I leave Muscat reluctantly. Over the last few days the Omani capital has enchanted me at every turn; I have been seduced by its authentic Arabian aesthetic, beguiled by its mystical charm. I strolled around souks, inhaling the sweet smell of Frankincense that hung deliciously in the air. I watched the sunset over ancient citadels as the call to prayer echoed evocatively around the streets. And I was kissed by the cool Arabian breeze, which came and blew away the sultry evening air.
The city blew me away, too. My mouth gaped when I visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and saw its gleaming marble facade in the morning sun. I was equally awed by the Royal Muscat Opera House, the first venue of its kind in the Persian Gulf, and one of the finest opera houses in the world. But now it’s time to leave Muscat, the jewel of Arabia, and go in search of new treasures in the desert.
Tearing me away from this beautiful city is Vicky Sotriffer, a bubbly Italian who arrives at my hotel bright and early in a shiny Land Cruiser. Vicky is a guide for Hud Hud Travels, a luxury tour operator which organises private camps and tailored excursions in the Omani wilderness. The company goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfil the whims and fancies of its clients; if you want to play a grand piano in the middle of the desert, they make it happen; if you fancy living like a Bedouin king for a fortnight, leave it with them.
Unfortunately, time permits me just one evening with them, so we make good speed out of Muscat and head south on a smooth coastal highway, admiring the limpid Arabian Sea to our left and the Hajar Mountains to our right. “We’re going up there,” says Vicky, pointing to the rugged peaks and peeling off the highway.
It is on this rough, unforgiving terrain that the safari really begins. We become enveloped by the dramatic landscape, which is characterised by otherworldly rock formations, remote mountain villages and nomadic shepherds. “Those huts belong to the shepherds,” explains Vicky, pointing to makeshift shanties, which nestle, sometimes precariously, in the nooks and crannies of the mountains. “The Sultan offered them houses by the coast, but they wanted to stay here.”
We continue our ascent, passing through another lofty village where men in dishdashas flag us down for a friendly chat. “Assalamu alaikum,” they say, before inviting us into their homes for coffee. Reluctantly, we decline, explaining that we must reach our desert camp before sunset. They nod understandingly and bid us a safe trip.
The journey from the mountains to our desert camp is punctuated by a string of welcome distractions; we stop to listen to the call to prayer at a lonely mosque, to view verdant oases in the valleys below and watch enormous Egyptian vultures on thermals above.
We stop for lunch, too, on a hill overlooking a sweeping, sandy valley. While Vicky sets up the picnic, I nose around a nearby collection of beehive tombs. Dating back to 3500BC, these stone mausoleums can be found scattered throughout the Hajar Mountains and are collectively inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. We sit amongst them, on fine Arabian carpets, and quaff a sumptuous lunch of marinated meat, salad and fresh fruit. In the distance we hear the faint cries of a shepherd calling his flock. And on the horizon I see her, the desert, shimmering coquettishly in the sun.
Beehive tombs | Gavin Haines
Everywhere I look, there’s sand. Vicky’s assertion that we are approaching the camp seems implausible – is it disguised as a camel, because I can’t see anything else resembling life around here? But then, in the distance, I notice a man waving from atop a dune. “Hold on tight,” says Vicky, squeezing the accelerator and steering towards this improbable character. The Toyota hits the dune at speed and roars up the steep, sandy slope. I didn’t realise dune bashing was in the itinerary, but I’m not complaining. After much huffing and puffing the car reaches the apex in a cloud of dust, which settles to reveal a Bedouin style camp straight from the pages of Arabian Nights.
Luxury in the desert | Gavin Haines
As I step out the vehicle a glass of fruit juice is placed in my hand. I hear the clinking of ice cubes. Ice cubes in the desert. “Welcome to Wahiba Sands,” beams Chris Archer, operations manager for Hud Hud Travels. “Come this way.” Chris escorts me to my lodgings; a black-and-white striped tent made from the finest Syrian goat hair. He pulls back the heavy material to reveal a double bed swathed in Egyptian cotton sheets, thick woollen blankets and red silk cushions. Silver lanterns, Persian cushions and finely woven carpets complete the Arabian aesthetic. The bathroom is equally palatial; there’s a sit-down toilet made from ornate hardwood, soaps that smell of jasmine and, the crowning glory, a solar-powered shower. A shower in the desert – and a hot one, no less.
Chris continues, showing me the dining tent, replete with white cotton tablecloths and shiny silverware, before concluding our tour in the majalis – or living room – where decorative lanterns, heavy woollen cushions and ornate coffeepots evoke the romance of a Bedouin tent. The work and attention to detail that has gone into this beautiful camp is extraordinary. And it was all for me. “This is here for one night only,” says Chris, looking around. “Enjoy.”
Before dinner (three courses, naturally) Vicky and I scurry up a nearby dune to try sandboarding. We have a few runs down the steep orange slopes, but it’s an exhausting enterprise so we stop, fall into the sand and watch as the desert changes colour under the setting sun.
With age, the mind distills memories, separates the extraordinary from the ordinary. But in decades to come, I will still recall, with great fondness, this camp, which sprung up in the desert exclusively for me. I will remember the beautiful Bedouin tents, the sumptuous dinner served under the stars and, of course, exploring the Omani wilderness with my own personal guide. But it will be the simple pleasures that truly endure; like seeing the night sky unsullied by pollution; experiencing the vastness of the desert; and falling asleep to the sweet sound of silence.