His childhood imagination fired by his mum’s tales of Arabia, Mike MacEacheran finally gets to repay the debt — with a road trip for both of them, along Oman’s remote Route 66
ophins appeared suddenly on the starboard bow, followed by a toddler-like shriek. Then a porpoise propelled itself into the air, spinning above the pewter sea, checked by a parental, reassuring ooh. When it belly-slammed back down, it was followed by a familiar, gurgly aah. Yet it wasn’t my little one doing the goo-goo gaga-ing – it was my 73-year-old mum. Agog and aflutter, she let out another squeak and dangled a hand over the side as Captain Jasim killed the engine and we drifted. ‘Look, look!’ she yelled. ‘My God! A whale!’ Infused with the magic light of dawn, the arrival of a humpback felt like a moment arranged just for her.
We were off the coast of Muscat, floating on a glassy sea – mother and son together – and I could sense something awakening inside her. For years mum had dreamed of visiting ‘real Arabia’. The idea had been hers since reading One Thousand and One Nights as a girl: the Scheherazade tales and sand dunes, the forts, wadis and wild, unpredictable adventures. She wanted ‘the full Arabian’. Everything, in fact, bar the glitz that the Gulf has now become renowned for.
Now a granny, she deserved a treat, a holiday. She had been introducing my two-year-old son to the enchanted deserts of Arabia in the same way she’d schooled me in the magical realms of Ali Baba and Aladdin. By taking her on an expedition to Oman I would help inspire her imagination – she would feel the sand under her feet and the desert wind in her hair.
Oman is a throwback to a different age. It feels richer than elsewhere in Arabia. The rest have gussied themselves up with utopian towers, star-spangled museums, sci-fi stadiums and hyper-designed hotels. The Omanis and Bedouin tribes, custodians of the Empty Quarter desert (or Rub’ al Khali), do not slot into that narrative. Even Muscat, Oman’s time-stopped capital, with its palaces, frankincense-selling souk and spindly minarets, is nothing like other Arabian megapolises. Oman’s amazing wildlife makes it a world apart, too, with camels, leopards, oryx, green turtles, dolphins and, yes, even the odd whale.
We both craved an unforgettable road trip along Arabia’s Route 66, down the Indian Ocean coast. We’d stay in tented camps on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali, before looping inland to return north. Taking a look at Google Maps, we saw an improbable union of sand, sea and asphalt. Highway 17 from Muscat morphs into a rough coastal road that unfurls south at Al Khaluf, the end of Arabia. A foolhardy journey, my dad had tut-tutted when I was planning the trip; and yet, indisputably, the perfect thread linking the storied landscapes I’d grown up with. These places had meaning for mum and me.
‘The rippling mountains to the west sparkled like diamonds, hiding Wadi Dayqah Dam deep within their folds’
We picked up the Land Cruiser in Muscat. As we left the airport behind, we saw the quick transition from city limits to open road and yawning desert. It made mum a little panicky. ‘You’re sure we have all we need?’ she asked, anxiously. Yes, we had all we needed. That’s how easy it is to strike out on your own adventure in Oman: the roads aren’t intimidating, and the distances on the map are manageable. Best of all, the sights will leave you awestruck: toothpaste-blue sea through one window, golden desert through the other, and a landscape speckled with watchtowers and dhow yards.
We struck south, crossing the Al Hajar Mountains that separate the high desert plateau from the scorching coast, reaching Quriyat, the first in a string of cute fishing villages along the seashore. The sky was bright and clear and pale golden streaks flooded through the windscreen. The rippling mountains to the west sparkled like diamonds, hiding Wadi Dayqah Dam deep within their folds. Its soaring reservoir, a timely lesson in desert survival, was the first of many detours – as we quickly learned, there is as much to see in Oman’s interior as there is on the coast.
That afternoon, we wound up at the irresistible natural swimming pools of Wadi Tiwi, a gorge-cut oasis accessed through wild date palms and bushy plantations, our 4WD splashing down a swollen riverbed gravel road. Heavy rains had arrived the week before and the ensuing rush down from mountains surprised us: an off-road Top Gear moment. The light glistened on the river and after a boulder-hopping walk, a natural lido appeared. For a moment we found ourselves completely lost in a mother-son water fight. Already, mum was finding her Oman mojo.
That first night we spent further along the coast under canvas at Ras Al Jinz, easternmost Arabia: the last point before the road meets the sea. Our home was an eco-tent unlike any I’d stayed in before, let alone mum. More Aladdin’s Cave than Glastonbury pitch, it concealed comforts we never expected in the middle of nowhere: a rocket-sized air-con unit, a plasma TV and, amid the embroidered cushions where we could play at being Bedouin royalty, an armoire and treasure chest. Best of all, to complete the Dubai-in-the-desert luxe, there was a pummelling en-suite shower. This eyrie of ours stood on the edge of a craggy peninsula, a zip-open door revealing the headland ablaze at sunset.
We were here to see a nesting site for endangered green turtles – a bold project in Omani tourism set up to educate local fishermen and protect the annual arrival of 30,000 of the sea creatures upon the surrounding beaches. The reptiles are a constant worry for the people of Ras Al Jinz; so much so, that no wandering on the beach is permitted any more after dark. As a result, the armoured, elegant females can pull themselves up the shore in peace to lay and cover their eggs with flipper shovels of sand. To that end, zealously controlled escorted torch-lit tours keep human interference to a minimum.
Under the light of a crescent moon, Ras Al Jinz Beach turned the colour of silver. Stars splashed across the sky and my mum guided my eyes to a twinkling ‘W’ in the sky: Cassiopei. We followed the torchlight down to the beach. The sparse vegetation and dunes thinned out until all that was before us was a black shadow of sand and the thundering swells of the sea, somewhere in the dark. The wind blew. Soon, a monstrous 135kg turtle appeared, only her glimmering shell visible in the halo of light as she waddled up the beach to begin her ritual. In what seemed a heartbeat, half a dozen other turtles arrived, patrolling the surf as if on the lookout for trespassers, all to bury the next generation under the sand, away from the burning days. If it hadn’t been so dark, I know I’d have seen mum wide-eyed with wonder.
Gradually, our odyssey unravelled along the coastline, the two of us transfixed by the hot flush of colours and shades. At Al Ashkharah, we swam off an extraordinary beach, reeling under the visual assault of blue on gold, then watched cowl-wrapped fishwives mending nets on the shoreline where Bronze Age tools and cairn burial sites from early Islamic settlements have been found. We laughed over an ice factory in the middle of the desert (for packing fish? Icing drinks? Cooling down camels? We couldn’t guess). We sipped syrupy cardamom coffee from roadside vendors. We lost count of how many hip-waggling camels we saw before entering the desert proper. The further we explored, the further we felt we were travelling back in time, back to when we were both younger. In these hours, we passed only a handful of other vehicles. In quieter moments, I could see my mum processing the desert world she had never seen before. The visions of Ibn Battuta, Wilfred Thesiger and Lawrence of Arabia.
One afternoon, abruptly, the coastal road veered inland from the white sugar dunes of Al Khaluf, our farthest stop south, and we struck north on Route 32 into a landscape embedded with multi-layered dunes and bare-branched acacia trees. Mum’s dream was to become reality. By mid-afternoon, our road was scrambling up and over itself into the great nowhere of the Wahiba Sands, in search of a desert camp at the end of an off-road track. We corkscrewed over a ridge into a landscape that became starker and more savage: barren, desert country, coloured-in with golden warmth and yellow fuzziness. Confronted with its epic scale, mum visibly glowed.
Out of this nothingness came the Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp, looking like something a child would draw: peaked sandbanks, skirted by a clutter of pretty Bedouin tents and huts around a large courtyard. The promise of tussocky dunes to climb, fire-pit lamb barbecues to savour, zero light pollution for perfect stargazing and only two camels (Sohan and Shahin) to share it with was both evocative and acutely Arabian.
‘In what seemed a heartbeat, half a dozen other turtles arrived, patrolling the surf as if on the lookout for trespassers, all to bury the next generation under the sand ’
Sunrise, on our final morning, found us on camels traversing a sweeping dune heading deeper into the Rub’ al Khali. We had risen in the dark to avoid the heat of the day and followed our white-robed Bedouin guide, Amur, for a couple of hours. The higher we climbed, the more I could sense my mum’s blissful contentment. Sand whipped our legs and stubborn waves of grain crowded us from all sides. Sunlight struck our faces with such force that my mum’s billowy keffiyeh momentarily recast her as a desert explorer, a vision enhanced by the sweat and sand in my eyes. This was it, her One Thousand and One Nights moment – astride a camel, hair mussed-up, conquering magical, storybook dunes. It was wonderful, windswept desert perfection. And a tribute, even if I say so myself, to my being a pretty good son.
Credit: Stephen Doig / The Telegraph / The Interview People
Inspired to travel? See the latest travel offers to Oman