We hung on for dear life, trying not to crash into the sides of the vehicle as the driver rocketed us up and onwards, aiming for the dune ridge with
impunity skill. Miraculously the vehicle remained stable, even as we rocketed across apparently precipitous angles, in a foretaste of dune bashing across the dune sands of Wahiba.
Ah, I finally see the point of 4-wheel drives. It was an incongruent thought that entered my mind as we barrelled over another dune in the Wahiba Sands desert. But that’s my brain for you.
- Dune bashing in Wahiba Sands: Part 1
- The romance of the Arabian desert
- ATV dune riding in Wahiba Sands
- Dune bashing in Wahiba Sands: Part 2
- Carbon offsetting information to Oman
Dune bashing in Wahiba Sands: Part 1
We had arrived at Arabian Oryx Camp in Wahiba Sands not an hour ago. It was already close to sunset. Upon discovering that they take guests up the sand dune ridge to see the sun set over the opposite ridge, we asked if it was still possible to go.
It seemed like we would miss it, which would be a shame. We were unfortunately only there for the night. Uncertainty over whether the coming Monday was a public holiday or not, meant that my expat friends local to Muscat couldn’t afford to risk staying longer. But we hoped.
The manager went to look. He cast an expert eye at the lowering sun and called a driver for a consult. It was possible. We dumped our bags in our rooms and rushed to meet our driver by the 4×4.
As we bashed across dune after dune, the man proved that he certainly took his job to take us up in time to see the sunset, very seriously!
The romance of the Arabian desert
I guess it betrays my age.
I still associate the idea of rolling sand dunes and Arabia with Scheherazade tales over 1001 nights. With semi-wild horsemen and beautiful Arabian steeds, with khamsin and magic and folklore of djinn. With wheeling stars across stark, unblemished sky, and caravan trails of silk and spices. Oases and mirages.
I learned this association, from literature. This was how literature presented the Arabian desert, before its image became overlaid with drone strike crosshairs or as familiar backdrop to real-time tactical strike video games, in the age of the Gulf Wars and later on, post-9/11.
So, when my work took me to Oman, and my friend who had become an expat in Muscat organised a trip to the Sharqiyah desert, of course I was in. I couldn’t miss the chance to see real desert sand dunes for the first time.
Watching the sunset on an Omani sand dune ridge
Our driver left us on the ridge and sped back across and down the dune slope, after assuring us in rudimentary English that he’d be back for us.
Left on our own, we looked at each other, and then to the far ridge. We made it.
The sun was a tiny orange ball hovering just over the horizon at the top of the ridge on the other side of the desert valley. It was surprisingly still.
So this is what it’s like, standing on a bank of sand. I hadn’t expected the slope to be quite so tall.
We looked around, and that was when I saw the sand dunes proper. Behind me was an enormous expanse of sand, stretching in gently undulating crests as far as the eye could see. Ephemeral ripples etched by meandering winds on its beige-orange surface, looking almost fluid, like the sea.
I understood then, why you could easily become lost in the desert. You cannot navigate by these dunes any more than you could mark a sea voyage by the waves.
And I was perplexed over how it was that the dunes, this massive bank of sand, seemed to simply stop, and drop down to the valley where the desert camps lay.
Night falls upon Wahiba Sands
A light wind occasionally wafted stray grains of sand, but otherwise it was calm. We couldn’t really hear the other groups, on their respective sand perches along the ridge.
Eventually Cindy wondered where our driver had gone, and when he would return.
“Probably he left us to complete his sunset prayer,” said Chian, my expat friend. She had been in the country for some time now, and spoke like a seasoned Lawrencia of Arabia. “He’ll be back.”
We watched the sun fall below the horizon. Red and orange light suffused the sky in a pastel glow as the darkness crept in.
Chian told us about the time she went on a caravan tour across the Moroccan desert, and the unbelievable play of light – the teja – that she saw in that desert. Indescribable, she said.
We looked down the valley, and saw the lights begin to wink on in our desert camp.
And soon, the 4×4 announced its impending arrival in virile engine roars, and we soon rolled back down to the valley.
That night we dined in the camp’s carpeted hall, and afterwards sleepily watched the locals play after-dinner music and dance and chill out in the way of the desert. It was not a show put on for us. They were simply playing, because it’s how they do.
“This is the sort of thing I travel for,” Chian said softly. I can’t say I disagree.
ATV dune riding in Wahiba Sands
We picked quad biking for the sunrise as our first morning activity. We arranged it the night before, so that we would know what time to go to the ATV shed the next day. There we met with our guide and got assigned the quads, and he took us just outside the camp to give us our first lessons in handling the quad bikes. Chian was the only one who had done it before.
Because of the high ridges flanking the valley, the dawn light brightened the morning enough to see comfortably, but the sun was not yet visible in the sky. The area our guide chose was fairly flat, giving us the best possible chance to practice controlling the vehicle on sand.
And it’s tricky. Not the same as on firm ground.
I wonder what our super-patient guide thought as he tried to get his four Malaysian tourists to a decent level of competence, in time for the sunrise.
Quad biking is for the confident.
You can’t rev too lightly, or you’d not get traction.
Revving faster is good – until the ground tilts ever so slightly and you compensate too late because of your speed. That’s when you instantly veer off into the soft sand and get stuck. Wheels throwing up sand and miring the quad even more firmly. So then the guide has to come over and lift the thing out bodily.
“Something something go, something something go,” the guide insisted.
It was a phrase he often repeated. It took us quite a while to decode his rudimentary English.
Finally I switched to my ‘Malay brain’ and it became suddenly clearer. Sedikit-sedikit, he was saying. Basically, rev slightly but continually. Thank God for bilingualism.
Eventually we were capable of maintaining mostly forward movement, and so we started on the morning ride.
Zipping across the desert on quad bikes
We rolled along the desert trails, marked no more than by the tracks of quads that had gone before. I soon developed a sense for what the firmer sand portions looked like, vs the more treacherous parts that would spin me to unexpected directions or mire my wheels.
Nonetheless, managing the quad still took a lot of concentration. Any time I began to daydream, or become distracted by a particularly enchanting dune landscape, I’d hit a bump and compensate too late.
We were told to follow in roughly single file, towards landmarks our guide pointed out to us. There were portions during the ride when one or another of us would get stuck. Our long-suffering guide did a lot of lifting in these stretches. Consequently there were a few moments when we kinda lost someone or other, especially when we were asked to crest a ridge.
But these events grew less and less frequent as the morning wore on.
It has to be said that the moments when a team member was lost were not really regretful moments. These were the times when we could take our phones out from where they were secured, to take photos of the desert morning.
Pro tip: Protect your phone/camera with a heat-resistant or insulating case. They would not let you bring a bag for safety reasons in case you tip over, albeit the quad is a very stable vehicle. The guide initially carried ours in a bag himself, but the heat on the quad body melted the plastic of the bag and the case of one of the phones. Thereafter we kept them in our pockets, but anyway temperatures are high all around.
Quad biking in the Sharqiyah desert morning
There was something peaceful in the ride, across the changing but somehow also unvarying desert landscape. It was almost hypnotic and the experience weaves into each other such that it was hard to say afterward, which sight was seen first and what happened. It was very bizarre how differently the four of us remembered things – and how clouded things became in reminiscence.
At one point the guide asked us to ride up a pretty steep sandy slope. We were skeptical. After being mired numerous times in slipping sand halfway up the slope, and somehow temporarily losing Cindy, he accepted our limited sand driving skills and thought of a different route.
We ended up in a plain of sorts, enclosed on one side by a curved ridge. A pit of loose sand had collected as if it were a lake. Here we stayed longer, enjoying the sun as it rose further over the ridge.
Afterwards he asked us to take a ride around the edge of the pit one by one, so that we could get videos taken. We wanted to stay for longer, and capture more memories, and our guide was quite indulgent. But eventually he kept looking at his watch and insisted we move on.
I think if we’d known in advance why, we might have insisted harder.
I’m sorry, you want me to drive down what??
I edged the quad slowly, right to the edge of the dune slope. I could feel Chian somewhere next to me on hers. Unsurprisingly, Chian was the first one to volunteer
riding to her doom to go through with the challenge. The guide was talking her through just… you know, revving her quad off the cliff.
I looked down and contemplated said slope. Well, maybe it wasn’t a cliff. But it looked pretty damn steep from the top.
The thing was, we were told to rev, go, and not to brake. Wait, what? Not brake?
Because of the sand, apparently. It could tilt the quad or mire it. This was not a slope you wanna be stuck halfway on. The sand was not packed enough for a man to easily walk to a mired quad to lift it out. He would be mired himself.
The knowledge had the opposite effect of reassuring.
“Something something, yes go,” he encouraged Chian, as he bodily pushed the quad slowly over. “No brake,” he emphasised for the dozenth time. The quad began to assume a degree of momentum, as it angled down the slope.
“Open brake, open brake! Something something, open brake!!” insisted the guide.
The quad rolled with surprising gentleness down the sandy slope.
I was supposed to wait until Chian reached the bottom before coming after her.
Except there was one problem. I had moved it close to the edge, before pausing in my cold-footedness. The quad, however, apparently had much warmer feet.
Its front wheels began to sink forward, slowly tilting the whole quad down to the slope.
“Er, I have no choice, I think I kinda have to go!” I exclaimed. The guide looked like he was about to laugh. He continued to exhort Chian to release the brakes completely.
“Yes!” he cried out, as Chian cleared the slope, as if it was his personal triumph. “You see now?” he said to the three of us.
He came over to me, and began rolling my quad a little bit down the slope, repeating, “Something something go, something something brake!”
I guess I imagined that gravity would begin rolling the quad down unchecked down the dune slope and I’d be hanging on for dear life.
But actually, the loose sand made the descent much slower and gentler than I expected.
After an initial instinctive reaction to brake, I overrode the impulse and just let the quad roll down. It did so gradually and quite evenly.
Nothing whatsoever to be nervous about!
I cleared the slope handily, revved to join Chian, and waited for Cindy and Yoke Ping to come down, feeling quite pleased with myself.
Dune bashing in Wahiba Sands: Part 2
We contemplated what we would like to do for the next morning activity, before it gets too hot. (Midday really is too hot to do anything in the desert. I have a very good heat tolerance, but even I was in a stupor after about 11am.)
We all remembered the exhilarating ride to the sunset view the previous evening. The consensus was to go dune bashing across the Wahiba desert.
Dune bashing vs quad biking
We thoroughly enjoyed quad biking, once we got the hang of it (kinda). But quad biking does require a lot of concentration, because you could easily be driven off course by any irregularities on your path. In order to enjoy the sights of the desert, you must pause. You cannot do it, in motion.
But dune bashing – when you’re not the driver – is different. You get to just enjoy the ride!
The driver took us a different way than the quad biking routes. We crossed more dunes, rocketing up and over and down in a most exciting manner.
We reached spots that looked like they might be wadis, getting some water on occasion. The driver told us that, once every so often, tentative greenery might spring from the desert.
One day, it would be lovely to see that transient revival of life in this otherwise sere landscape.
The ecological sensitivity of the desert
I shared our activities with my adrenaline-seeking mountain biking friend. He gleefully questioned whether it might be against my sustainability principles to tear across fragile desert landscapes in fuel-hungry power vehicles.
Irksome to hear, but on the other hand this is precisely why I like keeping friends who keep me honest – whatever the purity of their motivations.
Anyway, it did make me pause. I knew nothing about whether the Sharqiyah desert was, in fact, ecologically fragile. It looked barren, but then I also knew that this does not mean the same as lifeless. I took comfort in the fact that the level of tourism I saw was still quite low… but could it change?
I didn’t know.
A less exhilarating but more charming way to catch the sunrise would be to do it by camel, which was also offered at Arabian Oryx. As far as I can tell, the camels simply wander about for the rest of the day.
It was the first time being hosted in the desert for all but one of us. We had a great time – albeit regrettably a very short one. But the desert has a kind of spell in its glamouring heat, that blurred the memories in the same way as the sand dunes shift position imperceptibly.
All through the next day’s road drive back, and over dinner, we argued over who got lost where, and which event happened before the other, during that morning’s quad bike ride. (No, seriously. This is white dress/blue dress level of arguing).
To this day unresolved.
Special thanks to Cindy (hi Cindy!) for her phone with the awesome camera, and for dutifully chronicling many of these moments.
Read the sequel – Wadi Bani Khalid: The Muqal Cave Hiking Game
Carbon offsetting information to Oman
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Muscat produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,184 lbs CO2e. It costs about $21 to offset this.
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