NO MAN'S LAND
LEVISON WOOD RARELY TAKES THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE. IN 2017, THE INTREPID 35-YEAR-OLD SET OFF ON A 7,000-KILOMETRE TREK AROUND ARABIAN PENINSULA, FROM IRAQ TO LEBANON. HERE IS AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM HIS NEW BOOK ARABIA, WHERE HE PREPARES TO CROSS
WELCOME TO OMAN, proclaimed the sign at the remote crossing point, hemmed in by sheer cliff s on the one side and the glistening ocean on the other. There was nobody crossing on foot and, being a Friday, there wasn’t any commercial traffic either. A solitary lorry up ahead marked the lonely entry into the country that calls itself ‘The Jewel of Arabia’.
The immigration official greeted me with a smile as I handed over my passport. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Khasab,” I replied. He looked at me quizzically. “Where is your car?” “I don’t have one,” I said.
“How will you get to Khasab?”
I told him that I hoped to hitch a lift or walk. “Are you crazy?” he said. “There’s no cars this way, it’s a Friday, and you can’t walk — it’s 25 kilometres. Where are you from?” he said, and then, remembering he had my passport in his hand, he looked at it.
“Ah, you’re British. That explains everything! You’re welcome.”
He stamped my visa and handed it back, and I walked out onto the fierce heat of the empty road.
The official was right. There were no cars, so I walked, following the road as it wound along the cliff edge, watching as the azure waves bashed against the rocks below, the crashing of the sea being the only sound in this barren land. The soft wind was hot, despite the fact that it came from the sea, and the salty moisture only added to the claustrophobic embrace of the humidity, making each step exhausting work. Nevertheless, I was happy and excited to be in this enigmatic nation.
The road twisted and turned as it went up and down, contouring the ridges and crags, and keeping the sea to my left was my only guidance as to where I was going. Eventually the road wound down to the beach and flattened out, and I saw my first Omani villages. They were eerily quiet in the afternoon heat. Khasab was still another five or six kilometres away to the north. I could almost make out the minarets at the port in the far distance, obscured by the haze of the afternoon, but I was hot, tired and very sweaty, not to mention hungry and thirsty, so I sat down under the shade of a palm tree to rest for a while.
In the mountains above, I noticed an eagle soar high on the invisible thermals, twirling and gliding; as majestic as the crags themselves. Half hidden in the jagged escarpment I saw the ruins of an ancient fort, standing guard to the high passes of the east. All that seemed missing from this scene of antiquity were the people. They must either be at prayers or at home with their families, I thought. The phrase ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ came to mind. I began to doze off and my thirst was replaced by the light-headedness that comes from too much sun. I wrapped my shemagh cotton headscarf around my head to try to keep cool and drank the last sips from my water bottle. After a short while, I heard a car speed past from the way I was heading and screech to a halt. A young Omani man with a neatly trimmed beard wound down the window and said hello. “As-salaam alaikum.”
“Wa-alaikum as-salaam,” I replied, ‘and unto you peace’, noticing that a woman in a black abaya was sat next to him. I could just make out her eyes watching me. “I heard there was an Englishman out walking.”
“Word travels fast,” I said.
“It does here. We don’t get too many visitors.” He spoke in almost perfect English. “You want a lift to Khasab?” I said that I would love one. “But aren’t you going the other way?” I asked.
“Wait here, I’ll be back,” he said, before screeching off, leaving behind a trail of dust. That was odd, I thought to myself, wondering if he’d actually come back. But, true to his word, five minutes later he did return. This time there was no woman. “Get in,” he said. “I had to take my wife home first.” I put my rucksack in the boot and got into the passenger seat. I noticed that he’d put a plastic cover over it, which hadn’t been there before. No doubt he’d seen how sweaty I was and wanted to keep his car clean.
Making myself as comfortable as I could against the sticky plastic, I enjoyed the fact he blasted the air conditioner on cold in my direction. More to avoid the smell than anything, I supposed.
“I’m Rashid,” said the man, who said he was a student of criminology, but also volunteered for the local police service. “It’s my day off. Don’t worry, I won’t arrest you,” he said and laughed, as we
drove along the road to Khasab port. Rashid insisted on buying me lunch when we arrived. “You are a visitor in my land and it is my duty and honour to feed you. A guest must never pay.”
After the kerfuffle I’d had in Iraq, and the endless sales pitches I’d had all along the Gulf so far, I was slightly taken aback by his hospitality, and the fact he’d driven well out of his way to give me a lift and used up his entire afternoon. “Everyone in Oman is like this, you will see.” Rashid not only paid for my lunch, but insisted on taking me to the port and making all the arrangements for the onward ferry towards Muscat, too, which left the following day. It’s amazing how a simple act of kindness from a stranger can lift your mood.
The ferry, a crusty old vessel, filled with Indian and Bangladeshi merchants and their boxes of goods, left at three in the afternoon. Rashid had sorted me out a passenger ticket with a seat, but I preferred to stand on the outside deck and watch as we left the old port. The boat sounded its horn and we passed the rows of moored dhows, which bobbed in our wake. Soon we were in the open water of the Strait of Hormuz, but never strayed too far from the brown cliffs to our right.
The route weaved past fjords, where dolphins frolicked in the waves. We skirted by Telegraph Island, a barren rock that was once one of the most important British repeater stations on the main submarine telegraphic cable between London and Karachi. It was deemed such an unfortunate posting for the colonial administrators, who complained of the heat and the flies and the lack of shade, that it became infamous for sending people stir crazy. Being despatched to the desolate channel, with its remote twists and turns, became known as ‘going ’round the bend’. Fortunately for me it was a brief encounter. The boat journey took only a few hours to reach Shinas on the mainland, and here I hitched a lift down the coast to the capital of the sultanate, Muscat.
I arrived late that evening and got a room at the Intercontinental Hotel. It was already dark, so I thought I’d get some rest before exploring the city and meeting my guide. I asked the receptionist if there was any food available, given that it was already gone 10PM, and I was directed to ‘Al Ghazal’. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t an English pub complete with wood panelling,
Bass Ale and bags of salt-and-vinegar crisps. There was fish ‘n’ chips on the menu and football on the telly; I could have been transported straight back to London, were it not for the patrons being dressed in long white dishdashas and an array of Omani-style headscarves.
Mahrouqi was waiting for me the next day at an outside table at a café on the promenade overlooking the port.
The bay curved around, surrounded by jagged mountains that glowed pink in the morning sun. Above us on the craggy high ground was Muttrah Fort, marking Muscat’s ancient city defences towering over the inlet. The coast was lined with old adobe buildings, with deep-set windows and cooling whitewashed walls to stave off the already scorching morning heat. The pattern was broken by the speckled dome of a mosque, its gold tip just visible as it glinted in the light, and next to it an azure minaret against an even bluer sky.
Flocks of squawking gulls competed noisily for scraps below them. A fishing boat chugged in from the open sea and they went mad, flapping and circling and angling for food. In the bay, a few lonely boats were moored, bobbing steadily. Husbands and wives wandered along the corniche, complementary in black and white, their long fabric flapping in the breeze. The place was immaculate, a perfect vision of Arabia. I’d been on the hunt for a good guide in Oman for a while.
I’d learned through good and bad experiences that having a local travel companion can be invaluable. It’s not that they necessarily need to navigate the route — one can do that oneself with a bit of planning and a decent online map — but nothing can beat having a local who knows the language and the nuances of native customs, religion and culture. What’s more, if you’re lucky and they do know the route intimately, then they can show you places that no guidebook can ever take you to. My guide had been barely tolerable in Iraq, and I’d made my own arrangements in the Gulf, but I knew that in order to get across Oman in the way I chose, across
“HE WAS WEARING TRADITIONAL CLOTHES, A LONG WHITE DISHDASHA AND A GOLDEN INDIAN-STYLE TURBAN. ON HIS BELT HE WORE A SILVER CURVED DAGGER, AND WERE IT NOT FOR THE MANGO SMOOTHIE HE SLURPED, HE WOULD HAVE MADE A FINE PRINCE.”
the central sands, I would need to have someone who knew a thing or two about deserts. There were a lot of things to arrange — special permits, camels and provisions — and while I’d crossed deserts before, namely the Sahara, this was a different beast entirely. What lay ahead was the Rub‘ al-khali — the notorious Empty Quarter.
“Marhaba,” he said coldly. Mahrouqi looked like a stern old man. He was 58 and was wearing the traditional clothes of his homeland, a long white dishdasha
and a golden Indian-style turban. On his belt he wore a silver curved dagger, and were it not for the mango smoothie he was slurping through a straw, he would have made a fine prince in the One Thousand and One Nights.
“Sit,” he said, offering me a chair.
I sat down and ordered an orange juice. “So, you want to cross the Empty Quarter?” he said, peering through thick spectacles. I could tell he was weighing me up.
I told him that I did. He pulled out a map and laid it across the table. “This is the route we will take,” he said.
“First, we go south from here. I’ll drive us to Jebel Akhdar, where we can do an acclimatisation walk. We can climb up the mountains and get you used to the heat.” It sounded sensible.
“Then we will go to Nizwa, the old town, and you can see the ancient fort and the market. We’ll need to stock up on provisions anyway, so it is a good place to stop off. Then we will carry on to Adam, that’s my home town. There we will pick up the camels and take them to the edge of the desert, where we will start walking. We will leave in three or four days, when I am ready, and then by the time we get to Adam and set off it’ll be a week, and then, depending on how fast you can walk, it will take another week or so to reach Haima, and then it’s to the coast. You’ll be at the coast by the end of the month, and then you can go across Dhofar on your own.”
It seemed like he had it all planned out. On the one hand, it was reassuring; after all, this was a man who’d crossed the Empty Quarter by camel multiple times and was regarded as Oman’s foremost camel man. On the other hand, I wondered if I’d get any say in the matter at all. I couldn’t abide the thought of this expedition turning into a guided tour, and I knew full well that the best laid plans often fall apart at the first hurdle anyway.
“It is as you like,” said Mahrouqi, with a tilted head. “Inshallah, we will make it.” I was hoping to depart straight away, but Mahrouqi said he was busy, so I had to kill a few days before setting off. I used the time to explore Muscat.
I wandered along the corniche, past the mosque and the souk, and the rickety, balconied tourist hotels. I was invited to visit the British School Muscat and was reminded of the close relationship between the United Kingdom and Oman. Its position on the Trucial Coast had meant that it had been an important strategic foothold for the Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even before that, Muscat had been a significant draw for traders and invaders alike.
It all started when the Ibadi Imamate arrived from over the mountains in the eighth century, unifying the disparate and nomadic peoples. For the hundreds of years that followed, Muscat and its outskirts saw the rise and fall of dynasties, as family disputes and warfare rumbled on. But they were facing difficulty. In the west, tribes were earning a fortune from frankincense, but in the east, with difficult access to the trade routes and surrounded by desert, mountains and sea, Muscat was cut off from the rest of the peninsula. Eventually, they abandoned attempts to conquer the dry and barren interior, in favour of exploring the high seas and discovering neighbouring coastlines and islands.
Oman’s strategic spot on the corner of the peninsula made it a valuable trading post, but a succession of invading empires ruled Oman and utilised its sea link, taking away all its riches.
Finally, in the mid-seventeenth century, the Omani Yaruba dynasty became colonists themselves.
Omani warriors sailed across the
Gulf of Aden in dhows and took over a part of what is now Pakistan, as well as
vast swathes of East Africa – installing a capital city in Zanzibar. As it built up its overseas territories, the Omani sultanate became an influential power in the slave trade. Villagers were captured from Central Africa and hundreds of thousands were sold as slaves to towns in the Arabian Peninsula and across the whole Middle East.
But with the ban on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, the Omani economy collapsed. About 80 per cent of the population emigrated to Zanzibar, and Britain swept in and claimed Oman’s overseas territories. Eventually the two signed a friendship treaty, which gave way to a declaration of independence in the 1950s.
Although the British officially withdrew in the early Seventies, the relationship has remained strong — perhaps more so than any other Anglomiddle Eastern bond — and even today the Sultan of Oman retains a number of British officers on loan from the army to train and serve alongside the Sultan’s Armed Forces.
On 19 October, I met Mahrouqi at 4AM. He picked me up in his 4x4 and we drove up into the Hajar Mountains. The road wound between rocky escarpments and terraced villages. Inbetween the bronzed boulders sprang palms and acacia bushes and little rivers that cut narrow gorges through the ancient hills. We walked all day through the wadi, as Mahrouqi bounded from rock to rock in a way that concealed his years. He sang and murmured Omani folk hymns and stopped only to point out the flowers and waterfalls.
There were magical little villages made of mud that seemed as though they hadn’t changed in centuries, and their inhabitants walked across the tiered fields tending to flocks of goats. It was the Arabia I’d yearned for. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Mahrouqi, proud of the land of his forefathers. “But wait till you see the desert.
I prefer it there, where it is pure.”
By late afternoon, we’d almost reached the top of the ridgeline at over 2,000 metres. Mahrouqi stopped and pointed across the valley. I could see out over the Jebel Akhdar range for miles. The rock burned rose gold in the setting sun and the view was spectacular. I could make out the peak
THERE WERE MAGICAL LITTLE VILLAGES MADE OF MUD THAT HADN’T CHANGED IN CENTURIES. IT WAS THE ARABIA I’D YEARNED FOR. “IT’S BEAUTIFUL...BUT WAIT TILL YOU SEE THE DESERT, WHERE IT IS PURE.”
of Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest point. Beneath it, sheer precipices of jagged, bronze limestone descended into the valley below. The wadi seemed to go on forever.
The sun dropped out of sight and Mahrouqi was eager to set up camp before it got dark. “It’ll be freezing tonight,” he said. So we made a small fire and he brewed a pot of sweet chai, which went some way to alleviating the chill. I realised it was the first time on the journey that I had actually felt cold.
Mahrouqi had come prepared for the altitude and was hunkered down in a thick blanket, whereas I had only a thin cotton sleeping liner, which did nothing to protect against the whistling wind. So I ended up wrapping my roll mat around me and shivering throughout the night. The following morning we descended from Jebel Akhdar to Nizwa, the last major town before the start of the dunes. It was a green city, filled with date palms and bisected by a great river. It used to be the capital of Oman in the seventh century, when Islam arrived, and later on, in the sixteenth century, Nizwa Fort was built, one of the most impressive in the whole peninsula, to defend against marauding tribes. In its heyday, it was a centre of learning and scholarship, earning it the title, ‘The Courtyard of Islam’. Nizwa was considered to be the main stopping-off point for the camel trains crossing the Empty Quarter, before reaching the Sultanate of Oman and the coast to the north of the mountains.
As such it was an important trading centre. Ibn Battuta came to Nizwa in 1329 and said of the place:
“It is a fertile land with rivers, trees, orchards, palm plantations, and all kinds of fruit. We reached the city of Nizwa, considered to be the main city in this country. Here, people usually eat in the mosques, where each one brings whatever food he has to eat in the mosque courtyard. Everybody shares the food and these people are helpful and courageous.”
But given its remoteness and susceptibility to lawlessness, it was inevitable that when oil was discovered in the desert, Nizwa formed its own opposition groups against Muscat, and became a rebel stronghold that kept away even the hardiest of travellers. Wilfred Thesiger, that most stoic of British explorers, who travelled through Oman in 1948, was forced to avoid Nizwa altogether, warned by his Bedouin guides that he would certainly be killed by the fanatics if he attempted to visit.
These days it is at peace. Although I wouldn’t call it quiet. It was a Friday morning and that meant that it was market day. People had travelled from all over Oman to visit the famous souk and haggle for their goods. I followed the flow of merchants through the ancient gates into the walled city and into the old marketplace, where cows, sheep and goats were being auctioned off, as well as the odd camel. Bearded men in a rainbow of patterned hand-embroidered hats stood around assessing the livestock from afar.
The women wore niqabs, full face veils, in a style I’d not seen before, with an adjoining piece of material from between the eyebrows to the middle of the nose. Little boys darted around, teasing the animals. It was a racket and I could only just hear the auctioneer over the din of the nervous bleating.
“Camels are very expensive,” Mahrouqui barked over the noise. “These ones start at around 20,000 rial [AED190,823], but two years ago, an Omani camel went for over two million rial [AED19M].”
“That’s more than four million pounds,” I spluttered. “Well, it was a very good camel,” he said, matter of factly. “Look at how they are inspecting them very carefully; that’s how they can tell the value.” I glanced across to where a remarkably chilled-out camel had three men peering between its legs.
“Anyway, we’d better get some supplies,” said Mahrouqi. “This is the last place before we go into the wild.” We wandered past the crenulated city walls to the pointed archways of the market, where palm leaves hung low. Everywhere, sturdy coloured baskets were full to bursting with spices, cereals, dates, fruit and vegetables, and beige pottery was lined up on the ground like dominoes.
There were jewellery and hardware stores, where brooms and mops spilled out into the gangway, and the usual tourist tat stalls. I lusted after the curved silver khanjar knives, famed in this region, and some of which were going for a whopping
We bought some batteries and solar-powered lights, we got matches and firewood and bartered for blankets. Then we needed food. We bought chickens and rice, dates and vegetables. I’d learned that the best fruit to survive the conditions of the desert was oranges. Bananas went black and shrivelled, apples got battered and bruised; only oranges could do the job, and when you’re hot, thirsty and tired, nothing is more refreshing. I bought an entire sack of them.
From Nizwa we drove to Adam, sixty kilometres to the south, and reached Mahrouqi’s house by early afternoon. The mountains were a hazy blur in the distance and everything to the south and west was a seemingly endless expanse of flat sand. Mahrouqi lived on a farm on the edge of the desert. It was quite a big house, surrounded by a concrete wall that hemmed in his allotment and garden. There were thatched sheds filled with straw for the animals and outbuildings, too, and everywhere hung goatskins and water bladders, nets and tools. It was a ramshackle compound, but inside the house it was modern, with a games room and a billiards table. Outside, roosters, sheep and goats roamed freely. The noise from the chicken coop was deafening, but it didn’t seem to bother the several lazy dogs that lounged around the garden, or cats lolling on the tops of walls. It was a veritable petting zoo of beasts. After a lunch of rice and chicken, Mahrouqi took me to help get the camels from the backyard, where they were sectioned off in little enclosures.
“They’re a bit small, aren’t they?” I said. I’d bought camels before, in Sudan, and knew that in order to carry enough water, they’d need to be strong and healthy. These ones looked a bit feeble, and one was an infant.
“They’re fine,” he snapped. “When they get into the Empty Quarter, they will be fine.” I assumed it must be bad form to insult a man’s camels, so I apologised, and thought it best to keep my mouth shut and changed the subject.
“Who named it the Empty Quarter?” I asked him. Mahrouqi sniffed.
“It was named by the great Arabian explorer Ahmad Ibn Majid.
It’s not just you white men who can be explorers, you know. He called it the Rub’ al-khali — Empty Quarter — because it was bare and he found no one living there.”
I’d read somewhere that the origins of the name might actually have been from visiting European explorers, as they tried to map and define the region, but I thought it best not to mention this to Mahrouqi.
He continued, “The Bedouin just call it Al-ramlah, or ‘The Sand’, because it’s the largest desert in the world, the sand goes on and on. But even they won’t live there; they stay on the fringes, because it’s impossible to survive. They only cross if they really have to. The dunes move in the wind, so all of a sudden you don’t know your way. And in some places, there are sinking sands that can swallow you whole.” I was not filled with confidence that Mahrouqi and his sickly-looking camels were capable of getting us across this dangerous desert wilderness. I knew that modernday camels were less hardy than in Thesiger’s day, and in one of the driest places on Earth with zero phone signal, we’d be dependent on them to survive in the wasteland.
It didn’t really assuage my fears to see him drag the camels out of the yard and whip them. They grunted and snorted and made the most awful groan, but I put it down to the fact that they really couldn’t be bothered to walk across the Empty Quarter, rather than a more general dislike for their master.
Mahrouqi saw me watching.
“When we get to the desert, then they will behave,” he said. If only I believed him. I felt something licking my hand and looked down to see a little golden dog, with scruffy fur and a needy expression. It was panting in the hot sun.
“That’s Snugly,” said Mahrouqi. “He’s coming with us.”
I didn’t know what to say. It looked like we’d be a very motley crew for our Empty Quarter crossing.
Nizwa mosque, Oman. A major stopover on the incense route for centuries
Extracted with the kind permission of Levison Wood from written by himself and published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton