We have just taken off from Salalah and the desert is dissolving into a misty haze below us. As we clip the edge of the Empty Quarter we can make out some of the big dunes and see dead straight tracks through the sand. We drove almost a thousand kilometres on our big loop from Salalah but I'd love to come back and do the whole route through the Empty Quarter. I can understand Thesiger's addiction to the desert and for a country which is nearly all desert there is a huge variety of things recommend it. Mountains, wadis, beaches, ancient villages, castles and forts and above all, the very nicest people you could wish for. Everyone we encountered was, without exception friendly, welcoming and helpful. Not to mention immaculately dressed. I wonder what they made of us sweaty tourists in our dusty clothes.
I don't think I have ever felt so safe in a country. Whether looking for something to eat at a desolate truck stop, or flagging down a battered Toyota on a lonely beach road, or walking through back streets, we received nothing but smiles and courtesy. There are cultural differences of course and it would have been nice to interact with more women but we seldom had the opportunity. But somehow, for a country in the Middle East, Oman seems to have pulled off that rare trick of nurturing friendships with all of the outside world, not just the places that share its politics, religion or culture. Of course we are here as tourists and can only really have a superficial view after just two weeks. But Oman feels like a place at ease with itself and with others, which makes it a lovely place to be.
The wind got up overnight. Sharp gusts that rattled the tent before everything became perfectly still again. Then another gust, like a ball of wind ricocheting through the dunes and into our tent before heading on its way. It continued like that for most of the night but all was calm again in the morning
At dawn Philippa scooted out of the tent and up the big dune to watch the sunrise. I followed a couple of minutes later and boy was it hard work getting up that steep ridge. A gleaming sliver of pink sun was just emerging over the sand when I got there, and we climbed further up to see it rise over the sweep of the desert. Our tent and sleeping son were now out of sight far below. It was utterly peaceful and we watched the desert changing colour from tawny brown, to rust and amber and gold.
Back down the steep slopes in the cool sand, my legs dug in almost up to the knee with each step. The camp was still in shadow and likely to remain so for an hour or so, so I got the stove going. Tom emerged for hot chocolate and then scrambled eggs (love that stove - did I say?). Then he was straight up the dune while P and I began the process of breaking camp.
Eventually the three of us got everything packed away, as the sun finally hit us and the heat bounced off the stony plane. I set the satnav, turned the key in the ignition and was rewarded with a blood-freezing series of small clicks. Maybe I needed my foot in the brake. Click click click. We were all alone in the Empty Quarter with a car that wouldn't start.. It had started every single time without hesitation over the previous two days, but now of course it had broken down. I popped the bonnet and cleaned up the battery terminals. Click click click. We tried rocking the car in gear in case the starter motor wasn't engaging with the ring gear. Click click click.
We did at least have plenty of water, enough food and some shade, but if this was a starter motor issue, we would need a tow truck and the nearest garage was 100Km down the track in Shisr. And worse, it would kill the end of the holiday. Tom said "Well, I guess I can catch up on some homework" and pulled out his tablet. P reached for her Kindle. I switched on the satphone and dialled the car rental guy in Salalah. "That number is not available at the moment" said the voice. I rang the Muscat office and it rang out. It's Friday - the weekend. But about three unanswered numbers later I finally got hold of the Muscat agent, Nithin. I told him what had happened and could hear him going white. "I'll call you back" he said. But moments later we saw a white SUV heading down the track and Tom and I waved it down. It was an Omani tour guide with a Swiss family coming back from a sunrise tour in the desert. They pulled off the track and drove over to our camping area. Khaled, the guide had a go with the ignition and we all thought it sounded like a starter motor problem. Then I remembered that my plug-in cigarette lighter adapter would also show what charge the battery had. I plugged it in: 9.4 volts. Enough to turn the starter a bit but not enough to properly engage it. Khaled had a portable battery pack, he attached it to our battery and vroom. We were sorted. It was such a relief. We would have been OK one way or another but it could have been a long, boring day waiting and trying to stay cool. What was mystifying was why the battery should suddenly have lost charge. I'd been careful to unplug the various chargers from the car's outlets when I noticed they didn't turn off with the ignition. But not careful enough. The three quid gizmo for listening to Steven Fry read Arthur Conan Doyle was still plugged in under the armrest, belting out Bluetooth as hard as it could all night. It was just enough to strand us in the desert.
We offered Khaled our heartfelt thanks. He was taking the Swiss family to Fazaya Beach which was to be our final destination today. I was pleased (and so were they probably) that we hadn't delayed them unduly.
I called Nithin at AST and said were were sorted, and then we were on our way again. Back to Shisr for fuel and a chat with a bunch of lads at the garage. They were in a jolly mood, messing about and avoiding the heat. They didn't have much English but asked where we were from and where we were going. They were so friendly and such a striking looking bunch. Tall and slim with strong faces and white teeth. One had just been milking his camels and gave us a plastic bottle of camel milk which we put in the cooler. Thank you! Goodbye!
We wanted to head due south and could have retraced yesterday's steps on tarmac, or cut straight across the desert to Mudayy on a track. We went for the track and it was a filling-loosening, spine-jarring ride across featureless stony desert. Yes we should probably have gone the easier route. After two hours we hit tarmac with the opting of turning right to Yemen (about an hour's drive) or left to Mudayy. We turned left.
Mudayy was a scrappy little place where just about every every grocery shop - no matter how tiny - advertised itself as a restaurant. We knew of one called the "Pakistani restaurant" and it had huge trucks parked in front. But when we got there, there were a couple of small tables with plastic chairs and not a hint of food being served, so we bought cold drinks and made polite, if limited conversation with the fat man leaning on his chair who'd been speaking Urdu with his friends. They encouraged us to stay, but we still had a fair bit of ground to cover. And lunch to have. We found a little oasis park at the edge of town, with palm trees around a green tank pond. There were seats in the shade so we had cheese and tomato sandwiches like the English people we are.
The tarmac road south from Mudayy lasts about a kilometre before turning into graded track. But it was smoother and the landscape became more interesting; deep sandstone gorges carved out by the monsoon rains. The track looped and curled over and through the canyons and followed dry wadis. We passed a couple of military bases before hitting smooth, smooth tarmac again. And immediately the landscape was different. Fuzzy with grass - drying out now - but it had been lush a month or so ago. There were camels wandering about everywhere, and cattle grazing too.
We drove parallel with the coast, looking down on the blue ocean from high in the cliffs. At an army checkpoint we slowed to show our documents to the soldier with the gun at the barrier. But he flashed us a smile and waved us through.
At the sign to Fazaya Beach we turned onto a rutted track which went steeply down the cliffs, and into a beautiful broad shoreline with golden sand turning to scrub back to the cliffs. The beaches came and went for about five K and we went to the end before returning to the penultimate beach to set up camp. But first, into the warm sea. Big waves were breaking and we body-surfed as the sun set. A little further along we spotted Khaled with the Swiss family and brought him a pack of dates to say thanks. He made us sweet tea and we all compared notes on where we'd been in Oman. Pretty much the same itinerary in fact and we'd flown in to Salalah on the same flight too. Small world.
Our tent is up, on the beach facing the sea. We've had supper and we are sitting in the dazzling moonlight watching the surf roll in. The Swiss are camping at the other end of the beach but other then them we have this stretch to ourselves. Bed beckons. I'm very glad we got here. There can't be too many people who can say that because of Steven Fry they were almost stranded in the Empty Quarter...
This is the day that I have been waking up at five in the morning and thinking about for months. It has required the most planning, the most conversations, the most emails and the most equipment. We've bought a folding shovel, portable sand tracks a tyre compressor and rented a satellite phone. We have the phone numbers of everyone in Oman that might be in a position to help if things go wrong but ultimately my job is to make sure that it doesn't. Today is the day that we head north into the largest continuous sand desert in the world. The Rub al Khali - the Empty Quarter which spreads north into Saudi Arabia and west into Yemen. It is six hundred miles long and three hundred miles wide. Thesiger trekked through it by camel and today we would follow in his footsteps, setting off from Salalah and heading north over the mountains and down into the desert.
But first, a posh Hotel Breakfast on our terrace overlooking the marina. This is a huge development just outside Salalah. A complex of luxury hotels, apartments and boutique shops. It feels somewhat empty at the moment but this whole coastline is going to look very different in a few years if the number of bulldozers is anything to go by.
We checked out and headed to Lulus for three, five-litre drums of water, some food and a means of playing audio books through the stereo; a three quid Bluetooth device so we can get our fix of Sherlock. We have a lot of driving ahead of us.
The road north from Salalah - and there is only one - goes all the way to Muscat a thousand kilometers away. There was still plenty of greenery from the monsoon as we climbed into the mountains. Valleys full of trees. Camels munching grass. Several camels were wandering along the verge of the highway too. The steep road was crawling with heavy trucks crossing the desert and finding the gradient hard going. When we came to the top, we slowed for an army checkpoint but they waved us through. We were less than a hundred miles from the Yemeni border.
The road at this point was a proper six lane motorway with streetlights and speed cameras. But everyone pelts along it. We sailed through dead flat desert but some of it was being cultivated and there were odd buildings scattered around. We followed the old frankincense trade route and at one point we pulled over to see a small plantation of frankincense trees. They looked brittle and ancient, bowed by the wind.
And on, to Thumrait which appeared at first glance to be not much more than a glorified truck stop but in fact is a decent size town, and as with everywhere else here, getting bigger. We refueled - the opportunities are few and far between here - and found a restaurant for lunch. We got a single dish each and when they came, remembered that one dish for three of us would probably have been fine. Tom had an egg biriani and P and I had various kinds of noodles, and there was hot sauce and yogurt and a fresh salad and lemon with mint to drink and we did our best and then some, but couldn't finish it all. And the bill was about a fiver each.
On through the flat desert and then we turned left off the road to Muscat, onto a two lane strip of tarmac that heads north west towards Shisr/Shisur/Shasar depending on the sign/guidebook/map. Even here there were small farms and surprisingly green stretches. We saw men baling hay and stacking it onto a lorry. Great irrigators stretched across the land, but around the islands of green, dust devils whirled and low dunes stretched sandy fingers into the road.
At Shisur we turned off to look at the alleged site of Ubar, the "Atlantis of the Sands".. Legend has it that the ancient city of Ubar was once the most decadent in the Middle East with pillars plated with gold and various other excesses that incurred the wrath of God who caused it to be swallowed up by the sands. Well various adventurers including Sir Ranulph Fiennes set out to find it and using satellite images they settled upon a site in Shisr where a sinkhole was revealed to have swallowed what looked like the remains of an ancient fortified caravanserai. More excavation revealed that it had been in continuous use since at least the Iron Age. They also found a medieval chess set. We walked around the remains of the old fort's stone walls and down to the sinkhole. It was not hard to look across the desert and imagine camel trains arriving laden with dates and frankincense. Ubar? Maybe...
We met a tall dishdasha'd Omani called Abdullah who'd studied at Bangor in Wales and told us all the places he'd seen in the UK. And had we enjoyed Oman, and were the people friendly? Yes on both counts. He offered to guide us into the Empty Quarter but we politely declined. We took his number though just in case... Next door to the ruins is a little shop selling cold drinks so we had coconut water and mango juice. A few K further on were a couple of lonely petrol pumps, and a guy who will deflate your tyres for the desert, so we took advantage of all of that and continued on the tarmac. Less than a kilometer further on, the tarmac ended and we were on graded desert, shadowed by a line of telegraph poles marching off to the horizon. No farms here, though a couple of trucks came the other way, billowing dust behind them. And then off in the distance in the late afternoon sun, a line of big dunes marking the start of the Rub al Khali. It was a thrilling, awe-inspiring sight seeing these huge hills of sand lined up like the border into another country. Forty five minutes later at Al Hashman, a scattering of low white buildings which looked vaguely military, the telegraph poles abruptly ended. Now we were really on our own and the track was in places more desert than track as we wound into the giant dunes we'd been watching. The sun was low, highlighting every ripple and curve in every dune. The sand was lit orange, peach and apricot. It was stunning. We drove on for about twenty K until we came to a huge curved dune with what could almost be a dried lake bed at its base. It was smooth and flat and perfect for camping. We drove across it and set up the tent in the lee of the dune. The sun was going down so we fought our way up the ridge of the dune to look out across the glowing desert. Just us and the dunes as far as the eye could see. As we ran down the sheer slope the sand groaned and boomed, an extraordinary sound.
I got the stove going, and heated up the curries we'd got in Lulus and discovered that they like 'em hot in Oman! It seemed appropriate though. Now the moon is almost full, breaking through dappled clouds and it's so bright we can see each other's faces quite clearly. The three of us are casting long moon-shadows on the sand and the dunes around us are so well lit that we can still see their apricot colour. The silence is absolute. No cars, planes, animals, insects, people. And the air is completely still. It is a wonderful place to be. I'm so glad we came.
The Indian managers were distraught that we didn't stay for Breakfast. "You REALLY don't need to leave now...stay for twenty minutes and eat with us. You can leave at 8 and be in PLENTY of time for the flight". We weren't so sure and it was a good thing we left at 7 as the rush hour traffic was crawling towards the airport. The "twenty minute" drive took more than twice that, but all was fine. We handed over the car keys to the AST rep, and checked in. We'd done exactly 1600 kilometers in our ten days.
Salalah is quite different from the rest of Oman in that it catches the edge of the Indian Ocean monsoons. It rained every day in June apparently and all the Omanis go to escape the heat further north. Everyone told us we were going a little too late to see Salalah at it's lush finest, but flying in we could see green mountainsides and water glinting in broad river beds.. In the desert all around there was plenty of evidence of heavy rainfall, with dried rivers, streams and rivulets zigzagging all over the landscape.
Ours was the only plane at Salalaha's gleaming airport. Our car was waiting for us and we headed onto the coast road. It felt much greener than northern Oman with great avenues of mature palms, and extensive fruit plantations. We stopped at one of the many fruit stalls that lined the road. The seller sliced the top off three coconuts with a machete and popped in straws for us. There is a much more African feel to Salalah too The roadside stalls are scrappy little places, though laden with fruit. And parts of the waterfront are more down at heel than in the north, with once handsome buildings now sagging; shutters hanging from peaked windows. The picture-perfect palm trees on the white sand beach had stray dogs sleeping under them.
We will be covering a lot of ground over the next couple of days so this was to be an afternoon of lazing by the hotel pool and generally recharging our batteries. And also recharging the batteries in the many, many handheld electrical devices we seem to have accumulated. Annoyingly, there will have to be one more, as the promise that we would be able to play an iPod through the radio turned out to be false. We've been listening to Steven Fry reading Sherlock Holmes to us and can't possibly continue without him - especially on the endless desert roads we'll be on this week. So, to the Salalah branch of Lulu's tomorrow for a little plug-in speaker... But that's for tomorrow. Pass the pineapple juice.