The first of anything is almost always fondly remembered. And when it’s the first of many things it’s one for the memory books. Camping in the wilds never seemed like my cup of tea (or coffee). I like my comforts, thank you very much. But a recent one-nighter with a great group of friends had me thinking I had got it wrong all these years!
We spent a great evening shopping for a state-of-the art Coleman pop-up tent that could be set up in a minute and promised to be suitable even for dummies like us. Add some air beds, electric pump, snug sleeping bags and camp chairs, and you are all set for a night in the open.
Our destination was Salma Plateau: a wild, barren, beautiful table-land about 1300 metres above sea level. After bidding adieu to the glistening blue sea near Fins, our convoy of cars-Pajero, Prado, BMW X5, Jeep Rubicon and Wranglers roared into the forbidding mountains that flanked the pristine coast near Bimmah and Fins on the way to Sur. Our group had both seasoned veterans who had camped for days in the desert and mountains and also novices who hadn’t spent a day out of their soft beds at home.
The drive was a pretty challenging one, even though I was just a passenger; I could see me husband’s knuckles turn white at some of the tricky turns and incredibly steep inclines we had to climb. The road was an off-roader’s dream; rough and rugged, strewn with a fine layer of velvety sand over sharp rocks and stones eroded over the years. The path was narrow in places, with jagged honey-colored rocks that jutted out menacingly. With every meter we ascended, the vistas that spread before our eyes showed a very different face of this country where I had lived for almost six years now.
Muscat, Sohar and the other cities do showcase the quiet, classy and laidback civilization that has been here for centuries. The people there are a blend of Omani, Indian, Zanzibari, Pakistani, Arab and Irani blood. The features and tongues a veritable mix of cultures. But here in the Great Outback of Oman we glimpsed the wild,beating heart of the country. We saw little homes teetering over the cliffs and overlooking great chasms. Mountain goats with shiny, long hair looked at us curiously as we zoomed past their shelters. A brightly cloaked goat-herd ran behind them to make sure they didn’t turn into mutton biriyani under our wheels.
The air got cooler as we climbed and our vehicles were patchy with the bright,orange sand. Great clouds of dust rose in front of us as the cars ahead blazed the trail uphill. There were several heart-stopping moments when we climbed steep slopes with just the clear, blue sky in front of us and nothing else, and then we steeled ourselves for those jaw-dropping falls that followed. The roads reminded me of the sine curves from some old Physics classroom- all ups and downs, meandering through the barren wilderness.
The flatness of Salma plateau was immense like the prairies or the savannah except there was hardly any vegetation. A few thorny scrubs and bushes dotted the landscape and gentle, rounded hills peppered with beige-colored loose rocks and boulders could be seen at the far ends. And we were lone campers on this desolate plateau, with just the chilly winds and the setting sun for company.
There was flurry of activity as we set up camp. Out came the fancy tents, airbeds, sleeping bags and mats. By half past five we had all tents and gear in place. Then the focus was on getting the bonfire and food ready as our stomachs rumbled in anticipation for the goodies that were unloaded from the vehicles. The logs of firewood burst into happy, orange-red flames just as the sun set in a burst of crimson and the sky quickly darkened at the twilight hour. A lone North star shone from the left as we set up the grills, tables and chairs around the now-roaring fire. There was a nip in the air as the mercury dropped steadily. Out popped the jackets, hoodies and caps and we hugged ourselves as we breathed in the crisp, clean unpolluted air. A family of camels came over to sniff at us curiously, and were shooed away with much delight by my toddler.
As night fell the spirits rose in the campsite. Music and laughter mingled with the hiss and pop of the burning coals. Stories of ghosts and djinns were exchanged and jokes were cracked as the marinated kebabs sizzled on the grill. The Malai chicken kebab was as hot and delicious as the woman who prepared it. It melted in our hungry mouths and had us snatching more pieces from the tray. The Tandoori chicken was zesty and full of flavor and excitement, almost as if it’s maker had infused some of her enthusiasm and positive spirit into the meat. It was met with oohs and aahs and several grubby, grabby fingers. Then came the paneer, cauliflower and other veggies to assuage the guilt of a meat-driven binge. By this time we were all quite satiated and could hardly move.
Our stomachs heavy with warm food, we then gazed up at the night sky and gasped in awe at the millions of stars that shone down on us. It was the first time my toddler had seen so many stars and she kept chanting ‘Stars! Stars!’ in a little, piping voice. After a few rounds of dumb charades, which led to a display of the stellar acting talent among us we were hungry again! Out came the mutton roast that was polished off with the khubz and garlic paste. And we filled the remaining pockets of our stomach with a yummy pineapple upside-down cake loaded with many guilty calories.
The temperature had fallen to 15C by this time and slowly people made their way to their cozy tents and cuddled up to keep the chill at bay. I woke up a few times in the night hearing a very different sound; a cross between a rumble, snort and whistle. I asked my husband (who was gently adding his snores to the music in the air) what it could be? He mumbled sleepily that camels and donkeys surrounded us and they were making this sound! I was alarmed, as it sounded very, very close. And then I had to answer an urgent call of nature. I planned to run out and do it as soon as I could so as not to disturb any camels or donkeys. Imagine my surprise when I popped my head out of the tent to find the campsite devoid of any four-footed animals! A veritable orchestra could be heard though, with contributions from sleepy campers from multiple tents. Suprano, alto, bass and baritone, you name it, we had it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh!
Breakfast was hot tea, coffee and cucumber-tomato sandwiches prepared in the mountain air. The coals from last night’s bonfire were still warm and red and served as a hotplate for the leftovers from dinner and some golden, yellow corn. A few hours later we were packed up and ready to leave. The Coleman pop-up tent didn’t disappoint and took us just a few minutes to dismantle and load in the car.
Our next stop was the enormous underground cave, Majlis al Djinn; an underground chamber so huge that you could fit three Boeing 737 airplanes in it. We stood at the opening on ground level and peered down into the emptiness below. Our voices echoed as we hooted and howled and shouted foolish nothings.
An hour long zig-zagging, hair-raising bumpy drive through the mountains led us to our next stop- 5000 year old beehive tombs. Made with several flat stones arranged in a cylindrical pattern tapering at the top, these tombs had a tiny entrance we could crawl through at the base. And that’s just what we did; climbing into an ancient cave, stepping over 5000 year old bones and clicking selfies! (abominable behavior right?)
We began our final descent back to the coast of Tiwi and the pace quickened, as the adrenaline coursing through our veins slowly dwindled. We returned home safe and sound, tired and little worse for wear, but incredibly happy and excited. An excellent first effort at camping I say, made possible by great friends, wonderful terrain and kind weather. I can see myself setting up many a camp this winter in Oman to make up for all those years lost.