After waking up in Rakhyut, we drove off towards the turn-off into the north of Oman, to the remote military airport of Aydan, from where we would go further north. The change of landscape is dramatic and sudden. From the green coastline and mountains around Rakhyut and Dalkout, the trees and scrubs disappear from one moment to the other. The landscape becomes baren and dry. Large plains with some hills and some white/grey sand dunes appear and there is much less habitation. Now it becomes more challenging with roads, as the map, navigation and signs are not always corresponding with each other (if only for the different names for the same places). The road towards the north ends up at the gate of the military airbase, but a dirt road will take you around it. A long graded gravel road lay ahead of us with only one car heading our way. A large dust plum is following our tracks. The road passes through wadis with bad sections of road, climbing down and up. Often we see graves alongside the road in the wadis. By the end of the day, we reached a huge wadi, which we reached by a steep declining dirt road. The wadi was carved out in the earth’s crust and left and right high cliffs lined what was once a large flowing river. The millions of smooth round shaped rocks were proof that thousands of years ago, there was a lot of water here. Now only occasionally, with some rain, water will flow through a section of the wadi. Vegetation, growing at certain spots were proof that water was still under the surface. Even little toads (Arabian toad) can be found in this dry and hot part of the world, which I found amazing, since I know frogs and toads like humid environments. (This toad can go in hibernation for up to 3 years!)
This was our first night out in the desert (but still not the Empty Quarter). Dead trees and bushes around us, provided us with fire wood for our first camp fire that night. Away from human settlement and big roads, we had a beautiful view of the sky. Being in the wild you also realize you are not alone. Though the desert looks without life, there is plenty of life. The thousands of insects starting to fly around once the sun sets, are interesting creatures, but annoying. Also the first black scorpion came to introduce itself, we sent him away (not knowing its intentions).
In the early morning we did a long hike through the wadi. Just to see the geology of the cliffs, the rocks are interesting by their own. Oman is one of the most interesting countries in the world geology wise. Oman soil, rocks and sand, is like a diary of earth’s life.
Next day we continued towards the little town of Aybut from where we would take another dirt road towards the Yemeni border. A lot of the little towns are actually pretty new. Usually created around watering holes for camels (where there were some huts), the Government builds standard housing units, some government buildings and a mosque. Lot of the inhabitants of these towns have their ancestral roads there. It’s interesting to see, that next to all these houses, you find little fenced in sheds, where the people keep their life stock for fresh products (chicken, goats, donkeys etc).
Following this bumpy road we reached an intersection behind some hills, where a military outpost was located. A sleepy soldier was surprised to see us and was nervously looking for his gun, straightening his uniform and approached us. We wanted to go to Habarut, a little town on the border with Yemen. Its the only little bump in the straight line of about 300 km border, which divides Yemen from Oman. However, the soldier didn’t understand, since his English was non-existing. He called for assistance and 2 officers showed up. Very friendly guys again. We explained who we are, where we are from and showed the paperwork. However, they said, that Habarut was only a military post and that we were not allowed to go there. We like to go to places others don’t go, but this time it was not possible. We had only one other choice left and that was going further north towards the town of Al Mazyunah. A long drive through a plain desert on a gravel and sand road. Often we use tracks next or near the ”official” roads, since these roads can be very bumpy from the ”washboarding”. The tracks next to the road are heavier to drive on due to the thick sand, so we drive with a lower speed. I also found the perfect opportunity to finally get Marja behind the wheel. She is a bit scared or reluctant to drive the truck (she has no truck license), but in case of an emergency it would be best if she also knows – at least – how to drive the truck. On a sand track with no traffic, no trees or light post (so nothing to hit), she took the wheel, while I explained what to do and what not. Actually a piece of cake!
We arrived in Al Mazyunah around lunch time and found a buzzing little border town. The second and only other functioning border crossing with Yemen. We filled up the tanks, got some groceries from a little supermarket and…….ice cream! Finding ice cream in little desert towns, feels like finding hot chocolate at an iglo on the North Pole. After getting that kick out of the ice cream, we drove further north, to get to the most north western part of Oman, reachable by camper truck. Next little town to reach was Mitan, again a long desert gravel road. Along the way, we saw a crew working on the construction of a mobil phone tower. It’s remarkable to see, how slowly but surely, the desert becomes “connected” to the connected world as well. Later on – in the Empty Quarter – we would find little sticks in the ground along the road, indicating that a fiber optic cable was placed there. Fiber optic, before even water or electricity lines!
We camped along the road in the open plain that night. Being in the desert, the climate is different from the coast. Especially now that the winter will start soon, the temperature drops at night and a cool breeze blows through our little home. No more AC, for a while. It’s – by the way – amazing the difference in temperature here, between being in the shade or not. If not only for the real temperature, but even more for the ”feel” temperature.
Another good hike we did in the morning, on the open plain, just to nowhere, since there was nothing to walk to. Walking on the open plain, we saw camels (actually we see them every day, but these where very dark, almost black, or actually they are black). Black camels are very rare and are considered very expensive. We found them beautiful, almost like show horses. We came across a little settlement where we stopped at a well. Our water was running low and we didn’t find a proper place to fill up. We have seen more places with a well, where people fill up big drums with water, mostly for their camels or cows. Water sits deep under the surface in the Oman desert and can be considered clean and not polluted. Only, depending on the ground conditions, water can contain certain minerals or metals, which can be either harmful or give the water a bad taste and smell (like sulphar). We decided to give it a try, if only for the shower and toilet. With my ”special” adapter, we hooked up to the hose of the well. Didn’t really fit perfectly, but our roll of duke-tape came in handy. When the tank was almost full, an old, teethless Omani (former Bedouin) camel shepherd, showed up with his Toyota pick with empty drums and seemed a bit annoyed that an outsider was using the well (in some desert countries, people get killed over access rights to water holes), so I disconnected the house and let the old men do his thing. In the meantime another camel shepherd passed by to ask me for air for his flat tire, so I could give that guy a hand (at least they could see I was a nice and helpful outsider).
We arrived in the little town of Metin, which was about 2 km next to the ”main” road (though all these little towns have asphalt roads within their perimeter). Same blocks of “housing units” (and you can often see, that they are either cheaply built or hardly maintained), government building and mosque. The houses have their sheds with life-stock and there is an area with commercial buildings (mini restaurant, mini barbershop, tire repair, laundry etc).We drove through it to see how life in this far end of Oman is, it could hardly be more remote and desolate. The main road continues towards the Yemeni border, but there is no border crossing, only a military post. Actually, way before you reach that border point the asphalt road is blocked off and you are diverted to a gravel road, which leads towards the highest sand dune in the world, Ramlet Jedelah. Its also here that the Empty Quarter starts. Its here where the orange sand dunes start to emerge and roads are slowly taken over by these dunes.
A sign along the road which was blown over by a sand storm, indicated that the dune was nearby, but we continued the road. We wanted to get as far as possible. We passed an abandoned military check point, of which only a stop sign and a broken boom remained. The drive was unbelievable beautiful. The orange sand dunes are so gracious. Huge mountains of sand, shaped by the wind, a shape which constantly changes. Sharp edges show the up and down sides of these dunes. The sun plays with the shadows, whereby it looks as if the dunes are really moving, like huge waves. The colors also constantly change, because of the sunshine. Shadows of occasional clouds, are like black ghosts moving over the dunes. The dunes are separated by large flat pieces of land, plains covered with gravel and gypsum, which together with the sand dunes, form a labyrinth through which you have to manoeuvre, to get to where you want to go. The dunes are often long, very long mountain ranges, which you cannot cross with a vehicle (let alone a heavy truck). Some low sections with a gentle slope can be crossed with an SUV.
We reached the end of the road near the military outpost of Shuayt, where we turned around and drove back. On the way up, we already noticed something strange, something unusual. At the road section, nearest to the border with Yemen, we drove into a little side road. The road stopped at a fence. A 3 meter high, solide fence was placed on the boarder between Yemen and Oman, by the Omani Government. A stunning feature of construction to build something like that in the desert, and on moving sand dunes. We have seen fences being built in the Baltic countries and Poland, we have seen fences in Botswana (but these are to keep wild animals away from cattle). Building fences or walls is nothing new for humans. The Great Wall of China was built to keep intruders out (and that wall was built a while ago). Now, due to the civil war in Yemen and the huge difference in economic prosperity, the wall was necessary to stop refugees from entering Oman, or smuggling activities, or worse. It’s not something a country would like to advertise, but for us it was a sign that the Omani’s do a lot to keep their country safe.
To be sure not to be caught to be to nosy, we left quickly and drove back to the sign showing the way to the biggest dune in the world. Near the sign where some tracks of SUV’s going into the plain and according to the sign, it was only another kilometer. We tried first to drive, but it was heavy, so we decided to walk the remaining distance. However, I still wanted to give it try. Deflating the tires as low as possible, 4×4 and dif-lock, the truck was able to cross the plain, following the SUV tracks. Marja continued the walk and reached the sign indicating the dune and arrived before I arrived with the truck. And yes, the Ramlet Jedelah is huge and magestic. As usual we were the only ones. There was indeed the sign and a large garbage bin, blown far away by the winds. And – unfortunatly – a lot of garbage (maybe fallen out of the bin, when it was blown away). I first moved the bin back to near the sign and started to collect the garbage around the site. I couldn’t stand to see another beautiful natural site was polluted with plastic bottles.
Satisfied with my clean-up action, time arrived for our daily happy hour. Sitting at the foot of the highest sand dune of world, just by yourself, with a gin/tonic, is price-less. The night arrived and after diner, we stayed outside for a while, enjoying the darkness. When I turned on our flashlight, we saw that a small desert fox, who was nearby laying on the ground and just observing us. The light beam ended his ”covered operation” and he calmly walked away. You wonder, how can a fox live in a desert like this? Where does he/she sleeps during the day?
To climb the highest sand dune in the world, all by yourself with no crowds lining up (like the Mont Everest), was an opportunity which we wouldn’t like to let go. So next morning at 5pm in the dark, we started to walk the dune. The day before we planned on where to begin, which ridges we should take. Starting in the dark, is another story. We tried our luck. We used our tide water shoes for this hike, which turned out to be a good choice. It was still nice and cool, the sand was still stiff and there was a little breeze. Climbing lose sand on steep inclines is not that easy. We carried backpacks with water, food and a drone with us. Within an hour and half, we reached the summit and in the meantime the daylight started to show up. We were right on time to see one of the most beautiful sunrises we had even seen. The layer of haze – which is always there over the desert – gave the sunrise a special effect. From high up on the summit, we looked far away over all the sand dunes. It was still nice and fresh and we were sitting there so comfortable. We made some nice drone footage.
The idea was to slide down on our gym mats, but that didn’t work, so we walked done the ridges, which was much easier then going up. Before the sun was shinning with full force and throwing her heat on us, we were back at the truck in time. We left the dune with a very high level of satisfaction and wonderful memories. A view from her top will be difficult to beat.
Since we could not cross the Empty Quarter towards the east from where we were, we went back to Mitan and cross from there to reach the town of Al Hashman. This was another 150 km through the desert, but on the edges of the Empty Quarter. Along the way, we thought that we saw another camper truck in the distance, so we altered course and checked if we could meet up. However, in the desert, you see things, which are not always there or are not what you think they are. It turned out to be a small trailer hut, with garbage around it. We found boxes, which had remants of beehives in it. It all turned out to be an abandoned small honey farm. A honey farm in the desert, couldn’t believe it. However, it turns out that there are flowers in the desert. Rainfall can be very locally and when it falls, all kinds of plants, scrubs and flowers, pop up from the dry sands. They quickly get flowers and bees do the pollination. Seeds are produced and fall off or are taken by birds or other small animals. When the plant dies because of lack of water, the seeds can lay bare in the sand for years, until the next rainshower passes by. The bees collect the honey but also get sugar water to produce more honey. These beehives therefor move from spot to spot, depending on where the rain has fallen.
We reached the little outback town of Al-Hashman, which is centered around a small watering place, which itself looks like an oasis surrounded by date palms. The town itself was like Mital so, not so much to see. We drove on to Shisr, which is on the list of tourist attractions in Oman. The town is known for its Unesco World Heritage site, the ruïnes of the city of Ubar (also known as the Atlantis of the Sands). Ubar, was the last waterpoint for the camel caravans, traveling through the Empty Quarter. First we stopped at a gasstation, which looked like a scene from the movie ”Bagdad Cafe”. A big Pakistani guy runs the place, which is also a restaurant, shop and car repair place. We visited his little shop and he asked us if we wanted some fresh bread as well. Yes, of course (he only had to bake it first….).
We visited the ruïnes and were a bit disappointed in the presentation of such an important site. The site was restored by Italy, but there was a lack of maintenance and hardly any explanation about the site itself could be found. The oasis style town of Shisr (Ubar) is also known as an agricultural heaven in the desert. We saw large green fields and irrigation systems. The most they grow is plain grass, grass for camels.
Nearby the town are the Al Khadhaf Sands, which we tried to reach before dark. We didn’t and instead parked in the open plain again. In the evening a large convoy of SUVs, left the direction we were going (the Al Khadhaf Sands). They had done some dune racing during the day (a favorite thing the Omani guys like to do).
Next morning we arrived at a camp near the Khadhaf Sands, which was actually a desert camp for the Empty Quarter. It is one of the oldest desert camps in Oman (for the Empty Quarter) and is the staging point for tourists coming from Salalah to enter the Empty Quarter for the day or for a few days. It looked a bit run-down. A guide was there with his group of tourists from the Chech Republic. Nice guy, who invited us for a coffee/tea and breakfast. He gave us some tips on how and where to cross the Empty Quarter. Since we didn’t know how long we would be out there in the desert without visiting villages or towns (which there were none), we topped up our watertank. (again with delicious well water, which the locals don’t use).
We drove back to Al-Hashman to get in the Empty Quarter from there. Again another beautiful road between the orange sand dunes and over the gypsum plains. After about 50km we saw a sign ”Arabian Sands Camp”. Curious as we are, we took the turn off and we drove another 5km towards a large brand new tented camp at the foot of a huge sand dune. Large bedouin style tents were set up near a communal area. It looked empty at first sight, but then we saw a number of Pakistani men walking around. We stepped out to ask for more information. And of course, we were offered tea, got a tour over the camp ground and were given a seat in the large beautifully decorated community Bedouin tent. We got a plate of dates and a personal servant, who sat next to us on his knees, just waiting to pour our tea cups.Then we were asked if we wanted lunch. First we were reluctant, but after considering that we were at a unique place and hadn’t been eating out for nearly 2 months, we said happily, yes.
A large table and chairs were set up for us and the kitchen crew swung into action. After half an hour, a marvelous lunch was presented on the table. (good glass of wine would have made it 100%, but you can’t have it all). We had a big and satisfying lunch, which would deserve a real Omani style nap, but as North European, we don’t do afternoon naps, so we moved on with our tour. It was told to us, that after a while, we would find a little oasis with trees near the road on the plains. And yes it was true. Where you would not find any tree in the widest surrounding, we found a group of about 20 mature trees, near a well with water basins. A great spot to camp for the nigh. When the sun sets, a lot of birds come together in this little forest. It’s amazing to see, once you have water, it brings life. Trees, scrubs and flowers and you get the insects, animals and birds. At night little desert Hares would run around our truck.
In the morning we saw that the camel who was laying down at a water bassin, about 200 meters from us, was still there since the day before. It was the only camel we had seen since we entered this area. I decided to have a look. When I arrived, he or she remained laying where it was. The camel was very skinny, the ribs were clearly visible and she was laying in her own poe. She was definitely not well. I collected some salt grass from near the well, to feed her. Salt grass has a lot of juice in it. She ate it all, so she was not that sick. I brought a bucket of water, she drunk it all in one time (while the water basis was full and only a few steps away). So it seems she was not mobil. Since most of the camels in Oman are owned, I decided to do nothing (just brought some extra salt grass and water).
We left the well and moved towards the border with Saudi Arabia. On our way we stumbled on another camp, now near the road. It was a camp with more permanent structures (like chalets) and a more village like set up. We were welcomed by the Egyptian general manager who managed the place obo an Egyptian investor. I admire people who build and maintain these places in such remote areas. It reminds me of the time we were constructing a hospital in Zambia. The planning of materials and tools was a big challenge due to the distance to the nearest town for your supplies. Another challenge here is the fight against the moving sands. Since these camps are closed in the summer time (way too hot), you never know what you will find when you come back after 7 or 8 months! (if you find it back). The camp was in a preparation mode and was expecting guests soon. A large artificial lake was being constructed against the dunes to make the camp more attractive. Being near a well, water was not a problem, for filling up the lake. Also here we were treated with tea and coffee and were guided around the camp. The manager gave us directions on how to continue our tour, since we wanted to cross the Empty Quarter from this area towards the oasis village of Mugshin. Following the road, we didn’t find the military check point the manager was refering too.We found remants of something and judging by the roles of barb-wire, we assumed the check-point was abandoned. From here a road or path would bring us further east, but we ended up on an oil exploration field (a big pipe sticking out of the ground with a secured lit on it).
We tried more roads and paths, but all the time we ended up at sand dunes we could not cross. About 2 km from the border, there was a large construction site (even more remote then the 2 camps we visited). We also saw a military camp next to it, but no people since it was nap time), so we passed it and continued to the border. Suddenly we were in Saudi Arabia (at least that what was our navigation system was telling us). There was totally nothing indicating that we passed a border. We turned around quickly as we did not want to illegally cross into Saudi Arabia. We also came to the conclusion, that there was no (suitable) road or path for us, to cross west to east between Al-Hasham and Mugshin. A bit disappointed we returned and camped out near where the old check point was (which was also a well).
We drove back to Al-Hashman and from there (for the third time), we took the road to Shisr. From there we took the dirt road along an oil pipe line towards Ad-Dawkah. A turn off brought us to a nice wadi where we camped for the night. A group of 8 SUV’s had passed us along the way and we found them again near the wadi, where they were crossing with their cars in the dunes. They camped there as well and in the morning we all left together. One of them brought us a big bag with fresh fruits from Salalah, which was very welcome.
From Ad-Dawkah (where we visited a large date palm farm), we continued to Mugshin, from where we would try again to cross the Empty Quarter. We camped near Mugshin and the next morning we set of for our next attempt. On the map we have little lines showing roads and tracks, but in reality, they are not always there and roads and tracks which are there are not on the map. We see tracks on the navigation system, but also these are not always reliable. So there comes a moment that you not really know where you are. We can see approximately where we are and where the border is or where big roads are, but to get here or there is then another thing. So yes, we were lost. Yes, we knew our coordinates, but no good map to refer them to. Anyway, we knew this could happen one day and was a good test for when we will be going in the big part of the Empty Quarter in Saudi. But we were stuck at least in a beautiful area of the desert.
We saw a lot of vehicle tracks in the plains and partly on the dunes. Some of these tracks were very big like a monster truck had crossed the desert. We also found little colored sticks indicating a track. We were still in the Empty Quarter, but we entered a huge area of oil exploration and actual producing oil fields. Near the end of the day, we reached a remote workers camp of the oil company where many white vehicles with red flags were parked. The monster truck existed and was a truck on huge tires, driving up and down the desert and about every 20 meters to vibrate the ground to pulse for existence of oil. For thousands of years, bedouin have lived with their camels in these baren lands, moving from one plain to the other, never realizing the fast wealth below their feet. Now, this desert, is the motor behind Oman’s vast development. In certain areas thousands of kilometers of pipes are laid underground, so not visible by the naked eye, but near a general collection point a labyrinth of pipes comes out of the ground, like the roots of mangrove trees. The oil area, is actually pretty clean and organized. As an overlander we drive freely around and once you get off the road, you are not realizing you are camping on top of millions of liters of crude oil.
While I am writing today, I read in the newspaper, that the oil producing Arab States have a windfall of 1 trillion US$ this year, due to the war in Ukraines increased oil prices. Expensive oil, for which the western world (as the main consumer), is paying the price. At the same time, the Arab states, through their huge sovereign wealth funds, invest their profits wisely, also in the poorer neighboring moslim countries, spreading wealth, lifting communities out of poverty and reducing the risk of conflict and terror.
We spent 2 nights on our last spot above the oil fields. The next morning we drove through this huge piece of desert, where everything reminds you of the oil. Pipes, signs, pump stations and now and then a vehicle of the technicians. And still, the desert, also here, was beautiful. At a certain moment we left the oil field and drove in a big circle back to where we entered this part of the Empty Quarter. We passed again close to the Saudi border and after 70km we reached another big oil field and rigs drilling for oil. We saw squadrons of bulldozers, making new roads through the desert plains, preparing for drilling operations. Most of the Empty Quarter of Oman is subjected to oil and gas exploration. Soon the word Empty can be deleted, maybe until the fields are “emptied”.
We spent one last night in the Empty Quarter. Enjoying the darkness and the quietness of the night. For days we also had no or hardly any access to WIFI, which also gave some peace of mind. The next day we would leave the Empty Quarter, passing the last big oil and gas installations and go in the direction of the mountain range behind Muscat. A next phase of our trip would start from there.