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An Arabian odyssey
… DEEPA ALEXANDER
FOOTPRINTS OF FUN Choose a camel over a car for a real desert experience
A scarab beetle burrows itself in the ochre-coloured sand and a thin veil of dust swirls around me. I hold my breath and wait for Imhotep, Pharoah Seti's high priest immortalised in “The Mummy”, to appear. But I am not plumbing the mysteries of Hamunaptra, only trying to outrun a camel with halitosis in the Wahiba Sands.
But, all this was much after I followed a pony track that morning to Jebel Shams, Oman's highest peak at 3,075m. The wind howls through the canyon that shears the massive rockface as I journey to the centre of the earth. Billy goats graze nonchalantly among boulders. I'm dizzy from peering at the deep geology of the land, lost in cavernous darkness. In the stillness, I hear a shepherd calling his flock. Wadi Ghul, with its ancient fortifications built when the Persians came marauding these lands, stands at the head of the valley. Among the flints, date plantations sway and cantaloupe vines crawl past crumbling ramparts in this village lost in time.
Khelifi, our guide, lets on the Land Cruiser at 140 km and we arrive at Wadi Bani Khalid. It's almost noon and cotton-candy clouds drift over the ravine that circles the jade-green oasis. Oleander trees bow low with the breeze in a Biblical setting that filmmakers chase whole lifetimes. Little boys dive for coins, a Eurasian roller glides past and fish dart among the bulrushes. The temperature drops a couple of degrees and I can smell wet earth mingled with the scent of mangoes. Oman's wadis stand at the crossroads of the Silk Route — leisure stops for Ibn Batuta and caravan travellers of yore.
I journey on to Al-Wasil at the dust-blown rim of the Wahiba Sands. Khelifi deflates our tyres to the requisite pressure and then hares off. The tar road disappears in endless folds of pristine dunes. We're dune-bashing and I am shaken and thrown about like a rag doll. Engine revs jangle through my spine, Khelifi soars up a sand hill and spins the SUV like a top, hurtling down the other side through a sliding river of sand. He crests another ridge, dodges stray shrubs and bashes into a dune head-on. There's grit in my mouth and eyes and some in the engine too — we've run aground. I step out, warm as toast and gape at the auburn and coffee whorls and ridges that shift beneath my feet. More sand is thrown up as the wheels dig deep; with a roar, the SUV lurches up another dune to rush forward to a Bedouin encampment. It's a scene straight out of a dusty epic — Sampta, burqa-clad and friendly, steps out of her colourful tent decked with scimitars. She offers kahwa, and then gestures that I try on the Bedouin veil. I don't look half as mysterious.
The sun sets, bringing with it a primordial silence. We head back to the Desert Nights Camp with its air-conditioned tents, Arabesque archways, and acacia trees with swinging lanterns corralled by a low wall. I peer at a sleeping camel's long lashes and he turns around and bares his teeth. I back off and acquaint myself with the desert's nightlife. A yellow scorpion skulks along the wall and a musician with a rebab sings of love and longing under a vault of stars. There is a traditional spread — shuwa (marinated meat cooked in an underground clay oven), umm ali (bread pudding) and smoky Omani halwa.
I wake up to a soft desert light that invites lingering but there is a 200km coastal drive on the agenda. By the time the road reappears, it is scorching. The route to the rain-brushed city of Sur runs through the Al-Saleel Natural Park, full of leaping Arabian gazelles. A dhow-building centre since Sindbad sailed these seas, Sur lies shimmering in an afternoon haze, its ancient lighthouse framed against a sparkling Berber-blue sea. From this port city, the drive to Muscat is picturesque — the road runs straight like a Roman legion cutting through the mountains, and you never lose sight of the sea. All along, lateen-rigged dhows outrace one another, Wadi Tiwi spills its aquamarine waters into the sea and Bibi Maryam's tomb at Qalhat built during the Hormuz Empire appears like a mirage. I collect shingles at Fin's beach and climb down 78 steps to the Bimah sinkhole, a limestone crater with water so blue-green and clear that it resembles Monet's Nympheas. It is dusk when I drive into Shangri-La's Barr Al-Jissah Resort and Spa strewn over the rugged hills with its pedicured feet in the bay. A private butler at the premier Al-Husn hotel (the resort has three) runs a bath and helps me choose from the pillow menu. An hour of fine dining with the communications manager later, a chrome-nosed Bentley draws up at the portico and speeds me to the airport. As I await take-off, the rush of a week on the road brings back enough images to fill a digital hard drive — of dhows on a cerulean sea, the camel's long legs casting end-of-the-day shadows up the sides of dunes, the warmth exuding from a cup of kahwa and my feet that barely imprinted the cool desert sand.
(The writer was in Oman at the invitation of the Ministry of Tourism, Oman)
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