My history with extreme sports is rather chequered. It began in 2001 in the Adirondacks in up-state New York whilst I was a student in Albany. My friends and I spent Spring Break in a cabin out in the woods hitting the slopes at surrounding ski resorts by day and hitting the beers by night. It was, for the most part, a fantastic trip. Sadly, for me, it did not end so well. On our final morning on the piste, with several cans of beer still swilling around my system from the previous evening, I failed to take a sharp bend with appropriate caution and propelled myself face first into a tree. As a consequence, I headed back south with a broken nose and a face covered in lacerations. Since that trip, my skills on the slopes have certainly improved. I am now, at least, no longer a danger to myself and others around me. Over the decade that has passed, I have skied and boarded in both China and Korea with few problems.
When I moved to Oman, I presumed there would be little chance for me to hone my skills on the piste. In a literal sense, that proved to be true. There is very little snow in a country where winter temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees Celsius. However, I was surprised to learn that Oman has its very own equivalent of winter sports – extreme desert sports. And, whilst these do not translate exactly with their winter counterparts, there are several clear parallels. Skis and snowboards can still be used, but instead of snow-covered mountains, Oman's slopes are giant sand dunes.
The Al Raha desert camp offers plenty of extreme sports options. There are quad bikes, 4X4s and dune buggies, all of which are tremendous fun. However, with my winter sports precedent, the activity I was keenest to try was sand-boarding. To explain this particular 'sport' in simple terms, sand-boarding is essentially snowboarding on sand. All the equipment and principles are the same. You clip your feet to a large board and head downhill. On the surface, aside from swapping snow for sand, the two sports appeared to be identical. However, when I hit the dunes, I soon found that this was not actually the case.
The main differences between snowboarding and its sand-based equivalent centre around speed and gradient. When I first experimented with snowboarding in the US, I found even the gentlest of baby slopes to be a major challenge. So, in the desert, to play things safe and avoid any nasty injuries, I headed to a less than imposing looking dune in the hope of acclimatizing gently. This plan proved wholly futile as whilst on the ski slopes the snow is hardened allowing the board to skim along and speed, the dunes are soft creating much more friction. Therefore, on the baby slopes, I succeeded only in sinking into the sand and moving glacially down the incline.
This rather dis-spiriting experience taught me that whilst the smooth surface of the snow – and the lack of friction – is the key to snowboarding, the salient factor in sand-boarding is gradient. Therefore, in a moment of Newtonian inspiration, I realized I had to let gravity assert itself. So, I slung my board over my back set off to climb the steepest and tallest dune I could find. This proved to be no easy process. The sands were very soft, meaning I repeatedly lost my footing and slid back down. After 15 arduous minutes, I had gone 30 meters and was barely half way up the dune. I decided enough was enough and strapped on my board. The dune was infinitely steeper than anything I would ever have considered skiing or snowboarding down. Consequently, I was a little nervous. Thankfully, I needn't have been. The soft sand had two effects on my board. First, it covered the edges ensuring it was difficult to lose balance and fall over. Second, the added friction made for an effective break, preventing me careering out of control. These made for a remarkably smooth ride down the dune.
I boarded for just under an hour and was exhausted. This was not caused by the activity itself, rather from repeatedly hiking up the dune. I must admit, the ratio of effort to pleasure was not particularly well balanced. However, it was certainly easier and safer than snowboarding.