As far as mountaineering expeditions go, the world’s tallest sand dune is merely a pimple. The summit of the dune, found in the Ramlat Jadilah desert of western Oman, is 455m; not Earth shatteringly high. However, it does lie in one of the most spectacular areas of dune desert in the world; the Rhub al Khali or Empty Quarter. 10km from the Yemen border and 30km from the Saudi border it, fortunately for us, lies within the benevolent and accessible borders of Oman.
In 2009 my good friend Colin Campbell (the best off-road driver I’ve had the fortune to meet) led an off-road trip following successively the Oman/UAE border, the Oman/Saudi border and then the Oman/Yemen border. All went well until we were shot at and captured by Yemeni militia, interrogated and then finally released into Omani hands. My 16-year-old son, who was with me, found it difficult to convince his school friends that this had been exactly what had happened during his October half-term holiday. This final part of the route was completed the following year, without mishap. It was thanks to Colin’s planning and these two trips, that this eventually became ‘Route 14 Oman Empty Quarter’ in my guidebook. Fast forward 8 years and Colin invited me on a 10 day trip into Oman to retrace old steps but also to visit the world’s highest dune. Having left the UAE in 2014 I didn’t envisage such an opportunity and didn’t hesitate in telling him I would definitely be coming. There were four vehicles: Colin and son Ryan in their Mercedes G55, Mark and son Campbell in their Nissan Patrol, Dave in his Toyota Prado and Adam and I in his Ford F150.
The first part of the plan was to enter the desert via Fahud and then follow the sand and gatch track across the Um as Sumeem, south of the oil fields at Yibal, and then into the dunes of the Empty Quarter; paralleling the Oman/Saudi border. The initial target was the oasis at Muqshin. We refueled at the small and almost hidden fuel station in Fahud and then entered the labyrinth of roads around the oil industry installations in Yibal. It was here that we were to have our only imposed diversion of the entire 10 days; a stroke of bad luck. We were intercepted by a local police patrol just south of Yibal. Though very friendly, they insisted on taking us to the police station, taking our details but then, thankfully, prescribing a diversion that didn’t take us too far out of our way; perhaps another 10km from our original route. This allowed us to carry on Colin’s intended route but also meant having to camp earlier than intended.
It was during the drive to Muqshin that one of Mark’s almost new BF Goodrich AT tyres burst. This necessitated a diversion to Haima; the nearest town where we might find a replacement tyre (we didn’t) and get Mark’s second spare fitted to the wheel (we did). We headed back to Muqshin, lunched and then headed into the dunes beyond and towards the Oman/Saudi border. This initial section of dunes was the trickiest we were to come across. Tight lines, very soft sand and ridge after ridge blocking our way. We pulled up for the night next to a large sand mound, with ghaf trees and mucho scorpions. The following day we were trying to trend northwesterly but had to accept that our only option was to head north easterly and follow the line of the dune ridges. Eventually, Colin found a series of low saddles and passes through these ridge-lines and we made good progress and hit waypoint OE45 of the Oman Empty Quarter route. From here we hoped to be on, or close to, the route but because of delays at Yibal and Haima, we were a day behind schedule, so Colin pressed on and we took a more direct route through the most stunning red dunes that this part of the Empty Quarter has to offer.
The chance to again traverse this sublime area of red dunes for four days was the motivation for me to accept Colin’s invitation. I found that after a three-year absence, my love for this area was undiminished, and wished that I could stay there for much longer, but we had a ‘dune’ to find. While we crossed this area we stumbled up on remarkable landscapes; limestone eruptions, outcrops of desert rose, mounds of geodes and solidified muds. Colin was doing a brilliant job leading us, particularly through the huge ridge-lines. Mark had a second puncture, which we rapidly swapped and by the fifth day, we were nearing our target. We needed to head west and the dune ridges were running north-south and slowing us down. Colin turned south west and we popped out of the dunes and into the gravel and rocky plains. We quickly crossed this area but then had to penetrate more dune lines to get closer to the ‘dune’. We probed several ridge-lines but the sand softened and became more intricate. Eventually, we ended up on the old border track between Yemen and the Oman and followed it to a judicious junction with a track that took us towards our target. From here a short hop over a low ridge-line and we arrived at the base of the ‘dune’. It was tall and clearly higher than others we could see around us. We lunched, waited for the temperature to drop and then all headed up to the top on foot, from which we were rewarded with the most stunning views; into Yemen, Saudi and all around.
Camping in view of the world’s highest dune was a tremendous treat only to be improved by the Halloween decorations brought by Ryan and Campbell. The following day our route now took us back towards the gatch track and onto the border town of Mazyouna. As we approached the new and tarmacced road we stopped to inflate and whilst doing so we were intercepted by a roving military patrol. The normal questions were asked and because knowledge of the ‘dune’ was becoming more widespread they accepted our reasons for being there but indicated that should we come again, could we please stop at the military base and let them know!
Mazyouna was easily reached, Mark bought another spare tyre, we enjoyed ice creams, resupplied our fuel and food and headed off into the Dhofar Mountains. We passed our fateful turn off towards Yemen, along which we’d been captured 8 years before, and headed south to the coast. We were about halfway through our 10-day journey. ■
The Omani Coast – Part II follows next month.
Words by: Mike Nott
Photos by: Colin Campbell, Mark White, Dave Shennan, Adam Davidson & Mike Nott