Oman: A ‘Festive’ Roadtrip.

Our decision to spend our holiday in Oman was met with puzzled looks whenever we told anyone, but we wanted to try something different. It may seem quite pretentious but, after nearly 3 years, Nicki and I were beginning to feel unwaivered by the fantastic sights of South East Asia; the food, the tuk tuks, the temples, the men carrying turtles on a stick etc. We concluded that delving into the unknown might give us a greater appreciation for what we were taking for granted.

Our research suggested that the best way to travel in Oman is by a hired car (and this is where our surprising comparisons to our trip in Iceland came about). We found a brilliant deal with Dollar Oman for a Hyundai Tucson SUV, which suited our offroad needs amply.

We organised our 12 day trip as follows (although we didn’t end up sticking to this plan): Muscat – Nizwa – Misfah Old House – Jebel Shams – Sur – Ras Al Jinz – Wadi Shab – Wahiba Sands – Ras Madrakah – Salalah – Muscat (but the map below depicts what we believe to be a better route in retrospect).

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Our Intended Route

In this respect, we would recommend the following route for anyone intending to drive Oman in 12 days:

Muscat – Wadi Shab (half day) – Sur for lunch – Raz Al Jinz – Wahabi Sands Desert (via Bidiyah) – Raz Al Madrakah – Salalah – Jebel Shams – Nizwa – Muscat.

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A better route in retrospect.

Nizwa and Jebel Shams

We arrived late at night in Muscat after a few hic-ups with our flight formalities.  I must admit that I was a little nervous about driving such a large automatic car on the other side of the road in a slightly tired daze. I am sure Nicki felt an even more nervous character when I initially insisted on breaking with my left foot (I soon learnt that driving an automatic is similar to driving on the Playstation).

This meant that we spend only a few hours in our Muscat hotel before getting on with our journey.

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As our bodies were still working 4 hours ahead of the actual time, we were up bright and early and back on the road before long. I soon got to grips with the big car and even began to like driving it. As we left the city the roads became less busy, but remained perfectly smooth. Throughout the trip we made several comparisons between our trip to Iceland and Oman despite the climates and the cultures being completely different. The main similarities from our drives were that we noticed that the vast majority of people seemed to live in the capital city, much like Mongolia in that respect, and the population density elsewhere was almost nothing. Oman has an average of only 9 people per square kilometre (about 3 in Iceland, 2 in Mongolia, and 1114 in Bangladesh). 

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Within a couple of hours we came across the town of Nizwa, with its great rou1nd fort. We were told (Lonely Planet) that the fort would cost us 500baisa (£1) to enter. In reality the foreigner price is £10, and really not worth it. We got speaking to a man who owns one of the local coffee shops, and he informed us that the new price has only stood for a couple of weeks and that it has really affected his business. He even gave us some free coffee as a ‘business trick’ to show others he has customers. Naturally we gave him a tip. Nizwa Souq was also a little disappointing as we were the only people in it. One hopes that they start to rethink how they promote tourism in Nizwa

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DSCF4818 Despite the initial disappointment of Nizwa, we soon arrived at a far more impressive fort at Bahla. Unlike Nizwa, it was cheap to enter and it was far grander. You can look out across the date plantations here and pop into all sorts of chambers within the fort. If given the choice between the two, this is the better one.

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From here we started our climb into the highlands in order to locate our rest stop for the night. The Misfah Old House is a perfect place for anyone intending to head to Jebel Shams. It is situated in a living village with a real air of authenticity. We were greeted with arrival and cooked the most magnificent meal on the rooftop. We had prepared for the eventuality of cold in Oman, but never really expected it. However, the jumpers and scarves were out as soon as the sun began to disappear.

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The following morning saw us head towards Jebel Shams to explore Oman’s Grand Canyon, and it didn’t disappoint. We were now starting to realise why we needed and SUV/4×4 to succeed on this road trip. As we followed the windy tracks up we stopped several times for a peak of the amazing views that we were driving beside. (It is worth noting that the W6 Hike does not begin at Jebel Shams Resort. Instead drive an additional 3km to the village, where goats will be standing in your parking space).

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DSCF4918The hike itself is not that hard, and we even saw young children walking it. Yet, the colossal size of the canyon is very intimidating and not for the faint hearted. We probably walked for about 2 hours in the heat before arriving at a row of abandoned stone huts beneath a small shelter in the canyon. Here we stopped for our preprepared lunch (Whatsits, boiled eggs, and a pan-au-chocolat) before making our journey back – made shorter because we stopped to admire the view less frequently.

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Naturally, we stopped to admire some goats in a tree on the way back, which only added to thrill of the day. In my opinion, Jebel Shams should be world famous. The fact that there were hardly any other tourists around (and those that were happened to all be French) is astounding. Oman should be on everyone’s list of places to go, if only to see Jebel Shams.

It was now a swifter drive back down and back towards the Misfah Old House for another delicious dinner served with thyme tea.

Sur, Raz Al Jinz, and Wadi Shab

We were now going to go for a complete change in scenery, and a long drive to the cost. Fully aware of a 4 hour road trip, we decided to aim for lunch in Sur, and left promptly at 8am. I was now beginning to enjoy driving the automatic Tucson and avoided trying to use the phantom gearstick with my right hand. The roads remained pretty clear and we saw no sign of the crazy driving we expected from anecdotes we had read. We remained shocked at the cheap cost of petrol here, where I was getting the whole tank for little under 20 pounds (we later worked out that we could get 20 litres of petrol for the price of 1 pint of beer).  However, the roads were not as thrilling as I imagined at this point. They were pretty well made and smooth. I will not justifiably complain about the readiness of the road for vehicles, but it made for a very monotonous drive. Thankfully Nicki had downloaded some suitable music for our festive roadtrip.

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Feeling smug about our morning mileage, we turned up in Sur eagerly anticipating a nice spread for lunch. We used Lonely Planet to locate a restaurant named Panaroma. it looked shut when we arrived, and there wasn’t much happening inside either, save for a few shisha smoking arab men shocked by our presence.

Deciding that the Lonely Planet had let us down, we turned to TripAdvisor for food assistance. We then found a restaurant named Sahari which provided exactly what we needed. The waiter showed us some fish that had just been caught from the sea that we overlooked and he then grilled it for us. I wish we had taken a photo of it, but we were in such a rush to eat it that we gave photography no thought. If driving to Raz Al Jinz from Muscat of Nizwa, stop in Sur for lunch or food as there is very little else until you arrive. 

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We then has a short 35km drive towards Raz Al Jinz where we stopped in a random looking guesthouse situated on the beach a slight bit of offroading to get there considering we missed the road that would have led us directly too it). Despite its modest appearance, the hotel was fantastic. We ended up having far too much food provided for us at breakfast and dinner that we bypassed lunch on our full day there. We really enjoyed the hospitality, especially when they delivered food to our room when the rooftop balcony became too windy (on the beach, what a shock).

That evening we made a short trip towards the Turtle Sanctuary on the beach. It was here that we saw more tourists than at any other point in Oman (it was hard to tell where they all arrived from or went to afterwards). The sanctuary supposedly looks after turtles as they come onto shore to lay their eggs – and they offer us tourists the chance to see it too.

We were put into the second group of 3 and asked to wait as some of the guides waited on the beach and informed the leaders of and arriving green turtles to the beach. Eventually (about 8:45pm) we were called up and introduced to a guide who assembled us into one large group (20+ people). Instead of giving us any information about the turtles, the leader was more interested in arguing with his friend and using his phone as a torch-light to guide us to the beach. When we did get to the beach we were bunched together as we waited for the previous group to finish their look at the female green turtle laying her eggs. By the time it was our turn she was gone.

However, we did get the opportunity to see one Green Turtle laying her eggs before using her ‘arms’ to bury them under the sand/ throw sand at tourists before making her way back to the sea. There were also several newly hatched turtles wondering about on the beach. This was an impressive sight.

We were not totally impressed by the sanctuary though, as there were clearly too many people in a group, no information provided by the guides and very little regard for the turtles. We gathered that they had monopolised this market here and did not really have a reputation to uphold, especially as we were there to see some turtles, and we did. We were quite tempted to join the female turtle in her pursuit back to the sea though.

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Our next day saw us drive back along the coast (hence why we would rethink the route) to Wadi Shab, a beautiful oasis between a gorge. Once we parked up we hoped in a small boat and crossed the narrow river. The number of boatsman clearly outweighed the number of hikers/wadi goers but perhaps we picked a quiet time of day.

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Much like with Jebel Shams, we saw very few people on our 45 minute hike towards the Wadi. Unlike Jebel Shams, we were now walking along the basin of a canyon rather than scaling the cliff face. The walk is a little tougher than we expected as we were required to walk over slippery rocks and navigate our way across shallow streams. Fortunately we had armed ourselves with hiking boots and trail shoes, but would have been better off with some water shoes too.

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Upon reaching the Wadi we were very impressed with the serenity of the area, and the clarity of the water. There were a few people already in the water and Nicki was relieved to see women’s shoulders and knees for the first time. This meant she did not need to be so conservative as she dipped into the turquoise waters.

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We quickly left our bag on the bank and entered the water, swimming and walking upstream towards a parts inaccessible from outside the water. The cleanliness of the water was evident as we could see our feet and the small fish swimming between them.

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As we headed further along the pool the water became deeper and warmer, it was quite a nice temperature to bathe in. We navigated our way over some rocks and into a separate pool where the water became too deep to stand, but remained warm. The water then came to a very narrow cove where we could only tread water sideways through in order to reach the other side (thankfully I got a certificate for such talents in 1996). I became a little bit of a wimp at this point, declaring ‘I have a bad feeling about this’ as we entered the narrow waterway. Nicki had no such fear.

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Upon reaching the end of the narrow bit we were greeted with an amazing inner gorge waterfall from which the source of the pool’s water begins. If I wasn’t too panicked by the ferocity of the current and the enclosedness, I might have enjoyed it more. Instead, I lost man points and fled.

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When we returned to our bags, it didn’t take us long to dry off enough to start our hike back to the boat along the rocky path and back to the car (via the little boat).

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Wahabi Sands, getting stuck…and a change of plan.

Since we had driven to the mountains and the coast it was now time for a new terrain: the desert. In terms of a driving experience it was what I had most been looking forward to.

We drove inland from our guesthouse, aiming for the town of Bidyah. At this point we came across a Shell garage where we cautiously filled up our tank in case we got stuck in the desert. We had the opportunity to reduce our tyre pressure here (given that we were about to drive off-road once more) but we got hassled by a young man trying to convince us that we needed guidance in the desert. We had read about the extortionate fees they charge and, thankfully, Nicki trusted my driving enough to let us go alone. Instead we  reduced the pressure in the tyres at an independent garage a few kilometres along the road.

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We were then entering the desert. Once we had the sand under our wheels we lost the tail of jeeps pleading to guide us as they turned around in search of other victims. Initially I cautiously drove in the desert hoping that I wouldn’t end up getting stuck and requiring the assistance of one of the men I had just shunned. In actual fact, the deflated tyres made for a more pleasurable drive, and the car seemed well suited on the sand. The camp where we were heading is popular, so their were track marks in the sand which made for easy navigation. There was one tricky bit of dune to approach cautiously, but it was all in the fun of the drive.

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After about 40km of desert we arrived at our camp. Since we would be staying in a Bedouin area, I thought that it might be similar to the night James and I spent in Wadi Rum, Jordan. However, this was a little more upmarket than shisha under the stars. Instead we appeared to be in a luxury resort in the desert, with mocktails, a three course restaurant dinner , and a golf caddy to transport us to our tent. A luxurious experience. But luxury’s gain is authenticity’s loss. We enjoyed a night under the stars and a nice desert sunset before escaping the cold night under some thick sheets.

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Upon surviving the night, we waited for the sun to heat the sand before bracing the outdoor shower, which was a unique experience. Only then were we ready to start what we thought was going to be a long 6 hour journey to the southern coast.

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We set off back towards civilisation, back along the dunes (this time attempting a steeper one as I grew in confidence) and out towards the tarmac. We then inflated our tyres back to 35psi before getting on the road. Little did we know, that our tyres were going to be too full for the road ahead.

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Our route led us off the main road and onto a dirt track, which led to a sand trail, which eventually led us back into the desert and onto the dunes. We became so remote that wild camels lined our path and looked at us with the disdain that all camels seem to look at me with.

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Nicki was the first to voice her concern with ‘I think we should turn back and find another way’. With an eye on the clock, and over an hour into our journey I was very reluctant to turn back and add lots of time to our journey, plus I was becoming over-confident with my ability to drive off road (even with the wrong tyre pressure).

Eventually (as women always are), Nicki was proved right. We got stuck in the sand, and we both needed a wee.

We had a few failed attempts to squirm the car free from the sand without giving too many revs, but my skills appeared to be inadequate.

Nicki then declared that she thought we were going to die as she stood in the middle of the desert sun. This was a little dramatic since we had a crate of 24 bottles of water, a tent, lots of food, and a car for shelter. I chose to ignore her hysteria.

Luckily a very kind Bedouin man was driving across the desert and Nicki managed to wave him down. He attempted to teach me how to get out of our sand hole and grew increasingly frustrated when I couldn’t understand the arabic he shouted at me. Eventually he asked to take the wheel. I was a little bit satisfied when he couldn’t get us out either.

Eventually, we got a pen out of the glove compartment and deflated the tyres manually. This gave us a little bit of extra purchase and after about an hour we were back on the move and (as Nicki suggested a long time before) back in search of a new route.

We were very happy for the help of the old man, and may still be in the desert (but not dead) without him. What I was most impressed with was that he was able to take an hour out of his day to help some strangers. We began to think about times when we ever have an hour to give a stranger. We both hoped that one day we will have a life where we could do that, and not be in a rush for work or another assignment.

Once back on the main road, Nicki came up with a plan. She said that as we were now only 200km from Muscat and 800km from where we want to be in 2 days (Salalah) we should rethink our next step.

Since we have not even seen a beer since we arrived we agreed to drive back to Muscat to a hotel that serves beer, and get a very cheap flight early the next morning (Christmas Eve). She justified this by giving us 4 fewer days of driving and 4 more days of holiday. I couldn’t disagree, although it did put an end to our road trip.

The beer in the bar in Muscat felt as good as it was expensive.

Salalah and Muscat

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Our road adventures kind of come to an end at that point. We were car-less in Salalah and made every effort to enjoy Christmas and Boxing Day in peace and in the sun. Therefore, I won’t write too much about the next few days as it became a search for sun on the roof and beer in a bar. Our 4 days in Salalah was a much-needed holiday. Despite our love of doing things differently, we were really craving some R&R, and Salalah delivered.

In attempt to get into the Christmas spirit, we headed to the Crown Plaza hotel (where we were reliably informed we could find alcohol) and there was a small carol concert on the lawn by the beach. We are still not sure if we were allowed to be there, but we ended up with a free glass of win each anyway…and found a camel in a santa hat (festive if not moral).

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It is worth saying that Salalah has a couple of very tenuous links to Christmas: Firstly, it is claimed that here lays the tomb of the Virgin Mary’s father. Secondly, there is a huge celebration of the frankincense trade here. Christmassy.

We found the perfect location to eat Christmas lunch: The Oasis Club. It was an amazing find since they served a special Christmas dinner, including crackers and the works alongside good beer and friendly people. It was the next best thing to a family dinner.

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I convinced Nicki to watch some Boxing Day football with me the next day and we enjoyed a few good meals, including a vegetarian Indian and a Lebanese, around the city.

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Our final day and a half in Oman was an excuse to see a little bit of Muscat. We arrived in the early afternoon, just in time for the opening of the evening souq (market).

Muscat is a busier place to drive, and so the roads are not as enjoyable, but we got there.

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The market is close to the port so we found ourselves accompanied by lots of tourists who had just disembarked cruise ships, and it appeared that the market sold its goods accordingly (tourist trinkets rather than local goods). Yet, the smell of incense (particularly frankincense) was hard to escape and we couldn’t leave without buying some to burn at home.

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We had previously bought a barbecue and intended to use it at certain points on our road trip, but we did not. Consequently, we decided that we needn’t waste it and should take advantage of the nice Qurum Beach at night and grill some local fish.

On the way to the beach we stopped off at a market to pick up some meat and some fish. At the fish counter we picked a local fish and asked if the monger could cut its head off and gut it for us. His response was ‘no time’, so we didn’t get that fish.

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We set ourselves up on the beach and took a while to get the BBQ going, but once we did it was really well worth it (despite a few hic-ups). It was nice to see so many other groups of people enjoying the beach at night.

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All we had to do now was spend the following morning packing before making our final exploration of  Muscat, including the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: the most magnificent building in Muscat. Unfortunately, as non-muslims, we were not able to enter the mosque on a Friday.

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We also had time to explore the beach during the day and enjoy a juice by the port. It was really nice to see so many people enjoying the beach and having a dip.

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And so there is the end of our trip in Oman. It has definitely been an eye-opening and exciting experience in an alternative an interesting culture. It is far to say that the limitations on life (alcohol and dress etc) would make this a hard place for us to live, but it is certainly an enjoyable place to explore and we have thoroughly enjoyed our Christmas Holiday.

We are now returning to Kuala Lumpur for the next 6 months since our residency permit requires us to stay in the country for a given number of days if we want to claim the tax benefits. Hopefully we can finally do some exploring in Malaysia in that time.

Omani Roadtrips tips:

  • Buy a road map.
  • Purchase a SimCard at the airport as Google Maps helps with navigation (and routes can be downloaded for use offline).
  • Have a pen or something thin and blunt in the car in case you have to suddenly reduce tyre pressure when unexpectedly going off road.
  • Girls should always carry a scarf/shawl of some sort because you never know when you are going to want to stop and require covered shoulders.
  • You do not need a guide at Wahiba Sands.
  • There is an airport fee for hire cars returned to the airport (5 Rial).
  • Buy a crate of 24 water bottles at a hypermarket. It gives you a little more freedom.