Ridges, ripples and vast swathes of sand: how to discover Oman’s deserts

Some of the world’s most extreme expanses of desert are found within Oman’s borders, sprawling from horizon to horizon. From quad biking to birdwatching, here are five ways to make the most of the sand.

Published 4 Dec 2020, 11:06 GMT, Updated 17 Dec 2020, 13:11 GMT
The Omani section of the Empty Quarter is not just hypnotic, but huge too.

The Omani section of the Empty Quarter is not just hypnotic, but huge too.

Photograph by Getty Images

Dunes carpet vast swathes of Oman, and we’re not talking the kind of modest sandy mounds you might find at a British beach. The options to explore these unique environments are many, ranging from no-frills dune adventures and adrenalin-fuelled activities to luxury desert camps. Regardless of your preference, get ready for an immersive experience into an unforgettable slice of the Arabian Peninsula. So, sunglasses on, and welcome to the great beyond.

Explore the Empty Quarter

Rub al Khali is the yawning desert wilderness that quilts the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. It spreads across four different countries and its English name is a stirring one, conveying something of its colossal size and character: the Empty Quarter. When explorer Bertram Thomas set out to cross it for the first time in the 1930s, it took him 59 days — and that was with local guides. As deserts go, this is about as exhilarating as it gets.

The Omani section of the Empty Quarter is not just hypnotic, but huge too. A trip here is about leaving the urban world behind and entering a realm of isolated camps, numberless dunes and wild, starry nights. Oman’s people always lie at the heart of any journey to the country and heading into the Empty Quarter gives the added advantage of learning more about the lifestyles of nomadic Bedouins.   

Wild Frontiers Travel has various Omani itineraries, including a group tour of the Empty Quarter and Wahiba Sands.

The ancient city of Ash Shisr lies on the very edge of the Empty Quarter.

Photograph by Getty Images

Discover the land of Frankincense

Frankincense, you’ll be aware, has been prized for thousands of years. But the woody, spicy resin is only obtained from a very specific type of desert tree, the Boswellia serrata, which grows solely in particularly dry environments. Southern Oman is one such place. The region has been home to frankincense traders since medieval times, and the heritage surrounding the trade is still substantial enough to have been recognised by UNESCO.

The ancient city of Ash Shisr (also known as Wubar), on the very edge of the Empty Quarter, was once a caravan oasis with date gardens, a gleaming fort and a wealth that stemmed from its frankincense production. The ruins of the fort can still be visited today, while close by is Wadi Dawkah, where the trees themselves are still harvested for their aromatic resin.        

Discover Oman Tours offers tours that incorporate Wadi Dawkah and the lost city of Ash Shisr.

Oman is home to the highest sand dune in the world, the Ramlat Jadilah, which measures a staggering 1,492ft.

Photograph by Getty Images

Sandboarding and desert quad biking

Back in 2017, it was announced that Oman was now home to the highest sand dune in the world. Ramlat Jadilah, a sandy leviathan in the Empty Quarter, was measured at 1,492ft in height (some 120ft above its nearest international rival), immediately alerting the country’s sandboarding community to a thrill like no other. The sport, which is similar to snowboarding, involves hurtling down dunes on specially designed boards. Fun? That’s putting it mildly.

Oman is full of other places to unleash your downhill urges. Wahiba Sands, also known as Sharqiya Sands, is a gorgeous swathe of desert that has the advantage of being easily reachable from Muscat. Operators are often able to drive you to the top of the dunes, meaning you’re left with the easy part. And if that doesn’t sound like enough of an adrenalin rush, desert quad-biking options are available here too.   

Majan Views has day trips to Wahiba Sands combining sandboarding and quad biking.

The country’s tropical climate and varied habitats attracts a multitude of winged visitors, such as the Nile Valley sunbird.

Photograph by Getty Images

Train your eyes on desert birdlife

Oman has serious credentials among bird-lovers. The country’s tropical climate and varied habitats help to attract a wealth of different winged visitors, from the East African species along the southern coast to the seabirds that cluster offshore. Turning inland to the deserts, meanwhile, the diversity of species is no less impressive, thanks to exotic-sounding birds such as the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, the Asian desert warbler and the Nile Valley sunbird.

Birding tours of Oman tend to cover multiple parts of the map, from north to south, allowing you to marvel at the birdlife while at the same time getting a broader sense for what makes the country such a special one. The key piece of advice? Don’t forget your binoculars.      

Sunbird Tours has birding tours of Oman that offer a comprehensive overview of the country.

The bedouins of Oman preserve much of their cultural spirit and ethos, leading lives closely entwined with nature.

Photograph by Oman Ministry of Heritage and Tourism

Sample a slice of desert luxury

The broad dunes of Wahiba Sands hold secrets. Not only are they home to rolling horizons, Bedouin camps and hardy desert wildlife, they also provide the remote setting for the award-winning Thousand Nights Camp. Named the best Global Luxury Desert Camp at 2019’s World Luxury Hotel Awards, the far-flung refuge offers high-end hospitality, fine dining and four different categories of guestroom and deluxe tent — all surrounded by the immensity of the desert.

Despite being 25 miles from the edge of the sands, the camp has a swimming pool, an elaborate list of mocktails and a ‘desert ship lounge’ set on a dhow that once sailed the Arabian Sea. How they got it out here is anyone’s guess. A stay also gives visitors the chance to witness the desert’s spectacular sunsets and sunrises first-hand.   

Old Muscat Tourism offers desert adventures with stays at the Thousand Nights Camp.  

Essentials

Getting there
Oman Air flies direct from Heathrow to Muscat International Airport.

When to go
October to March are the peak months, when much of Oman has a summer-in-the-Med climate. 

For more information on the country as a whole, visit experienceoman.om

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