The hills and sea around Muscat are well known to travellers, yet the charms of Salalah, in the south of Oman, remain relatively off the radar. The ancient port city was once the centre of the frankincense trade; to the northwest of it spreads the legendary Empty Quarter – that beautiful, perilous desert immortalised in the writings of explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger. And to the east is one of the Arabian Peninsula’s most dramatic – and still pristine – coastlines, home to vibrant coral reefs, abundant species of fish and a fast-growing diving scene.
I’d long aspired to conquer some small patch of that vast desert; and the prospect of a subaquatic challenge at its doorstep was doubly alluring. I packed my old keffiyeh headscarf and booked my flights. The plan: an overnight hike through – and over – sand dunes, followed by a free-dive in the Arabian Sea to cool off.
Heathrow. It’s seven hours to Muscat, long enough to get a few hours sleep.
Those who enjoy the thrill of arriving at the boarding gate with minutes to spare will find the tight Muscat-Salalah connection right up their alley.
“Salalah?” I ask an official.
“Go like a gun,” he says, pointing. “Gate is closing.” I bolt. All a bit much at what would be 4am London time.
After a pleasant internal flight, I’m collected and taken to the Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, which opened last November. Toodtuu, my host, gives me the guided tour and shows me to my large three-room villa with private pool. Nothing would now give me greater satisfaction than to kick back and collapse into the welcoming folds of my king-sized bed. Alas, that pleasure eludes me.
“The guide has been made aware that you have a sense of adventure,” my itinerary reads. The desert is calling.
I’m picked up by my guide, Mahad, for the 170km drive into the fabled Empty Quarter. He’s resplendent in a crisp white dishdasha robe and kuma cap.
We set off across the Salalah plains. Thanks to a unique microclimate that delivers seasonal monsoons, it’s home to lush banana plantations. But the landscape soon changes as we climb up over the Qara mountains onto the desert plateau. I can’t help noticing the dashboard thermometer is reading 34ºC. It was 11ºC when I left London. We stop at Shisr, claimed by some as the ruins of the lost city of Ubar, the so-called Atlantis of the Sands and frequently the scene of violent camel raids among rival Bedouin tribes. Its watering hole has been slaking the thirsts of nomads for hundreds of years, being the last source of water before entering the sands. Times have moved on, and mine is quenched with a cup of sweet tea.
We trade tarmac for a bone-juddering dirt road for the final 65km to our camp, and I’m glad to finally arrive, an hour later. As luck should have it, at the camp is the grandson of one of Thesiger’s Bedouin travelling companions, who pulls out a tattered smartphone bearing photos of his famous forebear. My tent is inviting but there are still over three hours of daylight left. We leave the food with the Bangladeshi camp cooks, deflate the tyres to 25psi and head into the desert proper.
Everywhere I look stand magisterial titans of sand, sculpted by wind over millennia. Cast in the golden hue of the dying sun, they’re simply magnificent. Tomorrow is when the real fun begins: a pre-dawn hike over the highest and most spectacular summits. On the way back to camp, we pass a camel herder; he offers me a glass of fresh camel’s milk. “Thank you,” I say, bracing myself as I smile politely; but I’ll be damned – it’s actually good.
Supper isn’t bad either: it’s a simple meal of chicken, rice, hummus, baba ghanoush and spicy, fatty camel meat.
Thesiger was a hard man who famously eschewed comforts, once questioning noted traveller Eric Newby’s manliness for sleeping on an air bed instead of bare rocky ground. I duly spurn the bed in my tent in favour of a strip of carpet on the sand. But really, I want to feast on the infinity of stars for as long as I can.
The open-air experiment ends after strong winds almost make another small dune of me. I beat a retreat to the tent.
One hour to sunrise and not a moment to waste. I down some water and a banana, grab my pack and put on the old headscarf I picked up in Sudan during a youthful misadventure. Soon Mahad and I are on the move, chugging and sliding our way between summits and deep sand before arriving, after a short drive, at the spot we’d earmarked the evening before. Ahead lies a hike to one of the most imposing dunes in the area, a 200m-high horseshoe shaped behemoth connected to a chain of lesser peaks that stretches like a mountain range across the desert. My goal is to hike the ridgeline. Not a soul is in sight; not a sound can be heard. I shoulder my backpack, kick off my shoes and begin.
I start with a jacket but ditch it as my body warms up. Having run a desert marathon, I know what happens when sand gets in your shoe, and it’s not pretty, so I’m pleased with my decision to go barefoot. The terrain is soft, even for my pampered city feet. Suddenly the sun appears over the horizon – it’s magnificent.
Climbing a dune is a bit like mountaineering up a snow-crested ridge; you want to be on the windward side, where the footing has been scoured, making it firm to walk up. Venture onto the lee-side, where the wind has deposited dumps of sand, and you find yourself sinking up to your knees. But it’s not always that simple; inevitably there are deep sand trenches that can’t be avoided – and here, it’s an enormous trial to gain any uphill traction at all. At one such section I step up and start to slide back down. I try with the other leg and the same thing happens. For a brief but awful moment I feel the whole slope is going to give way and send me to the bottom, but thankfully my fears are misplaced. I use my hands to spread my weight and eventually emerge onto firm ground again, out of breath and bucketing sweat – half effort, half nerves.
The view, however, just gets better and better; and I keep climbing, sucking deep draughts of air, until there is nothing higher to climb. I look around and am overwhelmed by the silent majesty of the desert, now bathed in the gorgeous red dawn. The sharp play of light and shadow; the patterned sand under foot, the shaped waves of the dunes – it’s easy to see how it has entranced explorers for decades.
I continue to hike and skirt along the summit ridges, but the day is turning seriously hot and I’m approaching the point where I need to think about descending. I calculate, pick my line, and then charge down a steep wall of deep sand as fast as my legs will go, only just in control – half running, half flying until I’m back on terra firma. It takes me another half an hour to reach Mahad, who’s been following my progress and is easily spotted in his flowing white dishdasha. I’m reluctant to leave this extraordinary landscape, but no desert is much fun beyond late morning.
Fortunately we have just the cure for the heat. We make a mad dash to the sea – a place called Eagle Bay, about 80km up the coast from Salalah, home to sea turtles, rays, dolphins, sharks and octopuses. I don a wetsuit, weight belt and snorkel, and venture out with my Danish guide Karsten, expecting a show of seriously big fish; but alas, although we spend a long time scouring from the surface, they prove shy. There’s plenty of colour in the form of parrot fish, though, and a rather alien-looking cuttlefish scuttling along the seabed. On the way back, we stop at the legendary Fort of Mirbat, where nine SAS soldiers, outnumbered 33-1, famously held off waves of communist guerrillas in 1972. There’s just enough time to pay homage to the heroes before a race back to the Anantara.
By evening, I’m recovering with a beer in my private pool. On the flight over, I had briefly toyed with the idea of skiving off on Monday; staying an extra night at the very lovely Anantara would have let me go for a full scuba dive as opposed to just a snorkel – allowing the minimum 18 hours between diving and flying that safety requires (not to mention the chance to recover properly via the spa, three restaurants and that king-size bed). But I have to get back to work.
A speedy drop-off at the airport, from where it’s a short hop to Muscat, and a redeye from there to Heathrow which gets me on the ground nicely at 6am. It’s perfect timing: I beat the morning rush hour and get to the office with time to spare. I’ve hardly slept, my body’s aching and the skin’s a little brûléed – but the real glow is on the inside.