What does it mean for one to “travel with no compass”? I suppose this quote could take on a myriad of meanings depending on the individual contemplating it. I suppose this quote could be answered in a literal manner, however I choose to answer it this way: to travel “with no compass” means to uproot from the certainty of the present and move forward beyond what is known – beyond what is comfortable and to be outside of one’s element, with no route mapped — to be off the beaten path.
Throughout all my travels, there is but one place I can state I’ve traveled to “with no compass” – only one place I can claim to have wandered far from the pavement [this] one place being the Bidiyah Desert in the Sultanate of Oman.
Oman is an Arab country situated on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula holding land borders with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Oman, while surrounded by nations currently at odds with one another, remains a peaceful nation, void of the violence and political upheavals we read about so often in the Middle East. This is one of the reasons which drew me to explore this stunningly beautiful, Middle Eastern nation.
Prior to arriving in Oman, I knew only one thing would remain a certainty throughout my time, that is, I would be without my travel companion, my wife. My wife has been by my side during every adventure since marrying in 2011. In Oman, this would be different. I knew my travels in Oman would be without the comfort of family or friend, while unsettling to some degree, this fact was also exciting.
My adventure began the moment I stepped off the plane and on to the hot tarmac at the small airport in Muscat (the capital of Oman). As I gazed out towards the distant mountains which surround the capital city, I could feel the difference in the air -a difference which I was hoping to find – a difference which equated to a true adventure. I had wanted to experience something as opposite from anything or anywhere I had known. Oman was just the place to discover what it’s like to travel outside of my comfort zone — the food, culture, religion, smells. . . everything about this place was unfamiliar, which was exactly how I hoped it would be.
As I attempted to speak to the country officials regarding my visa and confirm my visa status and advise that “yes, the photo of the blond haired, green-eyed man on the passport is me!”.
After obtaining my visa and making my way through immigration control, I rushed through the crowds of men, all dressed in their finest white dishdashas, and hailed the first cab I saw. My cab driver, who didn’t speak a word of English, finally understood my request “…take me to my hotel…the Grand Saif…I need sleep…”. Sleep – ah yes, something which seemed as foreign to me as the land I was in, as it had been roughly 30 hours since my one-minute shut-eye.
Without the wonderful company of my wife as my travel partner, I did manage to employ a local Omani guide, Ahmed, who proved to be not only an expert on all things ‘Middle Eastern’, but also a self-proclaimed sand dune off-road driver, conversationalist, haggler, and a heck of a great friend.
The morning following my arrival, Ahmed met me bright and early at my hotel for our pre-departure breakfast, which consisted of Arabic dates and hot lemon tea, both of which were amazing. Ahmed shared with me a few tips about the desert adventure we were soon to embark on and what activities lay ahead of us, including “dune bashing”, camel riding, and what amenities existed (or rather did not exist) in the villages near the Bidiyah Desert. Learning about the conditions of the desert, and more particularly the camp site, made me happy my wife did not join me on this adventure. This was going to bring the term ‘roughing it’ to an entirely new level.
Ahmed gladly loaded up my gear in his 4×4 Nissan SUV and we hit the road to our remote camp-site tucked away in the desert. The drive from Muscat to the Bidiyah Desert is approximately 3 hours. The tall minarets which filled the Muscat sky faded quickly as we reached the outskirts of the city and were replaced by rocky, dry mountains, dotted with wild sheep and goats…and the occasional camel.
After driving the curvy roads through the craggy mountains, we soon reached the fringe of the Bidiyah Desert. The fringes are ‘no man’s land’, quite literally. The only form of life I saw for miles prior to reaching our desert camp site was a few random skinny camels munching on dry weeds which had sprouted from the dry earth. We took a hard right from the highway and were en route via the one and only desert road which would take us to our camp site tucked away in the golden sand dunes ahead of us.
Before reaching the camp site, Ahmed thought it wise to go ahead and show this Westerner what “dune bashing” was all about. Dune bashing, which consists of driving a 4×4 at high speeds up through the desert is an experience I will never forget – it was both exciting and quite terrifying! I was sure we were soon to meet our death, but obviously I was wrong.
Next on the agenda was to meet the local Bedouins who had established the camp site where I would call home. The tents were as one would expect, canvas, upheld by palm tree trunks, and open-aired. Everything about this experience was traditional and again, shocking, but absolutely amazing! Throughout my time in the Desert, I witnessed the sun setting behind the seemingly endless sea of dunes. I rode camel-back during the early morning hours and heard not a sound other than the camel hooves slapping the sand as we ventured deep in to the dunes. I slept under the Arabian sky in my Bedouin tent and watched the stars shine like I have never seen before.
Everything I experienced while in the Bidiyah Desert will remain in my memory for all time and will keep me interested in returning to Oman again and again.