Friday, March 31, 2023 | Ramadan 8, 1444 H
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The risk, reward, respect and romance of the Desert

Living in the Middle East, even though surrounded by one of the most attractive and hospitable coastlines in the world, it’s easy to take the desert environment for granted, but it is very much more than sand or camels. They are in every respect, risk and reward environments.

The word desert itself has interesting origins, being from the Latin ‘desertum,’ which translates as ‘the abandoned place,’ and until this most recent century referred to any sparsely inhabited, inhospitable environment, with little reference to a lack of rainfall. However, in recent times geographers, scientists, and meteorologists have tagged deserts with the descriptive imperative of aridity, or low precipitation (rain, snow, mist, or fog).

Ironically, the Arctic and Antarctic continents are both referred to, scientifically, as deserts. Another irony is that most of the world’s tropical rainforests, with their three hundred inches of annual rainfall, and the major hot deserts, with their paltry four to ten inches each year, share the same latitudes, both falling between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn which are parallel to the Equator, but 30 degrees North and South of that median respectively. The Tropic of Cancer actually crosses Oman, very close to Al Amerat and is signposted on Route 17.

The desert though, is a treasure trove, and far from being endless, empty, or abandoned. Wilfred Thesiger was a British Army officer, an explorer and adventurer, who wrote of the desert that he had found in it, “a freedom, unattainable in civilization. A life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not necessary was an encumbrance. I have found too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief, that tranquillity was to be found there.”

If ever the expanse needed an advocate, there he was, the man who challenged the most remarkable of desert crossings, the ‘Rub al Khali,’ or ‘Empty Quarter,’ not once, but twice, during the post-war period of the late 1940’s, when there was significant tribal tension between the Bedouin tribes, of the times. Despite this, he held an unerring admiration for its people, saying, “No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad, and he will have within him, the burning urge to return.” In those few words capturing the heart of the desert, its people.

Dr Nigel Winser, of Earthwatch, and the Royal Geographical Society has researched the Wahiba Sands and much more of Oman, and says, “True wilderness has guardians who share generations of knowledge, but this handing down of knowledge is happening less and less and certainly for the Sands, they are on the cusp of ending as a true wilderness,” and he remembers the distinctive Bedouin ability to be nomadic and move for rains as being “remarkable because it was sustainable.” Winser remains an aficionado of the desert and its people, through the Oman Natural History Lectures in London, every year.

He is among the many genuinely seduced by the environment, telling author Jenny Owen, “There isn’t a day I haven’t thought about the Sands, with the landscape and, as with all friends you respect them, miss them, and want to go back to see them. The Sands are not a tamed space, as nature is very unforgiving, and the desert can be angry, as when sandstorms come or sudden floods flash through.” Yet, through it all, he sees himself as a true Ambassador of, and for the desert, adamant that forty days and nights does not make a believer, while a lifetime passion... does!

Camels, scorpions, spiders, snakes, palms, oases, sand and Sun, they are all part of a way of life so intensely different to any other, but when we look at the desert, it is even more inevitable that we focus on the people. We aren't all Thesigers exploring, Winsers discovering, al Zadjalis challenging, al Naimis describing, or al Hajris, inhabiting the interior. But we can admire their resilience, respect, and reverence, as they eulogize its romance.

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