Desert dream­ing

Michelle Jana Chan dis­cov­ers the true value of wa­ter and the pesky perils of sand

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HIS is the Ara­bia of Lawrence. A desert na­tion where I first be­gin to un­der­stand why Oma­nis whis­per the word wa­ter with rev­er­ence. But the first day on the road, it all seems rather ex­treme.

We drive hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres from Mus­cat to reach Wadi Shab, a usu­ally dry riverbed oc­ca­sion­ally thrown into flum­moxed ec­stasy by a flash flood. The day I am there it is a piti­ful trickle be­tween peb­bles and is packed with wadi­wor­ship­pers. Chil­dren are get­ting the soles of their feet wet, shriek­ing as they try to splash each other in the small area they have dammed. Par­ents spread pic­nics nearby, men on one side, women on the other. Grand­par­ents crouch down on haunches, wet­ting their fore­arms, moist­en­ing cracked lips.

This is a spe­cial day out for th­ese fam­i­lies, who have made the jour­ney from Mus­cat, the cap­i­tal. They have parked their air­con­di­tioned four-wheeldrives and walked up the val­ley in 35C heat to reach this wadi. Thalib, my Omani driver-guide, points be­tween the rocks, looks up at me and smiles as he says, Wa­ter.’’

This is tough to get my head around,

Down at the oa­sis: A palm-fringed wadi in Oman af­ter a few weeks of non­stop rain back home. Oman is hot and dry, no doubt, but I am not quite ready to get over­whelmed by a pud­dle. One of the men at the wadi says, In sum­mer months, we all go south with the hope we might be able to stand in the rain.’’ Way down in Salalah, on the Ye­meni bor­der, mon­soon rains some­times get lost on their way to In­dia and clip the Ara­bian Penin­sula, pro­vok-

Camels, draped with brightly coloured cloths, pick their way dain­tily across the desert ing a sea­sonal mi­gra­tion of city dwellers. In light of that, per­haps this pil­grim­age to Wadi Shab isn’t quite so bizarre. I be­gin to un­der­stand the Omani re­spect for wa­ter. I learn to mimic Thalib and gen­tly sip, rather than slug, drinks. Be­tween reach­ing for my wa­ter bot­tle, I learn to stay thirsty for longer. When we are in the desert fill­ing camels’ wa­ter troughs, I am para­noid about spilling any.

It is the Be­douins in the Wahiba, the 10,000sq km of the North­ern Re­gion Sands, who give me the most in­ten­sive les­son in the value of wa­ter.

They still live the no­madic desert life here, al­beit with a 4WD along­side their camels. Thalib takes me to spend a night with the Al Bedri fam­ily, based 60km in­side the Wahiba. I pore over the map try­ing to find land­marks to lo­cate us. There is still no sand in sight but we should have been close.

It will get hot­ter now. Drink some more,’’ says Thalib.

The desert rises up sharply. As the dirt track peters out, the scrub­land sud­denly morphs into 50m-high bur­nished-or­ange dunes. When Thalib puts his foot down and hears me gasp, he says he needs to drive at 100km/h so the tyres won’t sink. Watch­ing his ma­ni­a­cal grin as he pow­ers up and down the dunes, I am not sure that’s the whole truth.

The Al Bedri fam­ily’s camp is a tan­gle of tem­po­rary wooden struc­tures and home to a hus­band, first wife and 11 chil­dren from three to 32 years old. About 100m away is a cage of chick­ens; an­other holds three-dozen rab­bits. A half kilo­me­tre south, 200 long-haired goats are all named and sep­a­rated by size into dif­fer­ent pens. North are 100 bleat­ing sheep, split in a sim­i­lar way. Rang­ing loose around the camp are 20 camels with enig­matic smiles.

Just be­fore sun­set, the el­dest son and I head off to feed the camels, car­ry­ing sacks of grain and squash­ing to­gether dates to nour­ish ex­pec­tant moth­ers. Call­ing them by name, Sal­man comes first, can­ter­ing over to us. This strong man curves his arm around the back of the camel’s head, tugs the ear, pulls its face to­wards him. He kisses its cheek, mut­ter­ing soft Ara­bic words as he throws a rope bri­dle around its neck and blan­kets on its back.

In Be­douin cul­ture, camels are an in­te­grated part of the fam­ily. This isn’t about trade or herd size rep­re­sent­ing sta­tus. This is about the love be­tween a no­madic peo­ple and the an­i­mals that trans­port them across the dunes, in the fer­ment­ing heat and whip­ping wind. I leap on the back of Sal­man and pad off into the sun­set; it’s a scene straight out of a David Lean epic.

One night in the desert does me more good than 10 spa week­ends. It isn’t just gaz­ing out at the shift­ing hori­zons, as the sand slith­ers like spir­its across the land­scape. Or the soul-search­ing un­der­neath a sky that makes me re­con­sider heaven. Or the noisy si­lence of a sand­blast­ing wind that shuts you up and forces you to think. More than that, it is the Be­douin sense of time­less­ness and their seem­ingly un­com­pli­cated lives. But while I envy their un­fet­tered free­dom, I am also des­per­ate to fling my­self into the sea and wash away the in­sid­i­ous grains of sand that get ev­ery­where.

We leave the Al Bedri camp just af­ter sun­rise bound for the ex­quis­ite white beach of Fins, un­marked and un­ser­viced but lapped by the bluest sea. The Omani coast­line is wild and rugged, like a melange of build­ing-site rub­ble, lava flow and moon­scape, but there are in­ter­mit­tent mo­ments of pure trop­i­cal beach in­do­lence and Fins is one of those. I change in the back of the car, run to the sea, hurl my­self into the surf and spend an hour dig­ging sand out of my ears.

Back in Mus­cat, I re­turn to the Chedi re­sort and quickly shower off the salt, in and out fast. I am fi­nally ap­pre­ci­at­ing the value of wa­ter in Oman. The next day, I book a last-minute fish­ing trip through a lo­cal tour com­pany and speak to the sea cap­tain by phone. He en­ter­tains me with tales of se­ri­ously mas­sive mar­lin, mahi mahi and sail­fish. We might see dol­phin, too, or whales. God will­ing.

I meet Sahim Al Baatashy in cen­tral Mus­cat, just past the fish mar­ket. Af­ter stay­ing with the Be­douins, all dusted in sand, Sahim is al­most sparkling with a sheen of dried rock salt on his fore­arms and tem­ples. I board his boat, some­thing like a Bos­ton whaler with a tarp stretched over­head, and the pow­er­ful twin 120hp en­gines throt­tle up.

Sahim has a cou­ple of game-fish­ing rods on board for tourists but, like other lo­cal fish­er­men, he only uses a han­d­line. He shows me a detailed map of the area, a lam­i­nated dis­play of the fish in th­ese wa­ters as well as the log­book de­tail­ing pre­vi­ous catches. It is an im­pres­sive record with de­scrip­tions of tus­sles with fight­ing bluefin tuna weigh­ing up to 90kg. Do­ing 30 knots we head out from the coast, around craggy Fahl Is­land and past oil tankers, to join a school of 20 other fish­ing boats. Al­most all seem to be fam­ily or friends of Sahim. They call each other on mo­bile phones ar­gu­ing about where the best fish are. Then, a squeal from me as we see a big old green tur­tle com­ing up for air.

Our en­gine star­tles it and it quickly dives down­wards. I hang over the boat as Sahim shouts, Can you see the dol­phins?’’ I see the curves of their shiny backs and Sahim says the pod is about 1200-strong. I nearly fall off the boat.

A row of a dozen come fly­ing out of the wa­ter syn­chro­nised in a splay of grey. On the right, spin­ners whirl about on them­selves, drilling through the air. It is tough con­cen­trat­ing on check­ing lures while sur­rounded by hun­dreds of ac­ro­batic dol­phins. Ev­ery time I reel in a rod, I tan­gle the fish­ing line as an­other team flashes past. It is an ex­traor­di­nary spec­ta­cle that Sahim in­sists is quite an or­di­nary day.

Fi­nally, just at the close of the day, we hear that ex­hil­a­rat­ing sound of a line whirring out wildly. I grab the rod and toil with a 18kg bluefin tuna. By the time Sahim hauls it in over the side, my arms are limp and trem­bling. I can’t even hold the booty up for a photo to be taken. Sahim slices up the fish and I lie back in the sun­shine, eat­ing fresh sashimi and sur­rounded by danc­ing dol­phins. Surely this could not be called an or­di­nary day in the Ara­bian Sea.

Check­list

Emi­rates Ara­bian Air­pass makes it easy for trav­ellers to in­cor­po­rate a visit to Oman when fly­ing to longer-haul des­ti­na­tions, in­clud­ing Europe. Emi­rates flies to 22 des­ti­na­tions in Europe and al­lows free stopovers in Dubai en route. With Dubai as the base, the Ara­bian Air­pass en­ables trav­ellers to visit 12 cities in the re­gion, in­clud­ing Oman, with prices start­ing from just $40 a flight one-way in econ­omy class. Emi­rates flies from Syd­ney, Mel­bourne, Bris­bane and Perth. Fares to Europe start from $2119 re­turn, in­clu­sive of all taxes and charges. More: 1300 303 777; www.emi­rates.com/au.

Pic­ture: Su­san Kuro­sawa

Pic­ture: Hi­lary Dol­ing

Shift­ing sands:

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