They come silently out of the desert – a herd of camels padding across the sand, snaking in single file through the darkness. The first lifts its head, sniffing at the smoke of our car engines as we turn it off and wait. Then, just as quietly as they had arrived, they all move off, until there is nothing but us, the endless dunes of the Empty Quarter and a sandstorm up ahead.
The al-Hajar Mountains form the towering gateway to Oman's interior. A silent testimony to a time of geological chaos and immense volcanic activity, the range soars dramatically from gravel plain. Climbing precipitous tracks, our jeep heads into a wild rockscape of giant ophiolite rocks, limestone and splintering mudstone. We head towards Snake Canyon and the Wadi Nakhar gorge. Fakhir, my bedu navigator of about 18, points to my left and I see goats graze precariously on the rock face, feeding on clumps of acacia, wild olive, aloe and grasses. In his broken English he talks about his nomad family and adds that his mother makes the best kahwa, the kinds of which even the hotels of Muscat cannot match.
After hours of nerve-racking driving, we reach the lofty canyon rim. Ahead of us is Jebel Shams – the mountain of the sun. At more than 3,000m above sea level, the peak is one of the highest on the eastern Arabian Peninsula. A vulture circles silently above the chasm. We teeter on the edge, gazing at this vast panorama known as Arabia's "grand canyon". At a distance I can see a couple of black and red canvas tents flapping in the breeze, tightly pegged to the sandy terrain.
"Millions of years ago, all this was ocean floor," says the boy. Had I not known this to be a fact I would not have believed him, it seems impossible even to imagine. Hopping of the car, I follow him to a tent. A little girl of about six emerges gesturing excitedly. Her eyes capture me, the kohl is dark and heavy, heightening her brown skin and making her look wise beyond her years. She has her hands full with colourful bracelets, and mountain sandals woven from goat hair, probably she thinks I am a tourist and she is ready with her sales pitch. In the distance the yellow-ochre dunes line the horizon. Sand edges onto the forecourt of my destination of the night.
I get busy with my camera trying to capture as much before night descends. All over the terrain I notice tracks come and go, but Fakhir knows these strange billowing sands well. Those taking self-drive tours often get into trouble here, he tells me. "If you are following the tracks of another vehicle and the tracks disappear, stop immediately." He points to a large patch of sand that looks identical to the kind we are crossing. "See there, quicksand. It's younger and paler than other sand." I can't see any difference.
Slowly darkness sets in and brings with it a fierce breeze that makes my shirt flap and pulls at the turban I have around my head as protection against the sun. Salma, I now know her name, brings me kahwa and I can tell she is fascinated by my equipment. I am too, of her. We sit side by side, with a wall of language between us. Letting her fiddle with my laptop allows me a glimpse into her life as she slowly opens up in her limited English. She shares her spartan tent with her parents and nine siblings, she being the youngest. She and two of her siblings walk 2kms every day to the nearest school where they learn to read the Quran and also numbers. Fakhir walks in with dates. He now has changed into a long white dishdasha robe with a traditional embroidered Omani kummah, or cap. On his waist is a sash, and tucked in it, a curved knife, called a khanjar. A tassel dangles from the neckline. The oldest of Salma’s brothers, he is ready for marriage as I am told by the excited sister and then his wife can add a few drops of perfumed oil on his tassel, she adds with a laugh.
Shooing away his sister, Fakhir sits down and explains that often there is no water to be found on their journeys, and they drink only camel and goat milk. “Sometimes, when there is a thick fog at night, we put out a cloth over a tree and the next morning, we squeeze out some water”. He loves his camels, meeting friends and family and enjoys the beauty of the shifting dunes every single day. He can tell from a hoof-mark how long ago a camel walked by, if it had a rider on it, or even if it was pregnant.
Later in the night I meet the mother of Fakhir and Salma, a mere girl she seems. Light footed and gorgeous, she is shy and has her fingers twirling around her brightly coloured, multi-patterned clothes. Her face, except her eyes are covered with a cloth mask. On prodding for the reason of this veil, she talks to Fakhir in a sing song voice which he relates to me. “The world is open for me to see, but I choose who sees me”
A reticent woman, she leaves, before I can ask her more. The generosity of the Bedouin people is legendary. Sitting amongst them, sharing their lifestyle beneath countless stars and towering dunes, I am struck by the contrast between their gregarious nature and the forbidding hostility of the desert. And no doubt, when out in such enormous space; be aware why this kind of pleasure in company has developed.
Ready to finally call it a night, I am led into their half of the tent by Salma. This half is for the women, children, cooking utensils, and storage. The other half contains a fireplace and is used for entertaining. The women do most of the work, while the men socialize and make plans for the group. The material culture of the Bedouin is limited. Their tents are their main possessions, and animals are very important for their nomadic lifestyle. Camels are their main means of transportation, while sheep and goats are bought and sold. They weave baskets of palm fronds and carry dates to the market in them. From where I lay, the night sky was a rage of glittering stars and with no city noise to disturb, sleep came easy.
Shunning modern existence, these nomadic denizens of The Empty Quarter live as they did centuries ago, herding their camel and goats, living in tents made of palm fronds, and animal skins and wandering in search of water. To them, an unfettered existence, freedom under the stars and the continuation of tradition far surpass the lure of twenty-first century conveniences. They bear allegiance only to their families, their tribe and to the crescent moon.
Travellers of the stars,
They weave dreams of straw in the day.
Peeping into their lives from the city,
Wretched it feels.
Living in their threadbare tent, sipping their tea,
When I view my world outside,
Just as wretched a deal.