Ernie goes to the Wahiba Sands (Nov 2017)

Desert Driving

The next leg of our road trip took us away from the craggy cliffs and dusty peaks of the Hajar Mountains and into the dry plains of interior Oman. Our destination that afternoon was the Wahiba Sands, named after local bedouin tribe the Bani Wahiba. Also known as the Sharqiya Sands, the desert is a miniature version of the infamous Rub’ al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, on Oman’s western border, though at 12,500 square kilometres it’s no slouch either.

Ashley and I booked a night at Thousand Nights Sharqiya Sands Camp, a permanent desert camp tucked away in a low valley between two ridges of sand dunes. We stayed in one of their smaller sheikh tents, which had all the basic amenities, plus an outdoor bathroom that can get very chilly at nights and in the early morning. The campground had a few central recreational buildings where guests could swim or lounge on a boat fitted out with cushions and benches, as well as a mess hall that served surprisingly good food. We had no complaints about the camp itself – our main problem was actually getting there.

The town of Bidiyah is one of the main gateways to the Wahiba Sands, and there are a set of well-known markers that let you know you’re on the right path – the Shell station off of Highway 23Al Mintarib Castle, and, finally, the smaller town of Al Raka, where the paved road disappears into the desert. All of our research about how to get from Al Raka to the campsite indicated that it was a fairly straightforward drive through the desert, and after finding out that the camp charged 20 OMR, or over 400 HKD, for a guide, we decided to figure it out on our own.

As we were driving through Bidiyah, a local man in a large white SUV waved us over into a nearby parking lot and asked us if we were heading to Thousand Nights. When we said that we were, he began talking about all the dangers of driving through the desert and how our vehicle wasn’t suitable for this sort of off-road activity, though, lucky for us, he’d be willing to guide us in for 40 OMR – twice what the camp quoted us. We declined his offer, despite his insistence, but we did follow him back to the Shell station to lower the air pressure in our tires. To be honest, there was a bit of doubt creeping in at that point, and not a small amount of annoyance at the man’s constant salesmanship, which were exacerbated when we reached the petrol station and saw a good number of his colleagues waiting around to push their services to other tourists. In the end, we decided to trust what we had read online and we firmly said our goodbyes to him once our tires were sorted.

We found the end of the paved road easily enough, and the actual driving in the desert, at least in this section, was a breeze. From Al Raka, the drive was pretty much a straight line, following a wide valley criss-crossed with tire tracks, and the camp website mentioned a few landmarks, such as a prominent radio tower, to help guide the way. There were also a few signs scattered along the way with the name of the camp on it, but those were very easy to miss. Nevertheless, we made our way through the desert valley without any issues, until we saw a camp sign telling us to drive up the sand dunes to our left. We made it up about halfway, feeling cautiously optimistic, and then promptly got stuck in the deep sand around the first bend.

Within seconds, we heard another vehicle come roaring down a neighbouring sand dune and watched with growing dread as it climbed up ours, a familiar face behind the wheel. Yes, the man from the gas station was back, with suspiciously good timing. So, the negotiations began again, and we ended up paying him 20 OMR to get us un-stuck and to lead us the rest of the way up the dune. We had conflicted feelings about this. For one, he actually did help us, and we were fine with paying him for his services then. On the other hand, his aggressive salesmanship back in Bidiyah had put us off, leaving a bad taste in our mouths. We were already on edge with him, and he was the last person we wanted to see at that moment.

After about ten more minutes of driving, we arrived at the top of the dune, where he pointed us in the right direction and headed back into town. It was another fifteen to twenty minutes from that point to the a low collection of concrete structures and tents scattered across the desert floor. We’d finally arrived at Thousand Nights.

A Night in the Desert

We got to Thousand Nights at around four in the afternoon, and after checking in and dropping our bags off at our tent, we headed for the wall of sand dunes that marked off the western boundary of the camp to catch the early sunset. The campgrounds are located in a long, narrow valley in between two major ridges of dunes, and there isn’t much to see from the camp itself. Once at the top of the ridge however, the desert views really opened up – miles of dunes, pushed by the wind into long rows of solid waves, stretching out towards the horizon.

All was quiet up on the ridge as we trudged up and down the desolate landscape, moving across the desert one dune at a time. As the sun lowered in the sky, the terrain became a beautiful tableau of dark shadows and golden highlights. A couple other small groups of camp guests wandered off to our left and right, the endless desert more than big enough for all of us to feel as if it were our very own. Time seemed to pass very slowly out on the dunes, and the sun seemed to take forever to go down. We sat and watched the colours and shadows around us, did yoga poses and cartwheels (or Ashley did), and watched small figures climb distant dunes. Only once the sun had set and the lovely lavenders and pinks of twilight began painting the darkening sky did we start making our way back to camp on the valley floor.

A Morning with Camels

Thousand Nights has a variety of entertainment options for camp guests (at extra cost), including desert trekking, dune bashing, coffee with a bedouin family, and, our chosen activity the next morning, camel rides. We opted for the one hour camel ride, which goes on a big loop outside of the camp, though there are both longer and shorter options. Ashley and I couldn’t get enough of the desert landscapes, and the views were fantastic as the camels walked across the valley floor and climbed up the dunes. It probably wasn’t as enjoyable for our guide, though, who walked and led the camels the entire way – up and down the sandy terrain in the increasingly hot morning sun. An hour later, the camels and their stoic guide dropped us off at the front gate, where, after making a quick stop at our tent to grab our bags, we said our goodbyes to the camp and began making our way out of the desert.

Wild Encounters

The drive out of the camp was supposed to be a lot more straightforward than the drive in – no sand dunes to climb or deep wells of sand to get stuck in. There was no road per se, but the front desk told us to just follow the car tracks and eventually we’d get back onto the main stretch of desert that connects with Al Raka. We found the car tracks easily enough, and the first 20 to 30 minutes of driving went as well as could be expected. At some point in the drive, however, we must have strayed from the path because we ended up driving along a sand dune that didn’t seem quite right. Upon cresting the ridge, our car dipped and crashed into a depression on the far side of the dune, jolting us hard and making a loud thump. Not wanting to stop on an incline, we slowly inched our way down to the other side, where a group of Italians were waiting around for a friend dirt biking around in the desert behind us. We got out to take a look at the damage and, fortunately, it was limited to a misaligned bumper that we quickly popped back into place, but the thought of what could have happened left us a bit shaken. After chatting with the Italians for a bit, we bade farewell and continued on our journey back into town.

From one of the scariest moments of our trip to one of our favourite moments: as we were driving along the track towards Al Raka, we came upon a group of camels standing in the morning sun. Ashley and I got out of our car to take a closer look, and one of the camels, noticing our stopped vehicle for the first time, began ambling over towards us. We quickly got back into the car, us city kids with no idea whether camels were dangerous or not, and rolled down our windows to watch the creature approach. The doe-eyed beast came right up to the driver side window, poking its head around inside our car as we held our breaths and marvelled at being so up close and personal with desert royalty. It soon grew bored with our faux leather interior and moved on past our car, but those few minutes were one of the highlights of this holiday. Thirty minutes later, we were back on paved roads and, after refilling our tires to the appropriate air pressure, we continued on with our Oman road trip.

Epilogue

In a sense, everything up to this point was the precursor to the rest of our time in Oman, at least for me. The wadis were beautiful, and the desert was definitely worth it, but my imagined Oman was always a land of jagged mountains and canyons, a faded line of blue ridges stretching back to the horizon. Now, we were finally headed into that dreamscape – a land of ancient castles, abandoned mountain villages, breathtaking canyon hikes, and, admittedly, the most stressful driving experience of my life.

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