A Weekend in the Desert
by Cassie Hipkiss-Hicks
When our American friends said that they were coming to visit with their two and four-year-old boys and their sixteen-year-old niece, my husband and I did have to wonder what kind of trip could possibly encompass something for everyone, from toddlers to teenagers to adults. We concluded that a weekend in the desert would surely be able to keep everyone happy, and thankfully, we were right.
We travelled from Muscat to Bidiyah on Highway 23, winding through the mountains along hair-raising single carriageways with crazed drivers overtaking on blind corners. Our friends had borrowed our neighbour’s 4WD, whereas we bumped along in our long-suffering retro Volvo Estate (and were the object of much of the a fore-mentioned overtaking).
Arriving in Bidiyah was an assault on the senses – it was as though we had travelled into the Wild West of Arabia. Dilapidated pick-up trucks housed rather dusty-looking locals and we were very aware that we weren’t in Kansas (on indeed Muscat!) anymore. Locals swarmed around the numerous budget restaurants and shops, eyeing the foreign interlopers with interest, at this last trading post to buy supplies and sanity before venturing intoWahiba Sands.
Retro Car was unable to make the journey into the desert so we’d arranged a pick-up through our accommodation, which also doubled very nicely as an escort for our American friends, although finding the camp would be relatively straight-forward without a guide (the big yellow arrow pointing at which sand dune to drive up is very helpful!). We stopped off at one of the numerous garages in Bidiyah to reduce our tyre pressure, before the tarmac ended and we were well and truly on our way into the desert. Floating over the waves of sand, listening to the Bedouin driver’s rather traditional choice of music and spotting distant camels was pleasantly hypnotic, with the added bonus of lulling the child into a peaceful sleep.
We stayed at 1000 Nights Desert Camp, which I would heartily recommend. The Sheikh tent that we stayed in looked wonderfully authentic from the outside, and was thankfully not at all authentic on the inside, with comfortable beds, beautiful rugs and an attached outdoor bathroom.
There is a lovely pool area, complete with bamboo seating (alongside, randomly, a stranded dhow boat which has been reinvented as a coffee bar), and is a great place to hang out and cool off whilst waiting for the main event of the evening, which is sunset. The camp is set in the middle of a choice of sand dunes from which to observe sunset (or sunrise should you be up early enough), one of which helpfully has a rope somehow imbedded into ittopull up those of us without the camel-like ability to climb softly cascading sand whilst carrying a nearly three-stone toddler!
After sunset, next on the agenda is dinner. A large buffet is served outside next to a spacious open-sided seating area, which catches the breeze nicely. There are a few high chairs available, in amongst the Bedouin drapes and cushions, along with a few books and games scattered around on the various bookshelves. In all, it’s a comfortable and relaxing environment to while away the evening. Bedouin musicians knelt down at the front of the dining area to entertain us with some traditional music, and the next thing I know, our child is sitting on one of the singers’ laps, and has become part of the entertainment herself!
Back in our ‘tent’, once the child is settled, we sit on our porch to look at the stars and admire quite how many there are once away from the artificial light of towns and cities. However, the organised desert camp experience isn’t quite like camping in the middle of the desert and doing it by yourself (although admittedly much more convenient and reassuring when travelling with children!). The sound of the 4x4s whizzing along the main desert track along with the noise from the camp generator did hamper the imagined silence somewhat, but it was a lovely moment to look at the stars and the surrounding shapes of the sand dunes and marvel at the magnitude of the desert and to understand in some way the nomadic roots that lie at the heart of Omani culture.
The following morning, after a tasty buffet breakfast, the children played in the children’s play area (no shade but the equipment is very good). We had a look at the white oryx, deer and horses which were penned in just behind the reception area and then climbed the sand dunes again to admire the endless view of orange peaks. We then had a great time sliding back down them again (the children loved this!). Just for good measure, there were Bedouin ladies selling traditional handicrafts and there was also a camel available for short camel rides and photograph opportunities (this very much appealed to the teenager and I believe this may even be her new Facebook profile picture – high praise indeed!).
There was just time for another quick dip in the pool before the midday check out. Our driver was waiting for us in reception, ready to transport us back to reality and civilisation after this rather magical overnight retreat.
Once reunited with Retro Car in Bidiyah, we stopped at a couple of deserted villages on the way back to Muscat: Al Munisifeh and Al Kanatar. Al Munisifeh makes an interesting short stop-off to see ramshackle ruins of what were obviously once very beautiful and ornate houses, giving an insight into the area’s wealthy, mercantile past. The road leads onto Al Kanatar where it is possible to drive all of the way through the village (provided your car isn’t too wide). It is an eerie experience to travel through the narrow, desolate street, with mudbrick ruins almost touching your wing mirrors, and to imagine life as it may once have been there. You will emerge out of the other side of the village into a wadi, which once driven across, links up nicely with the main road through Ibra and then Highway 23; so there is no backtracking involved, simply an interesting diversion.
As predicted, our desert weekend had a little something for everyone, and an excellent time was had by all; and my husband and I are already planning to return there with our next arrival of international, multi-aged visitors.