Deserts conjure up images of the vastness of empty. It just happens to be that their great expanse is the garden of some sultan. What can be palatial is the hermetically sealed temperature controlled environment of the huge rooms in the Al Bustan Palace Intercon or it can be the oneness with the chilly and endless desert, surrounded by ululating harem, with a piece of fabric for a roof and not far from the treasured family camels. Squatting on a carpet, with the deep blue winter night sky above, one is forced to stretch, whatever girth one possess, recline on a pillow and be fed, starting with Omani Mezze and leading to the main fare, spiced lamb, cooked for 15 hours in an underground fire, shredded over noodle length rice with lemons and dates. Such outdoor pleasures were not an exclusive preserve of the rich as car-borne Omani's dine like so, on the manicured garden-like traffic shoulders of Highways, under the orange glare of low-pressure sodium lights.
The Middle East bi-millennium old tradition of siesta makes sense as it is too hot to do anything [but sleep] from noon to late afternoon. Mimic the attitude and look to it not as a wasted half day but making two days out of one as the souks come alive at night. This is daily life in the oldest and most gentle cultures on earth.
To enjoy a different kind of driving experience in the Gulf, I defer to the Barbour All Terrain Trekking, a team mostly made up of Brits who do off-roading events the world over. Led by Duncan, the Flying Scotsman, we were not only to be immersed in desert rock and sand, but also in the fine art of off-roading in 2 and half ton Jeeps. Our vehicles were brand new, shipped from Auburn Hills, Michigan complete in their American specs and Dubai transit-temporary plates. Our 18-Jeep convoy was to start from the Al Bustan Palace to the destination dune/Wadi/Rallye special stage of the Middle East International Rallye and back. Not only do we get to drive through the un-vegetated but spectacular geological formations and variety of the Omani countryside, but we get to thread the 7-seater behemoths, through a roadscape thickly populated by Hyundai Accent's and Toyota Echo's.
Out into the desert as the sun rose, it was a cool spring 25 degrees. Rain was reported last night, as having accumulated upstream in the mountains, Gulf-ward of the Wadi's we were headed for. For the uninitiated, Wadi's are like dry river beds hemmed by steep cliffs. Snaking throughout Oman's landscape of shifting tectonic rock, they cut through gold stone, black stone, brown stone, red stone, slate stone, flint stone, purple stone and whatever stone Oman's numerous mountains are made off from the day the continental shelf threw up from the sea, creating the countries of Arabia, several thousand years ago. Or is that what the hieroglyphics say on the basalt walls of the Wadi's? The cliff edged Wadi's can channel the wind at extreme knots, something I discovered while having barbecue lunch at our camp as a pristine white shirt and desert khakis were soiled by barbecue sauce traveling at incredibly horizontal wind speed. Our guides were kept up to date by satellite weather reports as, even in bright sunlight, one can be in for a wet surprise. But not an ordinary one as its usually a rumbling wall of water.
You see, the sultan's government, which is continually building roads, even to remote hermit and goatherds living by remote oases. Same dams upstream of the Wadi's open up the sluice gates whenever the skies decide to over soak the mountains up stream. This leads to a 3 meter high flash floods rushing down the convoluted path of the Wadi at subsonic speed, leaving one with nowhere else to hide.
Taking the Motorways out of Muscat, the strong British influence still lives in the roundabouts, the striped black-white curbs and sign posts. And the GATSO speed camera on the median. The latter's deployment seems to be like the proverbial Omani, tough outside but soft on the inside. Why? Because wherever there were GATSO's, there were no road markings for the speed trap to record its bearings. After the 120km/h speed limited motorways surrounded by law abiding Toyota's, Nissan's and Hyundai's, we headed onto two lane National roads, opening up to wide open sky and scenery. Not a Police car in sight.
Most paved highways here are like the EU's. Driving, was very considerate as car drivers and truck drivers, who saw us coming from behind would click their signals right in order to suggest that 1.) Its OK to overtake now and 2.) That we have a clear path ahead. Those numerous driving school white Corolla's with maroon tiger stripes do their job well.
Equipped with 5.7 HEMI V-8's, our 2 and half ton Jeep Commanders got up to sports sedan speeds with the active safety technology reminding me how early and gentle it intercedes on some curves as pebbles spray sideways on fast cornering. After that, we were off the metaled roads as we entered Wadi de Dayqay.
Even these rocky paths were properly sign posted and some even had cop-operated traffic lights – in the middle of nowhere. In fact, wherever we were in the mountainous desert, we would always chance upon little boys and face covered women carrying huge earthen jugs of water or goats led by a goatherd leaving behind unsavory refuse, all of who seem to come out of nowhere.
Getting into Rallye mode, the Jeeps slipped and slid through the red earth, loose gravel special stages. By now, my steed had already come to make be believe in invincibility, with the steering feeling light yet sure. Then we reached the moment of truth; the Wadi
Being dried river beds, there are plenty of rocks and boulders jumbled and washed out by rain. The ancestors of the locals have built an elaborate siphoning system to extract water from the natural underground cisterns of the Oases, keeping the date palms alive for centuries. Treading carefully through their territory we made sure we returned the friendly waves of the young generation and kept our speed and dust plumes low.
4WD in low range and a few testing rock climbs and the 18 car convoy processed through the wade-able portion of the stream. This was slow going but the ordeal of crawling along in low gear beats walking on the rocky bed. But what I was not prepared for was what was in store for us at the exit of the long Wadi.
There were two rocks, and we were being guided to negotiate the uphill climb to the top of the hill. This meant getting through the boulders, on a dog leg. This, to me, looked like a gamble. There was a possibility of getting stuck with only one wheel with traction. But everyone who went through before me was able to get through but without scraping the right rear alloy wheel on a huge boulder. With a little anticipation for body lurch, I timed my steady throttle with my left foot on the brake, reigning my Jeep. I got thru with 2 wheels in the air and one drive wheel in the rock bed crevice to emphatic thumbs up from the Blimeys guiding our way. I didn't realize that all that wading and rock climbing prior made me get comfortable with the off road 4WD, compensating for the pitching body of the Freeway soft suspension settings.
After Lunch, we finally leave Wadi Dayqay, transiting through paved highway and another Rallye special stage. Again another reminder that thanks to modern technology, Jeeps can go up to sports car speeds without any drama or float., catching tail slides on the rocky corners taken at high speed on loose earth. I felt and looked like Sebastian Loeb keeping the time fault points low on one of those WRC [World Rally Championship] stages. My six hours of driving was to be rewarded by our last stop before returning to Al Bustan. There, at the tip of my shoes, over an 862 meter promontory was a view of the white washed city and a motorway cutting through it, glinting in the chilly afternoon sun. This must be the like view when the devil tried tempting Christ.
In retrospect, the most severe bumps I ever encountered in this whole trip to the rocky deserts of Oman were over India. I had to hang on to the cabin crew's pitcher of fresh OJ to prevent it from spilling on to the Business Class seats on Emirates spanking new Boeing 777-ER300. Yes, we have no dune buggying stories on the soft, powdery dunes of Dubai, but that can be for another time.