Walking The Wahibas
Its 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon, in January. The 25th of January 2006, to be exact.
We’ve skipped off work a bit early, picked up the Danielson kids from school and met up with “Fiona Darling”.
The sun is shining but we are discussing the moon….. There won’t be one tonight.
The moons relevance in all this is quite high. You see tonight we’ll be setting off across the “Mighty Wahiba sands” on foot, in the middle of the night, on a 70-something kilometer walk from Al Kamil in the East, to the far side of the dunes in the West. We have no idea if we’ll make it, we’ve done no real training, and all of a sudden panic stations is setting in.
What on earth have we let ourselves in for ?
Hair Brained Ideas ?
I have crossed the Wahibas on my motorbike many times. I’ve also done it in a car. But not yet by foot. I am trying to raise money for Charity (see below) and had to find something out of the ordinary (read “crazy?”) to get any of my friends and colleagues to sponsor me.
Crossing the Wahibas by foot fitted perfectly. I asked nearly all my friends if they would join me and everyone gave a resounding “No Way. You’re bonkers” Thankfully most people finished the sentence with “….but if you do find someone to accompany you, I’ll give you plenty of Rials for your cause”.
The hunt was on.
Just as time was running out and it looked like the whole project was going to be scrapped I received a call from my biking friend Dick Danielson, who had previously so nobly pledged “I’ll give you some car support, but I’m not walking a step”.
Dick proudly announced “I’ve found you a partner……..my wife !”
So there it was. Ian and Kathy would walk the 70-something km from East to West, with support team Dick, their boys Nikolas and Kristian, their gorgeous dog Rocky and their hashing friend Fiona Darling (no-one knows her real name, but she says Darling is fine).
I spent a couple of weekends on my motorbike making very detailed GPS tracks into and out of the Sands from Mintrib. This would enable the cars to safely drive North to South (the easy routes!) at night to pre-arranged GPS waypoints, and meet the intrepid duo for food and water top ups.
I also walked once round Bowsher, and regretted it, because it nearly killed me….. but it was too late for bottling out now.
Kathy’s preparation included talking about it to people, and basking in innocence. “No worries” she said, “it’s a walk in the park”. (Big park Kathy….but OK)
For safety we carried 2 GPS (and plenty of batteries), a satellite phone (which was never used thankfully) big 3 litre water hydration systems, compass, space blankets, dates/dried fruit, chocolate, muesli bars and energy drinks. Oh, and sunglasses, hats and a camera…… During the night we carried a torch. Also a very good (and reliable) friend was “Journey Manager” at home. He had all the Thuriya / GSM / route details, and knows a bit or two about emergency response. He’s a good lad is Scott.
Welcome to the Desert Leg-1 (Wed eve 18:30-01:00 26km 6.5hrs)
There is a sign on the outskirts of the Desert. It states to ensure your 4x4 is in good working order, that you have plenty of fuel, and a guide before entering. Hmmmm. We had no 4x4, only 3 litres of water…..let’s hope the stars would guide us……
At 18:30hrs on Wednesday evening we set off from Al Kamil. The first 13km were fairly easy, along a dark and dusty graded road. It was eerie. Plenty of people stopped to offer us a lift, ask us where we were heading, and where our broken down car was. We smiled, waved, uttered words poorly resembling “Maafi Mushkala” and waved as they drove away scratching their heads wondering what we were doing !
The desert became quiet, and cold. Temperatures were down to 16degC. Good because we’d use less water, but it gave a kind of spooky feeling, as the mist set in.
21:00hrs and we reached the end of the graded road. Dick, Darling, Danielson boys and the Dog (DDDD) were there at the end with some cheese sandwiches, and a change of footwear. On went the sand walking boots (or just a different pair of trainers in Kathy’s case!) an extra layer of T-shirts and we were off for the real start of the dunes.
I can say it now (couldn’t then or we’d have probably called it off !) but I was scared. I felt very responsible. Here I was heading into the desert in the middle of the night, into probably the toughest section of dunes, with one of my best mates wives…… no preparation, just gung-ho confidence and a taste for challenge. It had all been my idea. I questioned myself many times. The desert is dangerous…… But I also figured I’d covered all the safety implications, I do know the dunes well, and I know easy escape routes……
These things go round and round in your head. I tried not to show them, but they were there.
“Off you go then. We’re getting cold waiting” said a friendly voice.
Back to reality. Stop thinking so much. We have a job to do. We were off.
After only 6 or 7km I knew we would make the whole walk.
It wasn’t scary, it was beautiful. It was peaceful; the ambiance was invigorating, romantic even.
The stars were so bright. We focused in on what we think was Mars. It was a slight orangy colour and was in exactly the direction we were heading. It would guide us all night. It was one of the last stars to stay awake as others went. It was our friend and we hoped would be there again tomorrow night.
There were no other sounds. All we could see were silhouettes of the dunes with our wide angled dim torch lights. We walked with one torch to save on batteries…just in case. 1 was enough.
There was no danger, no animals to see or make us jump. They were scared of our light. The dunes were actually quite firm underfoot, and we could easily pick our way through them avoiding the high peaks.
I really started to enjoy the walk. This was going to fun, and not a frightening experience !
We’d estimated 2km per hour for walking which meant 4am at our rendezvous point.. We were easily going to beat that. In fact we were there at 1am. Fantastic.
DDDD support had driven back to Al Kamil, up the road to Al Mintrib and into the desert through a pre-arranged track to a point only 13km West of where we’d last seen them. It took them nearly 2.5 hrs to do so. (They even had a small sand digging exercise when the soft sand caught them unaware. Driving at night really is tough when you have no idea where you’re going !)
But by midnight they got there, put the boys to sleep, set up the beds, and placed the flashing strobe on a dune crest very close-by, to let us know where they were. No later than a few minutes after setting up the strobe, did they see our torchlight coming over the dunes. A resounding “Oi !” re-assured us it was Dick.
We had successfully made leg 1. 26km in total in 6.5 hrs.
Those last couple of km’s were fantastic. The anticipation of meeting Dick, Darling and boys was incredible. Would they be there ? What if they weren’t. Would they be impressed with the speed we had made ? It helped us across. 70km is daunting but split up into small legs was making it easier. As we counted the km’s down on the GPS our morale rose.
We took a cautious celebratory drink, tucked into chicken sarnies, crisps and chocolate, shared a few stories and went to bed under the stars by 2am. Its 12degC, and we are feeling the cold. No tents…..it’s going to be a wet one !
All we had seen was one small lizard, one tiny desert mouse. No snakes or camel spiders or whatever everyone had told us to scare us. Slight disappointed in this, but somewhat relieved, I closed my eyes and said goodnight to mars. How would my legs be in the morning?
Day Walking Leg 2 (Thursday 08:00 – 16:30 21km 6hrs +2.5 hour lunch)
06:30hrs and we wake up.
I open my eyes and it’s dark. Hmm, but then as I move and emerge from my cocoon like sleeping bag, I see fresh daylight. My legs are fine. Everything is good. Thanks to Sean who lent me his knee supports. They’ve done the trick. The sleeping bag, just like everything else…. is soaking. Absolutely soaking wet. The dew is incredible.
Not our problem. That’s for DDDD to pack up. Splendid !
Breakfast of orange juice, muesli and coffee “cooked” by myself, and then re-hashed by the experts was taken leisurely. The boys slept in, showing no great interest in anything except z’s.
Off by 8am, today we would walk all day. We had a 20km walk planned, to break the back of the assault, before the final big hurdle to the finish. The 20km would be broken into 10km before lunch and 10km after. Day walking was expected to be tougher due to heat, but was new for us, and stopped the monotony of night walking. The views were splendid, the air fresh, and amazingly the 10km went like a breeze.
In fact we sailed along and passed by a Bedouin camp which had what looked like a GSM antenna. The phone beeped and a message was received. It was Dick telling us they had only left camp at 10:30am due to everything being soaked. With a 1.5 hour drive ahead of them we could see we would arrive first. We did. 11:15am we were there. No problem. We’ll wait !
It was when we were waiting for the DDDD’s to arrive….lying in the baking sun, flat on our backs in the sand, with boots off and legs rapidly stiffening, we (well probably more me if I am honest) were starting to smell. The flies were around us (me). At this point we saw our first bird of prey. He approached rapidly, circled several times and then realising we were probably not particularly tasty he moved on. Glad it was a buzzard, and not an eagle. Do you get eagles here ????
And then we saw them. Dust cloud rising. Glorious. Mobile Spaghetti Bolognese on its way, cold drinks……and kite flying with the boys. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
I took off the knee supports, and changed my boots….just for a change, again, breaking monotony made us feel the walk was shorter.
20 hrs and nothing to say ?
Kathy clearly didn’t trust my conversational skills. Maybe she had been warned by her husband – my long term / suffering biking partner. She packed her i-pod ! Weight is an issue. So nothing unnecessary went into the backpack, except this i-pod, I am proud to say. It never made a single appearance.
So what do you talk about for hour after hour after hour….. and how do you pass the time.
These little experiences are what made it a fun event, rather than just a slog, so need to be shared with you….
First of all history. We didn’t know much about each other really other than what Dick had told us both I suppose. Earlier adventures, common interests (both experienced sky-divers and world backpackers, travel in Africa). And of course kids, families, future plans. Nothing too deep (I’m a bloke after all), but just those usual stories you share…..And then there were the monotony carrot and stick games we played to spur us along.
For instance Kathy proclaimed she would drink her isotonic energy drink at exactly half way. This would give us an enforced rest to get the drink out, yet set a goal to keep us moving. As we approached I would keep quiet and not tell her the distance. Then asking her if she knew what the next dune was called….. “ha ha, its Isostar hill”. YES ! We were half way !!
With only 4km to go until the next meeting point I would proclaim that at 2km I would take out my GSM and put it in my pocket….just to see if we had a signal. Madness, but it kept us going, and gave us a new goal.
“Next downhill dune and I’m emptying my shoes” was a common one to help us up the steep ones.
On the final day at 6:20am I proclaimed I’d treat myself to a mars bar at 7am, as I feeling hungry. By 6:40 we’d stopped and I’d given in…I wanted that chocolate “now”. Kathy laughed as I got mine out, and hers, then put mine back, and then asked where mine was. Hmmm. Definitely on sugar depletion. So we laughed at me for the next 10 minutes.
Other favourites were…”At 5km to go I will treat myself to a muesli bar….. We’re into single figures….We’re half way across this leg….” etc etc
Thankfully no singing. That was good !
These little games were a bit sad, and you had to be there I guess….but they were fun at the time !
Hot Hot Hot
The afternoon walk, only 10km wasn’t much fun. It was hot, we consumed lots and lots more water. We were stiff from stopping too long at the lunch break (nearly 2 hours) and we started to worry about the last day. At one point we were both silent for ages. Then suddenly Kathy sparked out “I can’t stop thinking about that cold Tiger”. Amazing. at that very instance I had a picture in my head of a cold, blue can with gold writing, and condensation running down it….. and another few hundred meters passed by.
With 1.5km to go (and 500 metres after I took out my GSM) the phone rang.
I had just pointed out to Kathy that we were heading for those 2 trees on top of the far dune. It was Dick. “You’ve been spotted” Suddenly the trees were waving. It was Nikolas and Darling ! Wow. It took us 20 minutes to get up the dune….. they weren't coming down to us, they’re not stupid.
We all walked together to the camp site, hidden behind a small dune out of the public eye. We were near a commercial “desert camp” picked on purpose for easy access and GSM coverage. I rang home and spoke to Aukje, and our little ones, telling them we were fine, and that although the legs were weary, we were going to make it.
Dinner was “chicken a la king” and my word it tasted good. Dicks culinary skills, washed down with one (OK, 2!) of my favourite de-hydrating re-hydrants made for a wonderful end to the day. It was 6pm. More kite flying and packing of the bags ready for the early wake-up (3:45am) tomorrow.
We considered a camp fire, but bed at 8am was a favoured option.
We’ve just walked 47km from 18:30 Wednesday to 16:30 Thursday. Suddenly I realise that’s more than a Marathon, across treacherous sand dunes…. in under 24 hours. I smile, and fall fast asleep.
The Final Countdown - Leg 3 (Friday 04:00hrs to 12:00 23km 8hrs)
Well – this is what we’d come for, and this is what we’ll remember. The first few km in the dark were fine. No problem. Mars had re-appeared, but was not really showing s the right way, and then he disappeared anyway. Dumped ! We chose 2 new stars. They helped us.
The dunes were getting bigger, much bigger. Easy in a car, easy on a bike these dunes proved killers by foot. Much softer, and with no real way through. We just had to go straight over them. No mercy.
As we dropped into the valleys the cold was bitter. We were glad we had 2 layers on. It was a last minute decision. We had originally decided only 1 T-shirt, as the sun would rise soon, but at 4am it was soooo cold we made the right decision.
As the sun came out, the views became intense. The mist was lingering in the valleys between big dune sets. The sun although not showing was sending long, deep red rays onto the pink sands. The colours were intense (and not captured by camera unfortunately – our small digital camera without tripod was just not up to long exposure photos!!). But I have them in my head, and along with the grainy photos with poor colours, they will return in my dreams.
For me this was special. So many times I have blasted across these very same dunes, racing on my bike, loving it, the thrill and the exhilaration of speed, nothing beats this and I will continue to love this passion of mine, yet I have been missing these views and sensations. For once I had time to take it all in. This is why you should walk it, for this reason only! I remembered my youth when I was walking most weekends with my Dad in the Peak District of the UK. Walking is sedate compared to motor biking and 4x4 driving, but you see, smell and feel more. Walk the Wahibas my friends….. then you will understand.
Coming over the last steep dune and seeing the valley in mist, and the next set of dunes stretching out of the very same mist. Looking back and seeing the silhouette of the dunes you have crossed, conquered on foot. This is a vast area of sand. Yet we had walked over it. Sobering thoughts.
By 12:00 noon we had finished. Actually we were tired. The last few km and those long flat plaines which we had been looking forward to so much had, believe it or not, taken their toll. After so much sand the hard packed sabkha flats had jolted our knees and impacted our heels. We’d had enough ! Tired, weary, elated. Just as we came down off the last dune the DDDD’s arrived doing an enormous celebratory circle in the sand. The shoes were emptied for the final time, the knee pads torn off, cycling shorts supporting the tired thighs packed away in our bags….. On went clean clothes, out came the kites again, we’d finished.
70 km’s as the crow flies……(we’d like to call it 80km in all) in just under 19 hours or walking.
That’s almost 2 Marathons over Omans toughest dunes.
We averaged (according to the GPS) 3.9km/hr. Not exactly steaming along, but that’s the trick Walk slowly, plod even. Take in the sights, and enjoy.
If you want to try it, I can give you the tracks in and out for car support and waypoints etc.
You’ll need a very willing support crew – it’s tough for them too.
You’ll also need a crazy walking partner……. but please, don’t ask me !
What was it all for really?
Actually the walk was to raise money for Charity. In Feb 2006 Ian takes part in EnduroIndia, an event organised by motorcyclists to raise money for 3 main charities.
WWF India. They receive the 100 Enfield Bullet 350cc 16bhp motorcycles which we will be riding for 2 weeks
Mother Theresa Charitable Society – India. This is a charity set up for children born into poverty and with HIV. They receive a cash donation from EnduroIndia
Rainbow Trust Childrens Charity – UK. This is a charity set up to help children born with terminal illnesses. They receive a cash donation from EnduroIndia
Full details can be found by accessing www.enduroindia.com
Fiona Darling. Without you, life would have been so boring ! Thanks for your morale support, car support, and extreme patience when we all fell asleep at 8pm, just after you opened your liquid refreshment…..
Nikolas, Kristian and Rocky (the dog). Kite flying experts, top jokes, and good friends.
Dick. Always there when you need him. The best.
Kathy. You’re mad! Thanks for joining me. I never would have set off on my own.
And everyone (PDO Pirates, Oman Bikers, Wahiba Challenge Car Drivers, Honda Oman and a few special friends) who so incredibly generously donated to the charities, which was ultimately what I was doing it all for.