Wahiba Desert holds a moving tranquillity, Jim Eagles finds in an early-morning expedition to the dunes.

As we stood at the top of a giant sand dune in Oman's Wahiba Desert, waiting for dawn to break, the silence was so powerful we felt unable to speak.

It was as though to shatter that incredible peace, the utter absence of the noises that usually intrude everywhere, would be a form of blasphemy.

Instead we simply enjoyed the overwhelming quiet, the majesty of stars that looked bigger than I've ever seen them and watched as the light slowly increased and revealed endless waves of sand smoothed to perfection by the night winds.

I had thought, as those wonderful stars faded, that it might have been appropriate to quote Omar Khayyam:


Awake, for morning in the bowl of night

Has flung the stone that put the stars to flight;

And lo, the hunter of the east has caught

The sultan's turret in a noose of light.

But I couldn't bring myself to mar the extraordinary silence. And, anyway, the Sultan of Oman's turret was being lassoed by the dawn in the capital Muscat so it wasn't quite appropriate.

Later, I mentioned my poetic urge to Janet from Sydney, who had been standing near me on the dune. "Lucky you didn't," she said. "I might have punched you."

So the silence continued, seeming to last for hours, as the sun fought to get through a belt of cloud on the eastern horizon and the growing light gradually brought the ordinary world back to life.

When the sun finally got high enough to shine it served to highlight the almost sensuous beauty of the sand. Photo / Flickr creative commons
When the sun finally got high enough to shine it served to highlight the almost sensuous beauty of the sand. Photo / Flickr creative commons

A desert thrush finally broke the spell with sweet trills of song. Then a large black bird landed nearby and produced harsh honking sounds. And soon afterwards human shouts and clanks started rising from the Safari Desert Camp in the valley below.

We also began to see that the sand was not as unblemished as we had thought. In places there were the tiny tracks of beetles, lizards and along one ridge the trail of a spotted desert fox marring the perfection of the surface.

Far more intrusive were our own footprints which, accentuated by the occasional low rays of sun that escaped from the clouds, looked like acts of mindless vandalism.

I began trying to minimise the damage by wherever possible walking only where there were already footprints.

And I later discovered that the other two on the dune, Gregory from Washington DC and Janet, had felt the same.

At least the emerging day - especially when the sun finally got high enough to shine with its full force - served to highlight the almost sensuous beauty of the sand with its mix of smooth feminine curves, sharp masculine ridges with golden sand on one side and deep shadow on the other, and in places delicate patterns left by the wind.

Down in the valley where the camp lay, the surface of the sand was constantly broken by tough little shrubs. But up on the dunes there was just sand.

When we arrived the previous afternoon, Gregory, who was desperately eager to experience the desert, had been disappointed. "Where do we find desert without all this green?" he wanted to know.

Mohammed, who ran the camp, pointed to the dunes towering above. And, sure enough, when we climbed to the dunes on the eastern side to see the sun set - for our morning adventure we went to the western side - we left the plants behind.

I exploited the rosy glow of the setting sun to take pictures of the camp's camels which, not being required to take tourists for rides, were wandering at large and nibbling delicately on the bushes. Janet found some patterns in the sand to photograph.

But Gregory was so excited he just walked into the desert and lay down on the sand until it got dark, sparking a minor panic in the camp staff, who had been keeping an eye on our movements. When he returned, full of apologies, Mohammed urged him not to do it again.

"It is easy to get lost here," he said. "You walk over one dune, then another, then another and suddenly they all look the same."

Thus warned, on our morning expedition we only ventured a couple of dunes into the desert, but that was still sufficient to get a sense that this blank, silent sea of sand stretched away to infinity, leaving us alone with the universe and our thoughts.

No wonder, I mused later as I walked back to the camp, that three of the great religions have come out of the desert lands.

Climbing these dunes at dawn - like visiting some of the world's great cathedrals, mosques and temples - would give the most devout atheist a spiritual experience.

Back down in the valley, everyday life quickly intruded.

Inside the camp fence were the Barasti huts, made from date palms, Bedouin tents of woven cotton, in which we had spent the night, the big tented dining area with its camel saddle seats where breakfast was waiting, and Ali, our driver, looking anxiously at the time.

We had spent too long drinking in the tranquillity of the sands so to make up for it we had to eat and pack quickly and load up our 4WD for the 26km drive out of the desert.

As we sped across the sand, guided by the tracks of vehicles that had gone before us, from time to time we passed Bedouin camps.

At first these were fairly primitive shelters of poles and plastic sheeting with maybe a few camels in a pen behind. But as we got close to town the shelters became more sophisticated until one or two were more like permanent houses.

Then we hit the sealed road and soon the village of Al Ghabbith with its collection of shops, small businesses, rows of houses and busy traffic.

We pulled up outside the local tyre centre, where on the way in the air had been let out of ours to give them traction in the sand, and Ali tooted to summon the proprietor to pump them up again.

I stepped outside to stretch my legs and was assailed by the noise of vehicles revving, shopkeepers shouting, the air pump roaring, children playing, goats crying ... the peace of the desert was gone.

The writer traveled with help from Etihad Airways, Air New Zealand, World Expeditions and Sultanate of Oman Tourism.