’Round the world in 72 days: Oman

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 57 of the July 2011 issue.

by Philip Wagenaar (Last of nine parts)

In the June ’11 issue, I recounted our entry into Oman, which my wife, Flory, and I visited in November 2009 as part of our ’round-the-world tour. In this issue, I continue relating our experience in Oman, where our touring arrangements were all-inclusive of hotels, vehicle and driver/guide.

Muscat to Sur

After two more round trips, with Muscat as our base, we left on our fourth day for Sur, a city in the northeast. Rath ser than taking the new 87-kilometer expressway, we traveled the old, rugged and scenic coastal road, which is paved only until Qurayat. This very large fishing village has a port that is still protected by a distinctive, three-sided lookout tower dating back to 1635.

The fun really started after Qurayat, with the now-unpaved road jarring and rocking us as the 4x4 bumped along Wadi Dayqah’s rough bed.

The most scenic part of the route goes inland via Mazara, an attractive village surrounded by plantations and reddish-brown mountains. After Mazara, the road meanders across a barren desert toward the Gulf of Oman, where pristine beaches stretch for miles.

We overnighted at the Sur Plaza Hotel (Sur; phone [968] 25543777, fax 25542626)). (I’m only mentioning hotels that I feel are superior and worth staying at.)

Sur to Wadi Bani Khalid to Wahiba Sands

The next morning we visited the dhow (a traditional Arab boat with a triangular sail) yards in Sur, where craftsmen were building wooden boats from scratch.

Afterward, it was on to Wadi Bani Khalid along a dizzying, zigzagging road climbing into the Eastern Hajar Mountains. Close to the floor of the wadi (riverbed), in which water flows throughout the year, are numerous villages and plantations. Clear, warm-water pools arising from natural springs at the upper end of the wadi allow swimming. (In view of modesty, swimming is done in your clothes.)

After leaving the wadi, we stopped at a service station, where air was removed from our tires to facilitate negotiating the Wahiba Sands. Running from north to south, this is a series of large dunes where Bedouins, who raise camels for racing, have their homes. While the Bedouins originally were nomads, many now live in permanent dwellings.

Visiting a tent set up for tourists, we were offered dates and tiny cups of coffee and, of course, were shown rugs which were for sale.

We overnighted at Desert Nights Camp (Al Wasil; phone [968] 92818388), a new deluxe camp near Al Wasil that has tent-roofed cabins each with bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, air-conditioning, mini-bar and tea- and coffee-making facilities — quite different from the camping ambiance we had expected and definitely luxurious.

Jebel Akhdar

From the Wahiba Sands we drove to Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) in the central part of the Hajar Mountains. While the area consists mostly of tall peaks and steep canyons, the villages on the Saiq Plateau are an exception, as their terraces are set on precipitous mountain slopes, making you wonder how people were able to develop them.

The plateau, which at 6,000 feet gets more rain than much of the country, supports agriculture and gives the mountain range its name. Especially famous is its fruit and the desert rose from which rose water is extracted. The rose water is used to make perfume and desserts.

While for hundreds of years the Saiq Plateau required a six-hour climb by foot or special jebel (mountain) donkey on a near-perpendicular trail, the presence of a military road made it possible for us to go there by car.

The Sultan has designated part of this mountain a national park in order to preserve the Arabian tahr, a unique class of white goat.

Jebel Akhdar to Al Hamra to Bahla-Nizwa

Next on our program was a visit to 400-year-old Al Hamra. The town, which lies at the bottom of Jebel Akhdar, has Oman’s oldest preserved mud-brick houses, a number of which are still inhabited.

To our chagrin, many had modern touches, such as TV aerials and A/C. As the aflāj (irrigation channels) flow through several houses near the edge, you can watch women do their laundry and wash their dishes in the streams and pools.

We continued to Bahla, a town surrounded by seven-mile-long adobe walls. The settlement is well known for its pottery and its 13th-and 14th-century fort. The latter is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Next, it was on to Nizwa, which was Oman’s capital in the sixth and seventh centuries and which lies at the junction of two wadis.

Nizwa’s fort, famous for its 40-meter-tall round tower, was built in 1668 and restored in 1990. When you climb to the top, you can see the date plantations around the town, which are irrigated by the aflāj. In days past, the district governor lived in the fort’s tower… until drenching rains buckled the roof. 

We overnighted in Nizwa in a room in the new wing of the Falaj Daris Hotel (Nizwa; phone [968] 25410500, fax 5410537).

Nizwa to Jebel Shams to Nizwa

The next day we went to Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun), which at 10,000 feet is the highest mountain in Oman and part of the Jebel Akhdar region. The partially paved road traverses a stark moonscape with occasional bushes and offers breathtaking views inside spectacular canyons with sheer walls. One of those is known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

The road ends at a small resort at the top, the Jabal (or Jebel) Shams Travelling Hotel & Camping Centre (P.O. Box 617, Postal Code 132, Al Hamra, Al Dhakliya, Sultanate of Oman), which has modern rooms with facilities en suite and A/C and is close to the canyon rim.

We had lunch at the resort’s restaurant, where we met several British tourists. They told us they were hiking the trail to the edge of the canyon, from where they could observe the villages at the bottom of the steep gorge.

We never saw any Americans during our entire stay in Oman.

We overnighted at the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Al Ain (Al Ain, United Arab Emirates; phone +971 3/7838888 or fax 7839000), a quite modern and pleasant hotel with beautiful views over the countryside from its location up on the mountain. The hotel is located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

I recommend “Oman, the Bradt Travel Guide” by Diane Darks and Sandra Shields (2010, second edition, ISBN 978 1 84162 332).

Oman is a country my wife, Flory, and I found so different, wonderful and fascinating that I recommend everyone to visit it.

And this, dear reader, concludes my tales of our wonderful ’round-the-world tour.