I would like to say that it was just Nick and I drinking Omani coffee with a Bedouin family in their tent but that would be a lie. We did drink coffee in a tent but it was with a handful of other tourists, all of us excited to be in the desert surrounded by sand dunes, camels and lots of empty space.
It was the most remarkable experience and one of the highlights of our time in Oman. The desert covers more than 80% of the country and Wahiba Sands (also called Sharqiya) in the eastern part of the country is one of the prettiest areas with rolling pink sand dunes in all directions and easily accessible being just 4 hours south of Muscat. The view from the top of the dunes is incredible, sand as far as the eye can see, in repeating wave patterns formed by the prevailing wind on the day.
We had booked 2 nights at a small camp called Desert Retreat about 30km into the desert. Humaid, the owner, met us and the other guests at the camp's office on the main road before we all drove in caravan formation to the camp – following Humaid made sense as the roads were soon covered by drifting sand and eventually disappeared completely to be replaced by a few tracks. Once we got to the camp the team welcomed us with oranges, dates and coffee, our desert adventure had begun…
We all rushed to climb the 100m high dunes right on the edge of the camp. Getting to the top was taxing, even for the fittest of us, but so worth it. Sand is a funny thing on this scale – running barefoot in ‘virgin’ sand brings back the kid in you, especially on the way down where you can run, jump, sink and roll like a child seeing snow for the first time. You feel like a tiny speck in a sandy ocean and we sat for ages just taking in the surroundings and the tranquility. Wahiba Sands stretch almost 180 km from north to south and 80 km across from east to west. Even in this modern day, where GPS has taken over from reading the stars and the locals drive 4WDs instead of camels, it felt like the romance of a slow desert trip would still be very real and something I would love to do another time.
That night, after watching the sunset from the top of the dunes, dinner was served in the communal tent and later we sat by the camp fire enjoying the densely-starred sky, the warm fire in the cold desert night and a chat with the other guests. Humaid joined us and told stories about his family and a few interesting facts about the camel races which take place a few times a year - apparently they recently stopped using kids as jockeys and replaced them with robots. Funny how technology affects cultures in different ways!
Most people stay for one night only so at 10am the next morning the other guests packed up and we were left behind to chill in the communal tent and venture off alone into the dunes. Staying 2 nights gave us time to absorb the beauty and the feeling of the desert. It was also then we came across what appeared to be roaming wild camels although being this close to civilisation they were probably domesticated. The camp itself suited us well, basic but comfortable with about 15 tents, each with a separate private bathroom. Humaid told us the heavy camel-wool tents come from Syria as the traditional Omani tents are not as sturdy. There are more luxurious camps in the area but we wanted something small, nestled in between dunes and this fitted the bill.
On weekends the desert camps are popular with Omanis from Muscat who escape the city for a night to connect with their traditional way of life. Instead of eating in the communal tent, they lay carpets outside their sleeping tent and sit around enjoying a feast of home-cooked delicacies. Most Omanis, including the women, are highly educated and speak good English and it was a nice opportunity to ask a few questions about local traditions. A few of the kids were happy to practise their English with us as they ran up and down the dunes and I even got an invitation from the grandmother to join her on the carpet - she reckoned she could teach me Arabic pretty quick although I’m not so sure. Maybe next time I will take her up on her offer and we will get to drink that coffee with an Omani family in their tent…