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Untouched Oman

The best way to see the world’s largest sand desert is to sleep under its stars.

When I was a child growing up in Scotland, my mother had a friend who visited us often. A heavily decorated member of the British special forces, he’d fought in the North African desert during World War II and once told me never to sleep in a wadi. It’s a piece of advice I never forgot because, at that time, I didn’t know what a wadi was.

Some 30 years later, as I make plans for a trip to Oman, I repeat the warning to our fixer, former British Marine Sean Nelson, who is organizing our five-night mobile safari in the country’s southern reaches. (I am traveling with friends—three adults and, between us, four children under nine.) Nelson, it turns out, is up to speed on wadis, or dry riverbeds; after leaving the Royal Marines, he spent three years heading up the training for Oman’s Desert Regiment. Today his Oman-based tour company, Hud Hud Travels, arranges sophisticated desert logistics: a crew of 16, authentic black-goat-hair tents, comfortable beds, hot-water showers, spectacular three-course meals, campfires that fill the air with frankincense. Nelson wasn’t going to let some flash flood in a wadi ruin the most perfectly styled Middle East desert adventure in the region.

It’s February, and the heat is not as bad as I expected when we step out of the air-conditioned airport. In Salalah, the coastal city where we’ve landed via a domestic hop on Oman Air, there’s a lively breeze. It feels different from the Gulf States, where the Persian sea, locked in by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, has a glassy flatness. Here there are waves and brisk bouts of wind. There’s even seasonal rain, the tail end of the Indian Ocean monsoon, known as the khareef, which waters the region’s date farms, sweeping in from Oman’s Dhofar coast. Facing the Indian Ocean, this part of Oman has an outward-looking aspect. The dominant religion, Ibadi Islam, is relatively moderate, and foreign investment in the south is on the rise. LVMH has plans to build a hotel on the Hallaniyat Islands offshore from Salalah.

Not that you’d notice any other tourists here on the coastal sands where we first strike camp. When we draw up into the sheltered horseshoe bay, dusty and tired from the final off-road stretch of a two-hour drive from Salalah, everything is in place—including boogie boards to ride the waves and a small blue-hulled skiff to take the kids out on the water to look for dolphins.

I watch for a breach in the waters while lying in the cushioned Bedouin majlis, or meeting tent, decorated with antique rugs and pots of tea. The children play in the sea; they scale the rocks and kick a ball about on the empty curl of sand. Later they will sit with us around the campfire, feasting on succulent, slow-cooked lamb, listening to tales of the Queen of Sheba’s former harbor, a site we’ll visit the next day.

But the coast is just the beginning; after three nights our mobile camp moves into the Empty Quarter itself, the largest sand desert in the world. To get here, we cross the wall of travertine rock that comprises the Dhofar mountains separating the coastal belt—green in the monsoon—from the arid desert of the Empty Quarter, or, in Arabic, the Rub‘ al-Khali. For the last hour of the eight-hour, 170-mile drive, we slip and slide up and down a series of high, pristine dunes. Along the way we meet a lone camel man, his line of slow, black animals traversing the sands. He’s not on foot, as the Bedouin once were; these days the herding is done in a shiny white pick-up truck. It’s this contrast between an ancient landscape—the dunes with sharp edges, their flanks like skin stretched tight over a rib cage—and the way the last of the desert Bedouin are undergoing change that gives the experience an urgency, a relevance beyond the slow, sybaritic pleasures of our elegant camp.

We hang out among the crested waves of sand, venturing farther afield to visit an oasis. The trip takes three hours by four-wheel drive; what we arrive at is a small, fetid pool fed by a pipe—presumably from some oil company that has been plumbing the desert for liquid gold and found sulfurous water instead. My son, who has come up beside me, is strangely quiet. Looking into the puddle, he says, “You know how you always tell me it’s the journey that matters, not the destination? Well, today, Mum, they were both a bit shit.” I turn away so he can’t see me laugh. When next he asks if he can play his friend’s Nintendo, I capitulate: Emptiness has its lures, but it also has its limitations. With Hud Hud’s perfectly calibrated expeditions, one is seduced by the desert’s romance, but equally one begins to understand the reality of the Empty Quarter’s name, why the wave machines of the Middle East—the 21st-century home to extreme recreation—are born out of this complete and compelling desolation.

How to Do Oman

The Backcountry

Hud Hud Travels’ luxury camping trips offer made-to-measure itineraries that incorporate locations running from Muscat in the north all the way down Oman’s 1,000-mile-long coast. $ Packages start at $1,000 a person for a minimum two-night stay including all meals, accommodations and transportation (except flights); hudhudtravels.com.

The Seaside Resort

Six Senses Zighy Bay, on Oman’s northern Musandam Peninsula, is a two-hour drive from Dubai. The hotel is a remarkable piece of engineering, reached via a precipitous road that plummets to the 82-villa resort. Villas start at $720; Zighy Bay; 968-26/735-555; zighybay.com.

The City Hotel

The Chedi Muscat is an easy pairing with a Hud Hud Empty Quarter trip, as travelers are likely to pass through the capital on the way to Salalah. The Chedi is a GHM hotel, a company originally started by Adrian Zecha of Amanresorts. Despite the reasonable rates, Zecha’s exacting design and service principles are not compromised. member of Fine Hotels & Resorts Rooms start at $340; N. Ghubra 32; 968-24/524-400; ghmhotels.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

member of Fine Hotels & Resorts Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.

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