Footprints in sand

desert dreams

Footprints in sand

Oman, a country that is home to beaches, mountains, deserts and oases, has a lot in store for a weary traveller. Kalpana Sunder takes a dip in Omani culture.

“Not everyone can drive here,” says my guide Abdul Rasool. “You need to be an experienced driver and zig-zag your way, following previous tyre marks.” We go up the ridges and crests like a giant roller coaster and bash into dunes head-on; I feel like a rag doll in a tin can, as sheets of gritty sand cling to my skin. One of the most interesting things about Oman is its incredible bio-diversity offering an eclectic mix of beaches, mountains, deserts and lush oases to the intrepid traveller. Driving from Muscat, tarred roads give way to unsignposted sand once I cross the Hajar Mountains. Our driver and guide Abdul Rasool stops at the tiny village of Al Hasil to deflate the tyres to the requisite pressure for some traction on the sand. Abdul cranks up his stereo, belts out exotic Arabian tunes, and takes off at a stomach lurching pitch, hurling the SUV onto the monster dunes for a white knuckle ride. Adventure, here we come!

Under the stars

The Wahiba Sands in the Sharqiya region are one of the most desolate and starkly beautiful regions in the world. Stretching for over thousands of square kilometres with sand dunes towering over 100 metres high like skyscrapers, it is a region that houses an exceptional diversity of flora and fauna. This is a place ruled by the elements — a rose and saffron ocean of sand stretching to infinity, sculpted by the wind, with mottled brown vegetation and creatures that camouflage themselves. I am fascinated by the fingerprint-like patterns in the sand; whorls and squiggles like the work of an unknown master. Abdul tells about his childhood when they would camp on the dunes with just a sheet and spend a magical night or two. “There’s nothing to beat that quality of sleep... the desert air is so good for you,” he says.

As the shadows blanket the dunes, the remote, evocatively named, Thousand Nights Camp, consisting of 30 camel hair cloth tents clustered around native ghaf trees, appears like a mirage. My tent is basic, with two beds, a stool and a roofless shower. Dinner is a spread of lamb cooked in slow clay ovens and an assortment of salads and breads. The evening ends with lively music by Bedouin women with eagle-like black masks, henna on hands, and filigreed rings on fingers singing of love and loss as the stars look down.
Come night, there is the absolute, overpowering silence in the desert. I open the flap of my tent to see the undulating dunes ribbed silver by the moonlight and the velvety sky bejeweled with a sea of stars. I go to sleep feeling as though I am the only person in the universe. As dawn breaks, the dunes turn a burnished orange as the camels with dewy eyes line up for rides, spitting and snorting. I talk to a Bedouin woman weaving goat and camel hair into colourful bags, pouches and key chains. Abdul tells me that racing camels command hefty premiums and can be sold at even over 1,00,000 Omani Rials. Racing camels, I learn, are fed on a special diet of dates, honey and milk!

We ride the dunes to visit a Bedouin home with frayed carpets, saddle bags on walls, perky children playing hopscotch, and the ladies of the house with their faces behind black and gold veils vending mounds of brightly coloured bags, key chains and costume jewellery. Although they seem steeped in age-old traditions, modernity intrudes with the flash of cellphones and gleaming Toyota 4WDs. Over a cup of kahwa, a muddy Omani coffee flavoured with cardamom and dates, we meet members of the family; the women with kohl-lined eyes behind gauzy veils who signal that they don’t want to be photographed, and the men in long robes and turbans, tending to their camels. Many Bedouins are now semi-nomadic and are gainfully employed as teachers at local schools. They still value their traditions far more than modern conveniences.

Wonderful wadis

From the desert, Abdul drives us to a wadi, providing a delightful counterpoint to the harsh environment of the desert. Wadis are essentially dried riverbeds that come into their own after the rains. Some wadis have water the year around, with deep cool pools where you can swim. They are green oases that offer locals an opportunity to cool off and socialise. We drive to the popular Wadi Bani Khalid, 200 km from Muscat, which is a ribbon of fertility with rocky pools the colour of golf greens and lush palm trees. I sip on lime-mint juice and watch the locals carry supplies, food and mats in small wheel barrows over shallow water and precarious boulders. Kids splash water at their families. Many wadis have steep walled cliffs, and dangerous flash floods in the rainy season can, in a minute, send large volumes of debris and rocks down the wadi channels and sweep even large vehicles away.

Saving the best for the last... a black hole: a natural swimming pool or the work of an alien? I am floored by the Bimmah sink hole between Quriyat and Sur, with a concrete staircase leading to the bottom. It is a collapsed limestone cave with impossibly vibrant blue green water. Abdul tells me that the brilliant colours are because of the salty sea water mixing with fresh water and algae. Geologists say that this sinkhole was created by the collapsing of a cave due to the dissolving of limestone, while locals believe that a meteor was responsible for this geological oddity. Though the pool creates an illusion that it is shallow, I hear that it’s more than 20 metres deep with an underground tunnel that leads to the sea. If you just sit on the edge, you can have a free fish-spa experience with the tiny fish nibbling at your feet!

As we drive into Muscat late that evening with its souks, mosques and lively streets, it’s the silence and the stillness of the desert and the almost Biblical atmosphere of the wadis that I recall with pleasure.

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