They call it ‘eye of mountain’ – that special place in this desert country where a sparkling stream will spring clear of its mother mountain. Scrawled above an aqueduct of fast-flowing water in the 400-year-old oasis town of Al Hamra in Oman – is the inscription I’ve pasted below left.
A love message from one person to another was my first thought, as in Tangea loves Richard, for example. ‘Some graffiti?’ I asked our guide Abdulla. It turned out that I was technically right, I guess, in that this was an unauthorised doodle or scribble in a public place and right, too, in that it was a love message, but wrong in that it wasn’t a person-to-person missive, but person to country. ‘No, no, not graffiti,’ Abdulla corrected. ‘This message – over eye of water – say I love Oman.’ And I think that pretty much sums up the feeling we were left with after spending a spectacular 10 days in that country. Quite apart from the sights and experiences, I was particularly amazed at the clarity and abundance of such ‘eyes of mountain’ in a nation where the rainfall varies from practically zero in the desert to around a still scant 300 mm a year in the mountains. If you are contemplating a visit to this part of the world, this is a glimpse into how our visit to Oman came about and what I loved most about it.
Why we went and when
Inspired initially by travel editor and author Stephen Scourfield’s article in The Weekend West, our trip to Oman became a reality during the year we had an Omani PhD student stay with us. Mansour returned for his second semester in Perth armed with gifts, maps and travel videos; he would be honoured, he said, if we were to visit his country. The best months to go were December, January, February and the best time to stay away was during the northern hemisphere summer when temperatures in Muscat can reach 49 degrees. In the end, we went.
What we experienced
I will be posting more fulsome comments on accommodation on TripAdvisor, but for us, the holiday worked perfectly with two blissful days in Muscat either side of a stimulating and informative few days touring the mountain and desert regions. In Muscat, don’t miss
- a visit to the old quarter of Muttrah with its rambling souk, harbourside promenade and hillside climb. Stop for zatar tea or Arabic coffee. Late afternoon is best
- a tour of the Royal Opera House in Muscat currently open from 8.30 – 10.30 daily. The tours are 2 riyals each
- the Grand Mosque
Mountains and desert:
On Mansour’s recommendation, we had booked six days with Canyon Adventures and Tours and there is no doubt that it was in large part due to Abdulla’s experience, thoughtfulness and knowledge that we enjoyed our private tour so comprehensively. Along with an unfolding agenda of splendid sights and scenes, we discussed and debated just about everything from drugs, religion, politics to Swahili and its Arabic base. In the small space available here, it is impossible to list, let alone describe, this country and what we learned about the people, the history, the culture.
Instead, in no order, these are some of my favourite times:
- Our one-time tenant – and now good friend – Mansour meeting us at the airport, transporting us to our hotel and returning later in the evening to take us round and about, treating us to dinner, checking that all times we would be well taken care of
- the times that Abdulla swerved off-road (left) to set up camp chairs before making Arabic coffee to serve along with dates from his own village
the night spent at the 400 y.o. Old House situated in the pretty mountain village of Misfat Al Abryeen where we slept on a mattress on the floor, small windows level with our pillows, the breeze filtering through palm fronds a couple of metres away and the contrast of the stars in a sky blacker than the tail feathers of a crow
the remarkable bathing and picnic area of Wadi Bani Khalid. Aah, even the memory of this constantly renewed (from the mountains again) pool of forever-water complete with small and remarkably content fish soothes the soul
the meals hosted by families in their homes and by the Bedouins in the desert
me – a horse-rider – having my first ride on a camel whose getting-up and getting-down very nearly unseated me
the people we met – from Germany, England, Egypt, UAE, more spec Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi – all with experiences, stories, discussions, freely shared
the mountains, the mountains, the mountains and their lush valleys – gold, crimson, black, sage-green
and the desert, red-gold against the purple of my distant memories
- Best time – Go from Dec to end of Feb for optimum weather in Muscat (23 -28 daytime) as well as the mountains (cold nights, 18-degree days) and the desert. For the Green Mountain (agriculture), best later in the year July – September. Salalah in the south and the turtle breeding area of Dhofar are different again. Difficult choice. Go more than once
- Dress – I was a little anxious as to the dress code for women. Although careful to conduct myself as Mansour did in my own country – do as the Romans do – websites differed on this subject. My take was to wear a shirt and/or t’shirt with sleeves with either a longish skirt or pants/jeans which worked well. I was greeted courteously at all times with sudden smiles from the women-folk. Oman is a place where cars stop to let you cross, not only at pedestrian crossings/lights, but also if they see you standing at the side of the road
- Drink – Freely available (perhaps too freely!) at the capital’s main hotels and at certain hotels in the region (i.e. Hotel Jabal Al Akdar and Desert Nights camp Bidiyah, for example). If you absolutely must when travelling, no problems with a libation secreted in your luggage for discrete consumption in your room. Otherwise, do as I did and give your liver a (brief) holiday
- Four-wheel-drive – Among the huge advantage of a driver/guide is the added extra – the meals in homes, the side-turns, the explanations, discussions, the saved time in the getting there and getting back. But self-drive or otherwise, it’s essential to have a 4WD and know how to drive it – some areas they won’t let you pass without a 4WD
- Go Jan/Feb for Muscat and the mountain ranges; later in the year for Dhofar and Salalat
- Go NOW — as in 2016 — and don’t do as we did with our trip to Vietnam and leave it for 10 years. Oman is a sophisticated, tourist-ready destination. Currently, you have it all ways: aside from the hotels, you can wander for hours without coming across another traveller and yet all the conveniences we’ve come to expect are available
Travelling around Oman is Spain and Italy without the crowds, Vietnam without the motorcycles. It is hospitality of the warmest kind; it’s ancient forts, castles and souks and walking around without being hassled by touts; it’s cars that stop to allow you to cross the road if you are standing at the kerb and it’s sudden secret smiles from the women promenading with their families. We both loved our brief visit to this country and one day — God-willing — we’ll be back.