Prepare to meet thy dune

A 4x4 journey into Oman's remote north-east requires planning, perseverance - and a passing acquaintance with camel-grazing etiquette. Matt Warren learns the lore of the desert
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The Independent Travel

It is 9am in Oman's remote north-east and there is a madman on the loose. I am standing on a cliff top, chewing on a last mouthful of breakfast and listening to a villager as he frantically explains how a local man has gone crazy and vanished into the wilderness. My informant's English is limited, so he illustrates his story with wild, windmill gestures and rabid, cross-eyed glances; he looks like he is playing out a bit part in a second-rate zombie flick. The charade has got the villager's son choking back a snigger, but if the reconstruction is anything to go by, the missing man is not to be approached.

It is 9am in Oman's remote north-east and there is a madman on the loose. I am standing on a cliff top, chewing on a last mouthful of breakfast and listening to a villager as he frantically explains how a local man has gone crazy and vanished into the wilderness. My informant's English is limited, so he illustrates his story with wild, windmill gestures and rabid, cross-eyed glances; he looks like he is playing out a bit part in a second-rate zombie flick. The charade has got the villager's son choking back a snigger, but if the reconstruction is anything to go by, the missing man is not to be approached.

It all sounds a little fishy to me. The story has the unmistakable ring of an urban myth, the type of tall tale wheeled out the world over to scare naïve tourists and naughty children. But then he drops his bombshell: "I think you must have seen him," he mutters, leading me to a squalid, makeshift campsite just yards from my tent. "It looks like he slept here last night."

Just hours earlier, I was sitting on a rock with my girlfriend, Rebecca, watching turtles lay eggs on a moonlit beach. The beautiful, otherworldly bays around the village of Ras al-Jinz are famed nesting sites for endangered green turtles and we had spent the previous afternoon crawling over the jagged cliff tops in a 4x4 en route to one of the region's most isolated coves. It had been a rough trip: the car repeatedly staggered to a halt in the shale, we had to make camp on a pile of backbreaking rubble and we overcooked our rice in the fire; but the first turtle slipped ashore with our arrival and five had visited by dawn. Crouched inches from one of the giant turtles as it clawed its way out of the breakers and up the beach, we were right up there with Dr Doolittle. All things considered, the madman is barely a glitch.

We bump back across the cliff tops, through potholes and over boulders, then head south along the coastal plains. The land here is empty: just a line of Tarmac through the dust and the shimmer of a mirage on the horizon. Driving through this hollow landscape, falling asleep has never been easier, nor as dangerous. We stop for a swim and within moments we have been invited to tea. Independent travellers are still a novelty in this part of Oman and tea invites are two-a-penny. In this case, the man offering refreshments has followed us 10km down the coast after spotting us buying lunch in a village. Only in Oman, with its proud traditions of hospitality, can a polite invitation become a car chase. "Sorry to pursue you," he says breathlessly, "but I thought you might be thirsty."

A little further south, everything looks thirsty. We are parked at the northern edge of the Wahiba Sands, Oman's colossal dune desert, debating the wisdom of going further. We are travelling by the book - we have reduced our tyre pressures, we are carrying 10 litres of water per person per day and there's enough wine in the back to keep us afloat for a week - but up close and personal the desert looks starkly, terrifyingly empty. A narrow trail cuts south before vanishing in a mirage, but otherwise there is nothing but golden, undulating sand - it is irresistible. We fasten our seatbelts, engage the car's four-wheel drive, gun the engine in a final show of bravado and then head off into the nothing.

We camp 20km into the desert, at the base of a dune. A camel is wandering aimlessly nearby and the warm sand is comforting as it slips between our toes. It is absolutely silent. We light a fire and watch as the sun drops behind the dune tops. Fingers of shadow race across the sand towards us, bringing a flurry of cool, evening air. This must be the most beautiful campsite on earth. Even the overcooked pasta tastes good.

And then the wind comes. It arrives gradually at first, kicking up handfuls of sand and turning the flames of the fire. An hour later, however, and we are in the guts of a sandstorm. The air is a thick haze of supersonic grit, the fire is burning in the wind like a blast furnace. It is like trying to sleep in a hairdryer. The storm doesn't last long, though, and when I leave the tent in the middle of the night to go to the loo, the sky is clear and filled with stars. There's nothing quite like answering the call of nature under the watchful eye of Orion.

It is calm the next day and we drink mugs of fresh coffee in the clear, morning air. We take a walk up the face of the dune, watch the camel wander aimlessly and practice driving in loose sand. As the sun rides high in the sky and our puddle of shade evaporates, we shelter beneath the tarpaulin and read about Kate Moss in a month-old copy of Vogue. It seems an incongruous thing to be doing, but there is something inescapably glamorous about desert travel, and fantasies of myself as a TE Lawrence, a Wilfred Thesiger or a Sir Richard Burton are running through my imagination in glorious Technicolor.

Until the Bedouin turn up, that is. It is a maxim of desert travel that no matter how lost or remote you think you are, a Bedouin will always find you. Existing in an otherwise empty world, they have an uncanny knack for locating substance. Ours turn up in a glossy Nissan Patrol, bristling with aerials and chrome bolt-ons. Knives are tucked into low-slung belts, headscarves are worn low across the eyes, the air fizzes with wild man machismo. "Good morning," the eldest says, shaking my hand. "Camels here, not you. Must move now."

The English is garbled, but the sentiment is not. In the middle of the desert, we have managed to camp in an area used by Bedouin for grazing camels. The instructions are courteous, but clear: it is definitely time to move on. We pack up our tent, spin our wheels in the loose sand, and head north again across the desert.

That evening we are 2,500m above the sands, among the peaks of Oman's Jebel Akhdar mountains. Jebel Akhdar means "green mountain" and the peaks glow with a mysterious, emerald luminescence. We pass remote villages on precipitous mountainsides, terraced fields filled with roses and take a winding road into the peaks. Children play football in the dirt road and a canyon yawns below.

We pitch our tent in a dry riverbed, just outside the tiny village of Masairat a-Rawageh. The village is an oasis surrounded by towering canyon walls and lush plantations. The chieftain invites us into his home and the tea quickly follows. He feeds us sweet dates flavoured with cumin and sends us away with a basket of tomatoes and carrots. We cook over an open fire, just metres away from the village graveyard, as echoes bounce through the canyon - it is an eerie, unforgettable evening.

The following day, we are trekking around the canyon rim, with Oman's highest mountain, Jebel Shams, in front of us and a 2km vertical drop on our shoulder. The path, loose and rutted, clings to the cliff face and raptors float through the hollow gulf below. We eat an improvised lunch of Starburst fruit toffees, flatbreads and Tabasco sauce in an abandoned stone village filled with thorn trees and sunbathe on a barren terrace field with all of Oman opening up before us. I am half-tempted to abandon the car and trek the rest of the way instead.

But there is a long way to go. After 19 days in the wilds we are headed for Dubai, the Arabian antidote to all things rugged and outdoorsy. From the base of Jebel Shams, the road is straight and fast. As soon as we cross into the United Arab Emirates, shopping malls rise out of the desert, speed cameras appear at the roadside and McDonald's signs glimmer in the night. All of the sudden, we are back in the 21st century. We go top-end and stay in the opulent One & Only Royal Mirage hotel. We explore the spa bath and the mini-bar, the satellite TV channels and the walk-in shower for two ; cocktails are ordered and cheeseburgers are eaten. But that night, as we fall asleep in a gigantic bed made for a dozen, the call of the wild cuts through the dark. Oman is just across the border and we won't be away for long.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Oman's international gateway is Muscat, which has non-stop flights from Heathrow on Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com). British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) also flies to Muscat from Heathrow, but stops at Abu Dhabi. Or fly from various UK airports on another airline from the region, such as Qatar Airways via Doha or Emirates via Dubai.

STAYING THERE

The best way to explore the wilds of Oman is to camp. You can hire equipment from specialists such as Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre (00 968 24 485 663; www.holiday-in-oman.com).

Avis (08706 060 100; www.avis.co.uk) rents 4x4 vehicles.

One and Only Royal Mirage (00 971 4399 9999; www.royalmiragedubai.com). Doubles start at 1,200 Dirhams (£172), room only.

MORE DETAILS

UK passport holders can obtain a one-month visas on arrival at the airport, or at any land border, for 6 Omani Rials (£10).

Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman (020-7225 0001, www.omanembassy.org.uk.)

Oman Tourism (020-8877 4524; www.omantourism.gov.om)

Dubai Department of Tourism (020-7839 0580; www.dubaitourism.ae)

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