We had a very pleasant arrival into Muscat by not having to pay $60 each for a visa on arrival because we had spent a week in Dubai. A tourist information counter right next to the baggage belts employed an older gentleman dressed in a typical Omani long tunic with snug fitting cap who couldn’t have been more helpful. We had been told that the Omanis were most welcoming and we experienced that on our first day there and indeed for the rest of our two weeks there. The man gave us an assortment of maps and took his time to advise us of the places we should visit in and around Oman. The car hire people at Europcar were also extremely efficient and friendly as well as the local “Omantel” company where we bought a sim card for internet and calls.
We hired a car for the two weeks as public transport was non existent and we wanted to drive over 1000 kilometres down
to Salalah which is not too far from Yemen.
Muscat was quite a contrast to Dubai and Oman in general is geographically vastly different from its UAE neighbour.
Dubai lies mostly on sand whereas Oman has a largely varied landscape with mountains of many shapes and colours to the north and west of Muscat and then another large mountain range in the south. The deserts of the interior vary in colour as well as
the sandunes to the south which ranged from white to almost orange. We covered a lot of the country and everywhere there were highways, roads, bridges and overpasses being built. There were also many newly finished offices and appartments throughout the country with some ornate two storey houses built in between older single storey houses. Some of the villages have remained as they were hundreds of years ago. There were very few high rise buildings and no skyscrapers to be seen and apparently Sultan Qaboos a revered ruler wanted to keep it that way.
There was much celebration for two nights with cars blowing their horns (not that they don’t normally) but this was excessive. The people were waving flags from their cars and sitting on their cars waving flags. We thought that Oman must have won a soccer match but it was in aid of their leader Sultan Qaboos Said al Said who had just addressed the nation from a hospital in Germany where he had undergone major surgery. Many Omanis are very patriotic with the country’s flag as well as the Sultan’s picture on cars,in shops and businesses as well as hanging from lamposts especially for the 14th November, Oman’s 44th National Day.
Our friends Marianne and Franz who worked in Muscat in the early seventies just after the city was opened to foreigners (previously ex pats lived in a compound and were not allowed into the city). They said that it was a fascinating place then. Every night the city gates were locked. They wouldn’t recognise the place now with all the construction that has gone on over the last 10-15years albeit low rise. They have spent an incredible amount on new
highways, overpasses and bridges and the work is still going on all over the country. The highways are superb and even the secondary roads are excellent. They have no tunnels and the highways have all been cut through the mountains.
In Oman the drivers don’t seem to speed quite as much as in Dubai where they only have one speed – flat out.
We were very pleased and greatly relieved when the brakes on our hire car worked very well so as to not slam into the car in front of us in peak hour traffic. There would only have been a couple of fingers between the cars.
We just happened to be in such traffic because we got lost and ended up in the mountains outside Muscat. We were trying to get back to our guesthouse in the suburbs but the internet stopped working and google maps therefore didn’t work. We were able to turn around after about 10 kilometes and made our way back in the dark to Al Seeb and the guesthouse where we stayed.
We had brought our Tom Tom to Dubai and wanted to download a map of Oman on our new device however Tom Tom advised us that it was only available on old Tom Toms which didn’t make sense to us.
“Behlys Guesthouse” which was more like a large suburban two storey brand new house with large rooms was conveniently located near the beach and opposite was a take away kebab shop, a “beuty saloon!” and a small supermarket. The landlord was a very pleasant Omani and it was run by a helpful German man, Oliver.
We found a quaint “coffee shop” which was really a small restaurant and not a coffee shop on the corniche along the seafront and which seemed to be popular after it had cooled down to about 26 degrees in the evening.
The shop had plastic tables and chairs outside facing the Sea of Oman and we enjoyed hoummos, arabic salad (so named),a plate of falafel and a vegetable korma with plenty of parathas and delicious large lemon and mint drinks for the princely sum of just under AUD9 or 2.8riyals.
Car hire and accommodation was quite expensive in some places especially the in the desert where some overnight stays were up to $600 a night and most comments were that one could pay a lot of money for accommodation and the standard not be what it should be. We were lucky in the places we chose which were midrange from $60 along the highway to $180 in the desert camp.
Our German landlord told us that it is only in the last 10 years that Oman has “taken off” as a tourist destination and is becoming ever more popular as one of the few Arab countries to still be peaceful and retain a lot of it’s culture and heritage. As there is no public transport most people either travel in a group or a few tourists hire a car as we did or a 4WD to be able to access some of the unsealed and steep mountain roads. He believed that it would never be an enormous tourist destination for backpackers due to the lack of public transport and the great distances.
It took a bit of getting used to converting the currency to our dollar. In the UAE 3 dirhams equals AUD1.00 however in Oman 1 riyal equals AUD3.00 so instead of dividing the currency we had to multiply it.
We decided on Oliver’s recommendation to head north to the town of Nakhal and we followed the coast road up to Barka. We headed into the local “Lulu Hypermarket” to buy a couple of beach towels for all of $4 each and then made our way inland through the impressive mountain range on the new highway to the Fort of Nakhal. We explored the fort which had wonderful views of the surrounding plain and the mountains. There wasn’t much to the town so we followed a winding road lined with date palms to “Ain Al Tharrawah” hot springs. The warm water gushed from the rocky side of a hill.
We lowered our feet into the water and small fish immediately started nibbling at them. I thought it a strange and tickly
sensation with some of the fish seemed vacuuming our feet.
I have seen this done in fish tanks in Bali but never felt keen on putting my feet into a tank where many other people had done the same but in this flowing water it seemed much more cleansing. As we were leaving a group of local women came down to do their laundry in the warm water.
The highways in the main were quite empty and the one to “Wadi Mistal” on the way to Nakhal had a sign which stated that the asphalt ran out after 300metres. We decided to give it a try and it must have been an old sign because it was a brand new highway through the mountains to the “Wadi”.
Every small town had mens and ladies tailoring shops, barbers and “coffee shops” and along the highway were many small contruction and engineering outifts and auto repair shops.
From Nakhal we took the inland road up to Rustaq Fort which had closed for the day so we made for the coast and back to the guesthouse. The “wadis” and groves of date palms were in such sharp contrast to the very stark surrounding mountainous areas as we drove to the north and west.
We started off on the 7th November at the very early hour of 6am so as to see the Friday livestock market at Nizwa,a two hour drive through the mountains to the west of Muscat. We were advised to leave early as the selling of the livestock finished before 11am. When we arrived at 8am the entire area around the market was already full of cars.
It was fascinating to see how the livestock market operated. Owners of goats, some calves and a few very strange looking sheep were paraded around in a circle with prospective buyers sitting on the inside of the circle and others standing on the outside. When someone wanted one of the animals, the customer stopped the owner and haggled with him until a price was settled upon and then the buyer took the rope and led the animal away. It wasn’t particularly noisy but there were many men watching the proceedings. Most women were the foreigners who had got up early as we had.
We moved along then to outside the neighbouring building where mostly boys were doing deals for pidgeons, chickens and birds.
At the back of the buildings a few men were selling vegetables and fruit and opposite in another building was the fruit and vegetable market which was very clean and tidy.
The “Souk” was in the same area, selling all sorts of daggers, silver, pottery and jewellery. We managed to find a western style “illy” coffee shop.
We saw an old man carrying a rifle and wondered where he was off to so we followed him to an outdoor area where rifles were being sold. Adjacent to this was the original “East Souk” where amongst other things special honey from wild bees was selling for about $180 for a litre.
We were going to come back to Nizwa the following day so we left for the two hour trip back to Muscat where we had our lunch
overlooking the sea of Oman and then went for a short walk along the beach which was clean and tidy but the sand was a grey colour and quite coarse. There were a lot of interesting coloured shells and stones near the water’s edge.
Wanting a non tourist place to eat that night we on a ecommendation went to the “Turkish Corner” restaurant where we
ate “Mutabel” a vegetable and cheese dip, tabbouleh, flat bread and a vegetarian pizza. The unsweetened lemon juice with mint was very tasty and it all came to a total of $12.
The Grand Mosque in Oman which is only open to the public until 11am and not on Fridays is a very impressive series of buildings with beautiful specially made carpets from Iran and exquisite chandeliers and carved sandstone. It is 20 years old and took 6 years to complete. Unlike the Catholic churches in Europe many of which charge an entrance fee, the mosques have free entry. On our way out we were invited to have a cup of tasty Omani coffee flavoured with cardamom and some dates. We were free to ask the attending well educated Omani women any questions about the mosque or islam and they had a large variety of free books on offer.
We were going to head into the “Muttrah Souk” to have a look around but a violent sand storm started and then torrential rain
as we were on our way so we changed our minds.
We instead headed west to Nizwa again. The highway had a lot of water lying about and some trees had been uprooted. We saw the result of two accidents along the way although people were driving at a lesser pace during the storm.
The “Al Karm hotel appartments” 15minutes from Nizwa town was a delightful find. It looked very stark fromt the outside but the appartment we had for about $100 a night had a sitting room, large bedroom, bathroom and kitchen with all the essentials. It was spotlessly clean and the staff were very friendly. There only appeared to be one other occupied room in the four storey building for the first couple of nights. There were not many restaurants in Nizwa so we opted for the “Lulu Hypermarket” which is part of a massive chain of enormous supermarkets found mainly in the middle east and in India. They have an extensive delicatessen section where we bought very good cooked Indian food and fresh salads to take back to the appartment.
The Nizwa mall had been open for four years however there were many shops still vacant. Maurice was in seventh heaven with all the watch shops, there were about six in a row. He ended up with a new Casio one which is linked to the atomic clock, accurate to one second in 100,000 years as well as phases of the moon, tides and much more.
About 200 metres away they were building a Grand Nizwa mall which was going to be even bigger and better. An enormous new mosque was also under construction as well as a large gateway building to Nizwa.
The Omanis on the whole are quite small in stature and the babies and toddlers are like dolls, they are so petite. The Omani women wear a variety of clothing from full niqabs to burqas and chadors and some wear western clothing and no headgear although this wasn’t a common sight.
They are polite and the atmosphere in the country is a friendly one. There are many Indians and Philippinos working in Oman. All need an Omani sponsor to work or run a business. All the taxis in Oman are owned and driven by Omanis unlike in Dubai where they are owned by Emiratis and driven mainly by Indians and pakistanis.
We made a leisurely start from Nizwa up to the town of Al Hamra and to Misfat A’Abeyeen a very old village which was like stepping back in time to see how the Omanis lived hundreds of years ago and continued to do so.
They had abundant water channelled down the hillside where banana, mango and other fruit trees were grew amongst the date palms. It was a very verdant oasis. A woman was washing the dishes in one of the channels and several branches of dates were drying in the sun on a rock in front of her house. We didn’t spend long there as it felt as though we were intruding on their village life and we only saw one old man on the street.
We left and drove to Bahla to see the fort which is shown as an historical destination. It was very large and most of it looked as though it had just been completed. It had been totally reconstructed but it had no placards or information in the many rooms apart from a sheet we were given on entry giving a brief history of the fort. There were no artifacts or any kind of furniture in the buildings which gave it a very sterile atmosphere.
The Nakhal, Nizwa forts and the Taqah castle in particular had a much more authentic flavour with artifacts, furniture and explanations of the ses of all the rooms.
We took a different route back in the late afternoon to Nizwa, had a much needed coffee and after a quick visit to the hypermarket for some salads,headed back to the hotel.
Some Omanis especially the young ones had some English but not many had a good enough command for a discussion.
We saw a few guides with tourists with some speaking French, German or Italian as well as English.
We left Nizwa at 7.30am and make our way to Sur on the northeast coast on the sea of Oman. We stopped at Ibra along the way for me to see the “ladies souk” (men not allowed) which had a gaudy array of long dresses and children’s clothing. I had to persuade an older Omani lady that I didn’t want to buy one of the dresses but was just looking at them.
Sur is a coastal port and we drove around the seafront which forms a circular route around the town. An old seafaring dhow had been restored and was on display as well as some seafaring ones in the harbour. There were some nice gazebos on the beach but we had our lunch in the car as there was no seating in any of them.
We drove nearly two hours doubling back to our meeting point at “Al Wasil” at the office of the “Desert Retreat Camp” where we were to spend the night. When I booked the one night they omitted to tell me that a 4WD was needed and that they would take us the 20 kms to the camp and back for 20riyals ($75) which we thought was very excessive given that a full tank of petrol only cost us 6.5riyals ($20). We had read previously that the desert stays were expensive. Ours was $180 and which was one of the more reasonably priced camps. As luck would have it we met an Australian young man and his Russian wife waiting for the office to open and they kindly offered to take us in their 4WD which we gratefully accepted. Our 2WD would have easily made the trip but they do not allow us to take it into the desert.
We left with several others in convoy and arrived at the camp. It was in a lovely setting in a valley with tall brown/orange sandunes on either side. We stayed in a very sturdy tent made from goat hair and the gaps were mostly covered by netting to keep out the mosquitos.Luckily there were none. There were about fifty tents in total.
We could have taken the option of a camel ride or dune bashing but having done the former we opted to just relax in the bedouin style tent and have coffee and dates.
I did venture almost to the top of a steep dune to take some pictures of the sunset and it was hard work as the sand was very soft and it was very easy to make no headway slipping back with each footstep.
The owner or manager was an Omani but the two workers were a Bangladeshi and an Indian from Delhi and they prepared a delicious meal of chicken curry, vegetables, rice, hoummos, crunchy salad and flat bread. The beds were good and we had a shared bathroom which was spotless. No hot water unfortunately and the drain in the floor tended to flood the place when you turned the tap on in the basin.
The generator was turned off at 9pm and it was lovely to just stare into the night sky and see so many stars (like in
the outback of Australia). I got up at 2.30am and the moonlight lit the whole campsite. In the morning following breakfast of Boiled eggs, “foul” beans and cucumber sandwiches (a strange combination) the young couple took us back to the office on the main road and we set off for the long drive down to Haima on the coast road (half way between Muscat and Salalah).