Sand-seas of western Oman

For a very special kind of holiday experience far removed from the recreational and leisurely comforts of the usual run-of-the mill holiday, consider visiting the sprawling sand-seas of western Oman. These desert expanses sweep all the way from the edges of the Empty Quarter in the south to Lekhwair in the north, in what is largely uncharted territory traversed for centuries only by the intrepid Bedu and, in recent years, oil exploration companies. In fact trekking through the splendid emptiness of these desert regions is an experience in itself — an experience reserved only for the seasoned, adventure-minded traveller who seeks to enjoy nature in all its pristine beauty.

Your trip starts at Thumrait in Dhofar Governorate, close to the fringes of the great Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter). Travelling in a north-westerly direction you come to Fasad, about 104km from Thumrait, where the landscape is dotted by towering sand dunes spread out singly, quite unlike the dunes of the Wahiba Sands which are laid in a north-to-south pattern. In the light of the setting sun, the surrounding desertscape turns a glorious golden hue in what is a truly breathtaking sight. Avoid venturing deeper into the expanses of the Rub al Khali, where you risk getting lost amid the labyrinthine sand dunes covering the desert.

The stretch from Fasad to Al Mashash, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, can be equally treacherous as the shifting dunes obscure all tracks and the sandy terrain makes progress generally difficult. Nevertheless, you can savour the stark splendour of the desert landscape en route. Some 15km north of Al Mashash is Al Hafrah (now called Banadar al Dhebyan), a tiny Bedu settlement located close to the Saudi border. The deputy wali of the wilayat now has an office in this village. The trail twists northwards to Ramlat Maqshan, traversing wind-blown dunes along a 60km route.

From this point you can either proceed north to Sahmah through trackless terrain, or opt for a safer route through Haima. The desert area beyond Sahmah is served by a network of well-defined routes used by oil company vehicles. You can drive 155km north to Umutubul, which is an interesting place to explore. Camels thrive in these parts, thanks to the rich desert flora here, which turns especially lush after a spell of rains. Brackish water springs abound in this area as well.Kheelah, close to the Saudi border, is your next destination as you sweep northwards through this trackless desertscape.

The 166km route traverses the picturesque Um as Samim desert, a shimmering sand-sea covered with white salt. This sprawling lowland receives run-off from the great wadis that come all the way from the Interior and Dhahirah regions, leaving behind a veneer of salt as the water evaporates. The area is also dotted by sand dunes. While exploring these spectacular landscapes, beware driving through slushy areas that may result in your vehicle getting stuck. The authorities have fenced off many of these areas for the protection of the local Bedu folk and others passing through these parts.

Your adventure-tour ends 118km north at Lekhwair, an important oilfield town located close to the UAE border. There are sand dunes here that invite discovery. You can return to Muscat via Ibri, which is about 110km from Lekhwair. Before beginning a tour of these sand-seas, it is advisable to intimate the police authorities about your travel plans in these frontier areas. Furthermore, ensure you are well equipped to tackle every conceivable eventuality that may arise while exploring these remote, desolate regions.

Travel in a convoy of at least three or four 4WDs, each certified as capable of enduring the harsh conditions of the desert. Pack two extra wheels per vehicle, and throw in a winch and towing rope, battery charger jacks, portable air pumps, first aid kits, and lots of fuel and water. Detailed maps of these areas, GPS systems, mobile phones (and satellite phones, if possible) are a must as well. Lastly, make sure there is an expert driver at the wheel with particular experience in desert driving.

* Adapted from Oman Observer. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.