South of Ibra stretch the magnificent Wahiba Sands (Ramlat al Wahiba; also known as the Sharqiya Sands) – “a perfect specimen of sand sea”, as they have been described. This is the desert as you’ve always imagined it: a huge, virtually uninhabited swathe of sand, with towering dunes, reaching almost 100m in places, sculpted by the wind into delicately moulded crests and hollows. Tourist resorts apart, there are no permanent settlements in the sands, although some local Bedu still live here in somewhat ramshackle temporary encampments, particularly on the southern fringes of the sands around Al Ashkharah. Otherwise, Wahiba remains hauntingly empty, although the endless tracks churned up by cavorting dune-bashers tearing around the sands in their souped-up 4WDs (and, along the main routes, obscene quantities of litter) mean that it’s not quite as unspoiled as you’d expect. As a general rule of thumb, the further into the sands you penetrate, the more dramatic and untouched the landscape becomes.
The dunes themselves follow a surprisingly regular pattern, as a glance at Google Earth makes strikingly clear, running in long lines from north to south – an orderly sequence of so-called “linear” dunes formed by the conflicting winds blowing in from the eastern and southern coasts (and meaning that travelling across the sands from north to south is significantly easier than tackling them from east to west). They are also constantly on the move, shifting inland at an estimated rate of 10m per year.
The principal attraction of a visit here is simply the chance to be out among the dunes, and to spend a night in the desert. All the camps lay on various desert activities. Dune-bashing is a popular, if not particularly restful or environmentally friendly, way of exploring the sands; camel or horse rides (sometimes guided by local Bedu) offer a more peaceful alternative, while other activities include sandboarding, trekking and quad-biking.