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Oman: The Other Middle East

Travel in Oman

A Wadi of One's Own

Oman water pools at Wadi Bani Khalid

Oman water pools at Wadi Bani Khalid.

“Don’t wash your compliance,” the sign by the water pools at Wadi Bani Khalid boldly proclaimed, leaving the group of us sweaty hikers somewhat puzzled. I was ready to throw myself in to cool down as swiftly as possible, “compliance” and all, whatever it might be referring to. I was spending time in the Sultanate of Oman, doing some wadi-hiking and it was hot.

Rumor has it when the U.N. was discussing the independence of Oman in 1971, the delegates had to take a long break to verify the country’s actual location. This little known Sultanate at the end of the Arabian Peninsula has up until recently remained largely unexplored by visitors, but the last decade has seen Oman come into its own. Nevertheless, with the exception of capital Muscat and some of the coastal areas, visitors are still quite few and far between. The Omani people are keen to welcome those intrepid enough to venture further afield to sample the best of the nation. And there is a lot to sample. Oman is the second largest country in the region, after neighboring Saudi-Arabia. The land features a coastline stretching some 1,200 miles along the Arabian Sea, plenty of “Lawrence of Arabia” desert sand dunes, impressive mountains ranges, and a rich historical and cultural heritage.

Oman is a country where many men and women still don traditional garb. Men wear white dishdasha. Women wear black—but ever so colorfully embroidered—abaya. Coffee is the drink of choice, spiced up with large amounts of cardamom and poured from on high, out of large and ornate coffee pots. Traditions seem palpably alive and oil has brought none of the glaring riches of nearby Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Instead, Oman feels quietly understated and refreshingly friendly. Having crossed the border from the Emirates by car—with a wait of some six hours due to a national holiday a few days earlier—I was just getting used to hiking in temperatures hitting 38°C/99°F, and places such as Wadi Bani Khalid were a blessing. Most wadis are dry riverbeds year-round, or hold water only briefly when rare rains set in, but a handful are filled with cool, refreshing streams from the mountains any time of year. Wadi Bani Khalid is a wonderful oasis of green and turquoise pools, surrounded by date palms, while a basic shelter serves as changing room. Unfortunately, this wadi is open to the elements on most sides, making it very hard to be culturally sensitive. Rather than washing “my compliance,” I almost ended up flashing all and sundry while putting on my swimming costume. Most Omani ladies modestly get into the water fully clothed, so in retrospect it would have been more culturally sensitive to have followed their lead. Still, suitably refreshed after a surprisingly cool dip, I was able to face the heat once more.

To avoid the midday heat altogether, early morning starts are by far the best, not just for hiking but for everything from visiting the souk to socializing in the town squares. Women, as well as men, are often out full force in the cooler hours.

The following morning we left our base in the Jebel Akhdar, or Green Mountain, which is part of the Hajjar range. Our group clambered into 4x4s, heading for the intriguingly named “Diana Point.” As it turned out, Princess Diana once camped here and it is not hard to see why she did. At 6,000 feet, the views opening up on all sides were truly spectacular, even if what is known as the “green mountain” was actually every shade of beige this time of year. Turning a corner, the name started making more sense as we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by a flourish of color and every shade of green; a terraced falaj, or irrigation system, was making the small villages positively blossom. Everything from pomegranates and peaches to sweet-smelling pink rose bushes lined our trail as we began the hike a short distance from Diana Point along the well-worn path to a village aptly named Al Ayn—meaning spring or garden.

Villages in the mountains are often a bit off-the-beaten-track, and although not prosperous, they are well-kept and tidy. English is not that widely spoken, so knowing a smattering of friendly phrases in Arabic will come in handy. A quiet walk also offers deeper insights into Omani village life, where people go about their daily business, tilling the terraces, washing in the stream, or just enjoying a coffee and a chat. An hour and a half’s walk along the slopes and irrigation canals, alternating steeply with uphill climbs and knee-bending downhill patches, we reached the end of the day’s hike at Ash-Shirayjah. Even the village sheik, the only person to speak any English, took time to stop and enquire how we liked Oman.

Our next stop for a few nights was the town of Nizwa, one of the oldest cities in Oman, dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries. Nizwa is a former center for Islamic learning with an array of impressive historical buildings such as Nizwa Fort, a purple-domed great mosque completed in the 1650s and one of the country’s liveliest souks. Nizwa is a great base for exploring not just the city itself, but the surrounding wadis—Wadi Tanuf and Wadi Misfah. The old village ruin of Tanuf, right next to its wadi namesake, is a pleasant—if slightly ghostly—place to picnic before setting off along the dry riverbed. Had the scenery been any less spectacular I would have been tempted to give up, but there is nothing quite like a gorge of gorgeous proportions to take your mind off the sweating and panting. An experience something akin to the approach to Petra, Jordan and the Grand Canyon all rolled into one kept me spellbound for the next hour and a half’s meltingly hot hike; towering rock formations surrounded me on both sides, with happy goats skipping past. In Omani society men and women remain quite separate from one another, and under the shade of two trees, an extended family sat picnicking—women and girls under one tree, men and boys under another. A kindly old man wandered over to greet me with a tray full of goat kebabs, which I thoroughly enjoyed. No wonder those goats skipping past us earlier had seemed so happy—they had managed a very lucky escape.

Minaret of the mosque at Nizwa

Minaret of the mosque at Nizwa.

Food in Oman is basic, straight-forward, and unfussy—chicken and goat or lamb inland, fish along the coast—but there is no shortage of choices. Alcohol, on the other hand, is something that can be hard to come by. Although one of the more laid-back Muslim nations in the area, a world away from neighboring Saudi-Arabia, for example, Omani society is still very traditional, and drinking is frowned upon. My guide Assad told me that society is changing fast, particularly in the cities, and marriages are no longer always arranged, but “sometimes if a man can’t find a wife, he will ask his parents to find him one, or if he sees a girl he likes he can ask his parents to speak to her parents.” Although divorce is now allowed, it is not very common. Traveling as a woman, I experienced no hassles whatsoever, and if anything found Omani men always friendly and attentive in a non-threatening way—in cities as well as tiny villages.  

The land is often rugged and mountainous, particularly in the north, but further south lays the desert area known as Wahiba Sands, covering 100 miles by 50 miles, with sand dunes reaching as high as 500 feet. This is the place to spend a few nights, sleeping in a desert camp under the stars, and to try out some exhilarating “dune bashing”—driving (or in my case getting driven) in 4x4s across the sands, sometimes gliding gracefully from dune to dune, sometimes literally flying down them, the desert winds covering the tracks as you drive. Find a quiet spot and watch as the dunes change color from deep golds and oranges, to mauves and pinks when the sun sets. With its long coastline, Oman has a history as a great seafaring nation, trading with India and Zanzibar. The shipyard at Sur, in the northeastern corner, still builds the famous dhows that used to ply the old trade routes. After the desert adventure I decided it was time to do a bit of seafaring myself, although I had to wait until I got to Muscat, the Omani capital, where you can rent one with a crew. Dhows are big, sturdy, wooden boats, and I soon felt myself slipping back in time, rocked by the gentle motion of the waves, impressive mountains and clear, translucent waters all around me, giving the place a complete air of timelessness. Perhaps it would be unfair to wish for Oman to remain a quiet backwater, but it is almost impossible not to want time to stand still here just a little while longer.

	Wahiba Sands at sunset.

Wahiba Sands at sunset.


Onboard the dhow

Onboard the dhow.


For More Info

Capital: Muscat

Language: Arabic, English is quite widely spoken except in smaller villages.

Getting There and Local Travel: Many airlines, including national carrier Oman Air, serve Seeb International Airport, some 40 km outside Muscat. British Airways have flights via Bahrain or Abu Dhabi. Other international carriers include Lufthansa, Emirates and Gulf Air.

Oman has a good network of roads, particularly near and around Muscat and Nizwa and despite the damage caused by cyclone Gonu in 2007 a lot of work has been done to restore infrastructure. Renting a car is a good option, with or without a driver, as many of the good hiking spots cannot be reached by public transport. Cars can be rented from as little as $175/week.

Another option is to join a tour, such as Ramblers Worldwide Holidays’ (www.ramblersholidays.co.uk) 13-day Arabian Nights hiking trip from £1668.00.

When to go: If focusing on hiking, the season runs from early October through to the end of March—any later and it gets too hot. Summers, as a rule, are hot and humid. Bear in mind that Oman is mountainous and also has a desert climate, so nights can get a bit chilly.

Health: Recommended vaccinations include Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Tetanus. Tap water is safe to drink.

Accommodation: Although Oman does have an increasing number of 4 and 5-star properties and very basic accommodations, mid-range hotels, and guest houses are much thinner on the ground. Expect to pay up to 45 Omani Rials for a reasonable standard, but if you’re not scared of roughing it, you could find a hostel for as little as 10 OMR.

Eating and drinking: If accommodation is pricey, meals are much better value and good food can be had for as little as a couple of Rial.

Fish dishes are popular along the coast, and chicken, lamb and goat feature heavily inland. Most dishes are served with rice, and a number of different spices are used in cooking, as Oman used to be part of the spice trade with Zanzibar and retains strong links with that island.

Coffee is as ubiquitous as mint tea in Morocco and it is deemed very rude to turn down the offer of a cup. Known as Khawa, it is flavored with cardamom, very tasty and often very strong.

Oman is a Muslim country and alcohol is not widely available, although it can be bought in hotel bars and international restaurants.

Money: The Omani Rial is divided into 100 baisas. As of 2008, 1 OMR = 2.60 USD. Most major towns have ATMs and exchange bureaux.

Visas: Visitor visas valid for a 1-month stay may be obtained on arrival for citizens of over 60 countries including the European Union, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Japan.

Equipment: Long-sleeved shirts and pants, high factor sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent and plenty of water. Comfortable footwear is critical. Women should take a head scarf if entering a mosque.

Guidebooks and further reading: For a general guide to Oman, check out the Oman UAE & Arabian Peninsula (Multi Country Guide). The tourist board website offers lots of useful info: www.omantourism.gov.om. There is also the Ministry of Information website for further info: www.omanet.om.