Tuesday 14th October 2003 - Wahiba Sands

After the success of the last trip inland with Saj, we decided it was time for another trip, this time to the vast dunes of the Wahiba Sands. Not to be confused with the empty quarter ( la Thesiger) which which occupies the border with Saudi, the Wahiba Sands are an on the eastern coast of Oman and stretch for about 200km x 80km.

The dunes are still inhabited by the local Beduin dudes who now drive around in Landcruisers rather than on camels, though camels are still an important asset and camel-breeding an important occupation with racing camels fetching up to $1m in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Unbelievably, there are century old irrigation tunnels running under the sands for 10s of kms to access the large water reserves under the sands. The sands are still used today to provide water to the surrounding area.

The sands in the distance

After lunch (half-a-chicken Biryani) in Al Mintirib, we stopped at the side of the road to take some photos of the sands in the distance. (Note the clouds for later). But we got stuck in the shallow sand at the side of the road. Not a good start.

Well along came the local sheikh in his giant 4WD. Well, how nice of him to help us we thought as we got in his Nissan Patrol.

As he drove off, he threw an empty bottle of whiskey out of the window and it dawned on us that he was drunk. Not just drunk, but very drunk. As he swerved down the road into the town, it became clear that he wasn't in a good state. Then he started talking more and more loudly and aggresively and then began shouting at us. He didn't speak English and our Arabic wasn't good enough to tell what he was on about, until we discerned the words Bush, Blair, Sharon, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan from amongst his angry bawlings. Well, we both used our dual nationality aliases and I suddenly became German and Saj was Indian. Well, he was too far gone to listen to what we were staying and continued on through the town, swerving to correct his veering off the road.

Realising that being captive in an angry drunk man's car next to one of the most desolate regions on earth wasn't a good thing, Saj and I exchanged a few worried (very worried looks they were). Then I managed to recall the arabic word for Stop from the stop signs on the roads. "Qif, qif min fadlak" I said to him. Saj, who works for the Royal Omani Police (ROP), albeit as a computer programmer, got his ID card out and said "ROP, Stop, let us out" but all to no avail. The guy was so far gone he didn't even realise what we were saying.

Well, on we drove, coming out of the other side of town, passing one of the warning signs which tells you how dangerous the sands are and how you shouldn't go in unprepared. Realising it was getting on for our last chance to escape near civilisation, we insisted more frantically that he let us go. Well he was oblivious and kept on shouting. I said a quick prayer and my sense of direction told me that maybe we were circling the town rather than going in a straight line. (Well, obviously not a straight straight line cos of his driving). We kept turning slightly and there were some buildings on one side, so we stayed in and sure enough, as we slid from side-to-side on the sand, we came back to where our car was stuck.

Getting back to where the car was was a relief and we jumped out. He tried to get us to get back in and we refused. It seemed like he finally realised that Saj was with the police as a look of worry shot across his face and he staggered back over to his car and drove off again.

With that drama over, we still had to get the car out. Fortunately, a much friendlier local came along and pulled us out with his pick-up truck. Thanking him, we went on our way, laughing about the whole thing. Its one of those things which is dangerous and scary at the time, but funny afterwards. Plus it makes good stories and hopefully interesting reading!

Well, with that over, it was time to meet our guide who was to take us into the sands for to do the tourist things like visiting Beduin families and driving on sand dunes.

We met up with Rashid and he explained to us how his cousin would take us into the sands and do some dune driving and that we shouldn't worry as he was experienced. Hmmm, breaking the first rule of desert driving of never going in a single vehicle we thought. (Its OK, nothing more dangerous happens so you can relax reading this). Still, they are the locals and know their stuff so we decided it was OK.

Rashid (clearly a natural salesman) left as we got in the 4WD with his cousin who barely muttered a word on the entire trip (clearly not a natural salesman). The first thing we saw was rain, then camels. For somewhere where its never supposed to rain, we did pretty well. Thats the first time its rained since I've been here. Anyway, on the camel photo you can see the rain streaking across the photo.

We stopped at a 'typical Beduin family' camp where we had dates and coffee (traditional Omani hospitality. Well, they should kill a goat for you but they can't do that for every tourist group OK). But we got rained on so hard through the unsealed palm-leaf tent, so that spoiled that one a bit.

Then we did some serious dune driving. Despite having some trouble starting, Rashid's Cousin ragged his Prado around some dunes for us, including a very disturbing steep descent of a 100m dune. You have to be there to experience it!

At the end of the little Wahiba excusion we got dropped off back at our car and drove the 2 hours back to Muscat. I was concerned that the rain might cause problems for the journey back whereas Saj just laughed and ridiculed me. I mean, its not like every guidebook tells you that if there's even clouds you should consider the dangers of roads getting sweapt away in flash floods. On the drive from Muscat there there were plenty of examples of swept-away old roads, so I stick by my concern.