It’s the question we expected after an around-the-world trip for 63 days: “What was your favourite place?”
“Magellan” and I agreed on the answer. “Hiking in all three countries, the juxtaposition of accommodation from a pop-up tent atop a Land Cruiser in Oman to a Burstner campervan in New Zealand to the luxurious Amanpuri Hotel in Bhutan, and the people we met.”
True, but it sounds like it came from a politician’s press release and it’s not the kind of answer friends want, is it?
It felt unfaithful to choose a favourite when each of these unique countries surpassed our (high) expectations. But a multitude of memories from one adventure kept drifting to the top. Our two days in Oman’s Rub’ al Khali, which translates literally into ‘quarter of emptiness,’ commonly called the Empty Quarter.
The next question people ask is, “Why?”
For me, the short answer is fulfillment of a 30-year dream to go to Oman and spend a few nights in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest desert of sand, under a sky bursting with stars in one of the most remote places on earth. For Magellan, it was driving through waves of sand in a Toyota Land Cruiser, an idea conceived just months before he made his first turn around a dune.
Still, in people’s eyes, you can see the unasked question: “Really, why?”
The Empty Quarter is in Dhofar at the southern end of Oman near the small city of Salalah and the border with Yemen. It covers 650,000 square kilometres and contains 15 times as much sand as the Sahara Desert. The Empty Quarter was pretty much unknown to the western world until 1959 when Wilfred Thesiger published the story of his nomadic journeys there in the late 1940s in his book Arabian Sands. Even now, it’s not well known. Odyssey’s 2010 travel guide to Oman has no discussion of it, nothing. The 2011 Rough Guide to Oman has less than half a page even though the area is bigger than France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined. In the ether as a tourist destination, Oman is ethereal for a traveller. As Alastair Bonnett writes in the introduction to his book, Unruly Places:
When the world has been fully codified and collated, when ambivalences and ambiguities have been so sponged away that we know exactly and objectively where everything is and what it is called, a sense of loss arises. The claim to completeness causes us to mourn the possibility of exploration and muse endlessly on the hope of novelty and escape.
Novelty and escape—we got that. And. So. Much. More.
In the planning stages, I thought exploring the Empty Quarter with Magellan at the wheel was too dangerous, even with his experience driving in blizzards, steering on black ice and navigating gravel roads pocked with potholes. Engineers like him look for solutions. Google led Magellan to stories of driving off road in Oman by Jerzy Wierzbicki, a writer/photographer formerly with the magazine Y Pulse of Oman. And then to YouTube. Who knows how many hours he spent watching videos of drivers in the desert, reassuring me with his newfound knowledge of thumb placement, tire pressure and high RPMs? Enough that Aubed, our desert guide, was certain Magellan had driven in the desert before—and was even more incredulous when he discovered our vehicle was a standard shift, not an automatic like his.
As well as being the family romantic, true to my pseudonym “Spice,” our travel itineraries are peppered with dinner reservations, salted with phone numbers for lunch spots and sugared with addresses for coffee shops. We needed none of this in the Empty Quarter—Aubed provided all our meals. But I envisioned us savouring goat meat grilled over a fire. Could that be done? “In the south, the locals follow a different method in making Shuwa and tribes in the Rub Al Khali calls it “Madhwi”, was the response I received to my request. ”Unlike in the North, no spices will be used during the cooking process and the meat will be cooked on hot stones/rocks. The guide will be happy to serve Madhwi during their expedition in to the Empty quarters.”
Expecting Aubed to arrive with goat meat in his cooler, at first I was a little disappointed when he said, “We will go to buy the meat. I think it’s better you choose.” (I wanted to get to the Empty Quarter!) After unsuccessful stops at a grocery mart and Lulu, the big supermarket in Oman, making U-turns at intersections on roads under construction, veering across lanes and down alleys (advance driver training for the desert journey to come), we arrived at the City Centre Meat Souk in Salalah. “We may have to get lamb,” Aubed warned as we circled the “cleaner” butcheries on the Souk’s outside stalls before settling on a tiny shop with two severed goat heads staring out at us through the plastic-wrapped “window.” Sitting on a stool was a young man wielding a huge cleaver, trimmings of fat and gristle scattered on the floor beside his bare feet. While Aubed prefers to eat camel (he raises them), he can cut his way around the hind leg of a goat, as he showed the young butcher.
But it’s in the desert where Aubed, carving his way through raw sand softened by the intense heat of the afternoon, showed his mettle.
“Do you want to see a frankincense farm?” Aubed asked. We stopped at the renowned one at Wadi Dawkah (watch for a story or two later about frankincense, once worth more than gold), at Thumrait for lunch and ice (advice to fellow travelers: buy ice in Salalah to avoid delays and ensure a supply), and at Shsir, the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands. So by the time we reached the end of the tarmac and stopped to deflate the tires to 18 psi, the 35° March sun had heated the desert sand to its maximum for the day and in the distance the air, mirage-like, looked like a suspended vertical wall of shimmering inky liquid.
Gripping the wheel, thumbs flat on top so they wouldn’t dislocate, Magellan revved up to 5,000 RPMs ascending the crest of dunes, paused for a nanosecond so we wouldn’t nose plant, slid the Land Cruiser straight down gently on its balloony tires, then revved up again to crank hairpin turns in an attempt to keep up with Aubed, who rabbited ahead for the three days of 250 kilometres of driving in the crested dunes of the Rub’ al Khali. Did Aubed have GPS? No—every collection of dunes is retrieved from his incredible memory of the geography he loves best, the desert he’s been navigating since the early ’90s.
When he retired from the army in 2007, Aubed began working for Arabian Sand Tours, his cousin Mussallem’s company. They have five guides, “all old except for my nephew.” And all good, I’m guessing. Why do I say so? BBC used the company’s services for its highly recommended 2009 documentary, The Frankincense Trail.
Over the crests of a hundred dunes a few hours later, Aubed stopped. Our camp spot. The Fasad area of the Empty Quarter. “I am going for firewood,” he said. The three of us triangulated into the desert, returning in less than half an hour bundled with dead branches. Who’d guess you’d find firewood here? The Empty Quarter is full of surprises.
How many visitors experience this wondrous area? “Sometimes 10 cars in a day in the winter,” says Aubed. “I don’t know how many in a year. Maybe a thousand.” During our time in the Empty Quarter we saw two trucks: one venturing on a ‘road’ and another, sunburnt and abandoned with a collapsed rear end, near Barcanna 1, the only Bedouin water well before the Saudi border 60 km away.
Aubed suggested we climb some dunes while he prepared dinner. In the Empty Quarter, dunes rise as high as 300 metres, although near our campsites they weren’t quite that tall. Where the wind had hardened ridges of sand reddened by feldstar, it’s easy; not so on the lee side where you sink to your shins and lifting your feet causes a small avalanche of sand to ripple down the rim.
As we worked our way down to the campsite, we could see Aubed squatting beside the open fire as he turned the strips of meat. “What did the goat meat taste like?” people ask. Not at all gamey. A bit chewy but not tough. Sprinkled with masala and accompanied by a hot sauce on the side (both Omani-style and milder than we’re accustomed to), Aubed served the hot-off-the-grill goat meat with hummus (who knew it came in a can?), Arabic bread and a mixed salad. When I complemented him on the dressing, he said, “I used live oil for the salad.”
Dinner was an oddity. Magellan and I, seated on Aubed’s mat among his cooking supplies and bedding, were eating. Aubed was not.
“Are you sure it’s okay that we eat while you’re praying?” I asked as he prostrated on his blue prayer mat next to my elbow. “Yes, yes, it is good.”
In Oman, 85% of its estimated four million citizens are Muslims. They practice a unique form of the faith, Ibadhism, the most tolerant form of Islam followed by only 1% of Muslims worldwide. While its practitioners regard Sunnis, Shiites and other Muslims as non-believers, they are not hostile toward them.
Oman is a benevolent and democratic kingdom led by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who after peaceably taking over from his father in 1970, modernized the country dramatically. Sultan Qaboos is revered by everyone we met in the country—to see how much, take a look at this blog: http://dhofarigucci.blogspot.ca/2014/11/the-weight-of-uncertainty.html
“Is Oman safe?” we’re always asked. A logical question, because although it has mountains, beaches and deserts, good infrastructure, historical sites, a few large cities and an English-speaking population, Oman is not well known here in the west as a tourist mecca even though it attracts more than two million visitors annually and has extensive plans to increase that number substantially. But back to the question: is it safe? Very. For example, in Muscat when I wanted to photograph the Sultan’s guesthouse and realized I’d left my purse on the backseat of our taxi—its doors unlocked—the driver said, “Don’t worry. We will only be 10 minutes. It will be safe.”
Remember I said the Empty Quarter was full of surprises? After dinner, Aubed scraped the leftovers into two dishes. “I will go for a walk now and find a place to leave the goat for the desert foxes. Then I will walk the other way and leave the salad for the rabbits.” (On the second night there were no leftovers of curried rice and lentils. “I will tell my wife you say I am a good cook,” Aubed smiled.) There were other signs of animal life in the desert, too. Oblivious to our Land Cruisers, black camels nonchalantly traversed the desert with the relaxed cadence of longtime travelers. Near our campsite in the mornings, faint footprints of desert mice pinpricked the red sand.
Sunrise or sunset, which was better? Sunrise enflamed the crests of sand with licks of orange, intense and vibrant and deepened the wave patterns, uruqs sculpted by the wind. Clive James, in his poem “Event Horizon”, expresses it best: “…to see the cosmos blaze/And feel its grandeur.” The morning sun doesn’t simply kiss the mountains of sand, it wraps its light around them in a full-body embrace. As we stood atop a dune watching the morning alight the endless mountains of sand, I was filled with a sense of infinity. And, as we worked our way down trying to follow our earlier footsteps, blurred and filling with wind-blown sand, a sense of impermanence.
Day two as we drove deeper into the desert, Aubed tested Magellan’s driving skills. Up we went, engine revving full throttle to climb our way to the top of ever-higher dunes, changing gears to pick up speed to keep pace with Aubed who was often half a kilometer ahead while the hot sand became more raw and relentless, momentarily grateful for a small stretch of gypsum-caked hard pack. Then it happened. A bigger dune. Softer sand. No time for a gear change, not enough torque. Stuck.
Were we worried? Not at all. In fact, it was kind of fun. And unbeknownst to us, our GoPro was stuck on play and captured a lot of the action. That was a fine stroke of good luck. Usually when Magellan and I get ourselves into predicaments like this, we focus on quickly getting out of trouble while our cameras sit in our backpacks, unfocused on the unfolding drama. Sunk in the sand, we were calm enough to video the rescue. Maybe because we trusted Aubed’s skills. And Magellan’s. But I think it was more than that—we accepted getting stuck as a likely consequence with a likely outcome. “Do many people get stuck?” we asked Aubed. “You haven’t had the desert driving unless you are stuck. It is normal,” Aubed said at dinner after a few more incidents.
Aubed came equipped with three sturdy towropes. Good thing as the one we were provided with snapped at the first tug. Having read that a hoe makes it easier to move sand away from the wheels than a shovel, Magellan had bought one at the Nizwa Souk. (That attracted the attention of the locals!) Aubed was impressed with the hoe and did quite the dance when we presented it to him as a parting gift.
Two days and nights in Oman’s Rub’ al Khali, which translates literally into quarter of emptiness, what is commonly called the Empty Quarter. The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest desert of sand with a sky bursting with stars in one of the most remote places on earth. We drove more than 250 km offered through waves of sand in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and were stuck only four times!.
You can see the illusory Empty Quarter by hiring a driver/guide. Or put together a group with a few Land Cruisers. Or go it alone—but why would you be so foolish? Aubed told us the story of how he was driving an older couple into the desert and got stuck on a dune near the area where he planned to camp. “I got them settled, made them dinner and went back to my car. It took me four hours to get it unstuck. Very tiring.”
Time slowed in Rub’ al Khali (Khali is pronounced ‘hall-e’, like the first two syllables of hallelujah.) The intense daylight forced us to squeeze shut our eyes, to reopen them and gaze more intently to render a clearer image. Nightfall crawled slowly across the dunes, the warmth of the day lingering in the sand, the desert a giant bed of heat beneath the vibrant colours of our Bedouin mats. Throughout the long night, the quiet breath of the desert breeze encircled us as we drifted in and out of illusory dreams in an ear-ringing silence of emptiness. Time dissolved into a vast eternity.
Do you see why we loved it best?
BBC’s “The Frankincense Trail”
Bonnett, Alastair. Unruly Places. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2014.
Grist, Mark. Oman Off-Road. United Arab Emirates: Explorer, 2006.
James, Clive. Sentenced to Life. London: Picador, 2015.
Jerzy Wierzbicki Photography
Nadia Dhofari Gucci Blog
Popp, Georg. Oman, Jewel of the Arabian Gulf. Hong Kong, Odyssey Books & Guides, 2010.
Spearman, Helen, and Drynan, Kate, and Greig, Richard, and Carnay, Grace. Oman mini Explorer. Dubai: Explorer Publishing & Distribution, 2008.
St. Pierre White, Andrew. The Complete Guide to Four Wheel Drive.
Thesiger, Wilfred. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics, 1959.
Thomas, Gavin. The Rough Guide to Oman. 2011.
Walker, Jenny, and Owen, Sam. Off-Road in the Sultanate of Oman.