Friday, November 6, 2009

Luxe Adventures

It’s around 10.30 in the morning and we are driving somewhere in the Sharqiah Sands, tackling the dunes, dodging the shrubs. It’s just the five of us in three white Jeep Wranglers, an odd camel in the middle of nowhere, the ochre sand dunes almost fencing in the strangely black sabkha and the bluish grey Eastern Hajar that provides a perfect backdrop to the immediate scenery. 

Less than three hours earlier we had tucked into a sumptuous breakfast of fresh fruit juices, turkey ham, egg white omelette, toast and honey and freshly brewed coffee in the middle of the desert.

Such luxuries in these settings may seem like a delirious desert traveller’s hallucinations, but with 53°East, Sand Adventures, it is a reality. The brainchild of Nicholas Mantheakis, Sand Adventures was born out of the idea that there are people who want more out of their holiday experience, but do not want to forego their creature comforts. It offers you the flexibility to camp in the wilderness – not in one of the concrete structures camouflaged as a tent – but a real caravan that enables you to set up base in any location.

A mobile unit ensures that Sand Adventures retain the freedom of pitching tent anywhere along with all the comforts like air-conditioning, hot showers, parquet flooring, wooden cabinets, a well stocked mini fridge and even a writing desk and reading lamps. It redefines luxury tourism by combining adventure with personalised service.

Chef Etienne, formerly with Emirates Towers in Dubai, holds the reins of the kitchen and seems to revel in creating exotic dishes even in the middle of the desert. That probably explains why we had chicken with ginger yogurt sauce wrapped in a spring onion pancake for lunch the previous day and slow baked hammour set on a salsa of mushroom, sweet pepper, tomato and cucumber served for dinner under the stars and rounded off with Malva pudding with treacle from South Africa.

The desert can mean different things to different people. But you may be yet to meet someone who is not fascinated by it. Yet there are many of us who despite the lure and seemingly endless possibilities in a landscape as vast as this resist the temptation to drive into the sunset over the sand dune. It seems the most reckless thing to do except for the intrepid adventurer.

But what if we have a chance to indulge in that fantasy, no risks involved? Many of us would grab the opportunity. It is this desire that Sand Adventures taps into and caters to. The self-drive expeditions are designed for the more adventurous traveler who wants to do something more than just putting his feet up during a vacation. There are driven tours too. With prices for a self-driven tour starting at RO170 per person per night on a twin-sharing basis (driven tours start at RO120 per person), Sand Adventures is definitely not for the budget traveller. It is for those who seek no compromises in life and want the best of both worlds.

Now, as I accelerate up a 50-foot dune at full throttle and smoothly tackle the summit and the drop I can’t but smile. Alison, sitting on my right, joins in with a knowing smile. It’s a triumph not just for me – a greenhorn at off-road driving – but for her as well as my teacher.

Less than 24 hours previously I had got us stuck right on top of a sand dune – a much smaller one – as I braked suddenly, panicking at the sight of the drop I needed to tackle. I had gone red with embarrassment, but for team Sand Adventures, it seemed like a minor hiccup. Nicholas, who was manning the support vehicle that day, had driven up and positioned his jeep on the incline, before attaching the snatch strap on to the fender of our Wrangler along with Mark, who was in the lead vehicle. Alison took over at the wheel of the stranded car and in one smooth operation we were out and driving once again in less than five minutes. I had resumed my driving position once the crisis management was over.

I had never veered off-road myself. At every trip up the jebels, down the sand dunes or splashing through the wadis, it was someone else at the wheel. I go by the motto safety first – lives are too precious to be wasted due to some misplaced sense of adventure.

Thankfully this fits in well with the Sand Adventures’ motto. They teach you desert driving in style and complete safety. Each jeep is fitted with a lift kit for increased ground clearance, performance headers and exhaust, giving the vehicles a welcome 20 per cent extra horsepower and has a five-litre fridge/freezer, to store drinks and food for the day's drive and a recovery kit.

Mark lays down the rules before taking over the lead vehicle. Alison stays with you in the passenger seat, ready to take over in case of crisis or at any point you want to give up. Nicholas lags behind with the support vehicle. Three-way communication is established between the three vehicles by radio. Nicholas and Mark apparently alternate the roles of expedition leader and support driver. We start with the more solid ground, slowly move on to looser sand on level ground, then the smaller dunes and finally the bigger ones.

Is self-driving the best part of your stay with Sand Adventures? The answer is both yes and no. Because your experience with Sand Adventures is the sum of many best parts – no one experience can be picked out as ‘the best’. Whether it is the hot or cold shower in the middle of nowhere, the cold wet towels brought to refresh you as you drive into the base camp after an exciting ride, designer dinner under the stars, breakfast with a view or sheesha by the campfire, there are many experiences for you to cherish.

In some ways it doesn’t matter you can’t decide on the best part of the stay. You know this is one place you will come back to with friends. That, I say, sums up the essence of 53°East, Sand Adventures.