To move or to rest? To travel or to settle? To change or to remain the same? I wondered if a spell in the desert could really offer answers to these ultimate questions. A touch optimistic? Last week I visited Oman in the deserts of southern Arabia, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lost world for which our species had evolved.
The Wahiba Sands, in the south of the country, was where I planned to make my trek. The area is at least the size of Wales, and arduous enough to challenge an effete city dweller like myself. But next to the vast Rub Al-Khali, Arabia's legendary Empty Quarter some 150 miles to the north, Wahiba is scarcely larger than Blackpool Beach. But if it was good enough for Wilfred Thesiger 50 years ago, it was good enough for me.
Finding a real bedu to take me across the sands did not promise to be easy. According to Wilfred Thesiger the bedu who assisted him on his desert trips were ultimately doomed to die slow deaths as "unskilled labour" in cities for which they had not been born.
In fact Thesiger's notoriously cynical predictions have not been borne out. It is of course true that the era of noble beduin tribes dominating the Arabian peninsula has passed. Camel caravans no longer carry frankincense resin from the groves of Dhofar to the Levant. The bedu of southern Arabia no longer survive by squeezing dew from rags left out overnight on bushes. But there are still at least 7,000 bedu in the Wahiba - that is to say, people who live without permanent homes, who seasonally migrate, who live from driving sheep and goats to new feeding sites.
In modern Oman a few bedu have even found new jobs: as tour guides, employing their unique desert trekking skills. In the Jiddat Al-Harasis area of Wahiba, the bedouin who once hunted the oryx to extinction are now responsible for managing the re-introduced herds and taking tourists to see them. In my part of the sands, local bedu such as Said Sultan take tourists on good old-fashioned camel treks in the style of Wilfred Thesiger or TE Lawrence.
Despite his undoubted bedu credentials (he wears a long beard, has a dagger in his belt, carries a stick, does not speak English and is as at home on a camel as behind the wheel of a pick-up) Said Sultan is worldly enough to liaise with a regular tour firm which sends him his European customers. "I've done about four or five trips with tourists every winter for the last eight years," he told me. "Most trips are a couple of days, though I've just had a German for 10 days."
Said Sultan drove me in his beaten-up Toyota the 15-odd miles from the edge of the sands to where his family were encamped. I asked if he preferred cars or camels. "Cars are pretty good actually," he admitted, gesturing at the 500-litre metal water tank we were transporting in the back.
The camps in these sands are not the traditional black camelhair Arabian tents. Sultan Said led me to an unsightly shelter of palm fronds and plastic tarpaulins surrounded by a wire fence (to keep the camels out) and topped by a TV aerial. The whole home, I was told, could be taken apart, moved and rebuilt elsewhere in a single day - though always at least four kilometres from the nearest neighbour.
Suddenly a sequence of stunningly beautiful children began appearing from behind the dunes, ranging from cheeky nine-year-olds with raffishly arranged head-scarves to tall youths in spotless white dish-dashas. Surprisingly, even the wife and daughters dared to come and shake my hand.
"We like living here," one of the teenage sons was explaining. "It's an easy life. All we do is send the animals out to feed. Who wants to live in a town?" Rabbits and chickens scuttled under my feet, laundry flapped on a string, the March sun shone strongly but not excessively hot. Meanwhile, Said Sultan was preparing the camels, tying on the simple wooden harness and the water skins, shoving football-sized lumps of congealed dates into their slobbering mouths, before allowing them to vacuum up the water in the tank with more noise than a draining bath.
"We were riding four of the finest camels in Arabia and if necessary could travel both fast and far." Thus did Thesiger describe his entrance to the Wahiba. But until a camel has helped you cross a waterless desert, it is hard to understand the bedouin reverence for these reptilian beasts with their constant belchings, bony, articulated necks and underdeveloped bottoms. I was given an off-white female named Salmana, while Said Sultan led two males; we departed on foot, the animals plodding silently into the dropping sun.
The terrain comprised long valleys of shimmering flat gravel, divided by equally long sand hill ranges. The Wahiba is not an entirely barren desert: in places low arak trees and scrubby ghaf bushes dot the sands, providing both firewood for the bedu and fodder for the animals. We picked over waves of sand, descending into sandy crescent hollows and negotiating minor avalanches. Said Sultan skipped joyfully ahead, finding invisible paths up the dunes, while I laboured behind, unable to prevent Salmana nibbling in a leisurely manner from every ghaf bush in sight.
A couple of hours later, exhausted by the dunes, we rode: I astride my camel, Said Sultan, rather more elegantly, kneeling on his. But riding a camel, as I soon found out, is no fun for beginners. Salmana's irregular, lurching movement had soon given me an aching bum.
With the sun setting, we stopped to make camp. Said Sultan hobbled the camels to stop them disappearing, and we drank from the skins. Bearing in mind TE Lawrence's stories of drinking foully brackish or even sulphorous water in the desert, I was pleased to note that our water tasted oddly of wax and sour yoghurt without being undrinkable.
We ate in complete darkness beside the fire, sitting cross-legged on opposite sides of a dish of hot mutton stew which we ate with our hands. The highlight was the bread: a round, flat loaf which Said Sultan had cooked by burying it in the sand beside the cinders. Apart from the occasional moan of a camel, the only sound was of the wind puffing off the dunes. We had no tents, discounting the very slight dangers of rain or of poisonous animals (adders leave noticeable slither tracks, and scorpions leave ragged, asymmetrical puncture marks in the sand). Warm in my sleeping bag, having drunk too many Arabic coffees with ginger and cardamom, I lay staring at a wild moon.
The next morning, after breakfasting on sweet tea and explosively fermented milk, we began inching across a vast plain, featureless except for occasional isolated trees. After a couple of hours I noticed a distant puff of dust approaching from the far side of the plain. A car? "My brother-in-law," remarked Said Sultan. When the car eventually reached us a man stepped out and the three of us sat cross-legged in the plain to catch up on the desert gossip.
Did we discuss the question of all questions, the nature of human restlessness? As if in response to Bruce Chatwin's anxieties, the true power of the desert decided to show me its hand later that day. Shortly before dusk an enormous thunderstorm suddenly exploded over our heads.
Instantly Said Sultan had us and all our luggage buried in the sand under a clammy plastic tarpaulin. A drastic solution? Yes, but considerably better than the alternative, namely to be totally exposed to the fury of the most violent and prolonged storm I have ever seen in my life. For the next 12 hours I lay immobile and frozen in a coffin-like space, tormented by the roar of rain and thunder, and asking myself whether this was what people had been designed for: to cower alone in the primeval mud, incomprehending and terrified in the face of nature.
Possibly. Or possibly not. City life, I told myself, deserved another appraisal.
Jeremy Atiyah flew as a guest of Gulf Air (tel: 0171 4081717) which offers return flights to Muscat for pounds 299 plus pounds 27 tax, until 31 May (excluding Easter).
WHERE TO STAY
The arrangements in Oman were made courtesy of Caravanserai Tours (Tel: 0181 691 2523), which can put together any kind of tailor-made tour in the country. For example, an eight-day tour, including a night or two in the Wahiba Sands, would cost pounds 1,395 per person, based on two travelling together. Locally based Al Nahdha Tourism (tel/fax: 00 968 799928), run by the extremely experienced Heide Beal, can also arrange any kind of travel or tourism in Oman.
Visits to Oman are not recommended during June to August when the weather is extremely hot. Visas are obtainable from the Oman Embassy at 167 Queen's Gate London SW7 5HE (tel: 0171-225 0001, or premium rate line 0891 600567 for recorded visa information).