The Bedouin Experience – 2008

 

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It is not even midday yet, but the sun beats down regardless – it’s hot. From the sway of a camel’s back, a desert landscape emerges: sand dunes carved from wind; stunted broken trees scattered scarcely about, blue, blue sky, no hint of clouds. Here in the middle of Oman’s Wahiba Sands – a series of 250-kilometre-long golden-red sand dunes that run north-south – my thoughts have turned to water and Wilfred Thesiger. One can only imagine how this intrepid British explorer, who lived amongst Oman’s Bedu during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and wrote about their nomadic lifestyle in Arabian Sands, survived such harsh conditions. Back at the Nomadic Desert Camp, Abdullah Al-Mughairy offers an explanation: “No AC, no cold water, just warm water, a little bit, sip-sip – [you] get used to it.” In other words, without jumping from extremes, one becomes acclimatized and adapts, as Thesiger did, to the conditions dictated by environment. Unfortunately, I’ve only been in the desert for a day.

 

 

A stable, thriving country on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman might be better known through tales of Sinbad the sailor, or from the mention of frankincense borne by three wise men of biblical renown. Although developing oil interests later than neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Oman has proved itself a fast learner, with the ability to manifest change within mere decades. Before 1970, the country had only two primary schools, next-to-no hospitals, and was in a state of civil unrest. It now boasts locally-run hospitals, government-funded universities and vocational colleges, a vibrant economy, well-maintained infrastructure, and electricity that reaches even the remotest of mountain villages.

 

No wonder, then, there is a healthy respect and admiration for Sultan Qaboos, the man behind the reforms, who travels the country annually in a “meet-the-people” tour, and has proved himself a distinguished peacemaker in the international arena. There’s a sense of pride reflected in the faces of Oman’s population, from elders in a small fishing village who enjoy universal healthcare, to the smiles of their grandchildren, for whom tertiary education is now not only free, but encouraged.

 

 

Oman is no fool when it comes to resources, and although “peak oil” is a hotly contested subject, economic diversification has already proved an important strategy for a country that had limited supplies to begin with. An average of one million tourists visit the country annually already, and development is in the works all along the coast. Aiming for the tuna of tourists, the goal is to lure a wealthy clientele with luxury hotels built on prime ocean real-estate. But surely a Sultan with a demonstrable commitment to the environment recognizes what has been an increasingly global shift to ecotourism over the past 5 years? If the next-door, Middle East Conference on Sustainable Ecotourism Development held this past January was anything to go by, the answer would be yes. But whether smaller-scale community-based initiatives receive as much support as their luxury-styled brethren remains to be seen. Oman’s opulence is not outshone by its smarts though, and it wouldn’t be surprising to observe the development of both over the coming years, especially if the country continues to balance a tolerance of foreign customs and values, while at the same time showcasing its own heritage – something it seems to have managed admirably already. Wealth lies not only in luxury resorts, but also in enriching cross-cultural interactions encouraging visitors to “learn while at play.”

 

 

Back in Wahiba Sands, the Nomadic Desert Camp offers guests the opportunity to do just that, relaxing in a Bedouin environment while learning about the culture. For the Al-Mughairy family, what started off as an occasional service for ex-pats living in the Muscat of the 1980s has now turned into a successful business catering to tourists from all corners of the world.

 

“I want to show people what life was like before,” explains Rashid, 32, the eldest brother of an eight-sibling family, and de-facto manager of a business that supports and involves almost every family member. He adds, “I’d like to show the spirit that exists in the desert – of helping each other and of welcoming strangers into our homes.” Since opening for tours officially in 1999, Rashid has helped his father grow the business through a strong word-of-mouth connection, as well as some smart networking. In addition to the traditional Bedouin-style camp, the family organizes desert crossings and tailors trips according to client requests – from one day, to two weeks – enhanced by relationships with English, German and Swiss agencies specializing in unique travel experiences. The trick has been to keep a local focus while building a steady clientele of repeat customers. “I love to meet people from different cultures,” explains Rashid. “To shake their hand at the end of a stay and hear about their experiences – that’s important.”

 

 

 

Apparently a mind reader as well as adept desert navigator, my guide for the day, Sultan (the 3rd son) pauses to magically produce a water bottle from camel-bag. Thirst quenched, we dismount and give the camels slight reprieve from their cargo while making our way down off the dune. Shade under an Acadia tree on one of the flat, hard-packed corridors that separates dune from dune provides shelter, and Sultan is soon preparing a traditional Bedouin meal. First, coffee laced with cardamom is boiled over an open flame and accompanied by dates. A simple flat bread is made next: flour, water and a touch of salt kneaded together, baked in a pot, then torn into pieces and soaked in milk. Apples round out the meal, leftovers are given to the camels, and the fire easily buried. We rest for an hour and give the sun a chance to move over in the direction of clouds that have appeared on the horizon, then make our way back to camp.

 

 

As the sun sets on Barasti (palm frond) huts, guests gather in a communal open-faced Arabian Majlis for tea and relaxation before the evening meal. As one might expect in a desert camp modeled on the Bedouin experience, not all amenities are available. There are showers, but no hot water, and once the sun has set, the only light to be found is in the glow of lanterns and the moon overhead. Dinner is served to an eclectic group of guests, including the German Ambassador and his wife, travelers from Austria and Germany, as well as Dutch and French ex-pat families from Muscat. As the stars begin to peek out, we enjoy halwa, a traditional Omani dessert made from dates, saffron, cardamom, almonds, nutmeg and rosewater, boiled in a huge copper vat, and stirred for hours. Then we retreat to the campfire or retire for the night after a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into Bedouin life.