistakeable trail of cigarette butts of our team’s fast bowler, who had similarly adventurous ambitions.

We found him crumpled in a heap at the summit and there, gasping for breath, we basked in the beauty of the shimmering horizon, watching as the pale honey-colour sands took on a haze of paprika-red as the sun rose. We sat there for more than an hour, transfixed as the winds gently changed the patterns in the sand.

Right on cue, in this Lawrence of Arabia moment, a train of camels appeared in the far distance, wandering towards the shade of some trees and shrubs.

Thesiger may have laughed at my sense of achievement. But at least I could start to appreciate his awe of the freedom these vast swathes of sand behold.

Oman's transformation in the past 40 years from a desert backwater to one of the most forward-thinking Arab nations in the Gulf has brought with it expansive tourism ambitions.

It is no longer the country the explorer remembered as "one of the very few places left where I could satisfy an urge to go where others had not been".

But it still has the power to astound.

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