Most people will imagine a flat, dry, featureless landscape when you mention the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Some will not know what to imagine at all. Only when you mention exotic-sounding Muscat, Salalah, the Strait of Hormuz and Ras Musandam, will people realize the area is more than just a sandbox. Pearl of the region is Oman, with two very distinct climate zones, a great mountain range, a gorgeous seaside and beautiful underwater scenery.
Oman has a very special place in our hearts. Melody’s parents and mine lived here, working for an international oil company, in the early eighties. I clearly remember Oman, as I spent my childhood years between age 6 and age 10 in this magnificent country. Melody’s memories are a bit less clear, as she was younger, but she still remembers enough to make our trip here feel like coming home. For those doing a quick calculation, yes, we lived in Oman at the same time. I remember my (now) sister-in-law, Nienke, who was in my class at school, had a younger sister: Melody. Who would have thought we would ever return here, the two of us, married and on the road!
Our visit to Oman was a definite turning point in our travels. We had slowed down, and were going to take our merry time exploring. No crazy stuff happened to us in Oman; instead, we enjoyed the nature, scenery and freedom that only a scarcely inhabited country can offer. Camping was great, just drive of the road and find your spot.
Arrival – Mom and Dad
The road from the United Arab Emirates is good, and we crossed the border south of the Hajar, the great Omani mountain range that runs below the northern shoreline. As soon as we crossed the border we sent a sms, and several kilometers down the road we pulled over next to a white, rented four wheel drive. My parents, Peter and Thea Kloet, were waiting for us!
My parents never got the Oman-virus out of their systems. Every couple of years (sometimes every year) they book a flight and rent a 4×4 to head out into the Omani hinterlands. Experienced desert-travelers, they do not need much equipment, just a basic tent, a few chairs, some cooking tools, a cool box, a large supply of water, a GPS and some maps (though they don’t need the maps any more, really). There is nothing more to it to explore this great country.
Our meeting was planned: they had been in country several weeks already, and the next two weeks we would travel together. The wealth of information they posses regarding the sites, activities and local customs proved incredibly useful. It was great to meet up with them, share our travel stories, and enjoy my mothers home cooking.
The mountain range along the northern coastline of Oman starts to rise a few kilometers from the seaside. Rough cliff-faces, rugged terrain, and astounding rock formations dominate the views. This is largely due to the unique geology of the area. Tectonic activity has lifted the ocean floor, through the millennia, to a height of 2980 meters. The tectonic plate has cracked along the mountain fronts, creating deep, narrow gorges and cliffs, and the layers of different types of rock have created elaborate underground water cisterns and rivers. Sinkholes and marine fossils riddle the highest levels of the mountain range.
Civilization is old here. The archeological UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn are the most complete collection of settlements and necropolises from the third millennium BC. Also known as the Beehive Tombs, these small but incredibly sturdy stone ‘igloos’ have stood the test of time, and hopefully will remain intact for the next few millennia. A perimeter fence does not protect the sites, strangely. There are no guards, nor any facilities. Though of outstanding quality, the sites do not merit more than a half hour visit, unless you are an archeology buff.
Beautiful green Wadis intersect the Hajar. Wadis are riverbeds, ranging from valleys several kilometers wide to gorges that are too narrow to fit a car. In the Wadis, humanity has made her stance against the inhospitable climate. Little settlements cling to the sides of the riverbeds, surrounded by date palms, high above the Wadi floor. This is to protect against dangerous flash floods caused by the infrequent rain. To make the most of the sparse water, the locals build small and elevated mud-brick canals, called Falaj, to irrigate their fields and palms.
Wadi Dam is a perfect example of the diversity of the Hajar Mountains. Crossing arid land, you will reach a small settlement, clustered against the mountains. Behind it you can climb into the Wadi that holds a beautiful Falaj system. The further you head down the Wadi, the smoother the 100-meter high cliffs surrounding you become due to water and wind erosion. Then you will find pools, crystal-clear blue-green reservoirs of water hidden in the rocky valley floor. These pools can be 10 or more meters deep, slowly overflowing from one to the next, creating the most wonderful swimming experience ever.
Taking a steep tarmac road up, strong four-wheel drives only, the Saiq Plateau is the highest area of the Hajar. Also known as the Djebel Akdar, surrounding Oman’s highest mountain, this area was off-limits to foreigners until a few years back, due to a rebel tribe hiding here. Impenetrable villages stuck hundreds of meters high on cliff walls, only accessible to mountain goats it seems. Now opened up, the plateau provides the best fruit in Oman, like pomegranates and apricots, and lends itself to wonderful walks to hidden villages and deserted settlements.
This beautiful city is one of the oldest settlements in Oman. It lies at an important intersection of ancient caravan routes, connected to the coast through the important Sumail gap, between the eastern and western Hajar mountain ranges. Famous for it’s massive fort, traditional Souq (marketplace) and most beautiful Falaj system in the area (World Heritage site) it is a perfect place to stock up on supplies before heading south into the desert proper.
Sand dunes up to a hundred meters high welcome you to the Ramlat al-Wahiba, one of the most spectacular and diverse desert regions of the world. Though small, the area holds several distinct areas. The north, where we entered, was formed by converging winds creating mega-ridges on a north-south line, so navigation is easy. Driving is also easy: beneath the surface sand is a layer of cemented carbonate sand. The further we headed, the more difficult driving became, especially in heavy-laden Fiona. She did great though, and with half-deflated tires to increase traction, we made it over the much softer dunes of the southeast. A beautiful vista greeted us, with the sand dunes gradually sloping down to the blue-green Arabian Sea. Time for swimming!
Heading north, back up the coast, we entered an area of white sand covered by gnarled and goat-resistant (thorny) trees. Aptly named the ‘Woodlands’, it is slightly bizarre to see a forest rising up out of the white sand dunes, and quite unbelievable that these trees seem to find enough water to survive.
Ras al-Jinz, in the Sharqiya region, is famous for its sea turtle spotting. It is not allowed to visit the beaches unless you are a local, nor is camping along the coast. All this is done to protect the breeding grounds of at least six different species of sea turtles. Instead, a modern visitor’s centre welcomes you, with sleeping accommodations. That night we headed out with a guide to spot some green turtles laying their eggs in the sand (an exhausting process for the turtles) and maybe even some little turtles hatching and making their way to the safe sea. We got lucky and saw both.
The next morning at 5 AM we headed to the beach again (only 500 meters from the visitors centre) to see a last turtle laboriously making her way back to the sea. The tracks on the beach indicated it had been a busy night.
Next on our itinerary was the cape of Ras al-Had, where depending on the tide you can wade out to the famous Omani Dhows (sailing ships) lying on the sand. Oman was a great nation of seafarers in the past, conquering large parts of East-Africa as far south as Zanzibar. Heading north-west along the coast, we visited Sur, where these beautiful ships are nowadays still build by hand. Local legend states that Sinbad the Sailor would only head out on his famous adventures if aboard a Dhow made in Sur.
The coastline leading to Muscat is astoundingly beautiful, ranging from sharp cliffs falling into the sea to Wadis snaking inland, filled with fresh water and palm trees. We camped by the beach a few nights, sleeping under the stars by the soothing sounds of the sea.
The capital of Oman is a controversy between old and new. We were not here to explore the city though, we were here to meet Melody’s childhood friend Claire Careil. She lives in Muscat, and we were more than welcome to stay at her house for a few days, as we had a lot to do in Muscat, like arranging our visas for Iran. We felt right at home with Claire, who took so much time to show us around, and took us to the perfect restaurants and bars. Thank you again for your hospitality!
The next night we picked up Stephanie Verwijmeren from the airport: our first visitor to travel with us. She would join us for the next two weeks. Another expat-brat, Stephanie has also spent some childhood years in Oman. What a great experience, to have such a close friend join us on our amazing adventure.