Cut off from the rest of the country by the UAE, the mountains surrounding the Musandam Peninsula have isolated communities, many of which can only be reached by boat. The area was once prime territory for smugglers ferrying goods to and from Iran but is increasingly being developed for tourism.
Oman – Been There

A moonlit Arabian night in Oman

Photo by Heeb Christian

Oman – Been There A moonlit Arabian night in Oman

I’m in southern Oman, about to hit the country’s endless desert. Today, the last outpost before getting there is a small settlement at Thumrayt.

John Malathronas
John Malathronas Travel Writer

It effectively consists of a service station, a grocery store, a mosque and a bank: the essentials. Beyond that lies a flat orange expanse, boulder-strewn and camel-dotted. Even in this far-flung locale, there are signs of life. Springing bolt upright from the desert are stunted succulent bushes, about two meters high, called Sodom apples. As life in the desert is harsh and they need to survive in the face of browsing camels and thirsty humans, they are poisonous. Their fruit – ripening all around us – contains a milky, bitter and toxic sap which appears all over the Old Testament in purely negative terms. Not that the plants care about their bad PR. Unlike the useful but nearly extinct frankincense trees, poisonous Sodom apples are left in peace to multiply under the sand dunes.

It is among these dunes, just before the vastness of the Empty Quarter, that we stop at a small caravanserai, or desert inn. Two week’s camel ride by moonlight ahead lies Mecca, where some of the caravans would unload their cargo. It is strangely comforting to think that, if we wanted to cross that same desert, we’d still have to do it on camelback since a car would be useless. Some things ought to be as forbidding today as they have always been.

The caravanserai is still a work in progress, manned by a pair of camera-shy Bedouin brothers who are trying to lure tourists to this final earthly frontier. “Only when you spend a night by the dunes under the stars can you fully comprehend the Arabian soul,” one tells me. I may not fully understand the Arabian soul under the light of the stars that used to guide the caravans across the shifting sands, but I can certainly understand why the moon-god Sin was worshipped here in pre-Islamic times. After the harsh daylight that made me squint even behind my sunglasses, the first soft light of the moon feels benign, almost caring.

My guide, Abdul, and the driver stand talking to the innkeepers, one of whom picks up a round boulder and offers it to Abdul who smashes it with another stone until it breaks in half. Inside are sharp, sparkling crystals of white quartz, sticking out like stalactites and stalagmites in a 360-degree cave. They glitter as they catch the light of the early morning sun. “It’s called a geode stone,” he says. “Take it as a gift from us all.” I accept and thank him. It is a generous gift: I have seen smaller examples sold in souvenir shops for $100 or more.

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