10th January 2017
With the current political issues affecting the central Sahara – in particular Niger and Libya – Oman offers probably the best option in the world for a true desert adventure. In fact, having experienced both of those places, and more across Africa’s endless desert region, I'm not sure what I have just seen in the vast Ras Al Khadir – or Empty Quarter – is not actually in a class of its own. It is simply breathtaking.
Arriving into Muscat we could see immediately, in the shiny new mosques, government buildings, opera house and perfect roads, Oman is a country on the move. In 1970 it had just 6km of asphalt road, running from one royal palace to another, three schools and one hospital. But like many of its neighbours Oman has leapt from being a desert backwater, albeit with a rich and colourful history, to a dynamic regional powerhouse now boasting one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
But while the country is undoubtedly getting richer, and changing with that wealth, it does keep one foot rooted in the past with its ancient Bedu traditions still running deep. In the spectacular Hajar Mountains we visited quaint traditional villages, in Bahla, Jabrin and Nazwa explored spectacular forts, in Sinaw wandered around a lively souq, and in Salalah shopped at a frankincense market that has been selling the precious resin for more than 2000 years.
However the highlight of this trip is the five nights camping; first in the Wahiba Sands, then on the wild coast of the Indian Ocean, followed by two nights in the epic Empty Quarter.
When one first sees the towering orange dunes of the 10,000sqk Wahiba Sands one can’t help getting excited. Setting up the first night’s camp and settling in around a roaring fire enjoying BBQ lamb and chicken (and a glass or two of wine) is hard to beat. But things only got better as we headed down to the coast, bought fish from a local fishing community and enjoyed wild camping on the beach. With both sites sheltered by magnificent jagged cliffs, we had an endless beach and crystal clear waters to enjoy. As it happened on this trip our first night was New Year's Eve, which made it a great place to see one year out and another one in.
But saving the best till last we drove into the Empty Quarter for one of the most exceptional desert experiences on earth and this trip’s greatest wow factor. As I say I have been lucky enough to have spent time in the Obari Sand Sea in Libya, the Grand Erg Oriental in Algeria and the Ténéré Desert in Niger, but none of them compare to this. The size of the dunes, the colour of the dunes and the scale on which this sand sea rides, stretching as it does over a quarter of a million square kilometres deep into Saudi Arabia and Yemen, is like nothing else. Here we camped and explored, climbed the dunes to watch the most stunning sunsets, sat around a campfire and caught shooting stars, seemingly without another soul alive in the universe.
This trip will not be for everyone. The camping, although comfortable with mattresses, pillows, tables and chairs, is reasonably rudimentary. But for those with a sense of adventure who like to get off the beaten track to witness nature at its most serene and beautiful and are prepared to take a little rough to gain a vast amount of smooth, this is a trip that will stay with you forever. Just take a look at the pictures!