The flags are still flying at half mast in Oman. For 40 days, the Omani mourn the death of their late Sultan Kabus bin Said, who ruled the country for almost 50 years and was valued both by his countrymen and abroad because of his balancing and far-sighted policies.
My friend Rashid, Bedouin from Ramlat Al Wahiba, immediately spoke of the sultan’s death when he picked us up at the new Muscat airport. “Our sultan was like a father,” he says, and immediately afterwards: “The new sultan Haitham is a good man.” Then he gives my friend Jörg Reuther and me the keys of an off-road vehicle with which we want to explore the sandy deserts of Oman.
The first 140 kilometers from the capital Muscat to Nizwa lead over a four-lane road and show the economic progress that Oman has made since my last visit 20 years ago. Commercial areas, high-voltage power lines, new buildings and wide streets are reminiscent of developments in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. At first there is no trace of the magic of the Orient.
But then, early Friday morning, he shows up: at the Nizwa cattle market. Hundreds of local farmers have pegged their animals on the outer walls of the fort until prospective buyers form a circular alley through which the sheep and goats are driven. Bids are shouted, small auctions are carried out at lightning speed, an animal changes hands every few seconds.
The fort itself is one of the greatest attractions in Oman. The fortress tower has a diameter of 45 meters and a height of 35 meters. From its walls you can see the nearby Sultan Kabus Mosque. The Fort of Bahla 40 kilometers away and the Palace of Jabrin are also mandatory stops on every Oman tour.
In the labyrinth of star dunes
However, we are not interested in the buildings, but in the desert landscapes. The most beautiful areas are in the Rub al Chali, just under a thousand kilometers from Muscat. A partially even four-lane road takes us from Nizwa to Hayma, and 150 kilometers before Salala we turn onto a slope to Shisr. In the small village we meet our guide Mohamed.
We quickly leave the piste and find ourselves in a labyrinth of enormous star dunes. Mohamed drives ahead in his off-road vehicle. We follow its track, which depending on the sand quality is sometimes deeper, sometimes less deep into the sand. Driving the dunes is not for the faint of heart. It goes either steeply up or down steeply, in between short passages over the dunes.
Again and again we get stuck and have to reach for the shovel. The most important measure is to reduce the tire pressure in the sand. After two hours of driving in the dunes, Mohamed found a beautiful plateau that offers space for our tents and the two off-road cars. We enjoy cooking by the fire in the evening, feeling the silence and looking at the stars.
It is still dark when Jörg and I climb the highest dune in the area the next morning. We are at the top in time for sunrise. We let our photo drones rise and are fascinated by what we see on the monitor: the Rub al Khali dunes stretch to the horizon. At 780,000 square kilometers, it is almost twice the size of Germany and the largest sandy desert on earth. From its center in southern Saudi Arabia, it extends into the countries of Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The lack of oases and slopes earned her the nickname “Empty Quarter”.
Cranes at hotel construction sites
Back in the camp we pack up and continue into the Rub al-Chali. It is windless and cool, the last dust in the air has settled, the air is crystal clear. After a curve through sand we reach an area in which the dunes are aligned in rows according to the northeast trade wind and are particularly high. Jörg and I are again hauling 40 kilograms of camera and film equipment to the highest of them.
At night there is wind, so the next morning the view is only a few kilometers – the good photo light is over. After two more nights in the dunes, we say goodbye to Mohamed and drive to the coast of the Arabian Sea, two hours’ drive away, which we reach north of Salalah. The region around the second largest city of the Oman is streaked by the monsoons in the summer months and is therefore wetter and more fertile.
Beach tourism is just beginning in Oman, although the snow-white, wide sandy beach would offer the best conditions for a second Dubai. They are trying to do this at Duqm, where gigantic construction work for a free trade zone, a port and a hotel area is underway to create foreign exchange income and jobs. In contrast, life in the few fishing villages is still contemplative.
In the small town of Ghalat we meet Abdallah, Rashid’s brother. He is to accompany us from the coast through the dunes of Ramlat Al Wahiba to the family camp. The dunes of the sand dune area, also called “Wahiba Sands”, are nowhere near as spectacular as those of the Rub al-Chali. For this, Bedouins still live in Ramlat Al Wahiba, letting sheep and goats graze in the sparsely vegetated dunes.
Coffee with cardamom
While I was often invited to tea in the Bedouin tents 20 years ago, the Bedouin curiosity is limited today. They now live in barrack-like buildings and do not really know what to think of the many passing off-road vehicles of the tourists.
Abdallah makes every effort not only to guide us safely through the desert, but also to cater well for us on the way. On a small fire he prepares coffee spiced with cardamom and serves dates. In the evening we reach the “Nomadic Desert Camp”, where we sleep comfortably in huts made of reeds. Of these camps tailored to the needs of tourists, there are more than a dozen in the north of Ramlat Al Wahiba.
In the evening we sit by the fire with Rashid, Abdallah and their brother Ahmed. The magic of 1001 nights can even be felt a little here. In today’s Oman, people usually look for him in vain.