Soon after entering the desert we passed a little oasis where the Bedouins live for a few months each year, harvesting their dates. The rest of the time, Jaber said, they lived in the desert in huts made out of palm leaves, tending their camels and goats. Jaber’s car was very rickety and had no seat belts. To get up the high steep-sided dunes he had to let the pressure down on the tyres to avoid getting stuck in the sand. Then he charged up the dunes at breath-stopping speed and down the other side only marginally more slowly. In this way we drove deeper into the desert with its seemingly endless dunes of red-gold sand, scrubby bushes and acacia trees.
We got out of the cars and climbed to the top of a high dune to watch the sun sink and the intensity of light fade from the sky. At the bottom of the dune Jaber and Abdullah built a palm leaf shelter, made a fire and boiled water to make coffee. As the rest of our group finished setting up the tents, Jaber’s brother arrived in a truck with our meals, cooked by his mother and sisters – chicken and rice with spices and lemon and coffee with saffron and cardamom. We sat around the campfire eating, talking and laughing as the night darkened and the stars and moon provided the only light.
Just before dawn I stepped outside my tent. The dunes had lost their definition in the grey light and the silence was deep and pervading. In the absence of sound I became aware of my own breathing. I wondered about the generations of Bedouins who had made their home in that inhospitable terrain over so many centuries, travelling over the dunes on their camels, living out their lives without much change until fairly recently. I had read accounts of Europeans who had explored the desert and said they almost went mad with the silence and loneliness.
Within minutes the dense black night faded to grey. A slice of pink appeared in the east and the red rim of the sun rose above the horizon. It rapidly rolled over the tops of the dunes, its light staining the grey sand with red-gold again and evaporating the early morning chill. We ate our breakfast watching colour return to the desert as the other campers stirred and emerged from their tents too. In the distance a string of camels, led by a Bedouin child, walked along the ridge of dunes towards our camp.
Ten gorgeous creamy yellow camels with huge eyes and lips lay on the sand waiting for us with several Bedouins, including Jaber’s father, Said, and his son. But omigod they were enormous. When someone started talking about the last time he rode a horse, fell off, and spent the rest of the day in hospital I almost decided not to go on the trek, but I knew I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.
Finally we were all mounted and ready to go. The camel I was on had her baby tied to her. I could hear them breathing and see the soft hairs on their lips and the eyelashes around their dark eyes. The Bedouin children learn to ride when they are two years old. They are given camels as pets to look after and bond with. The boy leading the camel I rode was only eight. As we set off I saw the camel nuzzle his head and the child looked up and smiled at her. This almost made me forget I was a very long way from the ground.
We trekked for an hour along the tops of the dunes. Going uphill was easy as the camels spread their huge legs to climb. Going downhill was trickier because they leaned forward and I usually ended up wrapped around the camel’s hump. The sky was brilliant blue and long shadows lay in the hollows of the dunes. The Wahiba Desert is 12,000 kilometres long. The vastness of wave upon wave of rolling dunes was hard to comprehend. Being in the middle of the ocean must induce the same feeling. Gradually the nervous laughter and chatting stopped and our group was quiet. The silence and space wrapped around us. The only sound came from the camels breathing and a bird singing shrilly in an acacia tree.