I love it when I get back from a new adventure, open my bag and all the exotic goodies spill out. This time my bag reeked with the delicious smell of frankincense and mhyrr (you never know when you might have an important birth to go to!) and I myself was filled with euphoria, because Oman was such an epic trip.
Oman… I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before arriving, not having done much research. Saw a few pictures, heard it was nice, that’s about it. And then I arrived and it all fell into place…
Arriving in Muscat after a looong journey I was feeling tired and jetlagged. I dragged myself down to the beach to relax. A group of curious young girls sauntered past and gave me a shy wave. I waved back and they rushed over – minutes later I found myself sharing lunch with their family, eating rice and fish with our hands out of a communal dish. It wasn’t long before we were talking and laughing together like old friends. I just had my first of many Omani hospitality experiences just like this one – they are kind, lovely and warm people.
Oman has several tribes who retain their identity, dialects and regions. These people are interesting from a cultural perspective due to their diversity and different traditions, eg the Bedouin, the Jabaali and the Mahari. Then there are your “regular” Omanis, who are a blend of all sorts of cultures. Looking at their faces you will see different bloodlines: Africa, India, Arabia and Iran and more. Due to their proximity to these countries and having traded with them since forever, and also having once owned the island of Zanzibar, Omanis are a fascinating mix.
Once Jane joined me, the four-day adventure into the mountains behind Muscat begun. Our handsome, confident, immaculately-dressed, proud and knowledgeable Bedouin guide, Hamdan picked us up and the overload of information, places, forts and adventures began. First stop was the town of Nakhal. He gave us a tour of the fort and a rundown on all the rooms, including how they used to slosh hot date syrup from the fort onto their poor enemies below. (It’s funny the information you remember). Inside the “Majlis” – the room where guests were received – were old books, posh crockery and pictures. This indicates to the guest how educated, wealthy and powerful you were without having to say anything (Jane and I got a few tips for our own homes…) Oman has an array of incredible old and well-restored forts, castles, and lookout towers, and we visited another four over the coming days.
Hamdan like any man, loved showing off his driving skills. We left the smooth asphalt roads and headed up a steep, sandy, slippery and adventurous 4-wheel-drive-only road into the rocky mountains. Suffice to say it was all breathtakingly beautiful: soft coloured mountains with incredible rock formations, sweet little towns in the middle of nowhere, and the odd lush oases crammed with date palms. Ending up on top of Jebel Shams at a height of around 3000m (yes, it was cold), watching the sunset with gin in hand – things were off to a grand start.
Next stop was the old mud town of El Hamra, a lot like old Yemeni houses. Most of them are crumbling as Omanis all live in modern houses these days, but there is a fantastic museum/restored mud house that you can visit and get an idea of the past. Not far away was the town of Nizwa, where we visited the fort and then Hamdan whisked us through the market before leaving us to shop (he knows better than to hang around with two women at a market). Pottery, knives, Omani coffee pots, and the fascinating date market where you can try all different varieties of dates, and not forgetting the Helwa market – a traditional Omani sweet, a bit like Turkish Delight (but way better). I bought a fresh, warm kilo of rosewater and saffron flavour.
In the morning Hamdan whisked us off to Wadi Bani Khalid. This is an extremely scenic wadi, lined with date palms, that leads into a rocky gorge, again with beautiful rock formations and filled with crystal-clear, blue-green water. Hamdan led us upstream, and then we swam (in our clothes, as is the custom), down through rock pools in deliciously warm thermal waters. Jane kept exclaiming: “Wonderful!” – which means it was just that.
Since Hamdan is Bedouin, and since I live amongst the Bedouins of Egypt each year, I wanted to visit Omani Bedu out in the desert to see similarities and differences. And so we headed off out in to the Wahiba Sands to visit three Bedouin girls who had prepared a delicious lunch for us. We ate in their makeshift tent and then they drove us out to see their goats further away in the desert, where we relaxed in the sand until sunset, drinking Omani coffee and eating dates, and watching the goats come back home as the sun sank. We then spent the night at an incredibly tastefully designed and decorated desert camp.
At this point it was a ridiculous array of highlight after highlight. I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with anymore fabulousness. Hamdan drove us to Wadi Shab on the coast, and after a spectacular 45 minute walk surrounded by more stunning rock formations and lush date palms we got to the pools of the wadi. Crystal-clear, blue-green waters, not warm this time, but nice enough. Hamdan liked bossing people around and not only had us well-under control, but most of the people swimming in the canyon …Hamdan swam with us though a tight gap into a large cavern with a waterfall tumbling into it. Not sure how else to describe it, but it was just bloody gorgeous. A couple of non-swimming Asians came floating in, giggling away on their tyre tubes, so Hamdan took it upon himself to give them a swimming lesson – which kind of put a damper on the tyre-tube fun. Then it was back to Muscat for the night before flying to Salalah, 1000kms to the south for our next adventure.
Somehow in Salalah we ended up at a beach resort full of European package deal tourists. You know the kind – just there to eat, drink and get a tan, no interest in the country they are in. At first I thought I was having a nightmare! But it was real, so we decided to just make the best of it. We managed to get away from the scorched Italians and Germans baking themselves around the pool, and find a nice spot to swim in the Indian ocean and lie on a white, sandy beach with a backdrop of coconut palms. It was pretty darn good really and we were both still recovering from Hamdan’s manic schedule.
Our wonderful local guide, Rayya, took us on a tour East and West of Salalah – an old coastal fort that used to trade frankincense, a royal castle, a visit to some frankincense trees – this was all fascinating, but nothing compared to Rayya’s stories about her family and life, and Omani life in general. (Sorry for those stories you will just have to visit Rayya in Salalah and ask the right questions!) We finished our day drinking fresh coconut milk out of the shell from a line of roadside fruit stands and then visiting the intoxicating frankincense market, where sweet smells wafted out of every corner. Jane and I went a bit mad buying frankincense, bukhoor and some lovely perfume oils.
The Empty Quarter: our final adventure! Our Jabaali guide, Saalim, picked us up and whisked us off on a long drive out into the desert. The flat white desert turned into a sea of orange dunes on top of which we enjoyed the sunset and peace of the desert. Our thoughts turned to William Thesiger, the great Arabian explorer and what it must have been like to cross this place on camel. A huge adventure, for sure, and I envied him. We spent the night at a purpose-built desert camp with a group of 26 Italians. After dinner we sat round the fire, under the stars, and the guides sang us traditional songs. Unfortunately the Italians had an “entertainer” with them who periodically made them sing Italian songs or get up and dance a bit of salsa. Gawd! All bizarreness aside, they eventually went to bed. I made Jane sleep outside in the sand, not as punishment, it’s just what you do in the desert, where all you need are the stars. There is nothing I love more than to sleep outside in the desert. I’d do it every night if I could!
The next day we returned to Salalah for a final swim on the beautiful beach before catching our flights home…what an epic, magical trip it had been.
A couple of other things that make Oman special: the Omanis absolutely LOVE their Sultan Qaboos. He is a good, wise and generous man who led his country out of poverty and made a fantastic and proud nation. Karak tea – a delicious, traditional beverage made with spices and available all over the place – Jane and I drank it every day at every opportunity. Tourism is still young in Oman – that means that the place is not yet overrun (OK, so you have to avoid the odd cruise boat pulling into town) with bumbling tourists. Something for everyone: whether you are a family, an adventurer, a beach or culture lover, there are so many things to do. Nature: deserts, beaches, high mountains, fiords, islands…Oman has it covered. We also did a lovely dhow trip in the fiords of Musandam peninsula.
Venus Adventures organises women-only trips to Oman. Why not join us?