Oman: Into the Heart of Arabia

  • Setting up lanterns at the beach camp near Mirbat.

    Setting up lanterns at the beach camp near Mirbat.

  • Baobab trees in the Dhofar mountains.

    Baobab trees in the Dhofar mountains.

  • Hud Hud’s tents come with embroidered bed linen.

    Hud Hud’s tents come with embroidered bed linen.

  • A camel skull.

    A camel skull.

  • Sean Nelson plotting the next day’s journey.

    Sean Nelson plotting the next day’s journey.

  • Skiffs on the beach at Mirbat.

    Skiffs on the beach at Mirbat.

  • A seaside mosque seen from the ruins of an old fortress in Mirbat, some 70 kilometers east of Salalah.

    A seaside mosque seen from the ruins of an old fortress in Mirbat, some 70 kilometers east of Salalah.

  • Beach access in Salalah.

    Beach access in Salalah.

  • Sweet pomegranate is served fresh at camp breakfasts.

    Sweet pomegranate is served fresh at camp breakfasts.

  • A cup of cold fresh water is among the simplest, but most valuable, luxuries in the desert.

    A cup of cold fresh water is among the simplest, but most valuable, luxuries in the desert.

  • Hud Hud camp staff prepping a spot for seaside sundowners.

    Hud Hud camp staff prepping a spot for seaside sundowners.

  • A fisherman competes with a congress of gulls for the sardine harvest.

    A fisherman competes with a congress of gulls for the sardine harvest.

  • Rock pools up the coast from Mirbat.

    Rock pools up the coast from Mirbat.

  • Candle lanterns shed soft light on Hud Hud Travels’ desert camps.

    Candle lanterns shed soft light on Hud Hud Travels’ desert camps.

  • An encounter with a local at the fish market in Salalah, Oman’s second-largest city and the birthplace of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

    An encounter with a local at the fish market in Salalah, Oman’s second-largest city and the birthplace of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

  • Caves at a wadi picnic stop in the Dhofar Mountains.

    Caves at a wadi picnic stop in the Dhofar Mountains.

  • A camp staffer.

    A camp staffer.

  • A Dhofari boy.

    A Dhofari boy.

  • The scenic route.

    The scenic route.

  • One of Hud Hud Travels’ younger guests having fun in the sun amid a dune field deep inside the Empty Quarter.

    One of Hud Hud Travels’ younger guests having fun in the sun amid a dune field deep inside the Empty Quarter.

  • A majlis (meeting tent) at Hud Hud travels’ Empty Quarter camp.

    A majlis (meeting tent) at Hud Hud travels’ Empty Quarter camp.

  • Wind-sculpted sand dunes amid the trackless expanse of southern Oman’s Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter.

    Wind-sculpted sand dunes amid the trackless expanse of southern Oman’s Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter.

  • Camels remain a common sight in fast-modernizing Oman.

    Camels remain a common sight in fast-modernizing Oman.

  • A lone thorn tree provides a rare sign of life in the desert.

    A lone thorn tree provides a rare sign of life in the desert.

  • A Salalah merchant.

    A Salalah merchant.

  • A fisherman’s haul.

    A fisherman’s haul.

  • Low tide on the Arabian sea coast near Mirbat.

    Low tide on the Arabian sea coast near Mirbat.

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“I knew Oman from when I was a soldier here in the 1990s,” the former British Royal Marine explains. “There’s a huge variety of terrains within a relatively small geography—islands, beaches, mountains, desert—and I was amazed no one else was doing mobile camps. Oman is extremely safe, and with the correct licenses, we’re pretty much free to set up where we like.”

Nelson has refined the concept over the last five years, and his trips are now defined by their flexibility, with made-to-measure itineraries that take in a few well-scouted locations running from Muscat all the way down Oman’s 1,700-kilometer-long coastline. In the north, these include camps amid the dune fields of the Wahiba Sands or set high in the secluded Hajar Mountains as well as a beach site near Ras al Hadd, home to some of Oman’s best surf breaks. In the south, there’s the Empty Quarter and the coastal bivouac where we are now, which, in the right season, is supposed to be an excellent spot for whale watching (no less than 17 ceta- cean species frequent these waters, including a family of humpbacks).

This stretch of shoreline is also considered among the world’s most important hatching ground for endangered green turtles, which makes sense, as we don’t see another soul. And although there are no waterparks or other obvious touristic diversions, we have plenty to keep us occupied, like an afternoon’s fishing in a little blue-and-white skiff hired out of Mirbat. One day, we stop by the ruined harbor of Khor Ruri that once shipped frankincense to the Queen of Sheba, and picnic in a wadi dotted with emerald-green pools. On another, we wonder at a fossilized waterfall in a vast curtain of travertine rock and feast on huge lobsters drawn straight from the sea. We tour Mirbat itself, a small settlement with crumbling mud-brick buildings known only obscurely as the sight of a 1972 battle between nine British SAS soldiers and some 300 communist guerillas. And we learn from one of our guides, Mussalam, about the Ibadi Islam practiced by the Dhofari people in these parts. He also talks me through the cut of the perfect woman: her nose should be straight like a knife, her eyes should be dark, and her hair preferably curly. As to her legs, it is very important to see them before any commitment is made. Only then should one agree to marry her.

When I ask Mussalam how his culture is changing in the face of the sultanate’s modern, oil-fueled economy, he pauses for a contemplative moment before saying, “I was born in a cave. My grandson will be born in a hospital.”

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