Sweaty palms and silence all around as our tyres zig-zag every corner of the ascent and gravel tumbles down nearby cliff edges. The upward winding road weaves with barely enough room for one vehicle but we regularly pull aside to let small trucks, loaded with livestock for the market, pass us. These short respites offer a chance to breathe, before the thousands of kilometres of lunar landscape below us takes it away – desolate rock carved deep with veins that stretch out to a nearby sea.
Photography by Jonathon Collins
The Sultanate of Oman feels untouched and completely wild. It is a country where jagged limestone peaks dive into sweeping deserts, emerald canyons and pristine coasts. A place where crisp, white robes and colourful hijabs dart through crowded souqs. Compared to its neighbours, mainstream media rarely depicts scenes from Oman, which often means people know very little about the country. The best way to travel in Oman is to embrace the sense of mystery and adjust to the unique conditions of this isolated and vastly empty desert nation.
VERTICAL DIMENSIONS OF THE DESERT
A dirt trail hugs tight to one side of the canyon where limestone cliffs crack open to make way for the life-force of the desert. As the hike becomes steeper, the nearby stream deepens and flows faster. The canyon opens to plateaus of silt and stone, where the trail passes plantations of date palms and groups of elderly farmers who offer their pickings with a smile. Through crevices and corridors in the enormous earthen vein comes one final opening to Wadi Shab – an emerald, blossoming dimension to the surrounding cracked earth. Reeds, ferns and wildflowers grow along the edges of freshwater pools and waterfalls in what feels like a mirage to the otherwise barren landscape.
‘Wadis’ are the life source of all Omanis. The canyons are well protected from the harsh sun and, like Wadi Shab, offer fresh drinking water and an essential means of cooling down even in the hottest times of the year.
“A bonfire ignited by palm fronds and fence posts roars under the night sky. As the flame burns to tiny charcoals, it is the only light between two rolling seas; one of infinite stars and another of sand dunes below.”
Thousands of years ago, descendants of the Omani people developed a sophisticated system of irrigation, known as ‘aflaj’, which used gravity to deliver water through multiple channels from nearby wadis. The direct translation, ‘split into parts’, ensured water was divided equally to surrounding villages and farms. Fresh water in such a hostile landscape is an essential commodity and crucial for agriculture. From the mountain tops of Jebel Akhdar to the crumbling ruins of Birkat Al Mouz, the aflajcreated an abundance of greenery amongst otherwise ochre rubble, and served as a reminder of the ingenuity and resilience of those living in the deserts.
HOSPITALITY IN THE EMPTY QUARTER
A bonfire built on palm fronds and fence posts roars under the night sky. As the flame burns to tiny charcoals, it is the only light between two rolling seas – one of infinite stars and another of sand dunes below. Ahmad, a young Bedouin man, rubs salt and spices on fresh camel meat and lays it out on the charcoals to barbecue. His brother, Ali, balances a small torch under his chin while stirring a pot of rice. While sharing a communal plate, the teenagers recount tales of scorpion stings during the night, of grand offers for their prized camels, and of rescuing tourists who got stuck driving in the dunes. The night brings a breeze dusted with shifting sands, and once our stomachs are full and sore from laughing, we fall asleep on the cold dunes.
Like many Bedouin people across the Middle East, Ahmad and his family have lived for generations between these two seemingly empty seas of Wahiba Sands. While many Bedouin people now abandon nomadism for the cities, their affinity for the desert is obvious. We met Ahmad after we bogged our truck and he offered an invitation to ‘sleep like a Bedouin’. It was clear he sat on the cusp of tradition and modernisation.
Ahmad beamed with pride, as he showed us the only location in the entire desert – an enormous sand dune behind his home – where his phone could pick up 3G network. And yet moments later he pointed to a speck on the shimmering horizon – one of his camels from his family’s herds running freely through the desert. And he could name exactly which one it was. Despite having a mobile phone, a generator for his family home and a Jeep to herd his camels, Ahmad’s life still revolved around the ancient traditions of the Bedouin people. He and his brothers travel 1000 kilometres on foot through the Empty Quarter to Salalah for trade every year. His mother wears a ‘batoola’ – a mask curved like a falcon beak, worn centuries ago as protection against the hot sand carried by desert winds. He and his family continue to host relative strangers with the same hospitality and kindness the Bedouin have extended for generations – invitations for coffee and fresh dates, communal meals and a farewell gift of dried camel meat in exchange for stories of adventure under a starry night sky.
A LOOP IN RENAISSANCE
As the sun creeps from behind the Al Hajar Mountains, it ignites movement in a sea of white robes and fur. Around a small podium, men and women traipse with their most prized possessions, and crowds begin lengthy bartering negotiations. Some stop momentarily but move on knowing a better price is imminent. The circle goes around and round, people argue over the flatness of a sheep’s tail, the shine of a camel’s coat or the gender of a baby goat. Beyond the swirling arena, the smaller alleyways erupt with life. Pottery sits by a roaring furnace, bird cages string from ceilings and fresh produce lays out on mismatched rugs and windowsills. People flood in – faces of Bedouin, everyday Omanis and foreign workers in pursuit of a bargain. Under the shadows of the city’s towering fort, the Nizwa Souq comes to life.
Dotted throughout Oman’s vast lands, these bustling souqs and ancient forts are a reminder of an eternal loop in renaissance for the country. Their history is etched into stone steps and carved into wooden doors, stories of a country at times connected, then disconnected to the rest of the world. Tales of lifetimes flush with immense riches and trade, followed by periods of insurgence, war, isolation and hardship. Now, the modern country lives through a contemporary renaissance of a booming economy, stable politics, a rise in tourism and a deeper connection to the West.
“…it is a story of a wild and diverse landscape and a people that display immense resourcefulness, hospitality and unity unlike anywhere else in the world. A people that carry an enormous pride in their country, and a disdain for the many misconceptions that shroud their culture, religion and identity.”
Despite being one of the least densely populated countries in the world, Oman’s population is a melting pot of stories. A little under half the population are foreign residents. Nowadays, many Omanis speak Swahili – an unexpected relic from their ancient ties with Zanzibar – and many business owners are second generation migrants, or new arrivals from the subcontinent. Alongside the Bedouin and Arab people, this Oman has seen traditions, cuisines and cultures blend with an ever-present sense of unity. At every turn, you’ll find people wanting to help, inviting you to join them for a coffee, or share in a bowl of fresh dates. It’s no wonder Oman has amicable relations with its neighbours.
It’s a shame that Oman’s story of prosperity and peace is neglected in the media’s coverage of the Middle East. It is a story of a boundlessly hospitable people who display immense resourcefulness, care and unity, set in one of the world’s harshest and wildest landscapes. A diverse nation that holds an enormous pride in their country, and a disdain for the many misconceptions that shroud their culture, religion and identity. Oman tells a story that is writing itself time and again like the shifting sands of its deserts, but one as unexpected as the precious wadis dotted throughout its landscapes. Yet one thing that forever remains unchanged is the Omani spirit – the true life source of the desert.