I have never been able to find the author again, as if he or she were some figment of my imagination, but I still remember the passage clearly: the writer described, without punctuation, a single moment when everything in the city fell silent – a splinter of a millisecond when the traffic lights paused on red at the exact same moment as every human in the vast metropolis stopped talking, when every television was turned off, when there were no planes in the sky, no clapping in the theatre, no brawling, barking, nothing. This sound of silence – the absence of everything in a brilliantly construed fiction – is something I have listened for often. It was only recently that I encountered it, on a trip to a little‑visited desert in Oman.
I was camping under canvas on the rim of the Empty Quarter, or the Rub’ al Khali, in the country’s south. This is the world’s largest sand desert, which stretches across some 250,000 square miles of the Arabian Peninsula. It is accessed via Salalah, the southern capital of the Dhofar region, a two‑hour flight from Doha, followed by the best part of a day’s driving, much of it off‑road. On the journey, we stopped to talk with camel herders, to picnic under baobab trees and smell fresh frankincense, which grows freely in the mountains that flank this ocean of sand.
In a curl of 500ft-high dunes, their spines filed sharp by the wind, we struck camp. I slept, or tried to sleep. Perhaps it was the high heat of the day before, or the slight fear that comes from feeling so far away from everything one’s familiar with, but when I stepped out of the black, camel-hair tent – the kind used by the Bedouin – I didn’t expect to experience the intensity of feeling that can come from nothing. “Life in western countries is clearly very hectic,” my Bedouin guide, Musallim, told me earlier in the evening. “Here your people seem to like the peace and silence of a place where there’s no such thing as a rush.”
He had a point. The crackle of the campfire had died; the staff slept elsewhere, behind the wall of sculpted sand. The sky was black and clear, with shooting stars making their journeys through the night, the tiny pin-pricks of light casting a luminescence that felt alien to someone used to a diet of street lamps. I could hear no animals, insects or birds. There was no wind, no candle light, just my seven-year-old’s slow and regular breath as he slept in our bed nearby. In that moment the silence filled me with a visceral sense of freedom – and of acute vulnerability.
Such is the power of the desert. The desolation puts one on edge, or at least shifts the senses into a state of almost hyper-alertness, with “ghost water”, as the Bedouin call mirages, one of the better-known examples of this response. Even without the sensorial trickery, the landscapes themselves can be breathtaking. With increasingly sophisticated logistical expertise available to the luxury travel industry, regions such as this – just 30 years ago reviled and feared – find themselves on wishlists alongside the Maldives which, when coupled with luxury camping solutions, make desert travel – hot, high altitude and polar – a discernible trend.
Evidence of this growing interest exists in how the boundaries of geography are being pushed harder each year, with improved accessibility opening up extreme destinations. New outfitters are popping up, the camps operated by the hard men of expeditionary travel. Experts include the likes of polar explorer Patrick Woodhead, who in 2006 started taking high-end campers into Antarctica with his company White Desert, and Sean Nelson, a British ex-Marine, who went from a job heading up training for the Desert Regiment of Oman’s national army to founding Hud Hud Travels in 2007, which is the company behind my Empty Quarter stay (Hud Hud is currently developing two more desert sites in Oman, in addition to its existing four, plus trips in Ethiopia and China to be launched in 2013 and beyond).
Jonny Bealby, founder of adventure specialist Wild Frontiers, is another – a man who has circumnavigated Africa on a motorbike, walked the hills of Afghanistan and keeps a house in the Hindu Kush. It was with him that I camped up in Nubra. This is one of the highest-altitude deserts in the world, the desert valley’s upper edge rimmed by the Line of Control separating India, north of Ladakh, and Pakistan. When we crested the final, 5,600m pass to descend into Nubra’s arid valley floor, I started to feel a rising panic. Perhaps it was brought on in part by the emptiness, in part by the altitude. Or maybe it was just trepidation as to what lay ahead. Because I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being a little unnerved whenever there’s only a sheet of canvas between one and the big, wide emptiness beyond the zippered doors. Bealby, on that occasion, slipped me something to calm me down – another example of desert camping in the age of affluence being best negotiated in the company of pros.
Desert camping may be a trend in luxury travel, but it’s a concept as old as the Bedouin of the Arab Peninsula, the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Afar of the Danakil – all of whom have been depicted in travel literature of the 20th century as some of the toughest tribes on the planet. In the past 100 years, desert adventurers from the west willing to penetrate these places have included Peter Fleming – who made one of the most compelling desert journeys of the 20th century, through China’s Taklamakan Desert, recorded in his book News From Tartary – and Wilfred Thesiger, who traversed the Empty Quarter and wrote about it in Arabian Sands. What these wanderers have in common, including those who braved the polar deserts, is their evocation of something approaching the sublime – a sensibility born in part of terror. As TE Lawrence said of the Bedouin: ‘[He has] embraced this barrenness too harsh for volunteers with all his soul, for the reason, felt but inarticulate, that there he finds himself indubitably free… In his life he has air and wind, sun and light, open spaces and great emptiness. There is no human effort, no fecundity in Nature; just heaven above and unspotted earth beneath, and the only refuge and rhythm of their being is in God.”
Something of this sentiment Lawrence described is still true of a desert-camping experience, even if we can now arrive by helicopter to sleep on a real mattress for a single night at the crater rim of a volcano. This is possible in the Danakil – a region suitable for only the most confident travellers, sited as it is on the explosive border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Still, the Danakil’s vast white salt desert is accessed easily enough via Irishman Tony Hickey, founder of Addis Ababa-based specialist tour company Ethiopian Quadrants, who is used to putting up posh camps with generators, fridges, freezers and more for guests paying upwards of £500 a head per night (the helicopter costs another US$2,000 per hour). “We can do pretty much anything,” says Hickey: “We can even supply a small orchestra if they can pay for it.” In Antarctica, Woodhead flies clients into the continent’s interior on trips as short as three days, departing from Cape Town on a private jet. Up to 12 guests can be accommodated at the company’s Whichaway Camp – at a cost of around €25,200 per person for a three-day safari. Three dome tents are done up in the style of a smart African safari, with camp chairs, wooden tables and big gas heaters; new for this upcoming season are six sleeping pods, sleeping two per pod, featuring proper beds, a writing desk and ensuite bathroom. In Mongolia, Jalsa Urubshurow of Nomadic Expeditions operates bespoke mobile camps in the authentic style of this great nomadic nation. He combines this with the country’s better fixed camps, including his own, Three Camel Lodge, where the details include in-room moisturising lotion formulated with local camel milk.
Such luxury flourishes make all the difference. For while the modern traveller will still experience something of the desert’s shadeless monotony, these days it will most likely be from the comfort of a Eurocopter or a 4WD. One may also experience silence, but let’s put it into perspective: silence is not that frightening when there’s a man with a sat phone within 100 yards of one’s tent. And while my son may go through a week without a Nintendo DS in the Empty Quarter, he’s not cast completely adrift without diversions; in Oman there’s a surfboard provided for him to ride the dunes. As to food, the luxury logisticians have got that part nailed. In Nubra, we eat exquisite organic curries, from vegetables picked fresh out of an oasis garden; in Oman, we feast on slow-cooked lamb infused with delicate strands of Kashmiri saffron.
Hence why rock stars and Rothschilds are among Hud Hud’s clients, the tent styling featuring a 1,001 lanterns, antique rugs, chess sets, silver teapots and tasselled tents and poles. Likewise at the Atacama’s glamorous Swimmers in the Desert camp in Chile – the gastronomy is the main draw – or the private mobile tented camps in India’s Thar Desert, outside Jodhpur, organised by Manvar Desert Camp. At Uncharted Africa’s Jack’s Camp and San Camp in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, the finish is taken even further: here, the desert pro is Ralph Bousfield, who charges a premium $2,550‑a‑day guiding on top of the $1,000 per person per night fee at Jack’s Camp, $1,275 at San Camp. The semi‑permanent tents – San Camp’s have recently come through a three-year reinvention – are furnished in exceptional antiques, family silver and grand four-posters, which exemplifies how each year Africa’s well-practised wilderness professionals advance one step further from the completely mobile unit of the classic African safari to something more polished, more permanent, without losing the romance of canvas. In the Namib, there are similar examples, among the best of them the Leylandsdrift camp, operated by the Schoeman brothers and reached only via the family’s little six‑seater Cessna 210s.
Not every desert trip, however, requires such a vast outlay of money, nor private charters. In North Africa, a number of elegant little camps have popped up in the near reaches of the Sahara, including Morocco’s Erg Chigaga – a semi-permanent luxury camp using black-and-white caidal tents, located near the country’s highest dune a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the desert town of Zagora.
More convenient is Tazzarine, a desert camp that can be built into a relatively easy Saharan journey out of Ouarzazate. Max Lawrence – a specialist in the region – can also put together completely mobile camps with camels, or for those who only have a couple of days to add on to their long weekend of souk shopping, there’s the new super-chic camp of Scarabeo in the Agafay Desert, 40 minutes’ drive outside Marrakech. Two more desert camps will soon open – a Saharan dune camp in November and a beach camp near Agadir in March, plus there’s talk of a third one in Ouarzazate in 2013 – from Belgian couple, Florence Mottet and Vincent T’Sas of Scarabeo Camp. “We wanted something that could move with the desert climate – to open up more of Morocco for more of the year,” says Mottet.
As for Tunisia, I wouldn’t bother. Some 15 years ago my first desert experience comprised sleeping in a tent among the dunes. When night fell, I expected to hear the music of the sands; instead I was kept awake by German motorheads on four-wheel-drive, dune‑bashing holidays – a trend one prays will never reach the serene, Buddhist flatlands of Nubra among the peaks of the high Himalaya.