A destination in their own right, or a diversion between Muscat and Sur, these beautiful dunes, formerly known as Wahiba Sands, could keep visitors occupied for days. Home to the Bedu, the sands offer visitors a glimpse of a traditional way of life that is fast disappearing as modern conveniences limit the need for a nomadic existence. The Bedu specialise in raising camels for racing and regular camel races take place throughout the region from mid-October to mid-April. Contact the Ministry for Camel Affairs for details.
The sands are a good place to interact with Omani women whose Bedouin lifestyle affords them a more visible social role than many other rural women. They wear distinctive, brightly coloured costumes with peaked masks and an abeyya (full-length robe) of gauze, and are accomplished drivers, often coming to the rescue of tourists stuck in the sand. They are also skilful craftspeople and may well approach you with colourful woollen key rings and camel bags for sale.
It is possible, but highly challenging, to drive right through the sands from north to south, camping under the seams of native ghaf trees or tucking behind a sand dune. There are, however, no provisions available, petrol stations or any other help at hand in the sands beyond the desert camps at the northern periphery. As such, it is imperative that you go with a guide. Off-road guidebooks describe this route but all will advise you not to venture through the sands alone. In the summer the sands rage with heat so avoid exploring too far off the beaten track between April and October: if you get stuck at this time of year, chances are you won't be able to carry enough water to walk to safety – even if you can find the way through the disorienting high dunes of the south.
For the casual visitor, the best way to explore the sands is by staying at one of the desert camps. If you don't have a car, the owners of the camp will meet you at the Muscat–Sur Hwy, and guide you, usually in convoy, across the sands. Some now have graded tracks and even tarmac roads approaching the camp gates, making for a less hair-raising driving experience. Needless to say, it is essential to have a 4WD, and prior knowledge of off-road driving is very helpful if you try to reach some of the more remote camps on your own.
If you don’t fancy the prospect of getting your vehicle stuck in the sand, there are plenty of tours available and some camps will come and collect their non-driving guests for an extra fee (usually around OR40 return with a sunset drive thrown in).
Alternatively, if you want to enter the sands without the drama of going off-road, you can drive through the sands on a sealed road from Al-Ashkara to Shana’a – a desert experience unique to Oman.