During my recent trip to Oman, I stayed a night in the Omani desert. The stay at the Sama al Wasili camp in the Wahiba Desert was a wonderful experience with some adrenaline pumping dune bashing followed by a quiet night even though one of my dreams – to shoot some stars in the desert night sky – didn’t materialize.
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Background to the Night in the Omani Desert
I have done desert safari before, during my trip to Dubai in 2018, and I knew I would be doing another in Qatar where I was to go after my trip to Oman.
But the Omani desert trip was to be something different. When I read about what I could do and see in Oman, one item that caught my attention was the desert camps.
The photos were mesmerizing – solo hut-like structures jutting in the otherwise desolated desert, the huts/camps glowing in night light and, above all, star-studded skies.
I had recently bought a wide-angle lens for my DSLR camera and I was rearing to do some astro-photography.
So, I signed up for a night at the Sama al Wasili camp in the Wahiba Sands desert through my guide, Khair Eddin.
To the Desert
We left the Misfat al Abriyeen mud village (see my review of the visit to the mud village) on Day 2 of our three-day road trip and after visiting the beautiful and majestic Nizwa Fort and the Nizwa Souq, we continued with our journey.
In the mid afternoon, the landscape gradually became flatter with that unique brown and at times golden sand visible.
The Wahiba Sands
This is Oman’s desert land, located in the southern-southeastern area of the country.
It is also called Sharqiya Sands or Ramlat al-Wahiba and is about 12,500 square kilometers. It is home to sand dunes as high as 150 feet (about 50 meters) as well hundreds of invertebrates and possibly dozens of mammals though one doesn’t see them often.
Before we entered the desert proper, Khair stopped to do something that is crucial for offroad driving: release some of the tire pressure to make the tires flatter, and also to ensure they do not heat up too much because of the high desert heat.
Once we entered the desert, there were no paved roads. We drove through sand paths hardened by the passage of previous vehicles.
Initially, there were short trees and then it was mostly desert land dotted with shrubs and short trees, possibly acacia trees. In some areas I even saw what looked like a think layer of very short grass, or a tinge of grass. Parts of this massive desert is teeming with vegetation.
And here and there, there were cement-made modern houses, belonging to the Bedouin who have moved from the traditional huts to modern housing including in-house toilets, etc.
The driver had to know the route well because I am sure the gps would not be efficient here.
And then we reached the Sama al Wasil camp.
After checking in, and leaving our travel bags in our hut, we took a brief rest and drove to have some dune bashing adventure.
More about the ‘camp’/’hut’ experience here, but first the desert adventures.
Dune Bashing in Wahiba Sands
It was as always exhilarating when Khair raced up the dune with the sand enveloping our 4×4. As I held my breath, the car would reach the peak and then the even scarier part would begin – driving down as fast as possible. Sometimes, halfway through the run upwards he would turn the vehicle sideways and let it slide slightly.
In all, dune bashing is a science. One has to gauge the height and possibly the sturdiness of the dune (which see hundreds of fast-racing 4x4s every week) and speed accordingly. And while coming down the driver has to ensure the vehicle doesn’t tip over or hit the flat surface too hard.
At one point, Khair raced but stopped at the foot of a dune and pondered. When I asked him, he said he was not sure whether the distance and the sturdiness were sufficient to accelerate enough so that the vehicle would not skid or even get stuck in the dune.
And he decided not to pursue because he felt the dune was good only for smaller vehicles and not our 4×4.
That’s the art and science of dune bashing.
We drove a little bit farther and got off the vehicle to watch the sun set.
The landscape was immense and seemingly infinite with cliffs, dunes and valleys. The wind was howling and the sun was starting to set.
I set up my camera for a timelapse while used my cellphone to shoot some videos.
As the sun set I noticed that 180 degrees away, the moon was rising.
We got on to the vehicle and did some more dune bashing before returning to the camp.
The Sama al Wasili Camp
After leaving the check-in-cum-store, we passed through a central and circular sitting room – a majilis – with knee-walls made up of bamboo and tree barks. The room had the typical Omani-style decorated carpets and cushions, and its roof was palm leaves. In the center there was coffee, tea and some snacks for those who want to rest or simply gather for a chat.
The camp’s huts were set on a ring-like structure. Outside of the ring there were more huts, including the luxury tent-like camps and the dining hall. There was also an open-air theatre. In contrast to the desert landscape, the area within the camp was flat and had more greenery.
Behind the tents was a dune, separated by a fence.
All, or at least most of the huts, looked new and each was a structure of its own with space on either side of it. And each hut had a small porch outside with carpet and cushions.
My hut consisted of three parts – a small front section with chairs and cushions, a section with the bed and then a compact toilet-cum-shower. The roof was made up of tree barks. It looked and felt very chic. The toilet was modern and the room had enough lights and power outlets. In fact, there was even a converter which even many high-end hotels don’t provide (or perhaps it was left by a previous guest?).
Food at Sama al Wasili Camp
As expected, it was a buffet-style dinner that catered for everyone. We had soup, rice, breads, pasta, tandoori beef, grilled chicken, salads etc. There was a special section for barbequed camel meat.
And, of course desserts, coffee, tea and coke were also available.
Unfortunately, it was alcohol-free.
Post dinner, I took my camera and the tripod to do my astrophotography.
‘Oh no’, my mind said as I looked at the light. It was the full moon day and of course the bright light was all over.
I walked around set up my tripod and took some shots with different settings but to no avail.
One of the employees of the camp came to me to ask what I was doing. When he realized the cause of my frustration, he took me to a corner outside the dining hall where it was quieter and darker.
However, the sky was still lit up with the bright moon.
I finally realized that this was not a night to shoot stars, so returned to my camp.
Following morning, I had a chance to catch the glimpse of the sunrise. One had to climb the thick string attached to poles along the rising sand dune behind the tents and reach the cliff. Somehow, I didn’t make it.
We had a breakfast with international flair with western and Omani breads, sausages, egg etc.
I also had a chat with some of the employees who had come where for work from India.
Time to Leave
A little later, we left the camp first to re-inflate our tires and then heading out on our final journey, towards the Wadi Bani Khalid before heading to Muscat.
Here is an epic photo of the desert – someone leaving a single, modern toilet in the middle-of-nowhere where it functions as a photo op.
I had enjoyed just the dune bashing and staying at a desert camp but there are other options for visitors. They include camel riding, visiting a Bedouin family and sandboarding.