It was absolutely silent in our little gorge last night. The silence was broken first by the call to prayer, which finds you no matter how remote you are, then a donkey started up and sounded like someone with little musical ability practising the trumpet.
As light snuck in around the shutters P went to make some tea. I opened the wooden door for her and was startled to see a woman in a deep blue abaya walking past with a tray of bananas on her head. She was completely silent and didn’t acknowledge me. She walked on and vanished in the trees.
We sat on the terrace drinking black tea with a little sugar and watched the morning break around us. A man in one of the modern houses down the gorge was having a furious row with, well everyone, by the sound of it. He went on and on and we realised that the acoustics of this place mean everyone hears everything. It’s perhaps why nearly everyone walks so quietly here. A few women came past us on the path and made no sound at all.
We watched a man in a blue jumpsuit bringing our breakfast from across the gorge. Stainless steel pots with boiled eggs, some toast and marmalade, slices of orange and little pieces of the crispy flatbread we’d watched one of the women make in the Al Hamra museum. The man’s younger brother was there too grinning at us and all bustle when his big brother asked him to do something. We came to realise that after breakfast they expected us gone. We’d been pondering a shower and a read and out by ten but they were changing the sheets and locking the doors to our rooms at 9.30. It wasn’t unfriendly, it was just what they were used to.
Our host, a compact man with a shy smile and a few words of English took us into the village above us, sending his brother ahead to warn people we were coming.
He said the village was three hundred years old and though people still used some of the houses, the last family had moved out and into the new houses across the gorge four years ago. There were people doing things in one of the buildings though and I saw shoes outside a couple of others.
The houses here are incredibly simple. Some were built into the cliff so the rock formed both wall and part of the roof. Several had a fire ring in the middle of a room perhaps twelve feet square, ceilings less than 6′ high and roof beams black with soot. All had the alcoves with a shelf across that we have seen in every old building here.
The walls were thick, the windows tiny and usually just an unglazed slot in the wall. The doors were no more than four or five feet tall and had basic patterns carved into them.
Their inner edges were honed to an ebony shine where people had rubbed past them over many years. Stone steps wound up through the village, slippery with use. This was the Oman of old and you can understand people wanting somewhere more comfortable to live, but it’s clearly hard to keep this sort of heritage intact without inhabitants.
We said our goodbyes and walked back across the bottom of the gorge and up to the car as the heat rose.
There were a couple more things to see up on the top; “Diana’s View” over the mountains and across lush terraces, at the back of a ritzy hotel that she stayed in once. Well the ritzy hotel seems to have sealed it off now, but we snuck around the side and the view was perfectly nice.
Then to the remains of an RAF Venom jet apparently shot down by the rebels in the fifties when we were busy suppressing dissent on behalf of the Sultan. Various aircraft bits were fenced off by the road and the pilot was supposedly buried nearby though we couldn’t find the grave.
Time to go. We had a rendezvous in Al Wasil at the edge of the Wahiba sands at three. The drive took us across a grey gravel plain, broken in one area by some black rocky hills. But there was little to see of any interest. We stopped for a picnic under a broad tree where a sudden fierce wind blew sand all over us and then stopped as quickly as it had begun.
Al Wasil is the jumping off point for the desert and there were several people waiting to go in. We met our guide, a tall dark Omani in a dishdasha and turban who had us line our cars up to have the tyres deflated a little for driving on the sand. And off we went, the tarmac suddenly turning into soft orange desert.
There were camels posing on ridges and low dunes rolling off to the horizon.
After about twenty minutes we pulled into a compound full of palm thatch huts. In each, a couple of low beds, a candle lamp on a chest and a mosquito net. The “Nomadic Desert Camp” is owned by a Bedouin family and what it lacks in swimming pools and Wi-fi, it more than makes up for in tranquility.
That said, at four thirty we all lined up again for a sunset drive into the dunes, zooming up steep sand slopes and trying to keep straight. After ten minutes or so we climbed on foot to a windy dune ridge and watched the glowing orange sun slip into the glowing orange desert.
At the base of our dune, our guide Hamid lit a fire, put a couple of pots of coffee on it and passed around first a bowl of water for hand washing and then a bowl of sticky dates.
He’s a laconic sort of chap, ready with a dry quip but saying little otherwise. When we’d all finished he nipped off across the sand joking about leaving us there. But he was actually going to pray, and we saw him silhouetted on a low ridge, kneeling and rising in private contemplation.
Then back to camp in the dark trying to work out how steep the sand dunes were in the headlights. After supper we sat outside our hut, the half-moon casting shadows of the palm trees on the sand and stars winking down on us.
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