Driving out of a dune field in the north-east corner of Oman, our camping party comes upon a spectacle, seemingly from another era. On a gravel plain, to the music of bladder pipes and goatskin drums, turbaned riders parade Arabian horses whose bridles jangle with silver crescent moons. Outside the large white tent where we park our SUV, a semicircle of men and boys chant a hypnotic rhythm, while two men leap and feint in a whirling sword dance. In a separate women's tent a troupe of female dancers sway. The dancers veil their faces, but each expressive, undulating finger is tipped with black henna and sports a filigreed golden ring.
Travelling by camel caravan in the year 632, the caliph Abu Bakr lauded the hospitality of Oman's people. The legendary welcome still survives today, judging by our reception.
"Ta'ala, ta'ala, come, come," a smiling man insists, and our group of three women and two men is invited into the men's tent and treated to a haunch of goat meat marinated in cinnamon, cloves, pepper and cumin, served on a silver platter of cardamom-scented rice. A local official with an ornate silver dagger on his belt explains with the fervour of a Frenchman discussing foie gras that Omani goat is a great delicacy, fed on dates and wheat in the early morning, fresh-mown grass at noon, and then dates again in the evening. When we try to thank him for the delicious meal, he puts a hand over his heart and says in Arabic: "We thank you for being here."
The secret of travel in Oman, we are discovering, is serendipity - being at the right place at the right time. This is no "Bedouin" package-tour desert dinner but an authentic feast marking the inauguration of a paved road linking the village of Al Qabil with the Arabian Sea coastal trading town of Ash Ashkharha. To protect the country's architectural heritage, Oman forbids the construction of buildings higher than nine storeys, and the highway, not the high rise, has emerged as the symbol of the country's modern renaissance. Cause indeed for celebration, this road will enable desert children to reach school quicker, give parents access to weekly markets, and signals the potential arrival of more foreign travellers like us, drawn by Oman's combination of wilderness, 5,000-year history and cheerful cultural self-confidence.
But while the country's latest five-year tourism plan calls for the construction of new roads, airports and luxury hotels, the demand for hotel rooms still exceeds supply. Oman did not have a ministry of tourism until 2004, and its cautious tourism development, which emphasises luxury and environmentally sensitive properties over mass-market resorts, is part of a policy to keep visitor numbers down to preserve the environment and minimise culture clashes. Rooms in Muscat - there are still less than 3,000 - are so scarce that, in 2006, the late pop star Michael Jackson and the then US vice president Dick Cheney found themselves competing for the presidential suite at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, the de facto state guesthouse that sits on the capital's most scenic beach. (A diplomatic crisis was averted when the parties agreed to divide the suite in half.)
A popular travel alternative is the tented 4x4 safari, a method Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, chooses for his annual "meet the people" tours; for three weeks last year he traversed the coastal Batinah Plain consulting on women's issues and inviting citizens of varying ages and both genders to meet in his travelling majlis tent. Echoing grand caravans of old, which included gardeners, cooks, scientists and entertainers, the sultan's convoy includes car washers, a portable helicopter pad, hundreds of delegates' vehicles, supply trucks, generators and the ruler's Land Rover, which he drives himself, stopping to ask subjects if they need anything.
Mere mortals, it turns out, can camp in princely style, too. I've chosen outfitter Sean Nelson, a 47-year-old former British Royal Marine who served for three years as a major in the Oman army's Desert Regiment. He opened a luxury camping company, Hud Hud Travels, three years ago and his client list includes the Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts.
"The idea was to combine the comfort of African safaris with the style of an Arabian caravan," he tells me by phone before my trip. Hud Hud specialises in trips to the Empty Quarter, where it touches the border between Yemen and Oman, but Nelson and his partners also design bespoke itineraries; I've asked him to plan a three-night trip in the scenic northern part of the country with its green wadis, dune fields, high plateaus and long, deserted beaches.
Our party, from France, Egypt and the US, has flown to Muscat. At 6am the first morning Nelson collects us from our hotel and we set off for the Selma Plateau in the eastern Hajar mountains; his "uniform" these days consists of a pressed navy shirt, khaki pants, Birkenstocks and shades.
As his charitable endowment, an Omani billionaire has built a new highway from Qurayat, just south of the capital, to the port of Sur. We turn off this new road onto a gravel track leading through upward-folded mountains whose triangular red, grey and black layers look like dragon scales and are veined with white crystals. We pass small camps of plastic sheeting next to small walled-up caves belonging to nomads who herd goats and collect herbs on the high plateau. Even though life would be much easier in the towns, the government puts no pressure on older people to come out of the hills and instead provides free water stored in white plastic containers designed to look like old stone watch towers with crenellated tops. Atop the highest ridge line a stands a row of "beehive" tombs, cylindrical towers built of flat stacked stones, their outer layers curling like spiral seashells around a hollow core. The structures, which may be 5,500 years old, are found throughout the northern mountains, and in parts of the UAE, but little is known about the communities that built them.
Our destination for the night is the Wahiba Sands, a 190km-long field of parallel sword dunes created by monsoon winds sweeping in shell-laden beach sand from the Gulf of Oman. This is Oman's most famous camel-racing region. After emerging from the mountains along a wadi track, we drive 45km through a sand valley where in the late afternoon men and young boys are exercising strings of young camels, trotting them in groups of five or six behind an older animal.
We stop to chat with Hamid al Wahibi, the owner of 22 camels who is tending a female named Sarrab and her fluffy, spindly newborn, named Shahin. Female camels, lighter, faster and more docile than males, start racing when they are a year old, increasing the distance from one kilometre to eight kilometres by the time they are five, and they eat a diet of honey, milk, dates and hay, which is imported from the US via Dubai. It's a good business, Hamid says, because a top Omani racing camel may sell for 800,000 riyals (Dh7.6 million) in the UAE and Qatar.
Our campsite for the first two nights looks like a film set: three black Syrian goat-hair tents ordered up from the souq in Aleppo and a majlis decorated with antique coffee pots, cushions, Indian silks and fine wool blankets from Oman's Dhofar province. The enchantment of the place lies in arriving at the perfect moment, when the setting sun turns the dunes pink and amber, light fills the west-facing tents, and the camp staff bring us cool fruit drinks.
When night falls, there's no electric glow from the towns to spoil the star gleam; when the sky clouds up, the only light comes from the gas lanterns illuminating paths between the tents and an acacia-wood fire that warms our faces. At dawn, shadowy, hooded figures emerge to rekindle the fire and heat water for hot showers in the open-air canvas bathing tents with silver ewers. I climb the dune's slip face behind the camp and watch the sun paint a swathe of light up the valley floor, trying to recall the last time I heard total silence.
Never a part of the Ottoman empire or subjugated by foreign tribes, Oman developed a proud trading and ship-building culture.
In the 18th century, Ibra, an oasis village on the edge of the Wahiba Sands, was a commercial source of dates and fine horses. Arriving from the dunes, we walk between old date and mango gardens among the ruins of two- and three-storey merchants' houses, wandering up plastered staircases, fingering nooks in the walls, peering through arched windows, trying to imagine the life of merchants whose mynah birds spoke seven languages, and who would have imported cloves and slaves from Zanzibar, and silks and spices from the Far East.
To reach Bar al Hickman, the wild beach that is our final campsite, we drive south-west from Ibra on the old caravan route to the sea. Turning east at the last town with a petrol station, we cross a salt pan so long and flat that it looks like we're driving off the edge of the world. Strangely, lying in our track are deposits of fish - sun-mummified tuna that have fallen from the backs of refrigerated trucks that bump their way through the sands from small villages on the coast. When we get out of the car for a break, our feet sink into the sabkha, or salt crust, which is covered with tiny sea shells and white salt crystals the size of rice grains, exhalations of the sea beneath us.
Two hours of slow sand driving bring us to a green lagoon where pink flamingos feed on tiny shrimp and, just beyond, a stretch of brilliant white sand beach littered with whale bones and fragments of sea turtle carapace. Offshore a dhow fleet fishes for tuna, but there are no other people, just brigades of translucent ghost crabs feasting on a bounty of washed up squid and unicorn fish.
I reflect that if one were to be shipwrecked here, without fresh water, one would die. But our level of comfort is perfect. We spend the rest of the afternoon collecting seashells, bathing in the warm sea, and napping in our white bell-shaped tents (modelled on campaign tents used in the Crimean War), which have beds with proper mattresses and more textiles from the Muscat souqs. Our "camp" is an ever-changing luxury hotel on the move. There is even a library, and I spend hours in the shade of the majlis tent, relaxing on cushions with WD Peyton's Old Oman, reading about the decline of Oman's maritime empire after the loss of Zanzibar and the obsolescence of Muscat port in the wake of the Suez Canal's opening and the advent of steamships.
Oil has helped deliver Oman into the modern era. But today that resource, locked in complex limestone fissures, is becoming too expensive to extract, and will run out in 25 years, according to geologists. Looking to tourism as one way to diversify the economy, the government has launched a campaign to build six new airports and at least 15 resorts around the country, including a boutique hotel on Jebel Akhdar, the country's highest mountain.
A boutique hotel sounds grand, but we've learnt that camping can be just as luxurious. Alas, our rare sense of timelessness is coming to an end. We spend our last, delicious morning eating Kerala-born chef Roy John's chili omelettes, learning to make Omani coffee on a wood fire and getting lessons on how to tie a perfect Dhofari black turban from Saber Guhlam al Beluchi, our Omani translator. "It must be nice, and you must hide the tassels," he insists, showing us how to fold the shemagh, or scarf, into a triangle, pinch up the edges with two fingers, and then use the tassles as an underbase for the turbaned headband whose chic look resolves the biggest problem of electricity-less camping: bad hair days. Feeling refreshed (and surprisingly stylish) we leave our paradise as we found it. The Hud Hud team are careful not to leave any traces when we finally pack up the camp for the long drive back to the capital.
If you go
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Muscat cost from Dh1,245 including taxes.
The trip Hud Hud Travels (www.hudhudtravels.com; 00 968 9677 9099) organises monthly three-day and four-night camping trips from 320 Omani rials (Dh3,050) per person, per night, all inclusive, with special discounts for children under 12.