Where the bold take giant steps

Through the towering dunes and vast valleys of Oman, Rob McFarland follows the path of a great 20th-century explorer, and makes his own discoveries along the way.

IT'S 6am and I've just dragged myself out of a warm, comfortable bed and up a near-vertical 100-metre wall of sand to watch the sunrise. You'll rarely find me awake at 6am, let alone up, but this seems an appropriately intrepid way to start a day in which I'll be following in the footsteps of one of the 20th century's greatest explorers, Sir Wilfred Thesiger.

The Oxford-educated Thesiger eschewed life in suburban England, spending much of his life exploring Africa and the Middle East instead. He is famous for two crossings, in the 1940s, of a vast expanse of desert known as the Empty Quarter. Notable as the world's largest uninterrupted body of sand, this inhospitable wilderness dominates much of the Arabian Peninsula, extending from Saudi Arabia into the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Oman.

The journey I will undertake is not quite so ambitious. I will cross a much smaller desert in eastern Oman, called Wahiba Sands, which Thesiger visited in 1949. Despite the fact he did it by camel and I'll be in an airconditioned four-wheel-drive, I can't help but feel a certain comradeship with the explorer as I sit on the cool sand and watch the sunlight slowly flood the towering dunes. Thesiger endured unimaginable hardships on his travels and, as a tribute, I have decided to forgo my normal morning cup of tea.

Even with a 4WD, the 180-kilometre crossing is no trivial matter. Apart from the searing temperatures (it can reach 50 degrees here in summer), other dangers include punctures, getting bogged and flipping over while careering up steep dunes. Thankfully, our group is in safe hands. Our guide, Salim, used to be one of the Sultan of Oman's bodyguards.

We leave the luxurious surrounds of Desert Nights Camp and head into a sandy-floored valley bordered by enormous orange dunes. We soon come across a local Bedouin family and are invited into their simple wooden shack for coffee and dates. Despite my best efforts, Arabian coffee is a taste I've never managed to acquire. Served black and without sugar in small eggcup-size cups, it's flavoured with cardamom and, to me at least, tastes a bit like hot mud.

As we're leaving, another group of tourists arrives and it's clear that life for these Bedouins bears little resemblance to that of their nomadic, rifle-bearing ancestors who accompanied Thesiger on his travels. He is unwavering in his admiration of the men who helped him, saying: "I owe everything to the Bedu who went with me. Their comradeship gave me the five happiest years of my life."

We plunge further into the desert through terrain that ranges from beautifully sculpted, undulating dunes covered in a fine paprika-red dust to highways of flat, hard, honey-coloured sand. Vegetation is sparse, with most of the bushes just dry twigs or blackened charred remains. It hasn't rained in some places here for eight years.

It takes us four hours to make the crossing and, in that time, we pass only one other car. Every time we stop to stretch our legs, I'm humbled by the sheer vastness of the landscape as it stretches towards a shimmering horizon. At one point, a sandstorm blows through, creating small tornadoes of sand and driving the coarse grains into our ears, eyes and mouths. I try to imagine what it must have been like to travel by camel in these storms as well as eat, drink and sleep.

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We reach the coast in the late afternoon and find a spot among the dunes by the beach to camp for the night. While Salim cooks fresh fish on an open fire, we watch the sun set over the sea from atop the dunes.

It's a magical moment and a highlight of what has already been a memorable three days. My week-long trip started in Oman's capital, Muscat, in the north, and after travelling more than 1000 kilometres, I'll finish in the southern city of Salalah.

It's a journey that would have taken four bone-jarring days back in the early 1970s, when the country had just 10 kilometres of paved road, but modern highways mean you can now do it in 10 hours.

Oman's transformation in the past 40 years from a desert backwater to one of the most forward-thinking Arab nations in the Gulf, is due mostly to the efforts of one man. Sultan Qaboos took over as ruler of the country in 1970 and, under him, Oman has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity.

Of course, the discovery of oil in the 1960s helped but, unlike his father, who squandered the proceeds, the Sultan has ensured that the whole country has benefited. Omanis pay no income tax or sales tax and they receive interest-free mortgages from the state.

As we travel around the country, I notice that every hotel, restaurant and shop has a picture of the Sultan prominently displayed. When I ask Salim whether they are obliged to do this by law, he says simply: "No, we just like him."

Oman has relatively modest oil reserves compared with the likes of Saudi Arabia, so it is investing in more sustainable industries such as tourism. What is refreshing to see is that it has rejected the bigger-better-brasher approach of some of its neighbours in favour of more considered developments that preserve its cultural heritage.

While tourism infrastructure is still in its infancy (the ministry of tourism was only formed in 2004), the fact English is spoken widely and most road signs and menus have English translations means it's already an easy country to navigate.

Accommodation can be expensive if you stay in high-end resorts but there are plenty of three-star hotels where you can get a decent room for about $60. Aside from that, everything is a bargain. A Coke will set you back 50¢, a reasonable meal $10 and fuel is a heart-warming 35¢ a litre.

Muscat is the main entry point for most international visitors and it's a city that has retained much of its charm thanks to a ban on building higher than eight storeys. Highlights in the tiny gated Old Muscat district include the Sultan's futuristic al-Alam Palace and two 16th-century forts built by the Portuguese that cling to the rocky foreshore.

The neighbouring suburb of Muttrah has long been a tourist hot spot because of its covered market, or souk, which contains a labyrinth of frankincense-infused alleyways packed with animated vendors peddling everything from sandals to jewellery and ornamental daggers.

One Muscat architectural wonder that shouldn't be missed is the Grand Mosque. Completed in 2001, its exterior is a riot of white Italian marble and creamy Indian sandstone. The cavernous main prayer room has one of the world's largest hand-woven carpets and a stunning eight-tonne Swarovski crystal chandelier.

After a day in Muscat we head inland towards the al-Hajar mountains through an increasingly barren landscape punctuated by clusters of date palms and acacia trees. After turning off the tarmac road into a wadi (dry river bed), we begin a long, slow climb up a winding gravel track that leads to the 2980-metre mountain-top camp of Jebel Shams, the highest point in the country.

The next day, we get up at dawn to walk along the rim of a spectacular Grand Canyon-like chasm to the nearby village of As Sab and, along the way, come across three generations of goat herders living in a simple stone shelter. This existence has changed little in the past 200 years; however, it is about to alter dramatically. Behind them is the shell of a modern, two-storey, government-built house that will soon be their new home.

After the excitement of the desert crossing, we drive for two days through a largely featureless desert landscape before the scenery changes dramatically when we reach the Dhofar region in the far south.

As we climb up the Dhofar mountains, the rocky wasteland morphs into the sort of lush, verdant scene you'd expect to see in Ireland. Except, instead of cows grazing on the hillsides, there are camels.

From the top of the mountains, we can see the city of Salalah, an oasis thanks to a monsoon that sweeps through the area between June and September every year. Arabs flock here during this time for a respite from the stifling heat that grips the rest of the Gulf. This climate means that Salalah is one of only a handful of places where the frankincense tree will grow; the aromatic sap extracted from Salalah's trees is said to be the purest in the world.

I wanted to finish my journey through Oman with a trip to the Salalah Museum because it contains some of Thesiger's photographs but, unfortunately, it's closed. Looking around me, I'd imagine that Thesiger wouldn't have approved of the development going on here.

When he returned to Oman in 1977, he said he was disillusioned and resentful about the changes brought about by the discovery of oil. Of course, these same changes have made the country much more accessible for travellers.

Thesiger described Oman as "one of the very few places left where I could satisfy an urge to go where others had not been".

Sixty years later, the country still has the power to enlighten and astound.

The writer was a guest of The Sultanate of Oman Ministry of Tourism.

Trip notes

Getting there

Etihad flies from Sydney to Muscat via Abu Dhabi; 1800 998 995, www.etihadairways.com.

Staying there

Al-Bustan Palace InterContinental in Muscat is the gorgeously opulent former residence of the Sultan. ichotelsgroup.com.

Jebel Shams Mountain Camp has a range of accommodation, from camping to villas.

Desert Nights Camp is in a valley bordered by dunes and has 30 luxurious Bedouin-style tents. omanhotels.com/desertnightscamp.

The Hilton in Salalah has six restaurants and bars, large lagoon-style pool and direct beach access. hilton.com.

See + do

Visit the turtle-nesting site at Ras al-Jinz (three hours' drive from Muscat). rasaljinz.org.

Visit Mazirah Island, off Oman's east coast, for fishing, diving, snorkelling, kite-boarding and surfing.

Musandam Peninsula is an enclave in the far north, separated from the rest of the country by the UAE. Take a dhow cruise or a safari through the mountains.

Sun Island Tours offers a range of trips through Oman. 1300 665 673, sunislandtours.com.au or contact your travel agent.

Currency and visas

The Omani rial is divided into 1000 baisas (Rial1 = $3). Visas are issued on arrival and cost Rial6 ($18).

Dress

Women should keep shoulders and knees covered in public. In a mosque, women should wear a long skirt or trousers and long-sleeved shirt and headscarf; men should wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirt.

When to go

The best time to visit is between October and April.

More information

Oman Tourism (02) 9286 8930; info@tourismoman.com.au.

With the kids

OMAN is a family-friendly destination. Outdoor activities that would appeal to children include dolphin and turtle-watching tours, mountain biking and camel riding. Oman Children's Museum in Muscat has interactive science displays; children under six get in free. Many hotels and shopping centres have babysitting services and play centres. The best resort for children is Shangri-La's Barr Al-Jissah Resort and Spa in Muscat. It has a kids' club and a teens' club and an Omani heritage village where children can try traditional Arabian crafts. See shangri-la.com. A good time to visit with children is the annual 22-day Muscat Festival in January, which features traditional dances, concerts and events especially for kids.

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