Text and pictures by Dr Vandana Jyotirmayee -
Arab scholars of the past like Al Tabari, Yaqut, Al Hamdani and Al Thalabi had been very much interested in ‘Atlantis of the Sands’, which these days has become very popular among foreign tourists coming to Salalah. Also known as Empty Quarters or Rub al Khali, it has been nicely featured by classical author Pliny, who has also commented about this south western region where “people had accumulated lots of wealth by trading frankincense and Myrrh... The Bedouins also participated in the trade of horses across Rub al Khali. This area had been known in ancient times also, as the road led to Ubar, an ancient city with lots of treasure, gardens of dates and a fort of red silver.”
The golden sand dunes with very soft texture, almost 250m high, are worth seeing as they contain the myth and mystery of the bygone days in Rub al Khali. A vast land with sand dunes with the sun setting behind them provides the tourists with a rare sight.
An enormous area with dunes and some plants with the Ashra flowers, purple in colour, provide a great contrast containing so much of beauty. For kilometres one can behold just the desert and the dunes. Earlier, it was very dangerous to cross the Empty Quarter as people used to get lost in the way while crossing this area as there was no landmark except for the dunes and some desert plants and trees.
The camping areas with tents, which are covered from three sides, provide the tourists a wonderful opportunity to experience the quietness and silence of the desert, being away from the hustle and bustle of the city life. The cool desert nights are extremely varied in experience. The clear sky with stars during the no moon night is something to be cherished by the tourists as this is one of the rarest of the views. The urban areas have a lot of dust and light that prevent this view. Lot of shooting stars can be viewed from the camps near Rub al Khali.
“What you need is just a ‘dishdasha’ and a stick, and you are master of the whole world. We never ask for anything from any one”, said Bakheet, a local resident of Shishr. Mabrook and Bakheet, were the two Bedouins who had worked for some time with the archaeologists while the excavation of the lost city of Ubar was going on. The lost city of Ubar, some 170 km away from Salalah, is on way to Empty Quarters.
Later on, they started bringing in tourists from various parts of Oman providing them the four wheel drives to show Rub al Khali (Empty Quarters) sand dunes, providing food in the camping area and of course mattresses and blankets for the night. These tents give a full view of the clean azure sky and stars if you go on a no moon night. Bakheet said, “Things have changed a lot nowadays, but there are many aspects which haven’t changed yet. When we sit together as a group our stories never end and we carry on with one leading to another for the whole night beside the fire. Having fire near the tents of the Bedouins conveys a message that they are ready to welcome the guests.”
Mabrook further added that in the bygone days the Bedouins could survive on camel milk only for more than a year, without any food or water because it is sufficient enough and keeps people strong. He said that the stories and poems are things which keeps their lives going. A Bedouin never felt lonely if he just had a camel even in the deepest of the deserts. Their love for camels is very strong and they have a lot of poetry which describes how they depend on them. There are some special camels of black colour known as Miyaheem which are found in that area only and have big feet which are not stuck in the desert.
This place with historical and archaeological importance has much of the scenic beauty which cannot be forgotten. The peaceful, starry, cool and beautiful night in the desert and the waking up with the morning star just shining before your eyes are rarest of the experiences.