Been there, dune that

Greg Lenthen finds himself airborne in the Empty Quarter.

A few hours south of Oman's capital, Muscat, a six-star desert camp looms at the end of the bonnet - and shrinks just as quickly in the rear-view mirror. At the first glimmer of disappointment, my guide, Saif, cuts me off with a dismissive flick of the hand.

"Air-conditioned tents," he says, sniffily. "A desert camp is not sleeping under a roof."

No? I must say I've always thought the roof a great invention, probably second only to the wheel. I'm fond of air-conditioning, too, especially in summer, in the Arabian Desert, with the temperature in the 40s.

But not for us the delights of the Bedouin Nights Camp, where the tents are not only air-conditioned but have bathrooms. We are headed further across the dunes to a camp called Sami Al Wasil, which is probably Arabic for "boot".

Our four-wheel-drive stops abruptly. Saif looks from side to side, as if deciding which way to go, then announces - somewhat theatrically, I think - that we will follow the camel tracks. Wheels whirr, flurries of sand fly across the windscreen and we lurch over the spine of a pink dune straight into a near-vertical drop, landing a few hundred metres later, almost at the door of the camp. Saif flashes me a triumphant "how was that?" smile.

I think it was pretty damn good, though my lower back is ready to argue.

An hour or so later it's dark and I'm surprised to see four sets of headlights coming straight at the camp, not over the dunes but across the flat plain between them. There must be a road, or at least a track, from the nearest town. So why did we wallow through the dunes?

"Ah," says Saif confidentially, "I thought it would be more interesting."

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By then we're sitting cross-legged on cushions, leaning into plates of food, while Saif - good-looking and tall, even sitting down - is assuring a party of women there is nothing to fear from scorpions. The women are all French-speaking but seem to get the gist as Saif explains in English how to ward off scorpions by sleeping with a long stick behind your head; how to hold a scorpion down with a shoe while cutting off its sting; and, if all else fails, how to cut out the sting and cauterise the wound.

Greatly reassured, we head off to bed. But not to sleep. It's too hot, especially in my natty, navy-blue jim-jams. But if I'm to take them off - having regard to the sensibilities of any passing demoiselle - I have to sleep inside. So much for a night under the stars, or even under the roof of my bare little cabin's veranda. Next time, we try tents. But not before a lot more desert.

Leaving Sami Al Wasil, we pass a Bedouin camp. It offers camel tours through the desert from as long as six days to as little as one - and for the especially blessed, just half a day. The Bedouins themselves don't ride camels any more; they prefer "moustaches", the nickname for their favourite Toyota pick-up with its projecting front bumper.

We are heading from Muscat to the city of Salalah, 1000 kilometres by road to the south. We cross sandy desert, stony desert, scrubby desert, flat desert, desert with mountains and, of course, desert with desert. The bright yellow dunes of the Wahiba Sands are your classic trackless waste - except for the tracks. They lead to a couple of Land Rovers parked on top of a high dune, their drivers taking in the view.

A dune or three further and Saif is having a great time flinging the wheel and himself from lock to lock as we bump our way to the top of a ridge - and a neck-breaking halt. The engine roars, the wheels spin and we are going nowhere but deeper. Unfazed, Saif is kneeling in the sand in his spotlessly white dishdasha digging out the wheels with his bare hands. A day or two later he leans across to me and, in that same confidential tone, says: "I'm glad we got stuck just so you could see how we get out."

Fortunately, on our last night we do not get stuck because help might be a long time coming in the Empty Quarter, a desert the size of France spilling across much of Oman from its neighbours to the north. Nothing but sand, sky and, oddly, the occasional road sign. Not that there's a road, the signs mark the rutted remnants of a graded track put in by oil explorers decades ago. They found only water.

We are camped in a hollow between high dunes. The one-person tents are up, the fire is made and Saif is inspecting the marinade on "lamb" chops so big they must have been cut from some desert mega-fauna.

While Saif cooks, I'm in charge of admiring the sunset.

From a distance, the shadow-backed dunes are a coppery gold in the late afternoon light; up close, they are piebald with swirls of lighter coloured sand - grey and yellow.

As the darkness eases up from the horizon and shadow eddies across the flat plains between the dunes, even an unrepentant materialist can understand how people might find the emptiness deeply spiritual: just you and the vastness of it all.

Alone, with nothing but the sound of your own tinnitus.

FAST FACTS
Getting there Thai Airways flies to Muscat from Melbourne and Sydney for $1512, with an aircraft change in Bangkok. Etihad has a fare for $1470 from Sydney and Melbourne (from the end of March) with an aircraft change in Abu Dhabi. (Fares are low-season return and do not include tax.) Australians require a visa for a stay up to 30 days, which can be obtained upon arrival for six Omani rials.

Getting around The best season for travelling is November to April. Oman World Tourism has a range of itineraries and will also customise tours to individual requirements. See http://www.omanworldtourism.com. For more information see omantourism.gov.om.

Greg Lenthen travelled courtesy of the Oman Ministry of Tourism.