23 January 2016

Oman Overnight 2014 - Part One

This expedition of a dozen people was billed as an overnighter in a tourist desert camp a new experiment for the cruise company. "Journey time 3 hours each way." Although most trip details are lacking I am beside myself with anticipation. Soon: camels at my beck and call. Should I mention that my camera skills fail me at critical times? Heard that before? What else is new, you say ... well, Major Cardiac Scare was to come.

We have four jeeps; luckily I can snag a front seat with driver Musa. "Moses, in English" I say; Musa smiles but his English is almost non-existent or he's a man of few words. David in back seat asks if I speak Arabic; I try not to snort. Single woman in backseat likes to chatter mindlessly. From the city of Muscat we climb to the plateau. I thought two hours one-way in a jeep was brutal. Try five hours a little miscalculation on someone's part. We do have pit stops as we go. 

Our leader is Mahmoud who apparently missed leadership training; he is quiet and kindly but not commander material. Like any time we stop for ten minutes the drivers dick around for thirty minutes or more. Not specifying a departure time doesn't work well for drivers or tourists. Whenever Mahmoud delivers instructions or information perchance a change in the itinerary most of us are unaware or can't hear him. After a couple of these stops, a fellow passenger, the one who strains to decipher, says because of timing we are now heading straight to the camp, without any sidelights such as a dip in an oasis pool.

So, onward! We pass a few towns, Ibra among them, endless driving on these flats but thankfully a paved road. Signs for desert camps begin appearing. Our third stop is at Al Ghabbi for tire deflation; we are now three hours in, at 4:30 pm. On the edge of this town, yes, suddenly we are on sand roads. Surely can't be long to our destination now. Typically corduroy-textured rutted "road" with some expected swerving dune-bashing thrown in although Musa is mercifully restrained. Often we are in a valley between mountainous sand ridges, occasionally spotted with nomadic herds and tents. Wahiba Sands, hello.

Fourth stop is at a Bedouin complex of several tents, some of us wondering if this is our overnight camp. A woman in the unique, scary Nizwa niqab watches as we stumble out of the jeeps. Mahmoud mumbles the woman wants to give us tea and dates. Which she does, in a tent laden with cushions, wall hangings, pictures, and a long table of trinkets and handicrafts, all for sale. She never speaks.

Off we go again. The sun is setting behind the wall of sand, therefore we will miss the plan of sunset watching at the camp. Which we think must be just around the corner. Even patient David says, "Are we there yet?" Two dates on my stomach since breakfast. The road gets worse and the dunes multiply in height.

We are late and it turns pitch black. As black as outer space. The jeeps stop at the foot of a dramatically steep dune mountain; in the transient view from our collective headlights we can see the road we are following goes straight up. Straight. Up. It can't be a road! It must be a little Arab humour for the tourists. Asking Musa if there is an alternative way around the mountain is useless. Did he really pass the required Omani desert-driving course with that sticker on his windshield?!

Headlights flaring, one by one the jeeps tackle it, getting bogged on their first try, sliding backwards on the vertical face. Gut-wrenching hopes that none will flip over and tumble like tinker-toys. My heart is in my mouth as each jeep eventually disappears upward. We are the last, with only our own paltry set of headlights to see by. This is insane. The most terrifying incident of my life. I simply have to hide my eyes, we will be the one to topple, this can't be happening ... my life is over, right now ... will our wreck be covered with sand by daylight? ... will my remains get shipped home? ... did I finish writing my obituary? ... death grip on the roll bar.

I can't tell how far we get before we slide backwards but we start a second time from the bottom. We passengers can no longer tell which way is up, anyway. Suddenly, after great thrashing of the wheel on Musa's part, we are with the others at the top. Cameras are useless in the blackness, even if our frozen brains thought of it. Therefore no documentation of this monumental heart-stopper. Our trembling nerves and spastic muscles begin to relax as we are on the straight and narrow again. Golly, the camp must be just over there, time is wasting. Oh ― our fellow jeeps have stopped ahead. The camp at last? But no, not yet.

It seems a family going in the other direction had a jeep malfunction, across the way from us, and a second jeep party stopped to help but both were at a standstill. Our drivers pile out to run over. Another twenty to thirty minutes go by. Then we resume, no explanations again. David pries it out of Musa who is very tentative about his English, one slow word at a time: one jeep was trying to tow the dead one but the rope kept breaking. We are left to imagine how long they are marooned in this vast isolation.

Finally, arrival at 1000 Nights Camp. Hard to see anything in the blinding dark with limited torch lights. Rumour circulates that we are leaving at 6:45 a.m. Mahmound is not to be found, to confirm this. I'm in shock, what's the point of arriving at night and leaving at dawn?! Why did they schedule a morning visit to the Grand Mosque \way back in Muscat on the same trip? Someone else said the camels are coming at 6:30 a.m. This is not good. A word with nice reception man who promises camels will come at 6:00 so I can have a decent ride before leaving. I'm so unnerved, unknowingly fumble my camera onto the wrong settings.

A golf cart alternately whisks us to our individual tents. They are beautiful, and so is what little we can see of the camp itself. The heat in my tent is stifling but it has screens on three sides, full length one side ... quickly sweep the curtains aside! The attached open air bathroom is great, just the stars above. Walk to the lovely lamp-lit dining area for dinner. A few families are around; we hear German being spoken. Ample food to choose from in the buffet and barbecues, lamb and goat a specialty, yum. I am becoming comatose from the accumulated effects of fear and heat and a full stomach. We are well entertained. Oh to have more time here!

I don't linger, need bed, need sleep. Gotta rise at 5:30 to have a meaningful camel experience. On the path to my tent Mahmoud comes by, always solicitous. So little time to spend here, I moan, so early to leave. It's still too warm in my tent, so much for deserts turning cold at night. Not this particular desert. I adore my tent, breeze through the screens all night. I discover I am sharing the bathroom with a humungous green insect. He's stubborn and won't be flapped away.

best I could do from a sad batch of photos

~ to be continued, blogging superseded for the next month or so ~

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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