Wahiba Sands (22.34983 58.79860)
Probably the best known and visited dune area in Oman, this massive expanse of sand dunes runs in a north-south direction, parallel to the sea for around 170kms. Known also as the Sharqiya Sands, they extend up to 80kms inland, but most off-road activity centres in the villages of Al Bidaya and Al Wasil.
Numerous tourist camps can be found just a short distance into the sand valleys, but keep going south and you will soon be far away from the crowds. There are tracks that take you into the sand in every valley and some of these veer east or west which allows relatively easy crossing of the walls of sand. The Wahiba is full of Bedu and camels; plants and bushes abound and you should stick to the aforementioned tracks to minimise damage to the desert – and to your car.
Follow Mike Nott’s route – number 13 in Advanced Off-Road Adventure Routes UAE & Oman – as it takes you from the northern perimeter through the sands of the sea over 100kms away.
Starfish Dunes (23.77986 55.66788)
Just a few kilometres from the UAE/Oman border crossing at Mezyad/Hafeet, long tendrils of sand snake westwards crowned by beautiful “starfish” formations. Mother Nature has created these with the help of ever-changing winds as you might find if you have a campfire there – you might be moving your chairs all evening just to avoid smoke in your eyes!
A great route, zig-zagging between these giant sand massifs can be found in the book mentioned above – look for Route 12 – and you can read about my last outing there in OutdoorUAE July ’15 edition.
Another option that will take in one or two starfish, is to keep close to the border and attempt to drive all the way from Jebel Hafeet all the way to the UAE/Oman/Saudi confluence point. I was part of a team that successfully completed this in November 2012 and you can find a trip report on my blog (www.thedesertdiva.com/2012/11/20/the-back-side-border-expedition/). You will get UAE phone signal all the way; I recommend keeping a minimum of 1km from the border fence). Please note there is no border fence between Oman and Saudi.
The Empty Quarter
The Empty Quarter, although mainly located in KSA, encroaches on the Western Boundaries of Oman. Although less than 10% of the world’s largest continuous sand dune desert lies in the Sultanate it is still a huge area with complex dune formations that turn a gorgeous red in the late afternoon sun.
Mike’s book has a route which takes you right through the Empty Quarter and a few die-hard off-roaders have completed it in its entirety in “one bite” however, it is possible to split it into three separate expeditions to make it more manageable just by starting and finishing at the refuel points.
EQ Northern Area (20.89359 55.67678)
Head southwards from Ibri, following signs for the Rob’a Al Khali and you will soon find yourself in one of the most remote parts of Oman. Preparation is everything when you visit here; I always take extra petrol and a satphone, as well as leaving a trip plan with friends, just in case, as you could be a long way from help if you do get into trouble. The dunes rise up to 100 metres above a sea of sabkha; the many ridges and gullies cast shadows at the start and end of each day making this a photographer’s delight. Once past the oilfields and gatch tracks, it is very much the Empty Quarter – there are no camel or goat farms here; just the odd raven and a few dragonflies. I have taken a few groups into this area over the winter and the terrain has amazed every single person. You can read about Ibex Adventure’s first outing here in OutdoorUAE November 2016 edition and if you are a fatbiker you might enjoy last month’s article about two-wheeling in the EQ.
EQ Southern Area (19.17750 53.32552)
The highest dune in the world has recently been identified in the very south of the Oman EQ –Ramlat Jadilah, just 12kms from the Yemen border and in a desert area controlled by the Oman military. If you ask nicely, the soldiers will probably let you in! The top of the dune has been measured at 455 metres above sea level with the sabkah base being approximately 300 metres above sea level; there is no doubt that this dune, and some of the others surrounding it are much higher than those in the northern Empty Quarter.
During a recent stay in Salalah I visited the dune but unfortunately, due to a sandstorm, I was not able to climb to the top – giving me the perfect excuse to return some day! Please note that it is an 800km round trip from Salalah so it is not suitable for a day excursion. There are many suitable campspots; it is also possible to stay overnight in Mazyouna, the border post between Oman and Yemen, at the clean, but rather basic Mazionah Hotel, ready for an early morning departure the next day. It is still a long drive over mainly gatch track to reach Ramlat Jadilah but we completed this on full pressures.
Mike Nott’s route number 16 takes a longer, even more, interesting route towards the Yemen/Oman/Saudi confluence point and is worth checking out if you have more time to spend in the area.
Sugar Dunes (20.40239 57.94305)
A very small sand area near the remote fishing village of Khaluf, some 420kms south of Muscat, the dunes are small, technical and quite soft. For most people they are probably not worth the journey just for the dune bashing, however, between the dunes and the sea, there is an exquisite beach that is ideal for camping. It is possible to access the sugar dune area from the Filij/Duqm road via a gatch track or you can also drive along the beach from Khaluf village for around 15kms, provide it is not high tide! ■
Words by: Marina Bruce
Photos by: Neil Bruce, Miriam De Wolff and Marina Bruce