South from Muscat: the inland route
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An alternative route into Sharqiya and out is via the inland Highway 23, which heads down from Muscat to Ibra and on to Al Kamil, before turning northeast towards Sur or continuing south towards Jalan Bani Bu Ali and the southern coast. The major attraction en route is the magnificent Wahiba Sands, while the lively commercial centre of Ibra and the time-warped Jalan Bu Bani Ali are also worth a visit.
The principal town of inland Sharqiya, IBRA grew rich thanks to its location on the major trade route between Muscat, Sur and Zanzibar – evidence of the wealth accumulated by the town’s former notables can be seen in the magnificent old mudbrick mansions of Al Munisifeh. The town is also the home of the redoubtable Al Harthy tribe, whose repeated rebellions against the sultans of Muscat were such a feature of early twentieth-century Omani history.
Modern Ibra may have lost some of its strategic importance (especially since the opening of the new coastal highway, which has further isolated the town) but it still has a lively mercantile buzz, centred on the colourful souk, as well as some of Sharqiya’s finest traditional mudbrick architecture in the nearby villages of Al Munisifeh and Al Kanatar. It also makes a good base for explorations of the nearby Wahiba Sands, as well as a possible starting point for the magnificent off-road drive to the coast via the tombs of Jaylah.
A further 10km south of Jalan Bani Bu Hassan, the town of JALAN BANI BU ALI is the most interesting in this part of Sharqiya: staunchly traditional, and with a certain reputation for religious conservatism and political independence. During the early nineteenth century, following repeated Saudi incursions into Oman, the local Bani Bu Ali tribe converted to the Wahhabi form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. It was the only tribe in the country ever to do so, and subsequently repudiated the rule of the sultan – who responded by dispatching a large armed force to crush the fledgling rebellion. Even now, the town retains a decidedly old-fashioned atmosphere, and visitors remain a source of (usually friendly) curiosity.
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.
Arabia’s most iconic inhabitants, the Bedu (often Anglicized to “Bedouin”) have long been seen – by Westerners at least – as the human face of the desert peninsula. For outsiders, the Bedu have come to personify a rather romanticized ideal of nomadic life amid the sands, with their distinctive lifestyle of ferocious independence, ceaseless tribal feuds and outbursts of legendary hospitality. Some of which is at least partly true.
Scattered across the interior of Oman and other countries around the peninsula, the nomadic Bedu tribes formerly eked out a marginal existence amid one of the world’s most hostile natural environments, surviving in the depths of the desert by a combination of camel-raising, goat-herding and inter-tribal raiding – a lifestyle founded on a complex network of tribal allegiances, intimate knowledge of the local environment and extraordinary levels of physical resilience. Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands remains essential reading for anyone with even a cursory interest in the region, offering a fascinating glimpse into the Bedu tribes’ unique customs and traditions and a salutary corrective to some of the more flowery received notions of nomadic life.
Not surprisingly, virtually nothing survives of the harsh traditional Bedu existence described by Thesiger. Many Bedu in Oman have now adopted settled, sedentary lifestyles, emigrating to the cities and merging with the population at large, while others have reinvented themselves as tour guides, offering modern visitors rewarding insights into the flora, fauna and traditional culture of the Wahiba Sands. Traditional Bedu culture and customs do, however, linger on in many parts of southern Oman, particularly around the Sands themselves. Local Bedu here still follow a modified form of their traditional pursuits, raising livestock for part of the year before decamping to their plantations around Mintrib to harvest dates during the hot summer months. Bedu families can also often be seen frequenting the souks of Ibra and Sinaw, with the distinctive sight of local Bedu women in traditional face masks and elaborately embroidered shawls, trousers and tunics offering a colourful reminder of the interior’s traditional, if now increasingly threatened, past.
Empty though they may look, the sands support a fascinating desert ecology. A celebrated expedition by the Royal Geographical Society in 1986 discovered 150 species of plant, including the hardy ghaf (Proposis cinera), which plays a major role in stabilizing the dunes, as well as providing firewood and shade. In addition, 200 mammal, bird and reptile species were discovered, ranging from side-winding vipers to desert hares and sand foxes. Most of these creatures are nocturnal, however, so you’re unlikely to see much during the day apart from their tracks.