Serene Sharqiyah (originally published in Wings of Oman)

20 Nov

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Meditation. Sobriety. Peace. Al-raha (relaxation). These are the words you’ll hear about the Sharqiyah Sands. After enjoying the urban pleasures of Muscat – its coffee shops and souks, malls and boutique hotels – step down a gear and get ready for the desert.

Start by boarding a bus at Ruwi Station for Al-Mintirib, a town on the edge of the Sands. You leave the city fast, black rock mountains and desiccated trees suddenly visible through the window. Nearer the highway, goats scurry around mini pyramids of bright earth.

The landscape stays like this for two hours. You might worry that this is as desert-like as the desert gets, especially if you’ve been imagining a Lawrence of Arabia scene of dramatic dunes and roving camels.

But then slashes of khaki start to appear between the black rocks. The terrain flattens out and the trees, plants and stones grow thinner. Everything is drying out into sand, a whole world of sand that’s twice the size of Devon or Delaware.

The best way to experience this remarkable environment is at one of the many desert camps in the region. Al-Raha camp offers a pick-up service from Al-Mintirib. You’ll typically be met by a large man in a dishdasha and wraparound shades. As soon as you’re inside his 4WD you off-road it at 120 mph, gouging and wheelspinning through the sand. Your trail looks harsh compared to the light paw- and hoof-prints all around you. If you see what looks like an oil spill up ahead, don’t worry about getting wet – it’s just a mirage.

Al-Raha has a military feel to it: barbed wire fences, camouflage jeeps and satellite phones. But the huts are done out in authentic Bedouin style, their barasti (palm frond) walls like a giant brush.

The tall dune beside the camp is too bright to look at without sunglasses. At its highest point wild camels sniff at branches turned almost to charcoal by the heat. Climbing the dune is hard work. Like some anxiety dream, every step you take you sink deeper into the sand. You can take off your shoes but that hardly helps. Three quarters of the way up, the sand gets even looser. By the time you reach the top, you’re drenched in sweat and hyperventilating.

Look out across the mysterious contours and sublime cambers of the Sharqiyah Sands. The silence is unbreakable. You go into a trance.

You snap out of it when you hear the rumble of vehicles. 4WDs are thumping toward the camp, delivering more guests. Children zip about on quad bikes, pursued by clouds of dust. Nearer to you, black Mazdas skid and slide all over the dunes, their passengers hooting with laughter. This is called ‘dune-bashing’ and any climbers in the vicinity should watch out.

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It soon becomes clear that the desert is both beautiful and dangerous, like an Oriental temptress from colonial literature. She’ll seduce you with her warmth, her curves, her smooth complexion. Then she’ll kill you. The desert has many ways to kill you, from thirst to quicksand, snake bites to crazy driving.

Back at the camp, refresh yourself with halwa and strong coffee. When dusk comes the temperature cools to perfection and the air is at its freshest. A perfect crescent moon forms in the darkening sky.

After a make-your-own shawarma dinner, you’ll probably be ready for bed. But the staff will insist you come over to a roaring camp fire surrounded by bean bags and sheesha pipes. A musician sits cross-legged, singing and strumming the rebab, a sonorous string instrument.

His friends start dancing in an oddly camp way. They cannot stop laughing. Two of them place towels over their heads, link hands and blow kisses at one another. Another wiggles his bottom. The dancers try to persuade tourists to join them. A short Omani kneels down and limbo dances under the volunteer’s legs. The laughter amplifies, bounces across the dunes.

The music and the dancing goes on till past midnight.

By the time you go to bed, smoke from the camp fire and the sheesha pipes has obscured the crescent moon.

In the desert, relaxation means one thing in the day and another at night.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman September 2012)

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