A short break in the Sultanate
In Oman, you can pack a lot of sun, sea, and especially sand into a long weekend
Oman ? Do you mean Amman, Jordan ? That’s often the response when people mention the Sultanate of Oman, a country of 2.7 million people bordering Yemen, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. The Irish, sometimes mistaken abroad for the Dutch (Holland did you say?) will sympathise with Omanis, who have other reasons to think their land is misunderstood, under appreciated even. Less wealthy than Saudi, not so brash as the UAE , peaceful compared to Yemen, and more liberal than all three in terms of customs and dress code, still Oman is considered a little off the beaten track. With about 2,000 km of coastline and spectacular mountain and desert landscapes , it is gearing up to attract more visitors, both to the coastal capital Muscat, and the northern town of Salalah, where the Frankincense trees grow. Winter and early spring are a good time to visit. Right now it is about 28 degrees. After April, temperatures soar into the 40s.
On a recent visit, the days were warm and balmy, but night falls fast and early. There’s no twilight. One minute the sun is glowing on the horizon, the next it has dipped from sight and suddenly it’s dark. Three hours from Muscat, in the Al Wahidi desert, we watch the sun go down from the ridge of a dune, where we’re relaxing after some dune bashing. It’s not an Olympic sport but it’s fun. We’d earlier noticed the vertical tracks ploughed through the dunes at the edge of the desert . What do they do, throw themselves over the edge of a dune without worrying how steep it is on the other side? Essentially, yes. For this, you need a four-wheel drive in manual and sturdy seat belts. We give it a go.
Rashid, our driver and skilled dune basher, makes us strap ourselves in tight. He drives straight up the face of the nearest dune, and then skids along the edge for 100m or more at an angle that sends sand spraying against the windows. Then he throws the jeep over the edge and we’re hurtling down the other side and up again. It’s laddish and fun and far more difficult than it looks.
Later we have a Lawrence of Arabia moment, trying to navigate the dunes on foot, which is almost impossible. The further up you climb the deeper you sink into sand that is sensuously soft, and, once the sun has dipped, extremely cold.
It’s time to head back to camp. We’re at a Hud Hud camp, a nomadic-style settlement that is set up just for our group with some, if not all, of the comforts of a five-star hotel. Big comfortable bed, check, flickering lamps, check, gourmet food, check, alcohol, er no . . . not allowed – but plenty of tea, hot running water, well, yes, but not for very long. It’s heated up by the staff, decanted into a gourd that feeds a makeshift shower of the light sprinkling variety, but anyway, who really wants to take their clothes off in the dark and cold outdoors. No one in our group it seems, and so we head for the communal tent where tea is served .
There are fleecy blankets to wrap up warm in the low slung sofas and cushions that get everyone relaxed and talking, while the big plates of hot nuts quickly attract visitors – desert gerbils that look a lot like mice and scuttle over and up our legs. More worrying perhaps than the gerbils are the thunder box style toilets which sit on the sand without the benefit of plumbing. A jaunty seaside type spade effectively deals with the situation.