If you consider yourself in that category of traveller who wants to come home with a tale, a saga, an epic narrative, and not just a bag full of shopping, then staying at least a night at any of Oman's safari camps is for you.
Sure it's a camp, but not the kind that necessitates tripping over ropes and pumping up a stove to set-up accommodation. Some camps, like the 1,000 Nights in Oman, come with a mini swimming pool, Arabian- style low-seating areas and bathroom facilities.
But despite these comforts, some things will still need you to rough it out. The drive from the capital, Muscat, to camp is seven hours long. And very hot. I arrive at the camp when the sun is a low orange ball in the sky. It's a five-minute walk from the reception to my tent, but in the dark the journey feels longer. A fellow traveller begins to grumble… about the distance and the sand in our shoes. But the guide reminds us that it's a luxury to spend a night in the desert with such amenities. The problem is not having too much, he says, but failing to recognise what we have. And, suddenly, the sand in our shoes becomes appealing.
The camp, of course, can never compete with the landscape in which it's set. There are several ways to negotiate the vast desert - sandboarding, dune driving or camel riding. To an untrained eye, a dune is just a dune, but the more time you spend, there are more signs of slithering and wiggling, all of which indicate that the sands are home to animals.
The landscape is rife with prophetic message. Even if you're dune bashing, you're just a speck against this landscape. Nature is a great leveller, and if a sandstorm were to arrive, it wouldn't care for your golf handicap or your assets.
The dinner back at the camp is a kitschy spread of Arabian food. Musicians perform Bedouin tunes. But the beauty lies outside the camp. Nothing can touch a starry night in the wide-open desert - not flushing lavatories, not swimming pool in the middle of nowhere.
Fast-vanishing tribes of Bedouins inhabit the dunes around Wahiba Sands. Unless you have the good fortune of knowing a local, chances are that your guide will lead you to a tent overflowing with collected exotica: velvets and silks thrown over rugs, traditional
khanjars and antique silver by the divans. But while these excesses can be manufactured to satisfy the cravings of travellers hungry for Central-Asian surprise, what can't be faked is the local energy. Children skip around cots. Men tell you stories, as you partake in kahwa and a bowlful of dates (the welcome mat to any interaction).
By the end of my few hours here, I've understood why men think dates are the best aphrodisiac; I've figured why desert women play larger social roles than their city sisters. A woman in a peaked mask and an abaya comes in flashing a grin, having rescued a car stuck in the dunes. "Keep the engine gunned, keep moving not to get stuck," she advises.
But most noteworthy is that people around these parts are by-and-large straightforward. That's not to say they're unfriendly. They just don't decide they like you until they know you. So, before you pick up your camera for pictures, you need to engage. And buying souvenirs doesn't count. What does is getting into a conversation about the fast-fading traditional way of life and the intricacies of camel races. And as soon as you've made the shift from tourist to friend, you find yourself accompanying the Bedu to camel shelters and to burkini-clad swims in wadis.
From HT Brunch, March 23
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