Across the sands -- by camel

  It was 7 March, 1998, 6 in the morning: still, quiet and overcast. Our team comprised Said bin Jabber al Wahaibi, three camels and myself, whom I can only describe as a hopeless romantic. Of the camels, I would ride Hamluul, the quietest and smallest of the three; Said chose Ghahaisi, the stronger; Thabian, the more aggressive male, would carry our gear. So there we were: Camels saddled, my 4 or 5 phrases of Arabic at the ready, final adjustments made, stepping into the great tract of sand which lay ahead of us. Leaving cars, houses, modern comforts, communication behind, we set off. Our only supplies for the next nine days were the provisions we carried. I could hear them creaking and groaning under the steady movement of Thabian, the pack camel.

The beasts grumbled.I wanted to travel in the old Bedu way, without backup. As I left Al Wasel, I remember thinking, 'This is it'. The journey had begun at last. It was up to us now. Crossing the desert — it was always something I had always wanted to do. Stories from my youth filled my imagination: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and The Jungle Book; Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and Laurence of Arabia. It was something I must do. Oman was a country of possibilities: it set the stage. Now it was my chance. Turning around to a friend one day I said, "I'm going to cross the Sands". From that moment on I was committed.

The desert is never still, it is a living breathing place, changing. It had rained this year in the north and provided a lush green carpet. As I went I wondered if I was in a desert — everywhere I looked was a haze of green

My next three months were a series of complexities, frustrations, difficulties and successes. I recall the scary moment I was lost in the dark on the outskirts of Barka, trying to find the Bedu who had camels to ride; and the frustrations of trying to communicate with Bedu who spoke only Arabic. Vividly I remember sitting in my vehicle at 11 pm outside Bidiya, waiting for Said bin Jabber to come back from a funeral; then scrambling to put up my tent on a piece of ground after midnight. Despite me, the idea matured. My biggest challenge was finding the right Bedu to go with. It was Chris Beal (of Beal Tours) who gave me the magic name. I remember the moment when Said agreed. It was about midnight on 5 February, the week after Eid.

Swept up in the grand notion of the crossing, Abdullah al Mashiri, interpreter extraordinaire, posed the question. And Said bin Jabber, in possibly one of his most regretted moments, unbelievably, said yes.I wanted to go before he changed his mind! But the preparations took three weeks. At the Royal Oman Police stables I learned to wrangle camels. It was serious work. So was learning Arabic from my long-suffering teacher, Butheina, who force-fed me with the necessary rudiments of communication. Now Al Wasel was behind. From now on our days would be no longer governed by the clock: the desert set its own rhythm. Said, old and wise, of the Wahiba tribe, had spent all his life in the desert. He knew it like the back of his hand.

Our third morning brought us to the first oasis with sweet drinking water. Water. It brought a feeling of lightness, almost of celebration, as we ate our midday meal. I learnt like the camels the preciousness of water as our journey went on

It was like looking through a window into another life. I learned — how we must stop for grazing the camels; how to put up a shelter; how to put up a wind barrier with just a stick and a plastic sheet; and more important, how to travel. We travelled a winding course from North to South. Our journey was never straight: sometimes we had to wander kilometres out of our way to a tree in order to break the green-leaved branches to provide food for the camels. Our course was set by the location of wells and precious drinking water. Camels travelling with loads need water every three days. We were lucky in the north, the wells were full and the weather was cool. Sometimes our mornings would be long and others short. It was the need to find shelter from the scorching midday sun which governed our movement and the length of our stay.

Said would always stop under a tree or we would find a piece of wood and stick it in the sand with a plastic sheet draped over it to provide the necessary shade. We had been travelling for five hours non-stop on our second day over open terrain, low hills of sand, green from rain. I didn't understand why we hadn't stopped. It wasn't until we came across some scattered branches and made our shelter that I understood why. In Wadi Mogishirib we met another Bedu group, so welcome after our solitary journey. I came to realise what pleasure there was in a greeting and an invitation to share hospitality, news: a code of honour handed down over generations. I recall the Ramas families, dates, laban, chai, the easy laughter after my comment: "Mafee rumel fee atamar" (There's no sand in the dates!) as I ate too much.

The desert is never still, it is a living breathing place, changing. It had rained this year in the north and provided a lush green carpet. As I went I wondered if I was in a desert — everywhere I looked was a haze of green.Our third morning brought us to the first oasis with sweet drinking water. Said had led us there with awesome precision. Water. It brought a feeling of lightness, almost of celebration, as we ate our midday meal. I learnt like the camels the preciousness of water as our journey went on. Said wandered through gaps between the hills, picking the tough green grass and plants easily as he walked and storing them underneath the saddle bag of Ghahaisi. It was cool, the sun in cloud, even spots of rain — a lovely, lazy sort of day.

I was puzzled: why did he pick the grass? Said must have read my mind. "Baaden'' (later) he said, laughing.So, just to be a sport, I joined in, managing with some difficulty to pick my own small contribution and place it under Hamluul's saddle. It would soon become evident why we picked the grass. The pattern of our days consisted of walking and riding, resting at midday, cooking eating, and sleeping.In the morning we would rise at 5:30 (with shuffling and groaning from at least one of us). Said would be the first one to go and find the camels. "Muh muh muh uh huh uh huh uh huh, Ghahaisi, Ghahaisi," repeated into the early morning darkness first thing can be extremely irritating. There was nothing to do but join in. I never knew whether my camel Hamluul turned around in curiosity at my attempted sounds or was responding to them.

Every morning Said always collected the other two camels before I had retrieved mine. One of us would blow the embers back to life and Said would make the coffee and I the tea. It was always a rather silent beginning, disturbed only by the munching of biscuits. Saddling up was done in the pre-dawn light. Now it was the camel's turn to complain, grunting and groaning as the loads were added. As usual, I struggled to get Hamluul ready while Said had packed the other two. Then we were off as the sun struck the horizon, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. Our morning would end as the sun climbed in the sky and the heat struck. It could be anywhere between 10:30 and noon, almost always where there was fodder for the camels. Camels unpacked and hobbled, sticks collected and lit, it was time for our midday meal.

Now Hamluul showed her true character. There might be a patch of green at her feet, but as soon as she was hobbled and free to graze, in less than 10 minutes she was off, a distant speck on the horizon. Always, one of us would have to interrupt our meal to go and bring her back. Of course, once we were on our way, she would weave from one green patch to another, grazing at will.As the sun moved overhead, all was still, even the camels stopped moving, not a sound could be heard, and we likewise. Even the lizard I saw on a tin didn't move as I approached, seemingly mesmerised by the heat. It was our time to rest. Movement began again after the sun had passed overhead. Lulled by the heat and the rhythmical movement of the camels, we fell into silence.

It was as the evening approached that the desert started to come to life and we would look for a suitable place to spend the night. "Zaboul" Said yelled pointing at my feet, as we sat by the fire, reminding me to protect my feet from scorpions and snakes. One night, he described how in the past he was stung so badly on his foot that he was unable to move for two days.In the Bedu way nothing was wasted. The fire made from sticks collected along our way not only kept us warm against night's cold, but was the scene of its own small drama: The cooking of food. Evening saw the ceremony of cooking kroos, a type of flat bread baked in the hot sand beneath the fire then beaten with a stick to remove the sand and break it up.

The pieces were then mixed with dried lemons stewed in water and bound together with samon (oil). Our other meal consisted of dried suamak (fish) softened in the hot sand under the fire, eaten with cooked rice and the ever-present lemon. My own attempts at preparing these Bedu delicacies were always liberally laced with sand, which Said manfully ate, nodding encouragement.Jokes were shared along the way: The time I was trying to learn an Arabic song, so engrossed was I that until I heard a very strained khalas (finish!) I hadn't realised how awful I was. Said, a very patient man could stand it no longer. I just laughed.

The day I packed my saddle so it was lopsided and I rode the camel that morning on a tilt. It was Said's turn to laugh. We made steady progress. The scenery changed from the large dune swaths running North to South to lower, rounded formations of hills.In the southern part of the Sands there had been no rain. In the blazing sun, the horizon stretched outwards with nothing but spikes of dead grass and bleached sand. Now and then abandoned palm frond dwellings lay scattered across the landscape. The only visible movement was ourselves and the wind, eerily vibrating through palm frond walls.

Those were long days.On day seven at midday, in the scorching sun and sand, we went without our midday meal because of the shortage of water. We had been four days without refilling our water-bags. The evening came and there was no grazing in sight. Water was low and Thabian tired. Said and I looked at each other, sharing concern. I realised how our survival depended on the nourishment of the camels, and now they depended on that grass we gathered four long days ago. An hour later a Bedu truck pulled up. There was grazing 20 km ahead for tomorrow.As we drew closer towards our destination, the terrain gradually became more stony and the land flatter.

The end of day 8 saw us in Wadi Sayl with its abundant water and good grazing for camels. It housed the first Bedu settlement we had seen since Wadi Mogishirib six days ago. Assallam alekum, greeted us on all sides. Min wain, (Where are you from?) ''Al Wasel by camel!!'' came their incredulous response. "Drink, eat?" The warm simplicity of the Bedu greeting was wonderful. I've no doubt that my demonstration at controlling Hamluul will keep them amused for years. Now thorn bushes dotted our way and Bedus passed at intervals in Toyota pickups, the new 'ships of the desert'.

Hayy became visible on the hori-zon.My last night was spent on its outskirts. Sleep came easily in a scooped out hollow in the warm sand beneath the surface, a blanket under and over my sleeping bag, as Said had shown me. I, watching the dying embers of the fire and listening to the now comforting sound of three camels close by, shuffling restlessly.We'd done it. In nine days, we'd travelled 240 km, crossed the Sands, by camel.We trucked back, driving through kilometres of brown and dry land. Somewhere between Hayy and Sinaw, Said said Mai (rain). The sight of hundreds of camels, a giant herd, grazing enormous swath of green, instilled me with wonder about the constant change of the desert.

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