Our next destination is the 1000 Nights Camp, in the middle of the Sharqiyah Sands. The dunes run north-south, meaning we can either approach it from the north (the usual way) or the south (much longer). As we are heading north the following day and hate retracing our steps, we decide to take the long way along the coastal road, then turn north and drive for 120km through the sands to our camp.
The costal road is dotted with villages of various size. We stop at a small settlement and buy some crisps, flatbread, and sugar buns from a tiny shop. Not a very balanced meal, but that’s about all they had in edible foodstuffs. We then cross a fairly big and wealthy looking fishing town with new houses being constructed on the outskirts. Apparently this is the wealthy neighbourhood of Al Ashkharah, the houses are all tarted up with garish colours and golden mirror mosaics glittering in the sun. It’s surprising and in stark contrast with what we’ve seen of Omani architecture so far, usually very traditional and in sober muted tones. A bit further on in a large wadi estuary we spot a small factory: it’s an ice making plant standing incongruously in the middle of the desert.
We’re getting closer to the sands and pass a 4×4 on the other side of the road with a tourist hightailing it into the dunes for a pee break. We didn’t know it now, but this detail would prove important very shortly!
Shortly after noon we arrive at the spot where our GPS says we should enter the dunes. It’s a sort of nomadic settlement with plastic shelters scattered on both sides of the road. The road we are to follow appears to just be a few wheel tracks leading into the sands, not at all the hardpack track we assumed we would find. As Ryo might say, “we were unexpecting this.”
There is another 4×4 waiting there with Omani in headscarves. The driver rolls down his window and asks us if we’re going into the sands. Skye replies in the affirmative and he says “Ah, OK, but where is Nawad?” Skye is stumped by this one, but just then another 4×4 pulls up carrying the pee break tourists… with said Nawad at the wheel! Skye goes to speak to Nawad who asks us where our other vehicles are. “You’re going alone? You don’t drive 120km in the desert alone!” He explains that he is paying $250 to these 3 Bedouin to escort them through the dunes because you don’t go alone in case you get stuck or other misfortune occurs. He goes to talk to the Bedouin and says that they will escort us as well for half that. It’s a lot of money, but given that a born-and-bred Omani guide doesn’t dare make the crossing himself, it would be reckless to just “wing it” ourselves. So we accept this “insurance policy” and the Bedouins prepare our vehicle, dropping the tire pressure from 35psi to 18 for churning through the sand.
We head off as a convoy of three vehicles, ours sandwiched between the Bedouins up front and the tourists behind. We take off full speed into the sand and Skye is already happy to have joined the group: there is no discernable track, just endless rolling sand and the odd tire track heading in different directions. We average 60km/h with peaks of over 100km/h on the firm bits. In fact in the softer stuff you must not slow down or else you’ll never get going again.
We race crazily through relatively lush dunes; unlike the giant dunes of the Empty Quarter here the dunes are smaller and stretched out in long ridges, carpeted with bushes. On our way, we pass some Bedouin shelters, a few wells and oases, and of course grazing camels. It’s a tiring and physical drive but Skye is having fun as he just has to follow the leader and not stress about where to turn or how fast to take the dunes. We stop for a pee break at a small oasis. There used to be a big tree here that the guide would picnic under, but it got snapped by heavy wind last year and now there are only a few low bushes.
We hop back in the 4x4s for the second leg of our journey. Lunch is spent on the move and as Skye has his hands full Sandra has to handfeed him. Sandra tries to poke cheese puffs and paprika corn crisps into Skye’s mouth as we bounce wildly about on the sand track, it’s absolutely hilarious, and we’re glad we didn’t bring our usual lunch of pita and hummus!
At long last we reach the 1000 Nights camp, and say goodbye to our escort, but not before he warns us about the sand pirates on our way out tomorrow. Apparently there are guys who single out “self-drives” like ourselves: they stop us on the track so we get stuck and then have to pay for them to pull us out. Skye jokes to Ryo that they’re kind of like the Tusken Raiders from Star Wars; he was more stressed than we were!
The camp is pretty, and there is a pool! We are in a basic tent with a communal wash house, but as there is only one other basic tent occupied we actually have two bathrooms to ourselves. Ryo looks with envy at the fancy glassed-in tents with aircon; our simple tent is a big step down from the luxury we had at the Juweirah in Salalah!
We take a plunge in the pool (in the middle of the desert!) and then order our new favourite drink in this dry country, the lemon and mint mocktail. The bar is in an old dhow boat, just as out of place in the dunes as the pool. Sandra is behind on her blogs so she takes out her computer which, in hindsight, was not too smart as it is quickly covered in a layer of red sand dust. Meanwhile Skye takes Ryo to check out a couple of pens with desert animals. There are Oryx, a local antelope with beautiful long horns, the tiny Arabian Gazelle, and lots of rabbits. When they return, Ryo is invited to go back in the pool by an 11-year-old kid from Texas who is living in Muscat as his Dad comes to the end of a 3-year posting there.
The weather is increasingly overcast and there is a strong wind, but we do the obligatory climb of the dune ridge even if there is no sunset to be seen. Ryo and his new friend Grayson enjoy some sandboarding as the hotel has a sled, snowboard, and even skis! Skye and Sandra try to reach the top, but the sand dunes are pretty large and every time you think you’re at the top, there’s another dune just behind it, then another, then another… We’re a bit saddened by the state of the desert: compared to the pristine Empty Quarter here the sand is littered with plastic, bottles, cans, and all sorts of other junk.
We then head back for mocktails in the dhow bar followed by dinner in the beautifully decorated restaurant. The buffet is generous and there is a grill stand where you can also ask for fresh naan bread right out of the tandoor. For dessert Sandra liked the honeyed dough balls, but the popular Omani desert halwa, less so. It’s a bit like softer Turkish delight with a lot of rose water.
We get a light sprinkle of rain over supper, then head back to our tent. After a quick shower in the sanitary block (showerhead mounted over the toilet, so you can multitask if you want!) we settle into our comfy beds, with the door flap open for some cool air and to see the stars that have now come out. Tomorrow should be a beautiful day!