A 15-minute drive into the desert proper, where the dunes are already taller than houses, we pull over at an isolated little Bedouin camp. Three neat wood-and-canvas huts are arranged behind a fence of tightly woven palm tree branches. Fatima, a grandmother dressed in a niqab, ushers me into one of the huts, gestures for me to sit and passes me a tiny white beaker of cardamom coffee. Her hands are blue with henna. The interior of the hut is dark and the floor is covered in heavy rugs, all of them uneven from the contours of the sand beneath. The coffee is hot.
On the hut walls hang a variety of different items: framed family photos, a ceremonial dagger and an old, colour-bleached picture of a flower meadow. Fatima begins talking with Mazin, the man who drove me here, and he translates snippets of the conversation. The compound is around four years old and took three days to build. Nine people live here over winter, fewer in summer, and the Toyota 4WD parked outside is theirs, as are the camels nearby.
“And the fence is protection from the sand,” he says, pointing outside. “When the wind is strong, the sand can be a terrible thing.” I don’t doubt this. We’re in the Shariqiya (sometimes called Wahiba) Sands, a wilderness of open desert measuring 110 miles north to south and 50 miles east to west. When we step outside the hut, the view is yellow dunes as far as the eye can see, in every direction. Razin checks his tyres once more — there’s less air in them than usual, to minimise the risk of us getting stuck — and we carry on driving south.
The drive is a joy. The dunes billow to create a wild, massive, all-enfolding landscape; an ocean of pale hills. When we arrive at our camp for the night, it’s fair to say it’s not what I’d envisaged. Positioned on a plateau about 25 miles into the desert, where you might expect your bed to be a mat in a tent corner, the remote 1000 Nights Camp is less no-frills refuge, more chi-chi resort. My air-conditioned room has a TV showing live basketball from Bahrain. The towels on my bed have been elaborately folded to look like swans. And, after a dip in the pool, I’m served one of the most elaborate mocktails of my life.
I’m still in shock an hour later when I set off on foot to watch the sun set from the top of the sands. Within 10 minutes of climbing, the camp is invisible and I’m enveloped by 330ft dunes. The going underfoot is slow and soft, meaning I’m often sinking shin-deep, but I soon reach a crest that affords me a great view of a hazed, bone-white sun dipping towards the horizon. I sit down. The sand is warm on the hands and impossibly fine, each grain a pinhead speck. When I get up to leave about 20 minutes later, the whole desert panorama has shifted from yellow to pink.
Back at camp — where it would be remiss of me not to recommend the date pudding with toffee sauce — the stars are already appearing. I sleep extraordinarily well and get up early to repeat my walk, this time to watch the sunrise. Again, even in the half-light, as soon as I climb to a point where nothing is visible except dunes and sky, the thrill is huge. A slight wind whips sand across the desert surface, and my footmarks are swept away within minutes. I get a slight pang of nerves imagining what it would be like to be lost out here.
The heat and light of day arrive quickly in the desert, and they bring it to life. One moment I’m on my haunches on a dusky rise in the dunes, the next I’m on a throne looking out at a sea of glowing sands. The desert in front of me is an endless world of mounds and ridges, of dunes rippling out into eternity. I can see forever, and there’s nothing out there. Nothing to see except sand, and nothing to hear except the wind. It’s an incredible feeling.
Old Muscat Tourism offers tours and overnight stays in Sharqiya (Wahiba) Sands oldmuscattourism.com