05:09 am - Saturday 19 April 2014
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Oman: Magical moments in the desert

By staff - Thu Apr 05, 1:44 pm

Maybe it’s the larrikin in me but I never tire of careering over desert sands in four-wheel-drives. I love the sense of freedom it brings and even though sand is sand, a desert sunset is never the same two times running.

The Wahiba Sands that cover 10,000 square kilometres inland from Sur in Oman have all the prerequisite elements for your first, or subsequent desert experience – there are camels to ride, the 4WDs, Bedouin in traditional dress and of course those quintessential sunsets and sunrises.

Unlike the Bedouin, who until relatively recently still lived semi-nomadic lifestyles in the desert centred around their goat hair tents, travellers are more likely to spend the night in permanent camps with en suite facilities.

The camp I stayed in was nestled in between two ridges of sand dunes. Beside the dining tent in the centre of the camp was an elevated platform covered with carpets and lined with low couches and bolster.

As this was the off-season for most visitors, the couches were almost all occupied with local men. Almost everyone was in traditional dress – long white dishdashes and either patterned turbans or round caps adorned with multicoloured embroidery.

No one had arrived by camel however – a line-up of late-model four-wheel-drives was parked outside the camp walls and almost to a man everyone was either talking or texting on their mobiles.

Before it got dark, four camels did pass us, taking tourists from the neighbouring camp to the top of the highest ridge behind us in time for sunset.

A few other visitors were slogging through the sand to the summit on foot. The locals, however, preferred to hurl their 4WDs up the slopes.

Adbul, my guide, followed suit. As we skittered, sideways at times, up the dune, he told me that even though he had been here dozens of times, it remained one of his favourite places.

“It is one of the only places I can find some peace and relax,” he said, as he got out of the vehicle on the ridge and sank on to his knees into the sand.

The next day we drove into Ibra, where a women’s only souk is held every Wednesday. Men can attend to shop, or assist, but this is the day reserved for women to conduct the sales.

The Bedu women from the area, most with their faces covered with gold or black facemasks sat among mounds of sparkly, brightly-coloured fabric.

There were bins full of sequinned, embroidered trims, black silk headscarves festooned with gold and silver beadwork and inexpensive costume jewellery.

They women were also selling produce from their own livestock and family land including cheeses, honey, eggs and vegetables.

Two women invited me to sit with them so they could show off their weaving.

Weaving is one of Arabia’s oldest crafts and is done outside on a ground loom. The women were selling bolts of red, black and white-striped fabric shot with silver thread; some fabrics had stylised camels and coffee pots incorporated into the designs.

While the Omani Bedouin seem in many way to be steeped in age-old traditions, there is no doubting that they also have 21st century economic clout.

We were passed on the highway many times by masked women driving gleaming Toyota Hiluxes (the Bedouins’ 4WD of choice).

I commented to Adbul that there must be a lot of money in weaving. He laughed.

The Bedouin women were part of wealthy families, he explained, but the source of their wealth was not craftwork or even dates… it was camels.

These animals are not in demand now for transport but for racing; Omani camels are regarded as the very best and top quality animals and can sell for over $300,000 apiece.

This is why you’ll find Bedu women, sometimes sporting masks of gold-covered fabric, at the wheels of sparkling new 4WDs.

We stopped in another small-town souk where the streets were piled high with sacks of dates. The dates in Oman are delicious and absolutely nothing like the dried bullets we mostly have in New Zealand.

Near the dates was a fish market with the catch freshly caught overnight in the Gulf of Oman – there were also three young camels tied up nearby. They’d been bought in the livestock market and were now waiting for transport back to the new desert homes.

Unlike some desert landscapes, Oman’s interior is extremely mountainous – sand and gravel deserts are broken up by rugged, striated, folded mountains in which nestle oasis or wadis (river beds).

I washed off the dust and the sand from the souks in Wadi Bani Khalid where a constant flow of water fills a series of pools and ravines.

The pools were fringed with palms and the water was cool and at least nine metres deep in places.

It was just about the perfect desert oasis.
By Jill Worrall

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