Oman is the new jewel of the Middle East as far as tourism is concerned, with its breathtaking and diverse landscapes, friendly natives and rich, historic culture.
If you only have a week or two, keep your time in the capital Muscat to a couple of days - the real charm lies out of the city to the south and to the west.
A visit to Oman should absolutely include 4x4 hire, the largest you can afford. Take advantage of cheap petrol, which costs less than bottled water, and drive a road trip down the length of the country. This is how to see Oman. Ignore your carbon footprint for now, as it was probably blotted out by the long-haul flight you took to get here. In any case, Oman is completely devoid of a public transport network.
Looking out over the Sharqiyah Desert as the orange sun dips below the horizon, it is easy to imagine Bedouin nomads recounting to each other tales from 1001 Arabian Nights around a flickering fire whilst sipping hot tea laced with cardamon. Water is precious here, and a great deal of emphasis and pride is placed on the simple pleasure of making a brew, a wholesome activity which most countries have in common.
The hypnotic dunes of the Wahibi Desert, Oman
The more popular name for this desert is the Wahibi Sands, but regardless of nomenclature, this is a special place once you're in. The entrance to the desert, which runs 100km north to south and can easily be spotted from space, is well signposted and although there is no fee to enter, you will have to run the gauntlet of Arabs selling anything from authentic Bedouin camping to lessons in 'dune bashing' and lord knows what else before passing into the desert out of sight. I fell prey to the dune bashing lesson scam - an Arab drove me around the sands in my own vehicle, claiming he could do this in Peugeot 106 and not get stuck. That was until the wheels started spinning, and we both had to dig the wheels free in the half-light of the evening. He blamed the low clearance of my Toyota RAV4. In the end, I parted with equivalent of £10 (haggled down from £20). Rerunning it over again in my head afterwards, I rationalised the incident as me paying money to be shown how to get my car stuck in the sand, although after I had forgiven myself for allowing that cash to leave my wallet, I realised that it was a valuable lesson, as I would later find out.
Unless you are in a convoy of jeeps, familiar with the area and adept at dune driving, you are advised to stick to the main track which runs, apparently, all the way through the desert, although as you drive deeper into the sands, the notion of 'track' becomes somewhat obscure.
Vehicles run and up and down the sand track, albeit occasionally, into the night, taking people to and from the several 'Bedouin' tourist camps further into the desert, so it's also advisable to camp slightly away from the main thoroughfare, but not too far away that you drive your vehicle into soft sand.
By day, the Wahibi Desert is both a stunning and foreboding desolation of inestimable parallel and baking hot sand dunes running from north to south. As evening approaches though, the shadows lengthen and the temperature cools and hawks glide over the surface silhouetted against the setting sun as they ride effortlessly up the thermal currents. As the sun disappears completely, the sky is filled with innumerable stars and you will be able to see the edge of the Milky Way. Sit on the roof of your car and watch them flicker, but keep your shoes on and watch out for the scorpions when you step off which run round angrily when you shine the torch on them.
Wahibi Desert to Masirah Island
After a short detour to the pleasant laid back coastal town of Sur, I rejoined highway 32 and raced down to Masirah Island ferry port, knowing full well that whilst behind schedule, the last ferry may wait a little longer until it was full rather than departing exactly on time. Fortunately I was vindicated, although driving hastily through strong crosswinds carrying and thick mist of sand is not recommended. The ferry, an old tank landing craft, departed with me on it as the very last passenger.
This 'selfie' took some time to get right.
After a night in a hotel on the island, I was amazed to have the road right down to the southern tip of the island and beyond completely to myself. Without any public transport in Oman, the roads are good quality and a pleasure to drive on. An hour's drive took me past the southern most point and back up along the eastern side of the island, where I planned to camp for a couple of nights and after some snorkeling, photos, exploring and finally eating, I turned my attention to the beach for the rest of the evening in the hope that an out-of-season turtle would land on the beach. As night was fully upon me, I felt I was too far from the edge of the water and edged the car closer so I was but a few metres from the waves lapping up on the white sandy beach. A couple of hours of periodically shining the torch and headlights on the beach passed and I felt it was time to retreat further back up the beach for bed time. On went the ignition, and I reversed to turn back up the beach. Gears went into first, I accelerated but with no movement. I accelerated slowly again, but I heard just the wheels turning without movement and the sound of wet sand spattering onto the mud guards. A distinct sinking feeling washed over me, as I attempted to reverse back out the way I had come. The only movement I had achieved was vertical, as the wheels spun and the car sank deeper down into the sand.
The next three hours consisted of shoveling, searching, attempting, exerting and cursing, as I tried to free my car from the sand. My main worry was that the tide would rise and consume the entire vehicle, the sea claiming another victim of stupidity. Fortunately, there was no tide to speak of and I continued to clear out the sand, which by now was up to the axle in most places and I recalled Ray Mears or someone warning when it touches the axle you've pretty much had it. Still, I persevered, stuffing what ever detritus from the beach I could find - drift wood and rocks mainly. Each attempt was in vain though and I would move a few inches before the traction failed and the materials I'd gathered broke and flew out in all directions from under the tyres and they spun on their axis without restraint.
The evening wasn't without irony as I stuffed pages I'd ripped out of my booklet 'Driving in the Sand' under the wheels to gain some sort of traction, and chuckled to myself in tired resignation as the wheels aingrily spat the pages back out in all directions. The torn and crumpled pages lay torn and strewn across the beach.
By now, after so many attempts to shift out of this sand trap, I could smell what was probably either gearbox fluid, fuel or burning rubber as some unseen belt under the bonnet heated up under the strain of repeated attempts to rear up out of the grooves which by now were noticeably deep.
It wasn't long before I'd used up all the drift wood I could find in the small perimeter of light that my headlights created, although I could just about make out what I thought was a reasonably-sized branch partially covered and obscured by the sand and which I could break up into small pieces to stuff under the wheels. To my horror, as I bent over to pick it up, the object flexed momentarily then slithered off into the darkness. I was miles from anywhere and had neither seen nor heard any human activity since late morning - I could not afford to bitten by a snake.
It was 0200 and I was done for the night.
I woke early, after a distinctly unsettled sleep interrupted by dreams of serpents in the sand. I counted around 7 gallons on bottled water, so I was unlikely to die of thirst any time soon. It took me 30 minutes to walk back to the main road from my position, and only another 30 minutes before I waved down a Swedish couple in another 4x4. I was very relieved to see not only humans, but English speakers too, although without any rope I knew the chances of rescue from them were slim. A noble yet flawed effort to tie together twine and old rope we'd found on the beach failed.
Fortunately, we didn't have to wait too long before another vehicle, which incidentally in Oman are virtually all 4x4s, passed by which we promptly waved down. The vehicle drove right past to my disbelief, but stopped further down the beach to retrieve something from a large container which I'd noticed the day before but could only hazard a guess at what they were for. As it turned out, they contained rope exactly for this type of scenario. "So that's what they're for!", I murmured to myself.
Before long a throng of nomadic looking fisherman and several Toyota Hilux were gathered round, and the group deliberated for some time in Arabic on my predicament. I felt stupidly western. Eventually, the old timer of the group, whose complexion and hands reflected a lifetime at sea, started barking orders at the younger men, and they set to work digging out the sand using their hands. The rope was secured to the front of my jeep and one of there's and they slowly hauled me out of my predicament under the watchful instruction of the old timer who instilled his instruction in the other Arabs brandishing a crooked walking stick.
Immensely grateful, I dispensed what goods I still had including Italian filter coffee and some Cuban cigars.
My drive back to Muscat was cautious and slow.
Highway 31 inland back to Muscat
For more images from my trip click below.