Oman: Desert, dunes & dhows

Oman entrances with its timeless beauty. Discover wide expanses of empty, golden sand and soar across its deep blue sea with nights spent beneath the stars

By Nick Boulos
Published 20 Mar 2015, 10:15 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 16:51 BST

It's been a good morning for Khalid bin Ahmed. Barely lunchtime, the goat herder beams broadly and clutches a handful of dog-eared Omani banknotes.

Behind him, the Nizwa weekend cattle market is in full swing. A swelling crowd of men wearing white dishdasha (traditional full-length robes) jostle for position along a large circular track in which farmers parade their offerings. Dust — kicked up by the countless hooves of cows and goats — swirls in the clammy air, scented sweetly by the nearby date souk.

Stones are hurled by prospective buyers as a way of expressing interest. Long arms reach out, with hands intrusively groping the animals to inspect their worth. Offers are shouted over the guttural groans of passing goats. Deals are done. Money exchanged. Some sorry specimens fail to sell, but for Khalid it's a good day at the market.

A civil servant during the week, he's been coming here every Friday for over 20 years, a tradition followed by the men in his family since the days of his great grandfather. "I come after morning prayers," Khalid explains. "Sometimes I sell just one goat, other days 10. Today it was six. Hamdullah (praise to God)."

The shouting and stone throwing is how business has been done in this patch of Oman for generations. "Everyone knows their place," says guide Salah. "I once saw a baby camel sell here for 14,000 rial (£24,000). The farmer went straight to the Toyota showroom and bought a land cruiser."

Before arriving into Nizwa, my trip through northern Oman started in Muscat, the nation's capital — hugged by mountains and lapped by the Gulf of Oman. It's a city of mosques and museums, where the palaces are gaudy and the markets are heady with burning frankincense — the country's most famous export since 5000BC, when camel caravans transported it across Arabia.

On the crescent-shaped Corniche, locals gather under the amber hue of late afternoon. Most clutch fishing rods and wait patiently for a catch. Bobbing in the harbour before them are boats of all shapes and sizes, from rickety wooden fishing boats to yachts so luxurious they'd turn Roman Abramovich an unflattering shade of green.

Also among them is the Star of the Sea: a beautiful 40ft-long dhow made of varnished Malaysian teak — and our home for the night. We set sail along the mountainous coastline with skipper Syed at the helm.

Some time later, we moor at one of his favourite spots in all of Oman: Bandar Al Khiran (Island of Trees). With no other boats in sight, we have it to ourselves. The water — warm and almost iridescent — brushes against limestone cliffs that soar skywards. We jump off the boat to snorkel with turtles before a night spent sleeping out on deck. Entertainment comes in the form of a passing shoal of sardines, their metallic bodies reflecting brilliantly against the dark water. Numbering in the thousands, they congregate beside the boat, moving as one and constantly morphing, creating a surreal spectacle submerged just below the surface.

"I've spent my whole life on the water," says captain Syed as we peer overboard. "Before, I used this dhow for fishing but the increase in tourism has changed that. It was built in Sur. All the best dhows are built in Sur."

Mother of the Dhow

The coastal city of Sur, a 93-mile drive south east, is our next stop. Its skyline of a dozen domes and slender watchtowers faces out to a sea once plied by boats built here by master craftsmen. In days gone, Sur (meaning 'Mother of the Dhow') was a thriving metropolis, the richest city in the land and the epicentre of Oman's shipbuilding industry. Constructing sturdy ships that linked the Arabian Peninsular to India and East Africa in the 16th century, it enjoyed a prolonged period of prosperity. Sadly, the good times weren't to last and the collapse of the slave trade sparked rapid decline.

In a sorry state of affairs, only one dhow-building yard remains in operation. Not just in Sur, but in the whole of Oman. Beyond the factory's wooden gates and crumbling concrete wall comes the sound of the drilling and hammering of metal. Inside, a frenzy of sparks fly from mechanical saws, while others work on the dhow. Elsewhere, others sit hunched over heavy pieces of wood, carving intricate details into the long blocks. Among them is Vasudev, who, like most of the others, hails from India. A slight man with cloudy eyes and teeth stained red from a lifetime spent chewing paan (betel leaf and tobacco), Vasudev has been building dhows here for 29 years. "I miss India," he tells me, "but I feel such pride when we finish a dhow and it takes to the water for the first time."

It's a lengthy process, one that takes the best part of a year. The boats — originally used for hauling spice and slaves but now mainly used to transport fish and tourists — sell for around £200,000 each.

Today, about 70,000 people live in Sur — a fraction of the number that populated the city in its heyday. On this particular day, though, the streets are largely quiet. Those who have ventured out in the sweltering heat gather around a wobbly table under a shady tree. Elaborate hand gestures accompany raised voices as the unfolding game of dominoes reaches a critical stage. Players shield their remaining pieces from view before slamming them down one by one and reaching for the pile of diminishing sunflower seeds nearby.

Excusing himself from the game, Salem Ali Salum sits to one side and strokes his jet-black moustache, which I suspect may be dyed. "When we have no work, we meet here to drink tea and play games," he tells me. By work, he means fishing. "Sometimes we fish at night, looking for tuna and sardines. My father taught me when I was eight years old. Back then, we had one line with a hook but today we have many nets. It's a good job to have."

From Sur, we drive south along the coastal road, through a region first occupied by the Portuguese in the 1500s. It's a journey through lush wadis and small villages in the foothills of mountains with serrated peaks. One such community, tucked away near Wadi Tiwi — where limes hang from trees like emerald baubles — is in the throes of rush hour. A convoy of 4WDs, each filled with primary school children waving the Omani flags, speeds past. (School buses wouldn't stand much of a chance on these steep mountain passes.) Each is plastered with the national colours — red for power, green for agriculture and white for peace — as well as pictures of the beloved head of state.

Sultan Qaboos has ruled Oman ever since launching a bloodless coup against his father in 1970. In these parts, the 74-year-old enjoys almost god-like status, with most crediting him for bringing prosperity to a country once divided. "He's a good man," says Salah. "We pay no tax, have free healthcare and most people are given land. Before he came to power, there were only two schools in the whole country. He even paid off my uncle's bank loan. How many other heads of state do that?" He makes a good point.

Unmarried, without children and with no apparent heir, the Sultan's private life is shrouded in secrecy but the rumours and lack of any real information cause little concern to locals. "As long as he's happy, we're happy," says Salah coyly.

The Sultan's influence extends to almost all aspects of life in Oman. His bearded face hangs framed on nearly every wall, from private homes to fast food restaurants; roads, mosques and universities in the capital bear his name; local radio stations broadcast his 'words of wisdom' and extracts from past speeches. I listen to one such instalment as we cross a vast desert plain bordered by tall dunes, ahead of three nights camping in the wilderness.

Dune raider

My last glimpse of civilisation comes in the form of a lonely Bedouin tent-turned coffee shop. Opposite, is the local petrol station: two barrels and a hose sitting under a makeshift shelter, consisting of little more than a piece of plywood and a handwritten sign, reading 'An Oil Station'. We sit on rugs and cushions placed on the floor, as host Thunia — only her eyes visible beneath a bright green headdress — hands us each a tiny cup and pours the coffee (strong, bitter and laced with cardamom, as is the Omani way). Her gold rings and clanging bangles sparkle in the sun.

She and the other 10 members of her family have lived in this lonely spot for more than a decade. "I can't imagine being in the city. Too busy," she tuts. "I like a quiet life, although the summers here in the desert are very extreme." With that, her mobile lights up and she rushes off to take a call, leaving Salah and I to sip coffee, nibble on sticky dates and savour the solitude.

Venturing deeper still into the desert, the only other vehicle we pass is a pick-up truck transporting some very precious cargo. In the back is a camel and its young calf, en route to the nearest cattle market. The drive is a thrilling one, crossing sandy expanses and accelerating up and down dunes taller than houses. Sand pounds on the windscreen but cool-as-a-cucumber Salah takes it all in his stride. "You can't be afraid," he says, adjusting his shades and spinning the steering wheel sharply as the jeep hurtles down the sandy mountain. "I've been driving in the desert for years. All you need is a strong heart and good nerves."

Salah was born in Muscat but spends most of his time away from the city. "I love the desert, its solitude and nature. It's a special place." That much is clear. The unmistakable silhouettes of wild camels cross the horizon slowly and the red-tinted sand, as soft as it is warm, tingles the soles of my feet whenever we stop to stretch our legs.

Our camp for the night is in the basin of a small coastal valley, ringed by dunes in every direction. I scramble up the tallest, the sand squeaking and shifting underfoot as my heart races and thighs burn, and I sit on the crest to watch the waves crash against the tall caramel-coloured cliffs. A small fishing boat makes its way back to land, the sole occupant waving and holding up his catch proudly.

Night falls and with it the temperature. Wrapped up in fleeces, we dine on barbecued lamb and lobster, served with moutabel, a tasty dip of pureed aubergine. With every mouthful, the stars become brighter and more plentiful. I lie in the sand and stare up at the dark abyss, counting the shooting stars that chase each other across the sky.

Early the next morning, I emerge blurry eyed from my tent to find fresh tracks from desert foxes crisscrossing the camp. Dawn is just as entrancing as sunset, turning the dunes a shimmering gold.

After another two nights under the stars, each in different locations equally as magical, it was time for a little luxury. Oman doesn't strike most as a destination offering the five-star treatment, nor does it court deep pockets in quite the same way as neighbouring United Arab Emirates. But at Six Senses Zighy Bay, a resort on the remote Musandam Peninsular to the far north, it's all about indulgence. Closer to Dubai than Muscat, nearly 95 miles away, it's a hideaway whose guests have included footballers and royalty.

The first sign of the decadence that awaits comes before I even set sight on the resort, when I'm offered a 'paragliding arrival'. How very James Bond. Sadly, winds are high (and my bravery levels low), so I opt for the more traditional option: a drive along the spectacular mountain road. The gravelled track winds its way through the rugged Al Hajar mountains and downwards towards the resort: a cluster of thatched villas nestled beside the sea, surrounded by swaying palms. Designed to resemble a traditional Oman village, with narrow lanes and sandy side streets, its 83 rooms are made from limestone blocks, sourced from the surrounding mountains, and dried date palm leaves stitched together.

I settle into villa 57 with ease. Like the others, it has a private, opal-tiled pool and a bathtub (almost) big enough for a five-a-side football team. There's an outdoor shower, a pillow menu with 14 options and it's scented with burning frankincense. Drifting over the top of the stonewalls is the distant sound of waves rolling ashore.

The beach — its soft sand scattered with beautiful pieces of washed-up coral — doesn't quite compare to those found in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean but it's long and blissfully empty, and the perfect antidote to my time in the desert.

I spend a couple of heavenly days doing very little. I cycle around the resort, retreat to the spa for treatments using soothing Omani ingredients (figs and dates) and feast on lamb cooked for seven hours in an earthen pit — a cooking method favoured by the nomadic Bedouins for centuries.

I take a final stroll along the beach, as day turns to night. An old dhow enters the bay, crossing the threads of pale moonlight that dance across the water's slate surface. On board are smitten couples returning from an unforgettable sunset cruise, sailing the seas in a glorious piece of Omani heritage that dates back centuries. What could be more perfect?


Getting there
British Airways and Oman Air offer nonstop flights between the UK and Muscat.
Six Senses Zighy Bay is more easily reached from Dubai, a two-hour drive away. British Airways, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic offer flights from Heathrow, while Emirates also flies from a number of UK airports.
Average flight time: 7.5h.

When to go
Between November and March is the best time to visit, when the average temperature is a pleasant 25C. The sweltering summers are best avoided.

Need to know
Visa: Available on arrival at Muscat International Airport for £10.
Currency: Omani rial (OMR). £1 = OMR0.58.
Health: No vaccinations required.
International dial code: 00 968.
Time difference: GMT +4.

More info
Oman, by Diana Darke. RRP: £16.99 (Bradt Travel Guides).

How to do it
Explore Worldwide has an eight-day Oman itinerary from £1,575 per person. The price includes international flights, ground transportation, accommodation and three nights' desert camping.
Pool villas at Six Senses Zighy Bay, from £400 a night.

Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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