Exploring Oman, the wild west of the east
Camping always evokes familiar memories: pitching tents at night, muddy fields, the taste of a stodgy pasta meal cooked over a gas stove in the rain, and a chorus of sheep baa-ing at dawn like a congregation of tone-deaf pensioners at a Sunday service.
At least it did for me until earlier this year when a trip to Oman’s Al Hajar mountains redefined what it meant to sleep under the stars. Jutting out along the east coast of the country like a crooked vertebrae, Al Hajar’s craggy summits and gaping canyons once meant it was pretty inaccessible, even to Omanis.
But today it has been largely tamed by smooth modern tarmac roads that wind up the mountains and cut through dramatic wadis (valleys), linking the capital of Muscat on the coast to the country’s rugged interior.
The area is ripe for exploring and, leaving the bustle of town life in Muscat behind me, I set off with Hud Hud Travels, a luxury camping company pushing tourism to its limits by opening up previously inaccessible destinations to visitors.
Founded in 2007 by former British Royal Marines Commando Sean Nelson, who used to head up training for the Desert Regiment of Oman's national army, Hud Hud finds the most far flung corners of Oman in which to set up base – from the Empty Quarter desert in the north, to the white sands of Khalouf beach in the south.
In the Hajar mountains, the spot they’ve chosen couldn’t be more secluded. At 1,000m, the landscape is as barren as the surface of the moon, except for a stray goat, a few skeletal trees and tufts of grass stubbornly thriving in the 40 degree heat.
It isn’t exactly beautiful. There’s not enough here to merit that. But the silence, the emptiness and the power it commands is mesmerising. One could call it sublime.
In the middle of this barren, rocky outcrop, Hud Hud assembles in advance a small hamlet fit for a sultan. A tent in the middle of the camp forms a dining room with a sitting area (majlis) to the side featuring colourful tea lights, antique rugs and coffee table books on Oman.
Each guest has their own spacious African-style tent complete with double beds and ensuite “bathrooms”. Showering later that evening under a canopy of stars felt liberating – if not entirely wild. It’s not exactly roughing it – but it’s not exactly glamping either.
One of the highlights of the trip is the three-course feast whisked up by chefs from a tent converted into a temporary kitchen. Out came the warm polenta crisps with pomegranate molasses, skewered prawns and machboos – a typical Middle Eastern dish consisting of slow cooked lamb shanks with a mint raita-style sauce, a tomato salsa, vegetables and saffron rice.
One of Hud Hud’s co-founders Taimur Al Said – a member of the Omani royal family – joined us for dinner, telling tales of nights spent sleeping rough among the sand dunes only to find a family of scorpions keeping warm under his mattress the next morning. After making absolutely sure there were no scorpions in sight, I collapsed between the fresh white sheets to the sound of silence.
The next day I set out to the ancient city of Nizwa, home of a 17th century fort which was built to be a formidable stronghold against raiding forces. Famous for its handicrafts, Nizwa’s souk (market) is a great place to pick up local products such as pottery as well as national delicacies such as Halwa – a sticky dessert made of butter, caramelised sugar and almonds.
Some 40km northwest of Nizwa lies the 400-year-old town of Al Hamra and its village Misfat Al Abryeen, which rises like a rocky island amidst a sea of date palms and banana groves. Misfat is home to some of the oldest preserved houses in Oman, made using palm beams, mud and straw.
We made our ascent up the peak of Jabal Al Akhdar (the “Green Mountain”) to the fertile terraces of the Saiq Plateau, which offers panoramic views of the wadis below. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, fruits such as peaches and pomegranates flourish here while the plateau’s rose gardens produce Oman’s highly-prized rosewater.
Back in the capital, I head to the Chedi Muscat hotel for an altogether different experience of Oman – this time, there are no tents in sight. From time to time you come across a hotel that’s so superb that your repeated ravings only serve to put people off staying there. For me, the Chedi Muscat was that hotel.
Designed by architect supremo Jean- Michel Gathy, the Chedi combines the impeccable service that Asian brands are known for with the grace and warm hospitality of Omani culture.
The 158 rooms come in four categories ranging from entry-level Serai Rooms to luxury villas decorated in a soothing minimalist style with baths big enough to swim in. But if the bath isn’t expansive enough for you, the hotel also boasts three swimming pools and, of course, the sea.
You are guaranteed to be thoroughly pampered with a 13-room spa offering two-hour Oriental massages and a choice of six restaurants that will satisfy every glutton’s deepest craving.
Lying by the sea and listening to the waves lapping gently against the shore, I couldn’t have been further away from the rugged desolation of the mountains. That, and the mattresses teeming with hidden scorpions.
Need to know
• Cox & Kings (0207 873 5000, coxandkings.co.uk) has a 4-night stay at The Chedi Muscat priced from £1,040 per person including flights with Oman Air, private airport transfers and breakfast daily. The Chedi price is based on a low season 4 for the price of 3 offer and is valid 1 May – 14 September 2015.
• A two-night extension at Hud Hud Travels, in the Wahiba Sands, costs from £1,695 per person including return transfers from Muscat.