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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Luxury Camping in the Oman Desert

Chris Pritchard
Feb 25, 2011

I was bound for the 1000 Nights Camp, a Bedouin-style resort 24 miles into the desert. I had deflated my tires to the requisite 18 pounds per square inch for driving on sand, and had printed out a map from the company’s Web site that purported to show me how to get there. But the track seemed to vanish a hundred yards from where I stood.

Moments later, Suleiman arrived.

Suleiman, an imposing-looking Omani clad in white turban and dishdasha (a traditional Arab robe), was about to lead a convoy of 40 vehicles packed with his relatives and friends into the desert for a long weekend. Most of the vehicles had already gathered around him, and he was waiting for stragglers. “You’d better not do this without a guide,” he told me, and moments later he invited me to follow him with everyone present.

Suleiman got into his Jeep and hurtled down the track. I struggled to keep up with him, fishtailing at 40 miles an hour, hugging narrow paths through the dunes. Several times Suleiman disappeared behind a veil of dust, only to emerge out of the cloud just a few feet ahead of me.

After an hour, we came to a small sign (easy to miss) that pointed left, and we climbed hundreds of feet up a giant ocher sand mound that offered panoramic views of the desert floor. A few miles farther lay the turn-off to the 1000 Nights. Suleiman honked his horn to make sure I didn’t miss it. Then he raced off, followed by his convoy.

The Sharqiya Sands, or Ramlat al-Sharqiya, of the Empty Quarter is one of the world’s most desolate and starkly beautiful regions: 4,800 square miles of rippled, undulating dunes that rise as high as 300 feet above the desert floor. It is also one of the not-to-be-missed attractions of Oman, an oil-rich and peaceful sultanate, bordered by Saudi Arabia to the west, Yemen to the south and the United Arab Emirates to the north.

Forty years ago, Oman was one of the Middle East’s most backward countries, with fewer than a dozen miles of paved roads and a nearly impenetrable interior populated by heavily armed, warring tribes. Then, in 1970, Qaboos bin Said, the Sandhurst-educated 29-year-old heir to the Omani throne, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup.

Sultan Qaboos quickly harnessed the country’s oil wealth and brought paved roads, electricity, schools and health clinics to many parts of the country. He promoted girls’ education, gender equality and religious tolerance.

An upper-end tourism industry has also taken root here, centered on $1,000-a-night beach resorts, mountain hiking trails, hundreds of forts and archaeological sites, and camps in the Sharqiya Sands — where guests can experience the tranquillity and splendor of the desert.

It was nearing sunset when I arrived at 1000 Nights. Thirty Bedouin-style tents made of richly patterned lambs’ wool were scattered about an oasis of native ghaf trees. The owner, Abdullah Al Harthy, who opened 1000 Nights in 2006, welcomed me with pomegranate juice, and urged me to head into the dunes immediately to catch the last rays of the sun.

Using a fixed rope to propel myself through the satiny smooth sand, leaving perfect footprints with every step, I climbed 100 feet above the camp and sat on a rise in silence, watching the landscape darken and the vanishing sun burnish the sky indigo, pink and crimson.

By the time I came back down, the 30 guests (most of them French, German and British couples and families) had gathered in the open-air pavilion for a buffet dinner. Five Bedouin musicians knelt on a Persian carpet, playing rebabs, traditional stringed instruments, and crooning traditional Omani songs in the gathering darkness.

Over lentil soup and mutton stew, I met Ian Duncan, a British army engineer, now living in Muscat, the capital, and serving as a trainer for the Omani armed forces. Mr. Duncan and his wife, Carol, had been in Oman for 18 months and had just signed on for another two years. Oman, he said, seemed comparatively free of the seething discontent that marks much of the region: “The fact that Sultan Qaboos has been in power 40 years, and is still universally admired and loved, is astonishing,” he told me.

The Duncans were making their fourth trip to 1000 Nights, this time accompanied by Ms. Duncan’s brother and wife, visiting from England. “It’s the most remote and the best desert camp, and the most natural, despite those two hideous eyesore buildings they’ve put up,” Mr. Duncan told me, gesturing to the Sand Houses, two three-story concrete-and-glass boxes that clashed garishly with the traditional Arab-Islamic architecture that dominated the camp.

When I asked the owner about the Sand Houses, which cost 150 Omani rials a night (about $380 at $2.54 to the rial), he replied that they were hugely popular among Omani government V.I.P.’s. “The windows are floor-to-ceiling, and your bed is one meter from the sand,” he said. “It is a fantasy.”

Even so, Mr. Al Harthy has tried to maintain a sense of harmony with the environment, banning dune buggies and A.T.V.’s, for example, because “our guests want to experience the silence.” The resort keeps horses, and local Bedouins provide camels for those who want to venture deeper into the desert. Mr. Duncan prefers to read, dip in the pool and take occasional hikes in the dunes. “Getting here is a thrilling experience,” he said. “Then I arrive and do absolutely nothing.”

After sharing a bottle of red wine with the Duncans (brought into this dry country by their visitors), I headed back to my tent, following a trail of gas lanterns and marveling at the gleaming tapestry of stars, undimmed by any ambient light.

My tent was a cozy sanctuary, simply yet tastefully furnished with a queen-size bed, a writing table and a coffee table and two easy chairs in the center of the room. Light trickled in through the doorway and a single window cut into the wool. A half-dozen pine tent poles supported the sagging top, and the uniform pattern on the woolen floor, roof and walls — red, green and ocher diamonds and stripes against a cream background — gave the place a warm atmosphere. A hot shower and toilet were behind the tent, open to the sky.

I had left my tent flap half open during the night, and awoke at 7 a.m. to a stream of soft desert light. A buffet breakfast — fresh fruit and omelets, as well as traditional Arabic cuisine like foul, a bean stew — was being served in the open-air restaurant.

An hour later, with a chill in the air, I met Carol Duncan at the stables and we set out without a guide for a horseback ride. We followed a trail past tufts of green grass and spiny shrubbery and the barbed-wire remnants of a Bedouin encampment. Then the last sign of civilization disappeared, and we found ourselves in a sea of sand.

The dunes on either side presented a palette of tan, butterscotch, pink and russet, and were etched with delicate fingerprint-like whorls and ridges. With a flick of my switch, my 3-year-old mare, Reem, broke into a canter, and we ascended gradually toward the top of a ridge. The landscape fell away, revealing a seemingly infinite vista of rippled sand mounds, rising and falling like the folds in a quilt. Savoring the silence, we turned our horses around and they fell into a gallop.

It was too early for lunch when we returned to the 1000 nights, so Ms. Duncan and I, along with Ian and the Duncans’ British visitors, headed for the pool. We baked in the desert heat, then plunged into the icy water, and repeated the invigorating routine a half-dozen times. I was headed from there to Nizwa, the ancient religious center of Oman, about three hours away, and was eager to get started. Just after noon, I got back into my 4-by-4 and headed off alone, more confident of the way through the desert this time.

“To the town,” read a marker in the trackless sand, and all too soon, the asphalt road reappeared.