The Sharqiya Sands – 4,800 square miles of burnt orange, rippled sand dunes – is among the world’s most desolate areas, and just one of the magnificent nooks within Oman’s Empty Quarter. Sometimes called Wahiba Sands, it’s a starkly beautiful landscape, inhabited only by Arabian nomads known as the Bedouin people and the odd native Ghaf tree. Until a Royal Geographical Society expedition to the area in 1986, which discovered more than 200 species of wildlife and documented diverse flora and fauna, little was known of it at all.
Today, it’s as untapped and magical as ever, with dunes whipped into soft peaks, silence so pure all you can hear is your own breathing and, once the sun sets, an inky darkness offset only by a blanket of stars. Once upon a time, it was impossible to visit, but these days, the intrepidly minded can get there and explore with ease. The Empty Quarter, or ‘Rub Al Khali’ in Arabic, is the largest continuous sand desert on the planet, covering 250,000 square miles and overlapping into Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. It’s a not-to-be-missed attraction in Oman, a way to experience the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouins, explore the exotic world that enthralled British explorers T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and Wilfred Thesiger, and go off grid with an adventure that’s packed with stunning scenery and rich in cultural heritage.
Not sure where to start? Take your cue from the Bedouins and embrace the wild: the best way to get acquainted with the elegance of this isolated desert landscape is to pick a spot and set up camp. But this isn’t camping as we know it. As the more remote regions in Oman have gained traction with travellers wanting to get off the beaten track and disconnect, a new kind of camping has emerged: the luxury pop-up campsite. These aren’t tents as we know them, either. Forget cramped, stuffy and uncomfortable. Specially erected each evening, depending on where you are, these luxury safari-style tents provide the ultimate way to stay mobile and experience your surroundings. Each tent is large enough to stand up in and boasts double beds, bedside tables, luggage stands and authentic Arabian throws. Your adjoined private bathroom tent has a shower, with complimentary eco-friendly toiletries and towels provided. A hot breakfast and three-course evening meal is prepared each day by the in-camp cook. From your luxury base, you can set off on private tours of the sand dunes by jeep or camel, and meet local Bedouin people who’ll offer a glimpse into their fascinating culture, customs and heritage.
Black Tomato, a luxury tour operator based in London and catering to clients worldwide, is one company making trips to remote regions a cinch with its new adventure service, Blink. Designed to allow travellers to customise their itinerary, and catering to their every whim – even down to the tent decor – Blink makes it easy to personalise your dream desert trip. The Empty Quarter is usually first pick for travellers to Oman. Fly into Salalah, the capital city of southern Oman’s Dhofar province, then head into the wilderness by road or helicopter. You’ll know you’ve arrived in the Empty Quarter when the buildings fall away, the roads disappear and you’re surrounded by soft sand dunes. On arrival, you’ll be met by camp staff at your luxury tented Blink site, and enjoy a welcome dinner and star gazing with an expert astronomer. With your tent nestled into the dunes, it’s an enchanting set-up, with the stars, candles and camp fires your only light source each evening.
Deep in the desert, this is as private as it gets – you won’t see another soul for miles.From here, you call the shots – it’s up to you how long you stay, where you go and what you do. Adrenaline junkies will want to try a high-speed sand dune buggy ride across the Empty Quarter. For an authentic perspective of the desert, set off on a camel trek, taking in the wide-open wilderness and rolling dunes at a more sedate pace. You can immerse yourself in Oman’s culinary world, with a local cooking class offering fascinating insight into the region’s cuisine, or visit Bedouin communities and spend time with a nomadic family, trying traditional Omani kawha (coffee) and local dates.
After three or four days in the tranquil Empty Quarter, many visitors choose to head to Muscat before driving to Jabal Akhdar, where Blink can set up your luxury site high in the mountains. Here, you can walk the length of the lofty Sayq plateau, which, at 10,000 feet above the desert, is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Middle East. Explore the rugged landscape on foot as you trek through caves and canyons, or visit the UNESCO-protected Bahla Fort. From your camp, it’s a short hop to the intriguing beehive tombs at Bat. These ominous stone igloos are the final resting place of centuries of Sultans, and are closely guarded by small flocks of goats diligently herded by mountain tribesmen.
If you’re craving an adventure that takes you off the beaten track and out of your comfort zone (without scrimping on the creature comforts), add Oman to your list.