It is almost impossible to explain to someone who was not in the car with my friends and I just how worried I was as the sun began to set over Wahiba Sands. We were on our way to the Al Raha Desert Camp, which is situated about 25km into the vast expanse of dunes that make up Wahiba Sands. And, we were lost. Once the sun had set, there would be no chance of us finding the camp. Therefore, we knew we were on the clock. We had driven almost 300km from Sur via Wadi Bani Khalid and were very close to our destination. Unfortunately, as there are no detailed maps of Oman and for some reason there are very few road signs. We sped along the desert highway in the direction of the desert town of Ibra, knowing that the camp was illusively close,, even though it felt so distant and remote.
It was only by pure luck as I pulled into a filling station to gas up and ask for directions that we saw signs for the town of Al Ghaarib, the closest point of civilization to Al Raha. We took the turning and followed the road towards Al Raha. We soon saw signs informing us that Al Raha was 20km away. Feeling encouraged after the earlier panic, we sped on towards our goal. However, just a few kilometres later we hit a major problem. The paved gradually began to become a little sandy, before being enveloped by the sweeping dunes of Wahiba Sands. I am an adventurous driver and I have taken my little Toyota Yaris on several precarious journeys in Oman, but there was no chance we could go any further.
At the point where the dunes met the road, there was a small parking lot. So, I pulled the Yaris in and got out to survey the situation. With the sun falling over the desert, it did not look too good for us. Thankfully, after a few minutes a large 4x4 came whipping out of the sands. The driver asked us where we were headed – I presume he already had a fair idea we were going to Al Raha as there is nothing else within the next 200km. When we told him our destination, he said he would be happy to drive us there and bring us back ... for a small fee, of course. With no other realistic choice, we left the Yaris in the parking lot and jumped into the 4x4.
My three friends jumped in the back and I took the front seat. The first thing we noticed was a giant crack across the windscreen that suggested our driver was not the most cautious of chaps. This initial supposition proved to be 100% correct. As soon as we hit the sands he put his foot to the floor and had us speeding along at an alarming rate. We carried on in this manner for about 12 kilometres. The speed and the sand spraying from beneath the wheels made it feel rather exotic and exciting. However, as we got further into the sands, the dunes began to get larger and the driving a little more frightening – or a little more exciting, depending on your disposition.
As the dunes got steeper, the driver saw no need to slow down and drive more carefully. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying flying over them at pace – the reasons behind the giant crack in the windscreen suddenly began to become very evident. As he sped up, the driver continually seemed to look across at me and glance over his shoulder at those in the back. As I was very much enjoying the ride, I was smiling. He seemed to be spurred on by this. We soon began to realize that he was gauging our reaction to see how fast we were comfortable going. So, to heat things up, I yelled out "faster". This had us moving at even more breakneck speed and occasionally bouncing around as though we were about to lose control.
It was very very nerve-wracking, but tremendous fun. However, the highlight came when the driver turned to me and shouted, "Allah" (Arabic for God). I was not sure what he meant, but nodded my head enthusiastically in agreement. He then swung the wheel hard to the left and accelerated towards a 100m high sand dune. We hit the dune with a thump and then accelerated up it as fast as we could. The higher we got, the the slower we went and the more the wheels began to spin. As we neared the top, it felt as though the driver were about to lose control and the 4x4 would flip over. It was all very dramatic. Just at that point, he turned the wheel hard to the right and we flew down the dune at pace with the driver whooping and hollering as we went.
We finally drew into the camp as the sun set over the dunes. It had taken around twenty minutes to get to the camp, but it was one of the most exciting drives of my life.