Oman – the land of Sultans and Sinbad, frankincense and peace … so far, it’s been spared the militant Islamic violence that has plagued many of its neighbours, and once out of the Capital Muscat, there’s the impression that you’re the only person around these arid terrains…and for a traveller, this has to be the jewel of the Arabian Peninsula.
I first became curious to explore Oman when killing time in Dubai, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa having put paid to my original plans. Hiring a driver for a day trip to Musandam probably wasn’t one of my best ideas, border formalities were tediously slow both ways, but the beautiful rocky inlets, rugged fjords, small villages and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads along the Strait of Hormuz gave me a taste of the wilderness I loved, and I knew that day that I’d return for a much better look at Oman.
Though Muscat is one of the oldest ports in the world, Oman remained, until the 1970’s, one of the most unexplored and underdeveloped countries. Imagine, in 1970, there were only three graded roads in the entire country, one hospital with 23 beds and just three schools. There was not a single newspaper, no radio and no television. Even with all the petro-bucks Oman was wallowing in the Middle Ages, held back by a Sultan who wanted no western influences. Then along came his son……
Muscat is waterside serenity… and compared to flashy Emirati neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of Oman is a breath of fresh, sea air. Famous for its dazzling souks and superb seafood, it’s the surrounding terrain that really did it for me.
The historic town of Nizwa, lying on a plain surrounded by a thick palm oasis and some of Oman’s highest mountains is full of character, old castles … and an amazing livestock souq, where brisk trading in goats, sheep, cattle and occasional camels is a centuries’ old tradition. People watching was so much fun here.
Oman’s dramatic Al Hajar mountain range … an area of incredible vistas, extensive hiking trails, sheer rock faces, impressive forts, crumbling abandoned villages … and also sumptuous accommodation such as my night in the Middle East’s highest five-star resort, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, where they’ve taken the meaning of luxury resort to a whole new level!
The best way to get a feel for the mountains is to take one of Oman’s greatest off-road drives through Wadi Bani Auf, an impressive dirt track of winding, single lane switch-backs cut dramatically into the cliffside, and my driver and guide Khaliffa navigated the tricky terrain with relative ease. (while my continual thought was ‘thank God I’m not driving!”). We wound our way through the dry, dusty riverbed scattered with acacia trees, crumbling villages, intact mosques, and roaming wild goats, climbing steadily for hours, leaving the heat and humidity behind, eventually reaching the top of the ridge at Jabal Shams, our campsite for the night. And my gosh was it cold, but the views amazing!! I was fine, equipped with all my subzero gear, since I’d arrived in Oman after a trek in Nepal, but poor Khaliffa was only dressed in his Dishdasher, Oman’s ankle length collarless white gown that is the national dress, and worn by pretty much everyone, even farmers (though they wear elastic sided riding boots with it in preference to the usual sandals) and a jacket.
Clinging to the mountainside in the foothills of Jabal Shams is Musfat Al Abreen, home to one of the most delicate and intricate al falaj irrigation systems around, along with farmed terraces and crumbling buildings, some of which are still inhabited today. Much of the village is now deserted, the narrow alleyways of mud-brick houses and intricately carved wooden doors lovely to explore, and my overnight stay with a local family was well worth the effort of climbing up to the village.
I find early Islamic architecture fascinating, particularly doors, and my guide Khaliffa was always willing to translate any Arabic inscriptions. The panel on the left door, below, is the Arabic calendar, detailing that the doors were constructed in the 11th Rihanna, so two months before Ramadan in the Arabic year of 1314 – so 1439 by our Gregorian calendar. The right door inscription basically says, “By the name of God the merciful there is no other God but the steadfast Allah, who has no son, and there is no one like him”. I have to add, with me being a Christian, Khaliffa and I had some VERY lively debates around the topic of Islam and its follower’s beliefs and customs, reiterating why I love travelling with a local as opposed to just a tour group.
Before winding up this trip with a few nights at a seriously amazing seaside resort near Muscat, I spent a night camping in the desert, where the majesty of the night sky and the pleasure and coolness of dawn in the dunes has to be seen to be believed. A destination in their own right, these beautiful dunes, still referred to locally as Wahiba Sands, could keep visitors occupied for days. Home to the Bedouin, I had the opportunity to glimpse their traditional way of life, interacting with Omani women whose Bedouin lifestyle affords them a more visible social role. Despite their elaborate costumes with peaked masks and an abaya (full-length robe) of gauze, they are accomplished drivers, often coming to the rescue of tourists stuck in the sand.
Booking an independent guide/driver allows me to choose what I want to do when, (I don’t want to waste my holiday waiting for others) but more importantly, it enables me to get a much clearer picture of Omani life and their culture, as seen through the eyes of locals. I ate dinner at Khaliffa’s family home, meeting three generations living under his roof, visited his sister’s farm, shopped for dates from the hundreds of varieties, ate at local establishments as opposed to tourist restaurants, camped out in the desert and mountains in perfect solitude and enjoyed an afternoon boating, snorkeling and picnicking on a deserted beach. Bliss.