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Pounding Sand (and Heart) in Arabia

GHMJ Desert by twenty3 extreme

Stretching throughout the center of Eastern Oman and known for its never-ending golden dunes, Wahiba Sands is a must when visiting Oman.

As I ascend one of the giant sand dunes surrounding our desert camp at a pace a narcoleptic snail might blush at, I heave myself up the shifting edifice towards the coveted view until, finally, I reach the summit. After reflecting on my aching legs and pounding heart rate for a good minute or so, I finally take a look around.

The rest of my group are hidden along with the air-conditioned Omani-style tents of the camp in the folds of the dunes. On either side of the summit, the windswept hills of golden sand undulate away under the cobalt blue desert sky as if into eternity.

There’s not another living thing in sight and the 240 kilometres that separate me from my palatial digs at The Chedi Muscat could just as well be a thousand. The world, and all its attendant stresses, feels very far away.

Unlike snow, sand never melts, so sandboarding can be indulged year-round. (Credits: Twenty3Extreme)

“Didn’t you hear us call for you? We do say that the silence is deafening here!” teases my Irish guide Christopher Coyle of leading Muscat-based adventure operator Twenty3Extreme after I pick my way back down the dune and reconvene with my comrades on this two-day desert expedition out of Oman’s capital. “People like to live too fast these days,” he adds. “Visiting the desert helps our guests reconnect with nature and its immensity.”

Oman, of course, is replete with natural splendour. In the north, the jagged Al Hajar Mountains, which separate the low coastal plain from the high desert plateau.

Here, tableaux vary from parched alien moonscapes and canyons that punch through the peaks to verdant uplands planted with orchards of pomegranates, peaches, apricots and roses.

Other highlights, meanwhile, include the fjord-indented coastline of the Musandam Peninsula and the endless beaches around Sur in the far north-east where the Gulf of Oman opens out into the Arabian Sea.

Even amidst all this visual manna, though, Oman’s vast tracts of desert rank highly on the tick list of most (though not all) visitors.

“I loathe it,” Peter O’Toole, the Hollywood legend cast in the titular role in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, famously said about the desert following gruelling months of filming.

Generations weaned on Lean’s romantic depictions of dashing military men doing battle alongside Bedouin tribes against a backdrop of rippling sands and desolate escarpments have a less jaundiced view. I’m certainly full of anticipation as we pile into our vehicle at The Chedi and set out for the middle of nowhere.

The desert scenes in Lean’s masterpiece were shot in Jordan and Morocco. But with desert accounting for approximately 82% of Oman’s landmass, the country offers ample scope for a classic Arabian adventure. Oman’s portion of the Rub’ Al Khali (or Empty Quarter) — the largest continuous sand sea in the world — is the nation’s most fabled desert name. For ease of access, however, the Wahiba Sands — a 12,500 square kilometre expanse of pristine badlands due south-west of Sur — is the destination of choice for most tour operators.

And it is here that I live out my widescreen wilderness fantasies on one of Twenty3Extreme’s multi-faceted itineraries.

Thrills come thick and fast as the guides let the air out of the wheels of the 4×4 for a spot of dune bashing — a popular excursion that involves careening around the dunes at high speeds in what amounts to a kind of a land-bound rollercoaster.

Most of the region’s 3,000 bedouins still adhere to a nomadic lifestyle among the shifting sands. (Credits: Twenty3Extreme)

More meditative moments come with a visit to a Bedouin camp and shlep up another dune to watch the sun bleed into the desert at the multi-hued finale of another day.

Later, I reflect on the experience following a sumptuous banquet of fragrant barbecued meats, piquant Arabic salads and an array of mezze.

Christopher has been working as a guide in Oman for the last six years. During that period, he has taken innumerable guests into these dunes. Familiarity, though, has failed to shake his affinity with the Omani desert.

As night approaches, the sky compels our eyes to look upwards, revealing an infinite universe. (Credits: Twenty3Extreme)

“Time stands still here,” he says as we nibble dates and sip on sugary spiced milk tea. “The Bedouins live simply: as they have done for centuries. The clear skies show the most amazing views of the stars above you. It’s a magical place.”

I drain my cup, kick back on one of the camp’s reclining cushions and set my sights on the stratosphere. As the celestial bodies put on a show, I can’t help but concur with Christopher: there’s alchemy at play under these desert skies.

Book retreat at The Chedi Muscat and dedicate one of your full days to an adventure in the Wahiba.
The Chedi Muscat - Serai Courtyard

Text by Duncan Forgan for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: Evidence of a good day’s pounding on the dunes is usually undone by the wind.
(Credits: Twenty3Extreme)

First published on 20 October 2020.

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