I had forgotten how beautiful rocks are. I am not talking about little pebbles on the side of the road. I mean vast rock formations, small mountains and jagged cliffs, steep valleys and water-smoothed channels, each reminding you that our existence is just a blink in the vast scale of geologic time. Driving out of Muscat and into the rocky desert landscape of Oman however, brought back an appreciation for the rugged beauty of the earth’s bones.
We had decided to spend our spring break taking a 6-day road trip around northern Oman, visiting some of its famous features, both natural and human-created, and it was definitely worth it!
Day 1: Wadis and Beaches
We left the capital Muscat in the morning, driving out of the city and into the rocky desert landscape the covers much of the country. We were immediately struck by the contrast between the terrain and the structures built upon it. Since its current ruler came to power in a coup against his father in 1970, Oman has undergone profound economic changes. Using the country’s oil wealth, Sultan Qaboos transformed the country, building new roads, hospitals schools and homes all over the country. In an effort to decrease urbanization trends, many of the new houses were built in the countryside. These large white houses, with their cookie-cutter layout often identical to the houses next to them, jut up from the ground as if they had all magically spouted up in the last year. The rock formations surrounding these modern looking communities however, look like they were formed in a prehistoric age, with jagged black hills sticking out of a tan sand and next to other light red mountains whose sides were blasted out to make way for our road.
Our first stop was Wadi Arbaeen, and one thing you quickly realize when driving around Oman is that although there are signs telling you when to turn off the main road to find your destination, after that, the signs disappear and you are on your own! This left us crawling down a dusty dirt road, weaving our way deeper into a valley we hoped would contain water. Thankfully after a few scary dips and turns we suddenly came upon a small forest of palm trees growing at the bottom of the valley! We were elated to reach out goal, so I could not imagine what early Omanis must have felt to come upon this verdant paradise after having trekked for days through the barren lands surrounding it. The wadi was a series of streams carved into the dense rock over time and culminating in a much larger pool surrounded by cliffs you could jump off into the glistening waters. Certainly a nice place to spend the heat of the day!
We made our way back out, stopping by the Bimmah Sinkhole on our way to a pebble beach, where we camped for the night. It was a beautiful beach, but for future notice, not a comfortable one!
Day 2: Sur, Turtles and Jellyfish
The next day we were making our way to Sur, one of the larger towns in the area, when we discovered a few more challenges of navigating in Oman. The first was spelling. Translating from Arabic to English is not easy, especially where names are involved. We quickly found that some locations were spelled three or four different ways! Our guide book had one spelling, google maps had a different one and even the official road signs spelled some places differently too! Speaking of google maps, it turned out to not be as helpful as our tech-dependent planning had expected. Even if you managed to find the right spelling, once you asked for directions the app simply stopped, showing you where you wanted to go, but not how to get there! It seemed to be telling us (as my dad would jokingly say at times), “you can’t get there from here.”
Despite the navigational challenges, we managed to make it to the city, stopping by a ship building yard where they make massive wooden dhows, the famous ships with triangular sails that used the criss cross the Indian Ocean on regular trade routes. Apparently the builders do not use any plans, relying instead on knowledge and experience as they craft the vessel over the course of up to six months. If I thought building Ikea furniture was hard, these people have it way worse!
We then made our way out to a beautiful turtle conservation center. Apparently the Omani coast is a popular nesting ground for a number of varieties of sea turtles and Oman has put in place a series of progressive laws protecting their hatching grounds. Although it was not the season to see the mass hatching, we did get to visit two little babies who had been found that morning and would be released into the ocean by the staff at night. So cute!
We ended the day at a beautiful sand beach where the water was a cool reprieve from temperatures that had reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit in midday. Unfortunately, the water was also filled with jellyfish! Mostly transparent and not easy to see, one of them got caught on Caity’s anklet and repeatedly stung her, causing an allergic reaction which plagued her the rest of the trip! After that, we decided to stick with the wadis for our swimming…
Day 3: An Oasis and a Lightning Storm
The next day we made our way to Wadi Bani Khalid, one of the most famous swimming spots in Oman. Due to the lack of signs however, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves confronted with a sign reading, “Road is dangerous, only locals allowed”. As we were deciding what to do, a car of tourists comes down the road and they happily waved at us before heading out. Deciding that this must mean the sign is not to be believed, we head up the road…and quickly realize our mistake. The road soon narrowed to barely the width of a car with a sheer drop on one side and a rock wall on the other! We fearfully crawled upward, trying to figure out how to get out of this mess as the locals stare at us with glances that are clearly saying, “Didn’t you read the sign?!” Finally a helpful man comes down and directs us to a place where we, just barely, manage to turn around and make our way back down the deadly decent.
After catching our breath and thanking God we made it down alive, we finally find the right road and walk up to what is basically a natural water park. A series of stunning pools have been formed in a rock valley with larger ponds at the bottom and a series of smaller ponds and creeks that you can explore going upward until you reach the local swimming spot where people come to avoid the tourists swarming the lower pools. It was as close to an oasis paradise as I have ever seen.
Cool and refreshed, we start out for the desert. We didn’t quite know where we were going (as our plan for the night was simply “camp on a dune in the desert”) so we drove around for a bit until a local man pulls up beside us and offers to show us a place to stay. We speed over the sandy tracks out into the desert and he leads us on top of a large dune that turns out to be overlooking his family home. It was perfect…or so we thought.
Then begins a series of unfortunate events. It started with a light wind blowing the sand about a foot off the ground. Although the sand patterns were beautiful, we soon realized that it would be impossible to cook outside with sand blowing all over our food. We decide to move our food into the tent, shielded from the wind by the car, and eat a cold dinner. Not long after we thought we adapted to the weather, everything changes. The wind starts hard, whipping sand high up into the around and from the exact opposite direction as before. With the car no longer blocking the gusts, sand is blowing into our tent through the open screen window and covering everything inside the tent! We scramble to close the screen window, throw heavy objects into the corners of the tent and try to clean the sand from our eyes. Just when we think it cannot get any worse, we look through the screen top of the tent and see lightning arcing across the sky in a storm that is clearly moving towards us!
For the second time in 10 minutes, we gather all our things and move, this time into the car. As we watch the storm approaching, we frantically google, “how to survive a lightning storm in the desert?” to no avail. As we sat in the car eating cold cans of chickpeas and waiting for the next weather surprise, we see headlights coming up the dune next towards us. A car pulls up and it is a couple from the family in the house below our camp! They offer to take us back to their home and we gladly accept. Inside the dark interior, lit only by the car headlights outside, we see the rain start to come down, hard. As we talk with them, we learn that the last time rain had come to this area was two years ago! So as we glumly wonder what will happen to our tent and gear, the family is loudly laughing, praising God and one even briefly goes to dance in the rain. To make the situation even more exciting, one of the sons gets a picture on his phone of a friend who just got hail! In the desert!
Thankfully the rain stops after about 30 minutes as the storm moves on letting us come back to our damp tent as we try to mentally take in what we just experienced. The one day we visit the desert we experience a once in year storm! According to the family, this means we are good luck…
Day 4: An Old Town and an Ancient Mosque
After a peaceful and sandstorm-free morning in the desert, we drove out to Ibra, one of the regions larger and older towns. We stopped first at a market organized by and for women before heading out to the older part of town. After a bit of time getting quite lost and randomly driving up an old riverbed, we managed to find one of the oldest mosques in the world which represented a fascinating point is early Islamic history. When the Prophet Muhammad was first creating a muslim community, they prayed in the same direction as their ancestors, to Jerusalem. One day however, Muhammad received guidance to change the direction of prayer to Mecca, an action that tested the faith of many early muslims. In every mosque today, there is a single mihrab which is a notch in the wall indicating the direction of prayer. This mosque however had two! This means that it was built in the time before the Prophet changed the prayer direction and then created a new mihrab to accommodate the change. We were impressed to see such clear connection to events over 1400 years ago!
The old town itself was also quite interesting, filled with old and crumbling houses, but also doors in a Zanzibari style that demonstrated the clear influence that both these places have had on each other. The streets though, were not built for cars. There were many archways whose sides we cleared by mere inches and one point where a turn was impossibly to sharp and narrow, causing us to back down some of these windy roads before barely making our way out the way we came in.
Day 5: A Cunning Wall, a Massive Castle and a Mountain Retreat
Our final night was to be spent high up a mountain called Jabl Shams, but we had some amazing stops on the way. One location was a small town called Bahla, famous for its surrounding walls, incredible fort and…its connection to black magic! The ancient and impressive walls span 13 kilometers and surround large parts of the city. One story of their origin is that one year the tax collector came to get the the towns yearly tribute to the area’s ruler. A women leader at the time said that the town did not have enough money but would pay double the normal amount next year. The tax collector agreed, but when he returned the next year he found that the woman had rallied the people and used the two years of tax money to build a massive wall around the town! For a while after that it seems that Bahla kept its own tax money… :)
In the middle of the town was an amazing castle that had been slowly built over hundreds of years. It had a number of incredible towers, huge storerooms, at least five story buildings and a number of places where defenders could use cannons to rain hell down on anyone foolish enough to mess with Bahla. This fort is also a focal point for rumors of black magic that swirl around the region, and especially Bahla. For example, the UN restoration of the fort was rumored to have been hampered by an “unseen force” that undid the day’s work during the night. Some believed to be due to the fact that the fort was built on the grave of a man stoned to death for practicing black magic over 1400 years ago. Other stories tell of a tree that held the spirit of a jinn or a mosque that flew from one location to another. A guide in a different town told us of a war where the people from one side fought not with swords but with black magic, causing the earth to quake in the town of their rivals!
After Bahla, we were able to visit Al-Hoota cave, a 4.5 kilometer cave that is 2 million years old. After taking a small train into the cave itself, the guide walks the group through a series of beautiful caverns ending in a small lake that extends further into the cave. Apparently when the rains are particularly heavy, the cave partially fills with water and during flash floods they find everything from small trees to goats that get washed into the cave. Thankfully we did not also bring the rains here…!
We then finished the day with a long and winding drive up Jabl Shams our camp. On the way we passed by a massive canyon called the “Grand Canyon of Arabia”, which was fittingly impressive. Our campsite was up on a large ledge protruding from the mountain and overlooking the entire region, which led to us having a glorious view of the sunset over the far off mountains.
Day 6: A Gang of Goats
Our last morning before returning we found out that we were not the only creatures that were camping on the mountain. It turns out a heard of goats also roams this mountain, probably getting a good portion of their food from the campers. We made the early mistake of feeding a lone goat and realized too late that he was part of a gang that quickly surrounded our camp. We had to repeatedly chase them off just to eat our breakfast, which was easier for some, but the alpha goat did not move from his post, even when I gave him a light shove! So we packed up as quickly as we could and headed down the mountain, leaving whatever food we dropped for the hungry gang to fight over.
Our last day wrapped up with a nice and easy drive back to Muscat. We were tired, happy and still had some sand in our ears but it was worth it! Clearly Oman is an incredible country filled with more than just pretty rocks! :)