The following is taken from Dave’s Journal regarding his time in Oman in which he covered parts of Muscat, several Wadi’s including Tiwi, the fort town of Nizwa, the main north south highway, and many areas within several hours driving of Salalah in the south.
We have driven over 2000 miles so far! I must say that Oman is TRULY THE PINNACLE of off roading! With its huge, steep, rocky, remote wadis, large sand dunes, and tracks anywhere you want to make them, this country is a 4w drivers dream. The variety of off road books testify to this. As we drove we would randomly see a sign, 177 km to the next town with the with arrow pointing in the direction of the town, however there was 10 feet of paved road and then NO road!….or a very faint track almost covered in sand. You basically 4wheel it in the general direction of the town and be sure you have a working GPS and backup unit. This desert of the Empty quarters is the most isolated place I’ve ever been. We took off towards the Saudi border last week and made it to within about 35 km of the “hazily” defined border in this part of Oman. Apparently we took the dirt track that does NOT have the armed guards patrolling it – as we later found out. We saw NO one the entire way. We only had our 2whd vehicle at this point and parts of the road were very sketchy with sand traps. We found a wadi in the distance with some greenery but the road was just too much and we were getting way too far from the main road to continue with our puny 2wd vehicle.
We tried pacing several of the cars that were passing us in the desert. I revved the vehicle up to 200 KM/hour but they were still pulling away! That is 125 miles/hour and they were going even faster. With the open roads, a country of under 3 million people, and very inexpensive petrol, Oman is a place for pure driving freedom.
Prior to the long trek from N to S in Oman, we rented an H3 Hummer for 4 days (there are many car/4wd rental companies in Muscat & Salalah). Now there is a vehicle made for this land. We drove up one wadi described by the 4wd guidebook as being one of Oman’s top 5 toughest drives! Man, I never knew steep until driving this – there are villages back there accessible by SUV like Hummer or by camel. We drove through some of these with the H3… so steep and narrow with huge drops and crossings. On one wadi called Wadi Tiwi, we arrived at the furthest village named Mibam and met several Mohammed’s & a Yusef who invited us in to try the dates from the many trees growing nearby. We also enjoyed their Arabic tea called Kava which actually tastes somewhat like coffee. They showed us their small homes, some built with earth incorporating the many rocks found in the wadi’s. Large bags of dates sat alone in the corner just waiting to be devoured.
We have camped out all over, on the beach in the desert. One night was so humid we could barely sleep until it actually cooled down nicely after 3am. Another night we camped on the ocean near Salala, (mistake!), which is Oman’s largest city in the south and off roaders were revving their vehicles ALL NIGHT up and down the beach. Camp anywhere, drive anywhere! We made our own road 2 clicks in from a dirt track, up a small wadi for one campsite. Under the Arabian nights in the middle of the desert, the stars shine so brightly that you are almost stained with their tears as you look upwards through your own humble tears.
Nizwa is a small somewhat touristy type town located about 90 minutes from Muscat. Note there are radar machines on the highway here and the speed limit is 120km/hour. The highlight is the Nizwa Fort – it dates back to the 1600’s but was built into a fort that dates back much earlier. In the 1990’s this fort was completely restored and now it looks wonderful. There are several small museums on site and great photo opportunities overlooking the town from the top of the fort.
The Al Joota cave, located about 35 minutes from downtown Nizwa is very touristy now and way overpriced. There is a train (when working) that takes you from the museum/entrance to the human made cave entrance. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside – there are some nice calcium formations inside with the highlight being a glimpse at the underwater lake that contains small blind fish. The tour guide speaks in Arabic and English.
We visited the ruins of a town called Khor Ruwi (UNESECO site) which dates back 2400 years and sits on sites of camps dating back 9000 years. The ruins have been somewhat restored including a very deep well. This was a major port city at the time for trading between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe – mostly bronze, iron and Frankincense. We also visited Wadi Dakah, another UNESECO site which is a Frankincense preserve in the desert – it is very interesting to see how the sap is collected from the trees and then used in perfumes. About 150 km from this wadi is the ancient “lost” buried city of Ubar which was originally “found” by using satellite imagery to locate ruins under the sand. We drove 4 hours round trip on terrible rutted roads to see this ancient town. Fortunately & amazingly the Oman Royal Army found us wandering aimlessly next to the ruins of a much newer town near one of their bases and they had us follow their military vehicle for 40 minutes until they got us situated on the right road. The original road we were on was really unpassable by 2whd vehicles.
Khor Ruwi is completely buried under sand except for the main part of town which is situated under and on top of a collapsed cave that originally was the water source for this oasis. The cave probably collapsed in the 15th century and that might have caused problems with the water supply so the town was abandoned and became “lost” until recently. More excavation remains to be done and imagine the archeology and digs that will occur here in the future.
Also some quick history about Oman. In 1970 Sultan Quaboos forcefully took power from his father – at the time there were very few paved roads in the country and oman was essentially 3rd world. In the relatively short number of years since then, Oman has really developed under his control & direction. The crossover Prohphet Job roamed the hills above Salalah in southern Oman. For a good Job quote visit: The Book of Job, 4:14 “Fear came upon me and trembling.” We visited his grave located high on a hill overlooking the ocean and nearby hills. Job makes several appearances in the Holy Quran as well as the Holy Bible. In todays musciology terminology, he would hold “crossover status”…sorta like a rock musician who has a rock hit that also goes country.
We came across a small oasis in the desert – actually 2 of them; one has a beautiful small hotel (Qitbit Motel) surrounded by date trees, with access to an underground spring, and the other is located a few clicks outside of the main oasis and at certain times of the year is very popular with birders. The Qitbit Motel is the among the nicest of the guest houses that dot the entire 1000 km stretch of desert national nighway connecting Muscat to Salalah. This motel is also surrounded by vegetation and date palms, unlike most of the other guesthouses which are in dusty towns or located right in the desert with not much nearby. Most people use the guesthouses along this desert highway just for 1 night as stopovers; if you want a relaxing place to hang out (bring books), and are not pressed for time, consider a 2-3 day stay.
We sat down with the hotel’s manager Jaynul for a 3 hour breakfast. We hit it off and helped him plan an upcoming trip. His good friend Mike Farmer is the world’s foremost expert on Meteorites and spends his days in remote and exotic countries, often in dangerous situations hunting for meteorites. Fascinating stuff- check out: www.meteoritehunter.com
For more information about the Qitbit Motel you can use the following contact methods. Email Jaynul (hotel manager) at firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 00 968 99085686.
These notes cover some of the highlights and general concerns a first time visitor to Oman may have.
Oman is an easy country to get around in. The highways are well setup – driving is on the right side of the road and people in general are very friendly and helpful. In and around towns Oman Oil and Shell have gas stations. If you are planning to drive off the main paved highways be sure you have enough gas, and on the main N/S highway connecting Muscat to Salalah some of the gas stations are 100 to 150 km apart. Note that if you drive on the dirt roads into the desert chances are you will not seen anyone. There are less than 3 million people in Oman – many living in the northern Muscat area, and the name, “The Desert of the Empty Quarter” is well described. This is the largest desert in the world and much of it is deserted. Note that because it is a desert there are large areas of sand, and if you have a 2wdrive vehicle it is *very* easy to get stuck in a sand pocket if you drive off road. Be sure to find out if the road is graded as these are the “best” of the dirt roads in the desert despite many of these “graded roads” having alot of annoying bumps due to the washboard effect. If in doubt, get out of your car and walk on the ground to see if it is soft or not.
The khareef season is from June through September and affects the southern coastal Salalah region of Oman. This is when the vegetation turns very green and the climate is much more moderate than most of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. This area receives an abundance of rain! This is also the height of the tourism season in southern Oman and nice hotels will be booked in advance.
The Omani’s in general are very friendly and helpful towards tourists. The people I stayed with spoke of single women having no problem traveling within Oman. ATM’s are plentiful in Muscat and Salalah and are also found in the larger towns. The Bank of Muscat ATM’s are your best bet. ATM’s are far and few between during the drive from Nizwa to Salalah. There are plentiful car rental companies in Muscat & Salalah. Typically for the cheaper 4-door models, expect to pay $20 to $30/day with discounts given for weekly rentals.
Hotels run from about $25/night all the way up to several hundred at the 5-star resorts in Muscat & Salalah. Typically most of the hotels/motels along the highway between Muscat & Salalah start around $50. Camping in the desert is wherever you want really with tons of open spaces.
If you plan to drive down to Yemen and take the car with you, you will need a specific letter from your car rental company stating that it is ok to do so. Most car rental companies will not provide this letter. If you do not have this letter, you can park your car at the border and take a bus or van into Yemen.
Wadis are river beds (usually dry ) which cut through the mountains or deserts. During intense rains these can dramatically fill up and become flowing torrents in a matter of minutes. Main highways that cross Wadi’s usually have warning red poles and if the water is up to the red paint on the pole, do not cross. There are hundreds of Wadis within several hours of Muscat and they afford one superb off roading opportunities.
Oman has a very long coastline and lots of diving opportunities. There is coral off its coastline and the water clarity can be fantastic. Main dive shops are located in Muscat & to the north as well as Salalah in the south.
Muscat is a city spread out over about 45 KM along the coast. Lots of white buildings in stark contrast to the brown hillsides. Highlights we visited include the National Sultan Quaboose Mosque and the Mutrah Souk which contains lots of garment shops and some gold shops. The Arabic Festival is also a must see highlight if you are visiting during parts of January and February.
Oman is an Islamic country so dress appropriately. Long pants are a must other than at the pool or beach resorts. Women may consider head scarves although I saw many non Muslim women in all parts of the country without head scarves. During the holy month of Ramadan do not eat food in public from sunrise to sunset.
There are camel warning signs on the paved roads in the desert. Sometimes you may only see a few camels during driving, other times they will be all over. They tend to travel in packs, so if you see one, chances are there will be others nearby.
There is a lot of Indian food in Oman – due to India’s influence in this part of the world as well as the fact there are many Indian immigrants living in Oman. The cheapest food is at the coffee shops where you can get basic chicken and meat dishes with Indian roti/chapati (breads) or rice as well as often Indian cooked Chinese food. There are lots of restaurants in the the towns and always a restaurant at any of the Oasis’s located along the N/S desert highway connecting Muscat to Salalah.
What is referred to as a “siesta” in some of the South American countries and in Spain is also a part of the Oman culture. Typically from the hours of 1pm to 4pm all businesses close. The exception being most restaurants will stay open during these hours. At 4pm the businesses reopen and will stay open until 8 or 9pm.