The one thing that pulls off-roaders to Oman, must be the dunes in the Empty Quarter and Wahiba Sands – with sand dunes reaching 100m high in Wahiba, we set out for a three day, 176km, cross-dune, camping, off-roading extravaganza!
We arrived at Mintrib, the entrance to Wahiba Sands, at about 6pm and still had a while to go before hitting the registration point for the trip, 10km into the desert. It was already dark and the petrol station was teeming with 4×4 vehicles filling up their tanks in preparation for the trip – just about everyone here was heading for the same place as we were. To be fair, we travelled light: 40 litres of extra fuel, two sleeping bags, one rug and a cool box of beer and snacks; who needs anything more?!
After the registration point, the initial group of cars started off into the desert to cover the first 76km of the crossing in the pitch black. The first section of the crossing is over scrubland and small dunes, so getting this part of the journey behind us was a bonus. As we drove this section, we could see a line of lights from the leading cars carving a defined path through the desert in front of us; all the better for following and not getting lost. Or so we thought. We soon found out that there were loads of diverging tracks to circumnavigate tufts of grasses growing in the scrublands, but at speed, we took one divergence that didn't seem to turn back towards the main trail. By the time we'd realised, we had taken several more divergences like this one and ended up about 300m from the stream of headlights that were slowly disappearing. We seemed to be alone in the pitch black, in the middle of nowhere!
We could see a vague trail of lights from a few cars that had stopped, so we assumed they had waited towards the back of the group for us, so we charged directly over the scrubs in our car towards the lights, bouncing up and down like Blackadder on horseback. Apparently, this isn't the best idea. We lost the tracks, and the string of cars waiting had moved on, assuming that we were back on the right track! Damn it. We slowly found our way back to what we thought was the main trail and started following it along freshly made tyre tracks. When another car came close behind us, we slowed and rolled down our window to find out it was another lucky begger who followed us and we admitted we didn't know where we were heading! So now we were both lost! As it turns out, he was a pro and had a radio back to his mates and was able to (slowly) find our way back to the main group. This was probably the most worrying part of our weekend! And the most embarrassing.
Another hour later and we were at base camp número un for our first night under the stars. After all the adventure (“panicking”) of earlier on, we laid out the rug and the sleeping bags, necked a beer and fell asleep under the most stars we've ever seen.
We knew breakfast was provided, but to get two trestle tables of cooked food, coffee, tea, juices and mid-morning snacks to take with us was pretty welcoming. After breakfast, the army or cars lined up, ready to traverse the dunes and take in a bit of action.
The crossing started easily as the dunes were small and good training grounds for newbies at dune buggying (moi!). It did however gives us a few laughs when throwing the steering wheel from one side to the other to see how the car would respond in sand – it quite liked it actually! It was just after the training grounds that we hit our first snag and threw the car up a dune surrounded by soft sand. We only made it half way up the dune before the XTerra just slumped sideways (I definitely hadn't given the throttle enough oooomph). Whilst trying to get out of the soft sand, I managed to get the car well and truly stuck in it. The chassis was resting on the sand, and the wheels we spinning freely beneath us like a belly-down baby on a skateboard. Thankfully, help was at hand throughout the trip and hardcore dune-crossers were happy to help out those of us in a dilemma. That meant that getting stuck was just part of the fun!
The second snag was a conversation that went something like, Jo: “Do you think there is anything over the other side of this dune?”, Paul: “No, don't think so. Everyone else has gone over fine”. And so we threw the car at the dune only to realise that there was literally nothing on the other side of the dune, and we should have turned sharply right near the crest to travel along the top. Instead, we “leapt” over the crest of the dune and straight down the 45 degree downward slope on the other side. That shut us up… until we burst into laughter again! Once you realise you're fine, the car's fine, and help is at hand, everything was just a blast!
We started to really get into dune territory after lunch on day two. In the distance we could see we were heading towards a dune about 100m high, but that had several smaller dunes all over it like goosebumps. It was at the top of here that we first saw the sea, about 40km away, and our final ending point at lunchtime the following day. But before then, we had to navigate the monster dune, and a second one of equal size afterwards. It was at the top of the second monster dune that you could see for miles over soft sand dunes fizzling into the distance and disappearing into the heat haze. We'd crossed all those dunes, but it really didn't feel like it. At the end of the second day, we settled down to a few more beers as a reward for surviving the day's events and watched the sunset over our own little dune for the night.
Day three was a final couple of hours and our final chance to throw the car around, take some pictures of others doing the same and take in the sights, before hitting the coastal road back toward Sur and finally Muscat.
If there is one thing for sure, it's that I will NOT be leaving Oman without doing another of these desert crossings!