Standing atop a sand dune silently contemplating the rising sun, Jim Eagles understands why these vast wastes are the cradle of the world's great religions.
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 that we felt unable to speak.
It was almost 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 the 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 that as those wonderful stars faded it might have been appropriate to quote Omar Kayyam:
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 lassooed by the dawn back 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 ... until the growing light gradually brought the ordinary world back to life.
A desert thrush finally broke the spell with sweet trills of song. Then a large black bird landed nearby and produced harsh honking sounds. Soon afterwards 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 marred 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. Later I 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.
Camels grazing outside the camp in the Wahiba Desert, Oman. Photo / Jim Eagles
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 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 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 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 desert lands. Climbing these dunes at dawn - like visiting the world's great cathedrals, mosques and temples - would give the most devout atheist a spiritual experience.
Down in the valley everyday life quickly intruded. Inside the camp fence were the Barasti huts made from date palms, huts and 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 our 4WD for the 26km drive out of the desert.
Camp manager Mohammed is kept busy making sure tourists don't wander off into the desert. Photo / Jim Eagles
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 the village of Al Ghabbith, 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 our tyres to give them traction in the sand. Here 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.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Australia; Etihad Airways operates 11 flights a week from Sydney plus daily flights from Melbourne nonstop to Abu Dhabi.
Jim Eagles visited Oman with help from Etihad Airways, Air New Zealand, World Expeditions and Oman Tourism.