Camping in the Wahiba Sands, my experience, a string of random thoughts, and other tips for nights in the desert.
There was no wind. There was no sound. Once in a while, a dung beetle would crawl across the night, its elytra reflecting the moonlight, creating a little spec of mobile brightness in the otherwise motionless Wahiba Desert.
My feet dug into the sand, feeling the gritty texture that hugged tightly against my skin. My arms are tucked under the heavy wool blanket, my fingers reaching for the warmth inside my jacket pocket. I sat comfortably in my portable chair, sinking deep into the nylon fabric underneath.
In front of me, the undulating sand dunes formed a darkened space against the navy-blue sky. Beside me, the pop-up tent stood silently, providing a semi-warm interior that was waiting for my escape from the chilly desert night.
I first became consciously aware of deserts through Sanmao. I was in primary school, impatiently digging through a bookcase as my parents chatted with their friends. That’s when I came across The Stories of the Sahara.
It was the directness of the title that led an 11-year old to leaf through its pages.
I had no idea that I was flipping through the life of a Taiwanese writer that captivated generations of die-hard fans. I had no idea that her vivid tells of life in Western Sahara would impact me for years to come.
I remember being bewildered by Mao’s fascination with the bathing regimen of the desert wives (it was an intricate public bathhouse system) and baffled by her description of women pooping along the beaches (it was some sort of bowel cleansing treatment).
I also remember being enchanted by the desert. It seemed like the perfect combination of a mystical realm and a stress-less sanctuary. Mind you, primary school in China had me rolling in kilos of homework.
As I devoured the pages, I had no idea that it wouldn’t take long before tackling more than one desert journey myself.
It was 2015. I was a month into an exchange program in Paris when my friends and I decided to embark on a week-long trip to Morocco. It was an all-inclusive journey from Chefchaouen to Marrakesh. In-between the drives and cities and riads and markets, we took on the Sahara Desert for a one-night stay.
Erg Chebbi was a sea of dunes. What started as miles of deep yellow hues deepened into a paprika orange during sunset. The camels carrying us treaded steadily along the sand toward the pre-set tents that were to house us for the night.
Everything was planned-the meals, the humorous Imazighen musicians, the tents and night talks.
I remember laying on the land, surrounded by a few others, talking about god knows what, thinking how strange life was.
February in Morocco was chilly. After a few hours, we headed back towards the icy tents.
Before leaving, I took one last look at the desert and can recall so clearly the line of camels relaxing along the sand dunes a bit away, their barely visible humps bridged to form cycles of crests and troughs.
4 years later, my month-long trip across Oman led me to the Wahiba Sands. Unlike the Sahara, the Wahiba was a last-minute trip that was void of the group tour arrangements.
It was just one car, two people, and our tents.
It was perfect.
The Wahiba Sands
My friend and I took on a four-day camping trip in Oman, one of the many I did throughout my trip.
On the third day, we drove north-east towards the Bidiyah Sands.
The dense greenery turned into brown dirt turned into a light-yellowish field of loose grains.
Patches of grass and sparse branches disappeared into the distance.
Sounds of roadway traffic and occasional chatter faded into the tires of a single Nissan.
We drove deep into Bidiyah, bypassing the camps, camels, and 4x4s that were rented out to adventure seekers. Yep, for those interested, many luxury camps are set up within this patch of land.
For me, a pop-up tent was enough.
After an hour or so, there only remained smooth waves of orange dunes before us.
We left the car and hiked on foot to catch the sunset.
I parked myself atop a hill. It was so windy, I could barely open my mouth without inviting tens of thousands of tiny grains into my body. My $3 scarf came in handy then, preventing me from breathing in anything but air.
Within minutes, the sun began to set. There was a faded orange hue across the horizon, one that blended effortlessly into the blues and browns. Afterward, the sky turned cotton-candy pink, complementing the desert resting underneath.
We pulled out the chairs and waited patiently for the wind to calm down. In Muscat, we’d have karak or fresh juice and a sandwich for dinner. In the desert, I resorted to one of my favorite snacks-a mini-burrito made of mayo and crushed Omani chips on pita bread.
We sat in silence, watching the darkening sky and the rising mid-November moon.
I think in times like this, there really isn’t much to say. It’s a conversation within-this sensation is indescribable, it’s almost as if you could be but a grain in the mountains or simple dust in the wind (?).
You can melt easily into the world around you, a deep connection with the ground holding you, the trees towering over you, the sunrises or sunsets that wash over you, the blissful unknown surrounding you. ⠀
I was in a state of contentment that only deepened when the wind stopped.
But honestly, the tent was hella cold. Definitely bring extra blankets and clothes when camping in the desert! I near froze to the floor.
Tips for Camping in the Desert
What to Bring to the Desert
Camping with and without a pre-planned group are so different y’all! Having a packing list will help, especially if you are planning to camp for a few days. The most important thing is to keep hydrated. No matter how much water I drank, my soles were crackin’ and my lips splitting :’( Definitely have lots of lip balm and moisturizer on hand for extra self-care.
Unlike other outdoor experiences, where you will be dealing solely with the chaos of sweaty backs, camping in the desert is a party for uninvited sand to rest amongst your hair, in your ears, along your face.
Alas, this is the charm of the desert.
Here are a few things to bring to the desert for overnight trips!
- Tent, unless you want to cuddle up in the car
- Lots of thick blankets
- At least three liters of water/ day
- Lip balm
- Wet naps!! (Going to the bathroom is both a blessing and a curse-especially with the wind)
- Pop-up chairs
- A thick carpet
- Wood for fire and lighters/matches
- Hookah for those willing
What to Wear in the Desert
The desert hosts contrasting temperatures between night and day. I was sweating plenty in a sundress mid-afternoon and tried shading myself from the rays by napping beside the car. At night, I wrapped myself in a heavy jacket and a thick blanket but still could not stop shivering loads.
I re-read Sanmao’s words a few months ago but it wasn’t easy. Mao passed away in 1991, years after the tragic accident of her beloved husband. She never became accustomed to the fame that her stories brought her, but they continue to influence generations of travelers and wanderers.
Just months ago, someone who rented his place out in Morocco told me that tourists from Asia continue to visit and inquire about Mao’s former residence.
I have to admit, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of taking on a life in the desert for some time. Who knows?
Life takes us to unpredictable places.
Other than the Wahiba Desert, I really enjoyed camping in Jebel Shams and Wadi Oman. I do recommend renting a 4×4 if you’d like to go camping in Oman, as some of the roads are difficult to navigate with a smaller car.
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