Travel in Oman
A Wadi of One's Own
| Oman water pools at Wadi Bani
“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
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
| 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.
| Wahiba Sands at sunset.
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.
| Onboard the dhow.
For More Info
English is quite widely spoken except in smaller
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
Oman has a good network of
roads, particularly near and around Muscat and
Nizwa. 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.
option is to join a tour, such as one offered by Intrepid.
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.
vaccinations include Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Tetanus.
Tap water is safe to drink.
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
Oman is a Muslim country and
alcohol is not widely available, although it can
be bought in hotel bars and international restaurants.
Omani Rial is divided into 100 baisas. As
of 2015, 1 OMR = 2.60 USD. Most major towns have
ATMs and exchange bureaux.
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.
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).