Over the past few years, Oman has been building a great reputation as the new promised-land for hill-trekking, rock-climbing, dhow-sailing, caving and off-roading (known here as “wadi-bashing”).
In fact, it is the perfect winter destination for anyone with a love for wilderness adventure. Unfortunately, an extremely tight deadline meant that I had touched down in Muscat on a runway that still shimmered and bubbled under lizard-baking 45° desert heat. We were up and out at dawn every morning to try to cover as much ground as possible before the midday heat began to hammer us.
We trekked with Camelbak water-carriers – a tube running over our shoulders to “drip-feed” us the life-giving fluid that was evaporating even before it could form as sweat on our brows. It was almost impossible to carry sufficient water for a day’s trek and when we knew we would have to retrace our path, we would leave a cache of water bottles in the shade of a rock for our return. With parched lips and thick tongues, the warm water would taste even better than the gin and tonic I had been fantasising about for the last hour.
My brief was to cover mountain activities in the Hajar Mountains, the great rust-coloured ridge that separates the Arabian sands from the Gulf of Oman. Fifty years ago the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger reluctantly turned his back on these spectacular mountains when he was warned that he and his men would almost certainly be murdered if they set foot there. Remembering this I was vaguely surprised to discover that, as a nation, the Omani people would prove to be some of the most friendly and hospitable people I’ve met anywhere in the world.
The tourist board too looked after me with typically un-stinted Arab hospitality. In the brief interludes when I was not tearing around the country I lounged about my Hyatt Regency executive suite like a slovenly (and fairly bedraggled) pasha. The reception staff was far too well-trained ever to show any surprise when I staggered in, beetroot red and begrimed, from a couple of days trekking and camping in the desert hinterlands.
Much as I appreciated the comfortable beds, air-con and sumptuous restaurants of Muscat’s 5-star establishments, it was the thousand-star Arabian nights that were the highlights of the trip. With the bush-telly crackling heartily around a heap of juniper sticks, fending off the chill of the surprisingly cool desert nights, I’d lie back and gaze at a vaulted covering of stars that stretched all the way down to the horizon.
It was easy to imagine that the life of a nomad was mankind’s natural state.