Deserted Roads Driving Oman

| January 17, 2014

Travel writer Matthew Teller discovers if there’s one thing more spectacular than driving across the desert landscapes of Oman, it’s pulling over and exploring them.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat, Oman

My other car is a Honda with a rattle. I keep reminding myself of this as I guide the nose of a sparkling four-wheel-drive giant over the sands of The Sultanate of Oman. This big beast has a 4.5-litre engine, electronic fuel injection, 220 horsepower… I have no clear idea what that means, but I do know this is a big car, that’s a big desert, and I’m having big fun launching one at the other. Oman is tailor-made for self-drive touring. The local driving style is considerate and roads in good shape. Omanis, as you’ll quickly find, are an endlessly hospitable, gracious and generous people. Above all though, self-driving grants you first-hand access to some sensationally memorable landscapes, which would otherwise be inaccessible.

Here is the briefest guide to what’s on offer.

West of Muscat

Stretching inland from the coast west of Muscat, the giant Hajar Mountains offer perhaps Arabia’s most dramatic canyon landscapes. Main roads follow valley-floor routes, while tracks cling to scenic cliff-edge terraces or coil above precipices. Approaching from the capital, first you navigate the Sumail Gap, a pass through the Hajar Range that remains almost the only route linking the coast and the interior. It’s an awesome sight, passing below the titanic Jabal Akhdar massif, named ‘Green Mountain’ in Arabic, but in truth almost as treeless as the moon. Roads meet at Nizwa, Oman’s ancient capital and still one of the country’s most rewarding destinations. I lingered longer than I intended here, dividing my time between the huge 17th-century fort in the centre of town and the rambling souks that cluster beneath its walls. Nizwa also gives access to the off-road drive into the ravine of

Wadi Bani Auf: superbly scenic but also, in the words of the Rough Guide, “nerve-janglingly dramatic”. Or you could head west to the peak of Jabal Shams, at 3,005 metres (9,800ft) above sea level, the highest mountain in Oman. Make time here for the astounding Balcony Walk, an easy round-trip along mountain-side paths where blue sky stretches endlessly above miles of dizzying, thousand-metre-deep canyons.

East of Muscat

Oman’s Sharqiya (Eastern) region spans a swathe of territory from the fertile coastal plain, with its sandy beaches, to some of Arabia’s most beautiful desert landscapes. A narrow road hugs the coastline out of Muscat, before rising and falling spectacularly over crags and into coastal canyons. Stop at Yiti village, continue onto isolated Sifah, or choose any point to pull over: none will disappoint. Beachcombing in one of these coves, I followed the sound of echoing voices to an old fishing boat, upended on the sands. A father was pacing around it, singing to his young daughter. We smiled and paced together, her giggles and his songs dancing between the cliffs. The main road east scoots past the mouth of beautiful Wadi Shab and the ruins of historic Qalhat, on its way to Sur: an old town with shipyards still building traditional dhows. At the easternmost tip of Arabia, most people visit Ras Al Jinz beach at night, to spot sea turtles by torchlight as they emerge from the waves to lay eggs. But at sunrise the beach is deserted, and I walked many hours beside the dawn-lit ocean. As I picked between turtle nests, a tiny hatchling caught my eye, skeetering wildly over the sand. I shadowed it on the most dangerous journey of its life, keeping gulls away until surf washed the tiny shell. Inland from Ras Al Jinz, hairpin roads dive gently down into Wadi Bani Khalid, a valley framed by titanic mountain cliffs. Seismically-distorted folds jut into the sky, framing palm-shaded pools in which kids splash, families picnic and the ribbon of fertility loses itself in the arid cliffs. Eastern Oman’s classic adventure is the Wahiba Sands. At the dusty frontier town of Mintirib, I hooked up with a local guide for an exhilaratingly bumpy drive over moguls out into the ochre desert, where a speckle of luxury camps hide. Sheltered by rippled dunes under the starlight, this has to be one of the most memorable, magical ways to spend a night.

North of Muscat

Along the coast north of Muscat, you could dip into Sohar, a port city with a long history but regrettably little to show for it, bar one splendid old whitewashed fort. From here head west to the Emirati-border oasis city of Al Ain, boasting the 19th-century Jahili Fort, with its excellent history museum profiling British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Beyond Al Ain, one of the world’s most spectacular mountain drives climbs in a series of broad, well-engineered turns to the summit of Jabal Hafeet, offering immense views over the sands.

The south coast

As an alternative to Muscat, you could choose instead to base yourself in Oman’s southern Dhofar region, 1,000km from the capital. I spent days wandering the low-rise Dhofari capital

Salalah, watching shadows lengthen across whitewashed arches and sipping sweet water from freshly opened coconuts. After the excellent Al Baleed frankincense museum, packed with detail on maritime history and the spice trade, I drove out to the Unescoprotected frankincense groves of Wadi Dawkah. From here it’s east to the ruins of Sumhuram: the legendary residence of the Queen of Sheba, who grew wealthy on the frankincense trade.

The Dhofar coast offers yet more scenic driving, east to the old fishing village of Mirbat or west to the blowholes at Mughsail. Up into the mountains behind Salalah, a beautiful, winding drive leads to the tomb of Nabi Ayoub (Prophet Job), a tiny whitewashed building holding a simple grave that draws a constant tide of pilgrims. I spent a slow afternoon here, sitting with the prophet under a twirling fan as shadows folded around us.

Driving in Oman

Driving in Oman is surprisingly straightforward, with many new, often almost empty wide roads, comfortable vehicles, and road signs that are generally in English. The price of petrol, which hovers around 20 pence per litre, makes travelling by road particularly appealing.

That said, you need patience, and an easy-going attitude to getting lost if you are to enjoy driving in central Muscat. Here, you’re generally better leaving the driving to the locals. Elsewhere though, it’s a breeze in a four-wheel-drive.

View Cox & Kings' self-drive holiday to Oman.

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