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I love deserts. And it isn’t just the absence of my mortal enemy, humidity, or the cute but bitey camels that make me happy, I love deserts because I enjoy capturing the beauty of the dunes and its inhabitants, the silence and the impressive landscapes. Ever since my last stint in Wadi Rum, Jordan, I have been itching for more and was excited to learn, that one of my last days in Oman would finally lead me to the desert region Wahiba Sands.
Wahiba Sands offers a bit more than 12’000 square kilometers of exquisite dunes and is named after the Wahiba tribe, a nomadic, paternalistic society with traditions dating back thousands of years. Of course, much has changed since the Bedouins used camels as transportation and went hunting instead of using the supermarket. They now embrace a much more settled and modern lifestyle. Thanks to tourism though, I still got to enjoy some aspects of that nomadic community and the traditions that remain.
Because of just that development and the availability of modern goods and services, the desert isn’t as serene and quiet any more, as one might wish. The Bedouins now all have 4×4 vehicles and the expert driving skill necessary to navigate up and down the steep dunes. Unfortunately, because of that, the dunes weren’t as unspoiled as I had expected and the hours I spent shooting in Wahiba Sands were quite nightmarish from a photographers standpoint. It was also very unlike any desert atmosphere I had ever experienced. Vehicles were ripping past me left and right with hollering tourists and locals, joyriding up and down the dunes and tearing up the beautifully rippled sand in the process. Churned up tracks were everywhere and I had trouble finding an angle that showed some unspoiled desert. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have probably been right with them having fun if I had been on any other tour and the wind was strong enough to erase any tracks within a few hours anyway, but this was supposed to be a professionally organized photography assignment. Understandably, I was once again pretty unhappy with Oman in Focus and spent most of my time on the dunes waving at jeeps to get away and begging drivers not to ruin the sand in my shot.
Apart from that, the people in the camp were lovely and offered the well known Middle-Eastern hospitality. Strong, black coffee and locally grown dates were always available. The ladies of the camp with their kohl rimmed eyes, tattooed hands and wearing colourful robes and their signature beak-like face masks, were incredibly happy to get their photos taken and in the evening giggled with us around the campfire when we showed them the results on our laptops. Late at night, I climbed the dunes next to the camp and attempted to do some night photography, but the light from the camp was almost too bright.
After one night spent in the tents of the Bidiya desert camp, we headed back to the northeastern tip of Oman’s coast to visit Sur, one of the country’s most beautiful coastal cities. Sur was once an important trading port and even today, is best known for building dhows, the same wooden ships used for trading two centuries ago.
With its bright blue sea, whitewashed buildings and yellow rocks, Sur was one of my favourite places to photograph in Oman and I’d love to return one day to discover the city more in depth.
Back in the capital Muscat, we had time for a visit to the Grand Mosque, a beautiful and gigantic feat of architecture that seems to pay homage to symmetry like no other. The light was a bit harsh, which couldn’t be helped anyway since the Mosque is only open to visitors in the middle of the day. It was also very hot. I was being cooked alive under several shawls in an attempt to hide every inch of my body and the heavy camera bag on my shoulders didn’t help much either. When Brendan and I both started feeling dehydrated, we eventually decided to spend some time under a tree with two bottles of water and probably didn’t take as many pictures as we could have. Even so, the selection I got isn’t too shabby.
The photography tour eventually ended in the Royal Opera House in Muscat, where each photographer was able to present his three favourite works in an exhibition. It was a great end to a tumultuous two weeks, with ministers and some of Oman’s most well known people admiring the photographs printed on canvas. But I was especially excited to meet the cousin of the little girl in my photo, who had travelled to the event all the way from Al Hamra, as well as a couple good friends of the man in the fish market – they were all there by chance and it once again demonstrated how small the world can be.
Despite all the organizational issues, I had a wonderful time in Oman. It’s an incredibly diverse country that has a lot to offer, both from a photography as well as a tourism standpoint. Oman seems to have it all, from beautiful mountain villages and impressive Wadi’s, to colourful markets, green oases, barren deserts and cozy little coastal towns. The locals are friendly and welcoming and probably some of the nicest people I have ever met. Thanks to them, I was able to work on my portrait photography and improve a lot. Additionally, they won’t let you leave without drinking a pot of tea or coffee with them.
Oman, I’ll definitely be back to explore more on my own.