Oman. We chose this destination for our winter break because we'd read that it had a lot to offer in terms of diverse nature, along with easy e-visa entry and nice highways. Plus, this was the only time of year that you can visit, do all the outdoor stuff, and not die of heatstroke. As I did my initial Google image searches trying to see what some of the highlights were, I was surprised to see the contrasts of mountains, sand dune deserts, beautiful oases like you would see in a movie, and sapphire blue waters. Our trip lasted 14 days, but I must admit that 7 nights were spent in Muscat or nearby just relaxing in resorts, so if you want to see the highlights of Oman in a week it's definitely doable. I will attempt an overview of some of the experiences we had and tips we learned on this journey.
My first impression of Oman was that I had arrived in the Middle East that I had envisioned- in a good way! The capital city, Muscat, is practically devoid of large, modern buildings and skyscrapers, instead keeping with more traditional-looking buildings made of (or made to look like they're made of) mud brick with an exterior mud stucco. Buildings are mostly very square in shape with a small square room sitting alone on the roof. I've read that in traditional Palestinian homes this room on the roof was the guest room, but I don't know if that's the same throughout the Middle East or not. In addition to the lack of building eyesores, I was surprised by how traditionally Omani men and women dressed. Men wear the long, white dishdasha as their everyday clothes with a kummah (embroidered hat) and women cover their hair and clothes with the black abaya. There are small differences in embroidery on dishdashas and abayas, but they look generally the same, and make for beautiful contrasts to the surroundings. The traditional with the modern.
Mountains and Forts
All around Oman we saw forts. The ancient towers peek down at you from the tops of so many desert hills and along the rugged coastline. Most of the time the tower is not accompanied by an entire castle-fortress, but on some occasions it is. We were lucky enough to take a look back in time to discover some of the secrets of three different forts; Al Hazm, Al Rustaq, and Nizwa forts. These three forts have all been restored extensively to reflect their near-original state. Among the common features you would find 1) the cannon tower, fitted with 360 degrees of small windows to shoot cannons, 2) some sort of canal water system, usually spring-fed, and 3) a special private prayer room for the highly-cherished imam (sort of like the "priest" of the mosque). Of these forts, our absolute favorite was Al Hazm. Although not as widely known as the other two, it is the most well-kept and includes a free audio-guide that isn't too long-winded. Also, there was a secret tunnel, and who doesn't love a good secret passageway? Most visitors to Oman will make Nizwa one of their stops enroute to the mountains, as we also did, but if you can swing it, Al Hazm fort is the best we saw if you want to really wrap your head around the history, architecture, and everyday life of those living within the fort.
As we hadn't rented a 4wd vehicle, we were limited in the mountains to villages that were easily accessible. The town of Nizwa fit the bill and we spent one lovely night reliving a piece of history at the Nizwa Heritage Inn. This project took six houses in the crumbling, old town of Nizwa and restored them with modern amenities (read: AC, running water, electricity). The room we occupied on our house was composed of a sitting room and a bedroom, plus a bathroom. I was fascinated by the architecture of the reconstruction, as our walls were made of mud-brick, and the ceiling was painted palm beams and fronds. Niches in the walls reflect how the original architecture actually was, as these were used to store all household items, the more fragile ones at a level where small children could not reach. In addition to this historical gem of a hotel, we were steps away from the souks and a few minutes walk to the fort.
The souks (markets) were fun to explore, with new, covered, modern market buildings that included subdivisions for stalls. They seem a sliver of what they once were, though, with few stalls occupying each building (except for the "craft" souk, which housed all the tourist souvenirs). Our favorite find was a small fish restaurant just behind the goat souk (goat market sadly open only on Fridays and we were there on a Wednesday/Thursday). Here you walk up to the counter, choose your fish (we had some sort of white fish and squid), tell them if you want it spicy or not, and sit down outside. For the very large portion of food we ordered, we couldn't believe that the bill totaled only about $10. You can definitely find affordable hidden gems in Oman if you're willing to take risks.
On our way out of Nizwa, we stopped at an overlook to an old, abandoned oasis town called Birkat al Mouz, originally fed by springs and canals (falaj is the Arabic word). Although we took some pictures of the view, we didn't go wander the crumbling alleyways. If I return to this area of Oman it is something I would definitely do. Instead, we were on our way to the desert and wanted to reach our destination in time for sunset, so off we went. In the photo below, notice the extensive date palm trees. Dates are an important food in the Middle East and are traditionally given to guests upon arrival.
We discovered that really the majority of the inner part of Oman is desert, but we were particularly interested in the dunes. Years ago, on a trip in northwestern China, we spent a night camping in the Taklamakan desert. It was magical, and I wanted that again.
Enroute we detoured to another desert oasis, the Wadi bani Khaled. Wadi is a word I'd never heard prior to Oman, but now I see the reference everywhere. In summary, a wadi is a river bed that may or may not have water. The rainy season may bring high water levels, but during the dry season (when we were there) the wadis run dry. Except, of course, those that are spring fed.
Wadi bani Khaled was an easy 30 minute drive in our car from the main highway. You park and follow a falaj to a pool of blue-green water surrounded by palm trees. From there you can continue to follow a rocky path to another set of pools surrounded by white cliffs. We arrived around 2pm and it seemed like a large number of tourists were on their way out, but tourists there were. Swimming was the draw here, especially in the small pools farther back. We hadn't planned on it, but we did dip our feet in the water for a bit. This was our first experience with a water-filled wadi, and it was truly breathtaking. The pool and greenery are a stark contrast to the desert we had spent the day driving through. After a couple of relaxing hours we were back on our way.
Our first night was spend "glamping" at a desert tourist camp called Al Reem. We chose this one because it is in the southern part of the desert and as it was the weekend we didn't want to be too close to Muscat and have to deal with the weekenders. Also, this camp had a hard dirt road allowing our car to drive us there, whereas most desert camps ask you to meet at a pick up point and pay exorbitant fees for them to take you in. This camp was very nice, although we did book a fancy suite (on accident, but alas) so we had a super colorful bedroom with sitting area, patio, and private bathroom. One of my favorite parts of this camp is that there are so many outdoor sitting areas! There are at least 3 or 4 large tents with Bedouin-style seating, along with a billiards tent, a dining tent, and probably some other areas we didn't get to explore. Breakfast and dinner were included and we ate well, tasting lots of curried dishes (there's a big Indian influence in Oman) and roasted chicken. The dunes were at the edge of the camp, but I was disappointed to discover that there were only a few dunes. We still climbed them, watched the sun set, and enjoyed how soft the extra fine sand felt between our fingers and toes.
The next morning we were at a loss. The camp was booked solid for the next week and although we really wanted to set up our tent in the desert somewhere (we had borrowed camping supplies from a friend), we couldn't find a way into the dunes that was passable with our lowly car. With a combined effort of Google Maps satellite view and Maps.me, we managed to find a nearby area that really, really looked to be a paved path into the desert. So we gave it a try. It was perfect.
For anyone reading who wants the perfect camping spot in the desert among the dunes on a paved road, the map is embedded below. Beneath that pinned tree, we set up camp for the night. It was glorious.
*If you zoom out on the map far enough you can see the topography of the desert. The dunes run from north to south in a consistent pattern.
Even though it was the coolest time of year to visit Oman, when there's nothing around you but sand, it gets hot. Thus, setting up the tent beneath a tree at 11:00am was the perfect choice. We made a quick trip into the nearby town for sustenance, then returned and spent the day alternating between reading our books and wandering the dunes. There was a brief windy period around sunset that got the sand all stirred up for about 30 minutes. It was enough time to coat the food I had just prepared with a fine layer of sand, making the consumption immediately necessary and less than enjoyable. Luckily we had only made salads, so it wasn't like some delectable entree was ruined. After roaming the dunes for sunset, gathering stray pieces of firewood (there were a few trees around, and we managed to scrape up enough), Rex got the fire started and we used a little camping kettle to boil some water for tea. Yes, it got chilly at night, but not nearly as cold as the textbooks say. It was just around 15C (60F) and breezy.
Our campsite was almost perfect, except we found that this nothing road that went into the dunes was actually quite popular. There were 2 or 3 desert camps down the road a way, but this produced actual traffic (defined as a car about ever 5 or 10 minutes) on a consistent basis. That doesn't sound like much, but we were hoping for an isolated location so it was a bit annoying. So if you choose this spot, take note that there will be some vehicular disturbance.
I probably could have spent another lazy day and night in the dunes, but our next adventure called us to the dust bowl of a town called Ras al Had. We were drawn here by lore of this being a sea turtle nesting ground, and we were hoping to catch a glimpse. After some research and weighing options between a group tour or trying our luck by just wandering, we decided on the latter. Around 8pm, this was about 2.5 hrs after sunset during December, we drove to the sandy beach on the Ras al Jinz side of town and parked. Google Maps calls this the "Al Hadd beach for turtles" and Maps.me calls it the "turtle watching beach." We were stopped almost immediately by a ranger as soon as we started walking down the beach with our flashlights, telling us the beach was closed because of the turtles. Of course we had just encountered a local taking a couple of French guys down a path behind this beach to go to another area that was also "closed" so we sold them out and all of a sudden the ranger said, "It's okay, you can go. Just don't use the light. Or just use a little bit of light." In hindsight, I wish he would have stuck to his guns and disallowed us (and other tourists) from disturbing these poor mamas just trying to lay their eggs.
As we walked down the beach with our flashlights mostly covered in our hands, we didn't really know what we were looking for. I assumed we'd be looking for tracks, but I had no clue what that meant. Once we passed a strange looking track that to me looked like something a 4-wheeler would leave. About 5 minutes later we came upon something identical, but this time I rationalized a bit more. Have we actually ever seen a 4-wheeler in Oman? Why would it be going straight down to the water? So I began to follow the tracks away from the shore. About 10 steps in I saw what at first appeared to be a huge, black rock. As I approached, I realized the rock was moving. I had found a turtle! It haunts me to this day to remember the sound of surprise she made when I came upon her with the flashlight. So we turned off our lights, stood back a ways, and just watched her scoot along the sand. It didn't take long for her to choose a nesting spot. To us it appeared that she just plopped down hard, and then started kicking sand everywhere! After a few minutes of flying sand, we heard a strange noise which I can only assume to be a clutch of eggs leaving her body. We continued "watching" (more like listening) for about 15 minutes longer before she finished and scooted on to another location. Luckily I read before we went out that Green Sea turtles make two nests, one real one and one fake one to deter predators, so I think this is what she went to do next. Same thing, minus the egg laying sounds. We decided to go find the turtle that the first set of tracks had belonged to, as we'd already seen this lady do her night's work. Walking back down the beach the way we came, we found the tracks and followed them to what was clearly the finished nest, and then onward a bit further. This turtle was in the midst of making her second "fake" next and again, poor thing, made that surprised sound when I came upon her with my light. Hence why I think the rangers should really make a serious effort to keep people off the nesting beach at night. We were the only people on this beach right then, but I'm sure it's a nightly disturbance. We got to watch this turtle make her way... slowly... back towards the water until she was carried off by the waves. So long, mama!
Clearly I'm conflicted about this experience. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing to witness, and the fact that we just strolled down a nesting beach and saw two turtles during off season was pretty incredible. That said, I was upset by how much our presence disturbed the turtles. I think if I had gone on the "tour" with 100 other people I would have been especially angry. I can't imagine a mass of tourists respecting the sanctity of this event.
We spent the night of the sea turtle spotting in a hotel, but already had plans to drive up the coast to find a nice camping spot on a beach for the next night, so the next morning we packed up and headed out. We passed through the town of Sur on our way north which was a gorgeous little town with a couple of old fort towers (shocking!) and a lovely beach nestled against another turquoise body of water. We had briefly visited the previous night for dinner, as there were literally no eateries in Ras al Had, so we'd snapped some shots of the views and watched several groups of men playing football (soccer) in the sand.
Maps.me along with tips from a colleague helped us find our way along some dirt roads to investigate a few potential camping sites. I was really envisioning setting up a tent on a sandy beach, but this was not to be, mainly as the beaches in this area were more rocky and the few sandy spots were within reach of the tide. Eventually we came to a spot that was perfect. There was a flat landing on a cliff overlooking a tiny little beach bay. As we set up our tent and took in the view we couldn't believe how lucky we'd been with this location. This entire area is known for having various campsites along the cliffs and is especially popular with expats... and it was a holiday. Every cliff around us was already taken, but somehow we managed to find the one with the most stunning view.
Cue another perfect afternoon of reading our books, watching the sunset, starting a fire, and sleeping beneath the stars. Almost better was the sound of the waves, lulling us to sleep. We couldn't have had a more perfect location if we had paid $500 for a night at the Shangri-La... which we had looked into, but quickly disregarded due to cost.
The next morning I awoke as the sky was beginning to lighten. Only a few times in my life have I woken up early enough, and in the right location to witness the rainbow colored horizon about a half hour before dawn. I fired up the camp stove to make my coffee and sat mesmerized for the next hour, watching the colors in the sky fade only for new ones to emerge in the blue waters below me.
Below the photos you can find a map to this special location. Access the route from the town of Fins, passing by Fins beach and continuing onward down the road for a few more kilometers.
By 7:30am we were packed up and on our way to Wadi Shab. We had been warned that this wadi is very popular and gets busy so we should go early. Pulling up to the parking area, we were the second car to arrive. This wadi hike begins with a very short boat ride across the mouth of the wadi to get to the trail on the other side. The boatmen were ready to take us upon arrival at 7:45am for 1 rial per person. The trail was a nice, leisurely stroll along the riverbed with massive cliffs reaching up on either side. A few times there were pools of blue water, date palms growing around the edge. At the end of the trail there is a swimming hole where we stopped for a bit to allow ourselves a natural "fish spa" (where the minnows nibble the dead skin off your feet!) A popular thing to do is swim to a small cave in the pool, but we opted not to swim. It was a cool morning and I wasn't excited to get my clothes wet for the rest of the day. I truly enjoyed these oasis hikes, and this one was exceptionally relaxing. On our way back to the car, groups were showing up in droves. This made me thankful for the warnings about arriving early.
On the final stretch back to Muscat we made two more stops. The first was at the Bimmah sinkhole, which may have been impressive had we not just seen the beautiful wadi and also if there weren't so many people swimming. There was also the old fishing port of Quriyat. This was a brief stop to take some photos and have lunch, but the contrast of water backed by mountains was impressive.
Back in Muscat, we knew we hadn't done proper exploring so took some time to delve deeper the last few days of our trip. Highlights include the Grand Mosque named for the great Sultan Qaboos and the old fishing village of Muttrah. The Grand Mosque had a nice grounds to wander, with niches of tilework made to reflect different eras of Islamic architecture around the world. The inside of the mosque itself was impressive with a beautiful dome displaying colorful ceramic tiles and calligraphy, plus the largest purpose-made carpet in the world. Mostly, we just took it easy in Muscat for the last few days, enjoying the beach at Qurum and the pool on the roof of our hotel.
Oman was a delightful peek into a completely different culture, and I enjoyed the time to take that look and reflect. As we boarded our flight back to Beirut I also found myself being thankful that we live in "Middle East light" and not in a true Middle Eastern country. Sure, Oman touts its progressiveness on women's rights, but the country remains very gender segregated, with separate women's and men's everything. We entered a restaurant in the coastal town of Sur only to be informed that we needed to take ourselves out and reenter through the "family" entrance. Looking around we noticed that this area was akin to a "boys' club" and clearly I, as a female, was unwelcome. The constant reminders at the beaches, wadis, and pools, asked women to cover their shoulders and down to their knees while swimming. I understand being respectful of the local culture, but women's bodies were definitely policed to a high degree. Including the end of my pony tail, as I discovered when we were attempting to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque (that sexy hair!) And there's the sultan himself, who is openly gay in his own country where this is illegal. The man who makes the laws. What irony.
A very, very special thanks goes out to my former PSI student, Stefan, and his dad, Peter. They were the ones who set us up so beautifully with the camping gear. Those nights camping were far and away my two favorites, so in essence you both made our trip! Also a shout out to my former colleague, Dave, who will never read this, and to a current one, Joanne, for their fantastic tips and recommendations about exploring Oman.