Little background on Muscat
April 2018 I had 4 days in Oman. A fairly anonymous, but on the rise, tourist destination, which until recent decades (and the crowning of Sultan Qaboos) was a poor and underdeveloped country, but is now quickly establishing itself as the next great tourist spot.
The capital Muscat is increasingly modern, offers splendid relaxed cityscapes and nature spots in the city itself. While it’s working towards modernity, they also stay true to their traditonal architecture, and as so the city looks like something out of a Disney movie, it is quite magical.
But. When I say “the city” here, it’s really just a small part of the city, specifically the Mutrah district, which is the central district, and the one that’s shown on all the pictures that appears when you google Muscat. This is because Muscat is actually an extremely big city, not in terms of population or density, but in width. This is because Muscat is a city grown out of 3 separate smaller cities that eventually naturally merged into what we today know as Muscat. From my hotel near the western side side of Muscat, to the Old Town core on the other end of the city was more than 20 kms.
Private ride, and temperatures of hell
So unless you have your own car, it can be quite frustrating, and expensive, to get around Muscat. So that is exactly what I did! Get a rental car that is. For the first time ever. I had so many nerves, because arab traffic is usually crazy, and I’m not a very experienced driver since I don’t own a car back home. But research convinced me that Omani traffic is very unlike normal arabic traffic. This turned out to be quite true, and thus my perhaps single best decision ever was made. I arrived in Muscat at midnight, picked up my car after some initial problems, since the rental company i had booked with had declined to inform me that my debit card wouldn’t be accepted. But the car-company in question was very nice and helped me out. So with the car, I set out towards my hotel. The roads in Muscat are indeed very modern and well built, and there’s a giant 6 lane highway crossing all the way through Muscat, so even though the distances are large, it’s fairly quick to get around in your own car. Traffic wasn’t bad at all, but to be fair it was also in the middle of the night at this point.
By the way, when I arrived, at midnight, it was still 32 degrees outside – in April. Needless to say this trip was extremely hot, with day temperatures upwards of 45 degrees. Thank god for AC.
The first day in explored Muscat, starting out with the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is possibly the only major site in the western end of town, but it’s also close to the airport (and my hotel) so that was great at least. I was too late for the tourist visit time, but I still got to stare at the building from the outside, in sheer amazement. The mosque is enourmous, in fact the second largest in the world, capable of hosting more than 20.000 people at once. I would return here during the visiting hours on the last day. So more will come.
Afterwards i cruised on along the lovely highways, which are nestled in between stunning mountains, small city-quarters with traditional houses, grand mosques and much more. It is like driving through an arabic dream. The highways took me to the previously mentioned Mutrah district, which hosts the amazing corniche, the old bazaar, a plethora of mosques, old fortresses and restaurants. Walking around here was amazing, and the view is stunning. There aren’t a lot of tourists even here, but it’s also not entirely abandoned. The locals are also hanging out here in great numbers, most people sporting the traditional dress, both male and female. Most males sporting the “Kuma” head covering (See picture of me with one down below). Continuing down the road further east towards the old city core, which also hosts the government quarters and the sultans palace, takes you along the shore-line, and more stunning mountains. At this point i was running low on water, and the sun was at its highest, which meant I was slowly dehydrating. So my exploration of the old city happened very quickly. It was ok though, because this part of town is mostly empty of people. But i did get to see the sultans palace, which is surprisingly humble. After this I went back to my hotel and had a siesta.
I would return to Mutrah again in the evening, after sunset, going up to a few viewing points for great sights of both Mutrah and the old city illuminated by light. Excellent.
The traffic that I encountered on this day was relatively lax, not much different from back home, which was great. But the traffic lights are taking an eternity to change, and it is also quite the change to suddenly drive on highways with between 6 and 12 lanes, when you’re only used to 4 lanes at home. But it was a success.
The first great drive, hike and swim
The next day I got up early and drove off, out of Muscat and south. There’s a highway going through some of the most stunning landscapes you can imagen, with scattered villages every now and again. Oman has landscapes out of this world. And even better, the roads were mostly completely desolated. It was a joy driving here. The very first destination of the day was the Bimmah sinkhole, which is a big natural sinkhole with caverns, where the water is crystal blue and very chill. It is near the ocean, and as so the scenery is also amazing even before reaching the sinkhole. It is perfectly safe to swim in the sinkhole, and the water is very salty, so you even float around easily. After a few hours along the desert-ish highways, taking a dip here was very welcome. There was a few other tourists here when I arrived, but they left not long after, leaving me with the whole place to myself.
After splashing around, and drying off a bit, I returned to the road and headed a bit further south to the main destination of the day, the one that was advertised as the greatest destination of all of Oman before I came here, and also the main motivation I had for getting the car (since public transport there is not very good at all). I’m talking about the infamous Wadi Shab.
A wadi is much like an oasis – it’s a water-hole or river out in the desert, which brings nature and plants with it, and provides natural springs where you can swim around. Wadi Shab is the king of the Wadis in Oman. It’s located in a canyon running from the ocean and many kms into the country, but the main path is only a good 40 min walk, until you end up in crystal clear, azure blue watered natural pools. The trail to get there is beyond words, and it is so worth suffering through the immense heat to do this hike. I will let the pictures speak themselves, but let it just be said that swimming around those pools was a big highlight of the whole trip. But be warned, there’s an absolutely crazy amount of tourists here. But the pools are big, so it will usually not be a problem.
After spending a good amount of time relaxing at the wadi, it was time to hit the road once again, going even further south to the town of Sur, which is where I would be spending the night at a hotel.
Local kids, and the eastern tip of Arabia
Sur is a fairly small coastal town, but despite this it packs a punch. The city is possibly even more idyllic than Mutrah in Muscat, it is mostly deserted of tourists, it offers a stunning walk along the waterfront out to the lighthouse, which provides amazing view of the city during sunset. And oh, yes, it is home to the only suspension bridge in all of Oman!
When I went out to see the town, and walk out to the lighthouse, I walked through the backstreets, and the poorer residential areas. This might sound dangerous, but it was actually another highlight of the trip. Not only were the shopkeepers very nice, but particularly the local kids were the sweetest and cutest. They would come up to me in groups, and spray me with the little english they knew, starving to communicate with this crazy stranger. It was very clear that they wanted to know so much about me as possibly, even tho we weren’t really able to communicate beyond sharing names and confirming that both parties were doing good.
This happened over and over. So many kids would come up, and none of them demanded anything from me, begged or anything like that. It was sheer interest and curiosity driving these kids. Some of them would even ask me to take pictures of them with my camera. This interaction with the local population was wonderful.
This continued pretty much the entire way out to the lighthouse on the other side of the waterfront, even after leaving the residential areas. Sur sure showed off its great side.
In the evening, after a already long day with hiking, swimming, lots of driving, and exploring, and with the knowledge that the next day would bring a lot more driving – I decided that it would be a great idea to drive the last 40 kms out to Ras Al-Hadd, which is a very small town on the eastern tip of the arabian peninsula. There is absolutely nothing there, and I got to drive around some very, very small backroads. But doesn’t matter, was at the eastern tip of arabia!
The great expedition; Another wadi, sand dunes and the majestic fortress
The next day was the big day. I would have to drive 600 kms, with multiple stops along the way. All this, through the interior of the country, whereas the previous day had been along the ocean for much of the way. At the very least, even in the interior the highways a modern, and currently undergoing expansion to make them even wider. It is a joy to drive, even here. To make matters even worse for my already tight schedule, my stomach acted out a bit, and so I had a involuntary long stop at a gas station. But eventually after the first 150 km, including a 40 km detour to the wrong spot, and a crazy drive up and down steep narrow mountain roads, I arrived at the first stop of the day; Wadi Bani Khalid.
Another wonderful wadi. This one has the big natural pools right at the entrance, and then a canyon-hike in its hinterlands, which is nice when you just want to cool down in the warm weather. But given my unruly stomach, and some big cuts I had gotten from sharp stones at the pools in Wadi Shab the previous days kept me out of the water this time. But I went for the canyon hike, which leads to a cave. But that cave is essentially just a small crack in the canyon-walls and was a big letdown. But the hike there is still spectacular and worth it.
Having no time to waste, I had to set off after just little over 1,5 hours here. Just as the hordes of tourists were starting to show up. My next destination would be the Wahiba Sands desert, which is a giant legit desert in Oman, full of massive sand dunes. It is so massive that you can actually see it easily on google maps. It stretches for more than 180 kms through Oman. You can go on tours to nomad camps in the Sands, or just desert-cruising. The only problems was that I didn’t have the time for a proper visit into the sands, nor did I have a 4WD car, which is very much required. But it didn’t stop me from going to the edge of the Sands and walking to the top of the first dunes.
I entered the Sands from the small town of Bidiyah, which is one of the more popular entry points into the Sands. There’s a great spot here where you have dunes on all sides. The heat in the dunes is absolutely hellish, but the sights here are crazy. Massive amounts of sand that’s just at the mercy of the wind, create stunning patterns, almost master pieces. And dunes as far as the eye can see, provides for an epic view.
After stocking up on supplies, I set out for the next 200 km drive, the single longest uninterrupted drive of the whole trip. My destination was the city of Nizwa, which is generally seen as the second city of Oman. It is fairly close to Muscat, and it has a rich history of poets, politicians, scientists, scholars and more. I didn’t get to see the modern town, but had to go straight to the old Town and explore the Nizwa Fortress before it closed. But the old town is also by far the most interesting part of Nizwa. There’s still many original houses here, and entirely labyrinth of stone houses, interspersed with big date-palm plantations. In the middle of all this, is the massive Nizwa fortress, which has been restored in recent decades. From the top tower you have a great view of the whole surrounding area, and the neighbouring mosque, which in itself is also very stunning. I had about an hour to explore the fortress, and enjoy it. Luckily it was enough.
Afterwards I had a traditional Omani dinner, in a restaurant where you can eat Omani style, aka on carpets on the floor, in small private rooms. It was a great experience, the food was delicious (Omani biryani), and it felt as authentic as it could possibly have felt.
Now there was just the drive to Muscat left. Another 120 km. At this point I was already fairly tired, and the traffic was dense, but I made it somehow. A crazy undertaking of a day.
The grand mosque, and the sleepy town
My flight back was in the afternoon on the following day. Therefore it was my last chance to see the Grand Mosque. So I got up early to make the visitor time. Oh boy was it worth it. I had already seen the building from the outside, but that pales in comparison with the insides of the complex. First off, the place is unbelievably clean. All surfaces, even the ground, is pure granite. And it is polished blank. It is shining, even with a constant flow of tourists walking around.
There’s 2 mosques in the complex, the smaller one, and the main one. The one that holds over 20.000 people. Walking into the main mosque gives you a almost religious experience, just from the sheer grandeur of the room you enter. It is enourmous, there’s a gigantic golden chandelier in the central cupola, with multiple smaller (but still very large) chandeliers in the other parts of the roof. The floor is one gigantic persian carpet. It is in fact the second largest persian carpet in the world. You can walk around, take pictures and just guffaw at the splendor. I did this, to the fullest possible extent.
See the pictures, words can’t do this justice.
On the way out, a kind man from the information center came up to me and invited me over to their information center, where I was served tea and dates. And a long introduction to islam. He didn’t try to push me into converting, but was merely trying to plant a seed in my mind about the wonders of islam. It didn’t work tho, but it was still nice to have a conversation about islam, and i was treated very nicely despite everything. I even got a special copy of the quran for free. It now serves as a sort of souvenir.
Before heading to the airport, I went to a small sea-town just north of the Muscat airport, called Seeb. It is a very much non-tourist city. There’s not much to see here, and it is essentially a traditional village, where you can witness the life of the average omani, rather than the partly taken-on modernity of Muscat. It didn’t manage too occupy my attention for long, and it was so hot that I just fled to the airport.
And just like that my journey through Oman came to an end. I wish I could’ve spent a lot more time here, to explore each of these sites much better, and explore the large swathes of the country I still didn’t touch at all. I want to enter the Wahiba Sands and stay with the nomads, star-gazing and so on. Some other time in the future.
Oman was so nice to me. The traffic was great. The infrastructure for cars is amazing. The perfect blend of modernity and traditional fulfills a fine balance. The nature, be it green wadis, orange/brown dune-deserts, the azure blue pools, or dry canyons, it is all amazing to view. The people are very sweet, curious and friendly. Don’t be afraid to visit Oman, it might have some sketchy neighbours, but Oman itself remains extremely stable and secure. Beware however, that Oman is also very expensive (only exception is gasoline, which is ridiculously cheap).
I can only recommend going there, but give yourself a little more than 3 full days. There’s so much to see and do. It can be done in 3 days, but damn how you’ll be moving around constantly!