Friday evening, November 25: Friday afternoon, I decide to go on a road trip, with my first stop being the Sharqiya Sands and the Al-Areesh Camp. Kathy and Anna tell me it will take about 2 1/2 hours to get there from Nizwa and that I should try to arrive before sunset so I can find it. I pack enough stuff for 2 overnights and 3 days and head out at 2 p.m. into the far-flung territories of Oman. Well, maybe not far-flung, but definitely new destinations for me.
I drive about an hour on the nice highway between Nizwa and Muscat and then turn off onto the two-lane highway that goes through Ibra and on to Sur, the 23 road. I drive and drive and it’s a kind of desolate road once I’m off the main highway. Once I get to Al Qabil, about 30 km past Ibra, I follow the camp sign near the Al Qabil Rest House or some such thing. I can see the sand dunes to the south, so I know I must be heading in the right direction. I turn right down a paved road for a while into the sands of the desert, until I see the camp situated on a dune on the left side of the road.
The camp has bunches of barasti huts, tent-like rooms made of palm fronds. They provide shelter from the sun and allow breezes, if there are any, to cool the insides. Charpoy are scattered around the camp area outside the tents. A charpoy is a bed used especially in India consisting of a frame strung with tapes or light rope. These are obviously for sleeping outside under the stars. There is also one huge rectangular communal hut that has a huge dining area and another communal area covered in carpets; one of the areas is for prayer and another is where the nightly entertainment takes place. As I come upon the camp during the waning sunlight, these huts seem like a natural outgrowth to the red desert sands.
I can see the camp up a steep sand dune and a number of vehicles are parked at the bottom. A bunch of four-wheel drive vehicles are parked up the dune at the camp. Anna, who has been here before and who has a Jeep, gave me this advice: “At the bottom of the dune, just put your foot to the floor and gun it with all you’ve got to get up the hill. I mean like 60 mph; you’ve really got to put it all the way to the floor.” She told me she got stuck the first time when she didn’t do that, but when she gunned it she made it up.
So, what do I do? Like a little pansy who’s not used to driving a 4WD, I push my foot partly to the floor and get up a decent speed, but nowhere near the 60 mph Anna recommended. Of course, I get stuck and have to back down the dune. I think for a minute. Maybe I should just leave my car at the bottom. But then I have to haul up my bag. Besides, why did I spend all this money to buy a 4WD if I’m not going to use it? So, I back down the dune with a running start, and I floor it with all the gusto I’ve got. And! I make it up the dune, drive over the sand to the reception tent, and get assigned barasti hut #36, a kind of sad lopsided hut within a short walk from the communal bathroom.
I tell the guy at the camp that I just got this 4WD vehicle and the manual is in Arabic and I don’t have a clue how to even use it. He gets in the car and tells me the car is always in 4WD mode and that if I want to use it manually I can. He shows me how and then shows me some other buttons to push to get better traction in sand, etc. Thank goodness for him!! I start to feel a little emboldened about my new vehicle, which I admittedly felt a little tentative about before.
After parking near my tent, I head to the communal tent to take some pictures of sunset and drink some tea. It’s only about 5:30 and dinner isn’t served until 7:30. I sit at a terrace table overlooking the edge of the dune to the desert below. I read that these beautiful dunes were formerly known as Wahiba Sands and are home to the Bedu (Bedouin). The sands give a glimpse into a traditional way of life that is fast disappearing as modern conveniences limit the need for a nomadic existence. The Bedu specialize in raising camels. Bedouin women wear colorful clothing, unlike the simple black abaya of the Omani women.
Later a bunch of Danish guys start filling up the 4 tables beside me. They overflow onto my table and I end up having a long conversation with one of the Danish men about their study trip. They are all architects and engineers studying architecture and helping to consult on the new international airport that Muscat is spending millions of dollars to build. He says that Muscat wants to be a hub for all the major airlines, much like Qatar and Dubai are now, and the country wants to expand the airport to achieve that capability. We talk about all our travels and the Danes share some of their gin with me. Later, dinner is served and it’s quite good, and warm, unlike the food at I had at the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp in Jordan.
After dinner, I have a seat in the communal area where some of the Bedouin boys are beating on drums and singing. After a bit, two young Omani guys and an older British guy named John, who says he’s lived in Oman for over half his life, join me. John says he loves England but hates the weather there. Here in Oman, it’s always warm and sunny, which he likes. And he says, sweeping his arm over the view of the desert below us, “Look! The scenery here is marvelous! I never get bored with it. Never.”
One of John’s friends is named Salim, and Salim keeps saying he wishes he could speak English. He wants to know do I have a tent all by myself tonight, could he come and join me in my tent later? I say “No! I don’t even know you!”
It never ends, these kinds of approaches by Omani men.
As the night progresses, I note at the other side of the communal tent that my office mate Vicki is sitting with a group. I see some other people from the university I’ve met briefly before, Francois and Giles and some other familiar faces from the other colleges in Nizwa. We all exchange greetings and I’m finally able to meet Vicki’s Omani boyfriend Hilal. The Bedouin boys are playing their music, very mellow yet with a nice beat, and the Omanis start dancing. The other groups in the tent join in and everyone is dancing around in circles to the rhythm. John and his friends share a beer with me and I’m just soaking in the ambiance and loving every minute. This is probably one of my favorite nights so far in Oman.
I go to bed eventually and sleep soundly in my little hut. The camp has a generator which they run only in the evening until 1 a.m. After that, there are no lights and no electricity. The only shower it will be possible to take in the morning is a cold one. I’m not keen on that idea.
In the morning, I get up and throw on my clothes, eat the breakfast buffet that’s included in the 20 rial price (single) and take off for the next chapter of my National Holiday adventure, Wadi Bani Khalid.
If you want to make reservations at Al-Areesh, you can call: 99450063.