the sands -- by camel
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.
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 Kiplings Kim and The Jungle Book;
Thesigers 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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
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