We're halfway down the coast of Oman, racing down kilometres of beach where the desert meets the sea. With sand to the west that turns into the central gravel plains of the sultanate before segueing into the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. And water to the east that stretches all the way to India. And us in the middle, racing the tide before it rises and forces us off the beach and into the soft desert sand. Behind the wheel, Mohammad Wahaibi yells approval over the roar of the four-wheel drive. As the last stretch before the tarred road seemed to buckle under the weight of the desert and disappear into sand, Mohammad charges homewards on the little sliver of beach, tyres deflated for maximum traction. As we slither towards his fishing village, Mohammad talks of the two things he takes most pride in - being a Bedu and driving the Abu Shenab.
Abu translates to father in Arabic, and Shenab is a moustache, so the literal translation would be ‘the father of the moustache', but in a more real-world sense it means the moustachioed one. Mohammad, though, like most Bedouin along this coast, is clean shaven - the term is used for the pickup truck he's ramming into the sand (the rest of the world knows it as a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup), the vehicle that has acquired such legendary status across the deserts it is practically the only car you will find among the Bedouin (not counting the occasional luxury Lexus being driven across from Abu Dhabi).
Various theories abound over the sands as to the origins of such a flowery name. Many will point to the earliest models, some dating back to the 1940s that you will still find in the desert. The front bumper resembles a moustache if you look long enough. Others talk of a moustache's metaphorical significance, pointing to leadership, manliness and strength. Whatever the origin, one thing is beyond argument - this is the undisputed king where the road ends.
A land without roads is where the romance of lonely places reaches its peak. If you stand on a coast with endless desert on one side and ocean on the other, it is tough not to get carried away. Think clear skies and stars, sand whipped over soft waves - this is the absolute escape. But such weekend escapades quickly give way to a reality not so pleasant on a weekday. Imagine you had to live here, eking out a living fishing. Once off the boat, you would have to load your pickup with fish and ice. Then, you'd have to get it to a market: either by driving along the coast on the hard beach when the low tide exposes it, or across the desert, through sandy trails. You would have to choose between sand and road-going tyres. Sand tyres are hopeless on the road, when you get there, and road tyres are prone to sink into sand. You will not have mechanics, garages, filling stations, air compressors, restaurants, fresh water or the AAA if you break down.
But the Abu Shenab is seemingly above such banalities, a vehicle the Bedu insist will not get stuck in the sand. In it, they've found something that can match their spirit - something that allows them to roam free and be strong. While most city-slickers would see an ugly, boxy, right-angled pickup, Bedouin practically break out into song at the very sight of this pickup.
To understand just how much his Abu Shenab means to Mohammad, you have to first understand life in the desert. In a land of such bleakness, outsiders can only superimpose GPS satellite waypoints. In this landscape survival is broken down into everyday common-sense decisions, most things that money can buy are superfluous, perhaps even useless. But what you drive is everything.
The nomadic Bedouin move across the desert from plantation oasis to waterholes, depending on the seasons. Although most have settled down, eased into modernity through government-sponsored housing, new roads and basic services, they still retain their free-spirited character.
Many still live on land they consider traditionally theirs, without the necessity of title deeds, or the need to adorn homes with dish antennas or carpets. They don't eat at shawarma shops or go to multiplexes.
The biggest purchase of their lives boils down to the car they drive, this is their most important material possession. How does he afford one? Quite simple: by buying nothing else. Rumour has it that most walk into showrooms with money in bagfuls. Far away from the world of electronic money and instalment cheques, the money they save on things we consider essential goes into an Abu Shenab.
Then there's the business angle. Some fishermen drive their pick-ups, laden with ice and fish, all the way to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where they could earn three times what they'd get at local markets. And that's when you realise the full potential of the car: find another vehicle that can crawl through the Rub Al Khali and touch 180km/h across international borders - laden with up to a tonne of cargo. Such journeys see the occupants operating in shifts, one sleeping while the other drives. There's no stopping, and at that rate they're through in a couple of days. Try beating that with your fancy tiptronic SUV.