The largely untouched desert region of Sharqiya Sands in the Sultanate of Oman is a perfect spot for camping and experiencing the nomadic way of life, discover nomads ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
A gentle wind rippled through the desert, displacing its fine grains of sand. Like an artful shape-shifter, the landscape was always changing. Behind us, the 12,500 sq km expanse of the Sharqiya Sands stretched till infinity. Measuring 180 km from north to south and 80 km east to west, this desolate tract in Oman’s Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern region), was also called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe who populated the region.
The area has been home to several tribes like the al-Amr, al-Bu-Isa, Hikman, Hishm, Janaba and larger clans like the Bani Khalid, who claim descent from Khaled ibn Al-Waleed, a companion of the prophet Mohammad. Each year, between June and September the Bedouins congregate at Al Huyawah, an oasis near the desert border, to gather dates. For centuries the geographical isolation ensured that their lives remained out of bounds to visitors, until an expedition by the Royal Geographical Society in 1986 drew the world’s attention to this remote yet, stunningly beautiful land.
As the sun sank over the crest of the hill, it bathed the dunes in a golden hue. Our guide Mohammad bin Dawood bin Khamees al Zidjali from Khimji Travels remarked, ‘You get seven coloured sands in Ash Sharqiyah – golden, yellow, red, pink, brown…’ as we saw the changing hues at sunset. Reluctantly, the tourists scattered across the dunes got down from their perch and drove down the sandy tracts back to their camps.
We decided to slip and slide down the dunes to our base Desert Nights Camp, whose lights twinkled against the seeping darkness as if stars had fallen from the sky. In this vast wilderness, the luxurious tents seemed like a mirage. This was glamping (glamour camping) at its best and easily, the place to stay at Sharqiya Sands.
We drew towards the strains of the oud and darbouka (goblet drum) that emanated from the open-to-sky camp. The soulful tune of the stringed oud held a tragic story. According to a Biblical reference, Adam’s sixth grandson Lamech invented the oud. The legend tells that a grieving Lamech hung the body of his dead son from a tree and the shape of his son’s bleached skeleton inspired the creation of the instrument!
The bedouins played well into the night as we helped ourselves to a lavish Arabic platter of barbeques, rice, shuwa (meats), Zatar bread seasoned with sumac (tangy spice) and washed it down with a choice of drinks – labneh (salty buttermilk), date milk and camel milk.
The next morning we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride within the campus and exhilarating 4X4 Dune Bashing and Quad Bike adventures. The expert drivers displayed amazing control as the tyres churned out sand waves and swooped us down the slopes. Negotiating the dunes is tricky business and even four-wheel drive vehicles get stuck in soft sand. Weather, wind, location and skill of the driver become paramount in this sport. Serious adventurists can go sand boarding, trekking on dunes or camel safaris at sunset.
We barely had time to visit to the local souq (shopping area) for exotic souvenirs or try the unique Ladies Souq on Wednesday at Ibra (literally ‘many wells’) or the weekly souq every Tuesday at al Mintrib, which has an old fort. Visitors can absorb Omani culture at a Bedouin family house where they can watch them rear goat, camel, donkeys and weave carpets from the sheared wool of their sheep. Mintrib is also an ideal base for longer forays across the desert.
As our vehicle left a swirl of fine dust behind, we rushed past Al Wasil and screeched to a halt near a tyre shop. We had deflated the tyres to reduce air pressure before heading into the desert but had to fill up again to zoom across the tarmac towards Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi in the Ash Sharqiyah region. Locals flock to its aquamarine waters for a relaxing swim and barbeque picnics in an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains gleaming with rich copper deposits.
Wadi Bani Khalid forms part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains which soar up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there were no roads, so people got here on donkeys or by foot. As Sultan Qaboos slowly developed the country, an offroad access was created. Today, one can get here in a small car, like the crowds who flock here on weekends.
Young kids deftly maneuvered little wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels. Natural springs with crystal clear water emerged from the mountain, which were channeled for farming through an extensive network of falaj (canals). The short walk past date palms and green vegetation contrasted against the stark landscape as we reached a series of clear green pools with depths ranging from 1 to 10 meters.
Some pools are considerably safe for swimming. People bobbed ensconced in inflatable tubes while others set up picnic tables by the water edge and dangled their legs in the pool. The tantalizing aroma of smoked meat emanated from the shaded groves of palm trees where families clustered around barbecues.
Thankfully, a small restaurant overlooking the largest pool served grilled meat and biryanis for hungry visitors like us. After a bite, we hiked to the entrance of Muqal Cave, a 20 min walk over the rocky landscape. The cave narrowed steadily and one had to enter it crawling like a baby, swim a bit, and take a short walk before finally entering a large cavern. Time and a torch are all that you need here.
There are many wadis in the region, like Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi on the Sur-Muscat coastal route. Between January and March, Europeans come here in droves for treks and the 14 hr hike from Wadi Bani Khalid to Wadi Tiwi is a popular route.
We had to resist the intangible lure of these aquamarine pools and turn back as our guide Mohammad explained ‘When you see the water a little foggy, you know it has rained here. And when it rains, you have to be very careful. It might only be a light drizzle here, but in the mountains it might be a heavy downpour. There can be a sudden flash flood and you don’t want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
As if on cue, we spotted road signs warning travellers about sudden changes in water levels and danger prone areas, and gulped nervously. Mohammad caught our expressions in the rearview mirror and smiled, ‘Don’t worry my friends, right now you’re in the right place at the right time!’ as we drove off to discover another gem in the Sultanate of Oman.
Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Oman’s capital Muscat, from where Sharqiya Sands is 203 km by road. Take the M23 or Muscat-Sur highway towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. Just 500 m after the village sign, turn right at the small sand coloured mosque and follow the dirt road for 11km to Sharqiya Sands.
Where to Stay: Desert Nights Camp, Ph (968) 92818388, 99477266 http://www.desertnightscamp.com
Tip: Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed so it’s polite and respectful to ask before clicking.
For more info, visit http://www.omantourism.gov.om
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of JetWings International magazine.