Omani Road Trip

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April 13th 2016
Published: May 4th 2016
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The short plane hop from Qatar brought me to the Sultunate of Oman. Oman is a stable and peaceful country of four and a half million and situated in the Southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. Once I was at the airport, I tried taking out some cash but no ATM would work. Luckily I was carrying some USD currency so I exchanged some of that. Then I couldn't get online with the airport internet because it required a password that you could only get via text message. I wasn't traveling with a smartphone, and it was really causing some issues in terms of travel ease. Five years ago, no one had a smart phone on the road. But now the times have changed and although it's great to be disconnected, I could tell it was going to be tough without one here. So with no internet and no phone, I felt pretty blind. I bought a phone card so I could use the payphone. I had a contact for a cheap car rental, but the person wasn't answering. Crap! Looking outside, it had begun pouring rain, and large pools of water were forming everywhere. Oman does not have proper drainage by any stretch. I tried the call once again and was ecstatic when the line picked up. Before arriving in Oman, I had met Tihomir, an expat living here, through the couchsurfing website and he had a friend who had a cheap car to rent. Did I mention Oman had practically no public transit system? Yes this is a challenging country to travel through from a backpacking perspective. In any case, I was now speaking to Faris, and he kindly offered to come get me from the airport. Within fifteen minutes, he was there, a young man wearing a traditional Omani dishdasha and driving a pretty nice car. He apologized for not answering but he had been praying at the Mosque as it was Friday today. He took me to the nearby district of Al Khoud and I got my first taste of Oman. The rain was coming down hard and for a desert country I hadn't been expecting this. I was offered dates and water and already I could see what Omani hospitality consisted of. We went over to Tihomir's place and I met him in person. The car was there, a 2011 blue Chevy Aveo. I had decided to rent a GPS while at the airport from one of the rental places there. I couldn't afford to be too blind. I talked with them for a bit and we decided we'd all try to hang out together when I got back from my imminent road trip.

On the road now, GPS online, I was on my way to see Mia, whom I had also met through couchsurfing. Faris had let me use her phone to call her. We were going to meet up and find a place to camp. Faris had thrown in a tent in the trunk so I would be set. Did I mention accommodation is very expensive in Oman? Camping is the way to go. I had a close call within ten minutes as a car cut me off going into the roundabout. Another fun fact is that Oman had one of the deadliest car safety records until fairly recently when the government began to crack down and set up speed bumps and radars everywhere. I had to make my way to a place called Al Amerat, about an hour away. It felt cool driving a car again, and this would be a great (and only) way to experience some of Oman. Then a message popped up saying low battery on my GPS. How was that possible considering it was plugged in? Crap! It turned out the GPS wasn't charging for some reason. I didn't have much juice left so I gunned it towards my destination. It did die soon after and I was on my own. I had to ask someone for the way and then I was cutting through the Hajar mountains, going along steep roads to get to the other side. Once there, I became lost again, so I went into a coffee shop and asked an Indian guy if I could use his phone. I contacted Mia and she decided to come get me. Apparently I wasn't far. The Indian guy bought me a chai while I waited. Yes they have chai in Oman! I noticed, much like Qatar, there are a plethora of expat's from various countries, including many from the subcontinent, doing all sorts of jobs in this country. Mia pulled up in her brown SUV and we got to meet in person. She was originally from the Philippines and had been working in the Gulf for the past few years. I followed her to the Sultan Center, our original meetup point, a large warehouse store. I met her three friends, all Indian expats, who were going to join for some camping. The only problem was that it was raining and we decided to just go for a drive in one of their cars and figure it out. My GPS was charging in this car, which meant it was a connection problem in the Aveo. Not very good, but at least I would be able to charge it fully and would have to use it only sparingly. After about an hour drive, it was dark already, and camping was cancelled. Mia decided to host me at her flat for the night (despite some landlord issues against visitors), and after I snuck in, she made an awesome curry and rice dish and we got to know each other a bit. She gave me loads of tips for my upcoming road trip, and I took pictures of some maps that she had (since I had no reliable electronic devices, yes I suck). I did the dishes after the meal, really it was the very least I could do! All in all things had somewhat worked out, I was really lucky I had made some contacts here, would have been tough and really expensive otherwise.

Mia made me some breakfast and even gave me some plastic supplies and toilet paper for my journey onward despite my insistence. She was really hospitable and a great couchsurfing host! I snuck back out of the building and then made my way back to the Sultan Center and picked up food for my road trip. Lots of canned goods like tuna and beans. And then I was off! Took the freeway (really good road infrastructure) and headed towards the town of Quryat. The Hajar mountains rose like daggers on my right side. Right before the turn off to that town, I saw a sign pointing towards the a place called Wadi Dayqah. I followed some windy roads for about 25 km and then headed towards the Mazara Dam. Since it had rained heavily the night before, the Wadi was full of clear blue water and the massive amounts were running through the dam. A nice village could be seen along the bottom, surrounded by palm trees. I had lunch at this spot and then drove back to the freeway. Soon enough I was driving along the pretty coast of the Gulf of Oman. After some time, I stopped at a place called the Sink Hole. It was formed over thousands of years due to water erosion and as a result has created a pretty cool crater-like structure full of water. The locals have a legend claiming that a meteor crashed into this site and formed the hole. I found some foreigners here and two of them went up to about 25 metres and jumped from the cliff into the deep waters. I would not be attempting that! My journey continued to the famous Wadi called Wadi Shab. Again because of the rains, the water was high and I took a short boat ride across to the shore on the other side. From there I walked through beautiful cliffs and palm trees and reached an area with small waterfalls. I couldn't go much further because it was already getting late. I turned back around and made my way to the car. From there the village of Tiwi was right around the bend, so I drove through and checked it out. Then I hit the freeway again, heading towards the city of Sur. I reached it just as the sun was setting under a chain of mountains. I stopped the car and checked out the corniche as the darkness came. Now I needed to find a place to camp. Sur was too crowded so I continued driving to the southern tip, to a place called Ras Al Hadd. It consisted of a small peninsula jutting from the main land mass. I drove along some pretty empty beach and then drove my car onto the beach, choosing what I thought would be a suitable site. Pulling out the loaned tent, I realized this thing was massive. In fact, Faris had loaned me a six person tent! What the hell was I supposed to do with that. At this point it was quite dark so I pulled out my torch and attempted to set it up. Because of the insane size of it and my lack of night vision I was having trouble. I kicked myself for not checking my equipment beforehand. Then I noticed that the water seemed a lot closer than it had been just a few minutes before. The tide was coming in fast! I threw the tent back in the car and retreated from the beach as it was consumed by the ocean. It turned out it was a good thing I didn't finish setting the tent up. I went along and found another place down and off the road. There was a small shelter so I didn't even bother setting the tent up and just threw my mat down and covered myself with my shawl. That's right, I didn't have a sleeping bag either. So basically it was my second day in a strange land, with hardly any navigation equipment, no form of communication, and sub-par camping equipment. But it was still an adventure. Looking out I realized how far and fast the tide had come in. This place was windy too, but at least it was a warm wind. I ate canned tuna, beans and bread for dinner. Then I tried to get some sleep.

I awoke early to find that the water had receded from the beach. The call to prayer from a nearby mosque rang out. Fishermen could be seen in the distance, on their boats heading out to find fresh catches. I packed up the mat and drove to a nearby beach and walked along for some time. I was thinking maybe I would be able to find some turtles, but I think it was already too bright out. After that I drove back past the village and stopped at a small historic fort and then at a coffeeshop to get some Omani bread and some eggs for breakfast. It was already becoming a scorcher out there but at least the humidity was down to a minimum. My Aveo also had AC which was useful when it was beginning to get unbearable. I continued down the coastal rode, this time going along the southeast, and went through several small villages, and witnessed people going about their days. The driving here was pleasant and relaxed. There were plenty of goats crossing at times, and one always has to watch for camels on the road as well. In fact I stopped to take a picture of a camel and it came over and almost put its head into the car! There are plenty of signs to remind you of camels in the area. I guess their the equivalent to the moose back home. I went down about 75 km to a village called Al Ashkarah and stopped at a beach to eat some camping style lunch. I had a great view of some wooden traditional boats known as Dhows. Then I made my way back into the interior of the coast, back towards the desert. I filled up on gas first, petrol is dirt cheap here and costs about fifty cents a liter. I must have driven for a few hours, until I found the turn off I was looking for. Remember that I didn't have any GPS and was relying solely on not even paper maps, but pictures of paper maps that I had taken with my camera! Still it was working out, the signage in Oman was damn good. That along with amazing roads made road tripping in this area extremely fun. My home province of Quebec is put to shame if I was to compare. I went along windy roads back towards a mountain range and then began to cross them. I was heading to another wadi, this one called Bani Khaled. As I approached, I had to pass by many instances of flooded roads from the wadi but luckily they were shallow enough that I had no problems. I often wished I had a big four wheel drive vehicle so that I could go anywhere I wanted but unfortunately I was confined to the roads. Probably for the best though considering I would have gotten way lost if I had. I reached the wadi and crossed some flooded parts on foot. Once there I was treated to a palm tree paradise. I asked one of the people working there if there was a place I could camp, and he happily pointed out an elevated area to the left of the wadi. I went back to the car and then carried my massive tent that could house an army up to the site. I laboriously put the thing together, and chatted with some locals that were nearby. Then I noticed that some ominous clouds were coming in. Wadis are basically mountain runoff streams, but with rain they can swell to several times their size, making them potentially dangerous. The power of mother nature will sweep everything from her path. I was concerned and wondered if I should stick around. One local told me in broken English that if it begins to rain, I should run. Not very reassuring, but the staff guy who suggested me the spot told me it would be fine and the water could not reach me. The potential rains also posed another problem; my car. Flash floods can be a problem in certain parts of Oman. The waters would easily sweep it away, so I went back over through the streams and drove it about 2 km away, at the top of a hill where I figured the waters could not reach. Then I hitchhiked with a passing pickup truck back down to the wadi. I brought along what I would need for the night, and went back to my camp site. Darkness came and it hadn't begun to rain yet, but the heavy clouds remained above. Two locals Omani guys dressed in Diqshahs came over to see me and told me to stay up top and made sure my car wouldn't be in any danger. I was pretty happy they were looking out for me. Then I wondered what I had gotten myself into to. Someone from below yelled out that the wadi was coming and they ran out to get into their cars and escape. And then I was alone in the silence of this paradise. The skies rumbled and some flashes of light could be seen the distance. Small drops started to fall, and then stopped, and then fell again. I sat down in meditative silence. I ate my canned food I had brought along. Then I just listened to the nature around me. There were bats flying overhead. Mountain goats could be heard on the steep cliffs above. The night progressed and all was calm. I went into my house sized tent and lay down. I woke up a few hours later having to take a leak. I went out and saw a clear sky with thousands of stars in perfect view. The wadi was calm.

I woke early and then went deeper into the wadi and found a place to wash myself. I packed up my tent and walked the two kilometers towards my car. The wadi had risen slightly and I continuously went across the water covered sections of the road barefoot. Finally reaching the car, the temperature was already soaring. I drove off and went back towards the town of Bani Khaled. Once there, I found a small coffee shop and ordered some Omani bread with cheese and eggs inside. A young Omani man dressed in a dishdasha walked in and began chatting to me while shouting at the waiter for some Samboosas. We talked about different things, but mainly about my thoughts on Oman and some questions about home. Once finished, he got up and bid me farewell. Soon after I got up and went to pay my bill and the waiter said "Challash!" while waving his hand. My brief Omani companion had covered my meal costs before leaving. The kindness of strangers. I drove out of the mountains and headed towards the desert town of Biddiya. Large and colourful sand dunes could be found surrounding part of the town. I drove as far as I could towards them and then longed to have a four wheel drive vehicle! Alas I did not so, I headed back the way I came and prepared for a several hour journey towards the historic town of Nizwa. Radio reception was now back and I cycled between Arabic, Classical, and even modern day pop as I drove along. The scenery was pretty much rocky desert for much of it. Once arriving in Nizwa, I headed towards the city center. Nizwa had been the capital of Oman at one point, and had a large fort and souq as notable sites. I first saw a large shopping mall and decided to stop to see what it was like. It was large and empty and I soon left.

At the city center, I explored the souq for a bit and was asked by some ladies if they could take my photo. They were photographers and I happily accepted. Sadly, they weren't comfortable with me taking their snaps. I figured it might have been cultural. Dusk was approaching so I got back to the car and decided to make my way out of the city. I used some of the juice from my GPS to do so, and was taken on a wild ride through the most narrow and maze like streets ever. On the way I picked up a Bangladeshi guy who was asking for a ride and drove him to where he needed to go. Then again, I picked up some other local and brought him about a kilometer away until our paths diverged. This is the way things are here, if you wave out your hand and need a lift, someone is bound to help you out. Likewise, I was returning the favors. Good karma. I hit the freeway and headed about a half hour away to the town of Bahela. I needed a place for the night and figured maybe I could find a camping spot. Plus there was a big fort I could check out the next day. I got off the freeway and was heading into the town until I heard a pop and the car begun to shake. I pulled over immediately and saw that my front driver tire had exploded! This wasn't the first time this has happened in my life. Not sure what the cause was but I must have run over something sharp. Mind you none of the tires appeared to be in the newest condition. I looked over to my left and amazingly saw a shop that had Arabic signage above and some English lettering below that said "Repairing Puncture Tyres". Luck was on my side. I slowly pulled into the lot and one of the shop people saw me and came out. We changed the tire with my spare and he took a look to make sure everything else was okay. I wanted to make sure it was just the tire that was the issue. He recommended that all the tires get changed as soon as possible. I didn't charge me for anything and even gave me his contact info in case I needed anything else. Then he directed me to an area that I might find a camping spot. It was near a wadi but I couldn't find anything. In the end it was so dark that I just pulled over off the side of a road. I decided I didn't feel like setting up my mammoth tent in the dark, and in the end just passed out in the car.

I had another early start and had slept surprisingly well. I went over to the Bahela fort nearby. This structure was immense. I walked the area for a bit before the day warmed up too much. Once done I popped back into the car and started it up. I made my way back to the freeway and drove for a bit before pulling over to a gas station to fill up my tank and get some breakfast at the attached coffee shop. Then I was off again, back towards Muscat. Within two hours I had arrived. I first went to a car wash and had the inside and outside cleaned properly. In Oman it's actually illegal to have a dirty car and can result in a fine! Then I went over to the airport and gave back the GPS that I had hardly used. I used the opportunity to call Faris via payphone and we arranged to meet back at Tihomir's place. I had a bit of an idea how to get back there, but when I got near I asked another driver for directions and the guy actually drove there while I followed. Omani hospitality! I calculated that I had driven 1100 km during my trip. Faris arrived soon after myself, and I chatted to him about my (mis)adventures. I offered to pay him for a replacement tire but he flat out refused and said he would take care of it himself. Then I got into his SUV and we went over to a traditional Omani restaurant that he wanted to take me to. He had left work early so we could hang out. The food at the restaurant was great and consisted of us sitting on a carpeted floor and eating with our hands. We had delicious rice, chicken, hummus, Omani bread, Samboosas, and more. After consisting of a camping diet for the last few days, this was heaven. After that we headed out to the nearby Wadi Al Khoud. This was off the beaten path, and no one really knew about the place. Faris, of course, knew it well and had been going there for years. I would finally be getting my four wheel drive experience here, as we went off road crashed through uneven terrain and streams. We reached the spot and then changed into some swimwear. Faris changed out of his traditional clothes. We first went on a hike through the wadi area that offered some great views. It was hot though so I had to drink often. Then we doubled back and he showed me an awesome swim spot. We swam for about an hour. The water was very clear.

After our excursion we headed off back into town and met up with one of Faris' friends called Abdel. This guy was a few years younger than us, and was very soft spoken. We were heading into the downtown district of Muscat. I hadn't seen much of the capital yet so this would at least give me an idea. On the way, they stopped at a mosque for a quick prayer stop. We then proceeded towards an exhibition hall were we would be meeting another of Faris' friends called Damien, who was an expat originally from France. After spending time trying to find parking, we made it inside the exhibition hall and had all sorts of free food and drink. Some fantastic photos were on display there, and many locals and expats were muddling around. Once the exhibition had finished, I met Damien and we all went to a nearby coffee place. We had some good chocolate drinks and then Faris insisted he pay for everyone. We then returned to Tihomir's place. Tihomir was gonna let me crash on his couch and I was grateful. We played some cards and talked until almost midnight. I was exhausted by this point but I still decided to get online and catch up and plan some stuff since I had been disconnected for most of the week.

Faris picked me up from Tihomir's place early the next morning and drove me to the nearby bus station. I was going to be heading north, to see the metropolis known as Dubai. I thanked Faris for his absolutely legendary hospitality. Having this kind of local interaction really makes a huge difference when visiting a place, and in the case of Oman, it made the trip. I had a blast and will remember this country fondly. The people, the scenery, the experiences...I could have never anticipated what this place had to offer. And now onward to the concrete, steel and sand of Dubai...

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5th May 2016

Is that you wearing a massar like a local? If so you definitely look like a local!

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