With rocky mountains and sand dunes, 4WD excursions are a must in Oman and the drive from Rustaq to Misfat al Abreyeen over the Snake Pass in the Western Hajar Mountains is one of the most spectacular in the country.
Our journey began with a 1.5 hour drive north to Rustaq where we stopped to see the hot springs in front of the mosque at Ayn al Khasfar. We then began our drive into the mountains up Wadi Bani Awf and were given a taste of what was to come when we were stopped by a man holding a red flag while they blasted the rock high above us building the road.
The Hot Spring in front of the Ayn Al Khasfar Mosque near Rustaq
Waiting for the green flag while they blast the road through Wadi Bani Awf
The "road" we were climbing up was never more than a dusty dirt track and often just bare rock with a steep drop on one side. About an hour into our drive we had an interlude of a brief stop at the picturesque village of Balad Sayt with its terraced paddy like fields.
4WD is essential when climbing the Snake Pass in the Western Hajar Mountains
Snake Pass in the Western Hajar Mountains
The road ahead climbing the Snake Pass in the Western Hajar Mountains
The village of Balad Sayt in the Western Hajar Mountains
We then continued our climb as the road twist and turned up the Snake Pass, this was not a drive to go on if you are scarred of heights! Every now and then small whirlwinds of dust known as "dust devils" would form and disappear near us. An hour later near the top we passed the dramatic Sharaf Rocks before finally reaching the summit at the Alamayn Viewpoint.
Looking back at the road we had just climbed
Dust Devil forming on the road near us in the Snake Pass
The Sharaf Rocks near the Alamayn Viewpoint
Me at the Alamayn Viewpoint at the top of the Snake Pass in the Western Hajar Mountains
At the top it turned colder with the wind and we had the relative civilisation of "black top" (i.e. tarmac) roads all the way down the far easier other side. Part way down we stopped to walk around the village of Misfat al Abreyeen, said to be one of the oldest in Oman and looking like it was unchanged since the time of the Bible. It also contained one very noisy donkey whose "hee-hawing" could be heard minutes before you saw it!
A must do in Oman is to venture out and stay overnight in the desert and my chance to do it had arrived. I booked myself a personal driver/guide with a Toyota 4WD Landcruiser and booked a night at the 1000 Nights Camp about 20 odd miles into the desert (corny name but this is the land of Sinbad after all!).
A Map of the route to our overnight camp in the Arabian Desert
First of all there was the little matter of getting there, Wahiba Sands is about 150 miles (240 kilometres) from Muscat. We drove for about 3 hours south through Ibra before turning east into the mountains to stop at the famous Wadi Bani Khalid Pools for a couple of hours to have lunch.
These pools are basically a beautiful oasis in a very arid area and I went for a refreshing swim in a rock pool up near the waterfall. We then returned to the lowlands and headed towards the Desert.
Wadi Bani Khalid
The natural pool below the waterfall above Wadi Bani Khalid where I went for a swim
A quiet spot to phone home from and make the family jealous :-)
I could tell this was going to be in a different league to anything I had experienced before as I became aware of the enormous sand dunes in the distance and we stopped at a garage to have our tyres deflated to 18 psi.
Garage specialising in deflating/inflating tyres coming on and off the soft sands of the desert
As we started off my driver said we needed to change the mood of the music and as we turned onto the soft sand and headed at speed for our first large dune we had techno on full blast! Then ensued some serious dune bashing as we roared up higher and higher sand dunes; it was a serious adrenalin rush with our landcruiser floating like a boat on a river with a mind of its own as we tore up the soft sand; it often felt like we were going to turn over as we climbed higher and higher dunes the deeper we got into the desert.
My first view of the soft sands of the Arabian Desert
We encountered some fellow travellers as we made our way across the desert
This was a particularly large sand dune that eventually beat us and we had to give up trying to climb it in case we got stuck
My driver - Jekyll and Hyde character, steady on/off road but an evil maniac once let loose on soft sand!
After a while we reached a Bedouin House and stopped for coffee, obviously a tourist stop with the bedouin women selling a few small handmade trinkets but not over done. I have had it a few times now and have developed a taste for the local Kawah, a small coffee flavoured with cardamom and normally served with dates.
Arriving at the Bedouin House on the way to our overnight camp
Kawah (Coffee with cardamom) and Dates with the locals
There was another small group visiting the Bedouins with us
We then carried on and after a while reached our overnight camp. After unwinding for a bit I was determined to see a desert sunset and we drove up a large sand dune to see it. A few others joined us and the orange hues as we watched the sun set on the desert horizon were every bit as amazing as we had been told to watch out for.
My driver then decided I needed another adrenalin rush and instead of going back the way we came went straight over the top of the dune which felt like a near vertical drop! Initially we got grounded but with a bit of help we were soon floating down the front of the dune in the landcruiser. You would never dare drive down a slope that steep normally but soft sand is very forgiving.
Pesky Camel, get out of my way! We need to get to the top of the sand dune before sunset
Me on top of a sand dune waiting for the desert sunset
It got quite busy on our sand dune
Sunset in the Desert - it was worth the wait
My tent was right at the edge of camp which I thought was great as it meant I would have a more authentic feel of sleeping in the desert. My tent was pretty much just a woollen bedouin tent, a couple of beds and a open to the sky toilet/shower but anything more would have spoilt the experience.
My Sheik Tent in the Desert
Inside my tent
The view from my tent in the morning - that isn't a member of the vulture family is it?
For dinner the camp arranged a Bedouin special of lamb with spices cooked for 24 hours in a charcoal pit covered over with sand. While a big deal was made of digging it up, when I tried it I didn't think it was anything special and wish I had stuck with the chicken biryani and fresh hummus that appears to be the national dish. While we ate we were entertained by a small troupe of musicians playing Bedouin music.
After cooking for 24 hours in a hole in the ground, time to dig up dinner!
Dinner is ready and is taken in to be served
We had Bedouin music to accompany our meal
The generators at the camp were turned off at 10 o'clock and there was a lovely light pollution clear sky, one of the many attractions of the desert. A bit later after the moon had set I saw the stars more vividly than I have ever seen them before in my life; all the constellations were clear as if on a page of an astrology book - the Great Bear, the Lion, the Virgin, Orion - I have never before seen them as clearly as that.
In the morning we decided to have breakfast early and start back; I was tempted to try a ride on a camel first until I saw another tourist have a go and saw how uncomfortable they evidently were and decided for the time being to give camel riding a miss!
A couple of camels waiting for the tourists
A fellow tourist having a ride on a camel - it looked like torture!
As we made our way back across the desert I had a chance to take in the scale of the landscape around us, it was awesome with very large sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
The endless desert
The Sun beating down on the desert, lest we forgot how dangerous a place the desert can be
We also chanced upon a group of locals trying to race their Wrangler Jeeps up a particularly steep sand dune and stopped for a while to watch.
Wrangler Jeeps doing a spot of sand dune climbing
This Jeep looks like he is going to make it!
After a final swipe of a few sands dunes with the landcruiser before re-inflating the tyres for tarmac we headed to the coast for 1.5 hours to Sur, a major trading port before the Suez Canal and famous for the building of Arab Dhows. Unfortunately the tide was out when we got there so we didn't see Sur at its best but we passed the famous Al Ghanja Arab Dhow outside the Sur Maritime Museum and visited the famous Sur Boatyard where there were several Dhows under construction.
A view of Sur Harbour including the Al Ghanja Arab Dhow outside the Maritime Museum
An Arab Dhow under construction at the Sur Boatyard
We then headed north-west along the coast towards Muscat 93 miles (150 kilometres) with a few stops and lunch along the way. The first stop was Wadi Tiwi, a beautiful spot but with very narrow winding roads especially through the village. We then had lunch and stopped for a rest on White Beach (a popular beach in Oman but only accessible by 4x4) before moving on to Wadi Shab, a larger but equally beautiful wadi a bit further along the coast. Unfortunately my photos don't seem to do justice to what idyllic settings these Wadi were.
The road upto Wadi Tiwi
The White Beach between Quriyat and Tiwi
A Pickup Truck making its way across a ford in Wadi Shab
The last major excursion of my visit to Oman was to Jebel Shams ("Mountain of the Sun" in Arabic), the highest mountain in the country. On the way we again past through Nizwa and its spectacular fort about 2 hours out of Muscat but this time we stopped to have a look. What I had expected to find was a museum with well laid out grounds and old canon; what we found was a virtually deserted Souq.
It turns out what Nizwa Souq is famous for is its livestock market especially of live goats but we had chosen the wrong day, we needed to come on a Thursday. Never mind, what I did stumble on unexpectedly instead was the specialist gun area of the Souq and it initially shocked me to see guns so openly on sale.
Street scene in Nizwa by the Souq
Gun shop in Nizwa Souq
We then began our drive up to Jebel Shams with a photo stop at the vacant village of Ghul at the mouth of the canyon and became aware of the goats - more on both anon!
The vacant village of Ghul at the mouth of the Canyon
Goats at the side of the road on the way up to Jebel Shams
The road to Jebel Shams
Despite being the highest mountain in Oman (10,089 feet, 3,075 metres and site of a military radar station that can apparently see as far as the Mediterranean Sea) what Jebel Shams is really famous for is the spectacular 6,000 feet deep gorge that runs along side it. Known locally as the "Grand Canyon of Arabia" it is so leg wobblingly deep that it is impossible to convey this in a photograph - although I did have a try!
Looking over the edge at Jebel Shams
Me next to the canyon edge at Jebel Shams
In addition to a few Bedouin women selling handmade trinkets, there soaring above us were eagles; we must have seen about 6 - mainly sea eagles but also a brown eagle - and then there were the goats. These appeared out of no where and loved to be fed the apple we had brought up for them. A handful of German tourists took loads of photographs of me oblivious to what I thought was the far more spectacular sight I was trying to point out to them of eagles circling only a few feet above their heads.
The goats at Jebel Shams do like to be fed apple
We then made our way back down the mountain the same way we came up to the village of Ghul at the entrance to the canyon we had been looking down into and began our drive in. None of the precipice edges to the road this time but a challenging 4WD none the less. Eventually we reached a small village which was as far as we could go and looked up at the gorge rim we had been at looking down from only a couple of hours earlier.
After exploring the village I accepted the offer of taking over the driving, my first experience of off road driving and enjoyed it more than I expected - even if there was the constant worry of misjudging and hitting a rock! We then drove back to Muscat and this time I was able to share the driving taking over just beyond Nizwa.
The entrance into the Gorge
Our road through the Gorge
This was as far as the road would take us in the gorge
Looking up at the Gorge rim - we were up there looking down less than 2 hours ago!