20 December 2005

Oman - Nizwa, Muscat and inbetween

Whew - did it! Here's the promised Oman post.
If you click on the images, they'll open up as larger ones.


Enjoy!

Before anyone goes to Oman on a self-drive excursion, there’s one essential item that you have to acquire. The book “Off-Road in Oman” by Heiner Klein and Rebecca Brickson is mandatory luggage. Full of interesting facts on Oman, great maps, directions and images, it is a must-have, and we’ve discovered it to be very accurate. Some of the road conditions have changed since the book was written, but so far this has been to our advantage, as more sealing of gravel roads takes place in the country.

2 weekends ago, we took a couple of days off work, and headed off on our next venture into Oman, to visit Nizwa and Muscat over 4 days. The following post is divided into chapters dealing with various places and experiences that we had over those 4 days.

THURSDAY
We were heading to Muscat on the inland road via Nizwa, so this meant that we had to travel to Al Ain in the Abu Dhabi emirate to cross over into Oman.

Border Crossing
We hadn’t done our homework to find out where the border crossing was for Nizwa from the UAE. Once in Al Ain, our inner compasses deserted us, and we took a few wrong turns – aided by some not-so-accurate directions from a few petrol station attendants that we asked for help, and by the lack of any signage that pointed to the border. When we finally got there, the adventure truly began!

A lack of any signage also at the border post (we didn’t see any Arabic signs, let alone English ones) made this experience more memorable.

The UAE officer was a young arrogant man who couldn’t manage a smile or a greeting as he asked for my licence and car registration. When he gave these back to me together with a piece of paper, I asked him where we should go next. “Go forward, go forward – to border”, he said impatiently, pointing over his shoulder. So we went to the border – big mistake! We got sent back to get our passports stamped at a little window which was just past the first stop, and that we’d completely missed and driven by. This meant waiting in line again (luckily not too busy or long) to see our arrogant UAE officer. As I waved the paper at him, he waved us through, probably laughing hysterically (as we were!) at making the 2 women drive through the border post again! This time, we stopped at the passport control, filled out the forms, paid the departure fee, got another stamp on the piece of paper and again drove to the man who had turned us back. Yay – we had the magic number of stamps on our paper this time! He asked for our car insurance paper (and we had gotten one written in Arabic, as we had been warned that this was a requirement to go to Oman), checked the car plate number against the document, and then with a wave and a bow, sent us on our way…

…to the Omani border control post!

The Omani officer was much friendlier than our UAE guy. We were “invited” inside the building, where we were asked to go to the Cashier window. No one there, so we waited patiently. Finally, the same officer came over and J was able to pay her entry fee into Oman. To my delight, I discovered that NZ passport holders can enter Oman for free! With payment done, and passports back in hand, we headed out of the building – chased by one of the security guards shouting, “wait, you no finish, you no finish!” He led us back into the building where he took us to another counter to get our passports stamped. By this time, we were hysterical and could hardly contain ourselves. Thanking the Omani guards and rushing back to the car, we collapsed in tears of laughter at the whole ordeal – and we were only 4 hours into the trip! A quick stop at Customs, a cursory glance into our car by the officer, and we were in Oman!

To Nizwa
The roads in Oman are fantastic. Long stretches of tarseal, and our Honda MRV relished the chance to comfortably cruise at speeds that seem too fast when driving on the congested SZR in Dubai – or even on the Al Ain – Abu Dhabi highway. We were concerned about earlier reports that we’d received about petrol shortages in Oman, so we filled up whenever we could. It soon became apparent that the shortages were over.

Al Ayn
About 50km out of the town of Ibri, we turned left and headed for the village of Al Ayn. This road led through a beautiful valley that was surrounded by hills. This area is famous for its beehive tombs, and we could see them on almost every hill. We turned around in Al Ayn and came back to the main road to continue towards Nizwa.

Jabrin Fort
Another 50km down the road and we were turning right to go to the Jabrin Fort – one of about 4 we were to visit over the next 4 days! Most of the Omani forts are being restored and this was no exception. Entry fee is 1 Rial (10 dirhams) for 2 adults and the money goes to the restoration fund. It was an elegant labyrinth of stairways and rooms, and we were amazed at the beautiful plasterwork, and the detail in the paintings on the ceilings and the wood carvings. Doors are beautiful heavy works of art, and this fort had an amazing central courtyard that had 2 wooden balconies facing each other. Back on the road, the trip to Nizwa ended as dusk fell, and we drove through the town to our hotel on the other side – the Nizwa Hotel which is part of the Golden Tulip chain. We had a delicious buffet dinner by the pool, and a reasonably early bedtime – because the next day was going to be a long one.

FRIDAY
Why is it that we’re always up earlier on our holidays?!

The Nizwa Souks
The off-road book had mentioned the goat-market auction, and because it started early in the morning, we were breakfasted and in the Honda heading back to Nizwa by 8am. Parking the MRV, we were surrounded by Omani farmers and their families coming into Nizwa with livestock and produce to sell. We got some interested stares – particularly from the kids – but the stares soon turned to smiles and waves back to us. This was something that we found to be an endearing trait of the Omani people. The goat souk was starting to fill up, but nothing was happening. We wandered through the other souks – meat & fish, fruit & vegetables – greeting the vendors and receiving friendly greetings in return. M still wasn’t comfortable pointing her camera at people to take photos – and there were some beauties which she missed because she didn’t want to be rude. One memory is of a group of about 6 older men sitting on a wall outside one of the souks – all leaning on their rifles that looked like muskets of old. We headed back to the goat market where it was busier than before. As we were standing there, an Omani man next to us struck up a conversation, telling us what was going on. Mussalem was from Salalah – the home of frankincense - about 1,000km away and deep in the south of Oman. We vowed to make the trip to Salalah one day from what he told us – it sounded beautiful.
The activity at the market suddenly got more frenetic, as men dragged their goats into the ring and started to shout at the surrounding people: extolling the attributes of their animals, and naming their price. How anyone knew who had bid the best price was beyond our comprehension, but it all seemed to work out! We were amused by the younger boys emulating their fathers by practicing their livestock handling skills on the baby goats. Some of the women also got into the action, and were seen to be buying and selling livestock. There were older men shuffling through the crowd, leaning on sticks, with one hand clutching plates of honeycomb which they were selling. All around us was confusion and mayhem and we loved it. Reluctantly, we left the market to continue on our journey.

Al Hamra
Al Hamra is a beautiful town with a very large date plantation. In the early morning sun with smoke from fires rising in the still air, it was a great place to visit. The village people waved to us and called out greetings. We were pleasantly surprised to find so many people who spoke very good English – it was awesome to be able to talk to them and find out more about what they did and who they were. It made us feel very ashamed of how little Arabic we knew in return.
Misfah
From Al Hamra, we drove up an incredible sealed switchback road, (reminiscent of those in the Italian Alps), to the town of Misfah. Here, the houses are built into and around the rocks that are part of a cliffside, and it has to be seen to be believed – it’s truly beautiful. We had friendly young girls calling out to us from their windows high above us, to ask us our names and where we were from. The air was so clean and still, and from all around the valley, you could hear people in their houses talking to each other.
Wadi Ghul
Leaving Misfah, we came down the switchback road and headed for Wadi Ghul, driving though some beautiful countryside with the towering Hajjar mountains around us. The very steep road leading up into the mountains is sealed for quite some distance and accessible by car, and our 4WD made easy work of it. We were heading for the highest mountain in the Hajjar range – the 3,000m Jabal Shams. The seal turned to gravel – still accessible by car in dry weather – and we were now in the heart of the Hajjars. Jabal Shams towered above us as we wound our way up the road. Access to the very top is not possible as there is a radar tracking station for the Omani Airforce up there, but we did make it to about 1700m before the gate stopped us. We paused at the top of the road to take photos, and to talk to the airforce security guards at the gate, who were washing up after breakfast.

Coming back down, we turned left off the main road onto a track that led us to some awe-inspiring scenery. At the track end, we were greeted by a couple of families who lived here, and were selling rugs and bracelets that they had woven from their goats’ hair. The rugs are beautiful, and commerce is no stranger to these people - even the children know the value of trading and bartering. J and I are very soft-hearted when it comes to haggling, and there wasn’t much done – we were content to pay what they wanted for 2 rugs and some bracelets. We walked into the small village – really about 5 huts – to find that they were perched on the edge of a 1,000m cliff – what an awesome view! We quickly found out that to take photos of the people would cost us 1 Rial per shot! We were invited for coffee and sat on a mat in the sun, with these delightful people crowding around us – offering us delicious dates and cardamom coffee. The kids were a delight and quickly grabbed our cameras to take photos of each other and of us. We were more than happy to let them do this, as it then didn’t cost us anything for the photos, and they got some great shots too! We were introduced to all the family members, even the 2 month old baby. Sadly we had to say goodbye, and as we got back to the car, there was a last-ditch attempt by some of the people to sell us more rugs and bracelets!

Hooti Caves
Coming back through Al Hamra from Wadi Ghul, we turned off for the Hooti Caves, following the road signs. There was some confusion on our part as to where these actually were, and we soon discovered that the last sign said that they were 3.5km ahead. There were no more signs after that, and with some sleuthing, we discovered that there is some major construction going on at the entrance to the caves, and it appears that they are going to be made into a major tourist attraction, complete with some sort of railway system to take visitors into the caves. The only other way to get to them was by walking 30mins, and we decided that we had better things to do! Next time perhaps!

Nizwa Fort
We headed back to Nizwa to visit the Fort that dominates the town. Again in the process of restoration, the fort is a wonderful place to visit. It has a great little shop in it, where you can buy rugs, frankincense, pottery, copper and silverware – and all profits go to the restoration of the fort. The rugs are expensive in comparison to what we had paid the village people up Jabal Shams, but the pottery and metalware is very reasonable for a tourist site.

Off to Muscat
We had had enough sight-seeing for the day, and after the Nizwa Fort, we got into the Honda to head for Muscat. We were soon barreling along a 2-3 lane highway all the way to the capital of Oman. Again, we timed our arrival on dusk, and quickly made our way to the Chedi Hotel.

The Chedi Muscat
What can we say about this place? We had decided to give ourselves a treat and stay here. It is beautiful in a sterile sort of way – and we wouldn’t stay there again because of its lack of atmosphere. The Chedi is also built on the eastern approach to the Muscat International Airport, and at certain times of the day depending on the wind, the aircraft feel as if they’re landing on top of you! With one Omani Rial equaling 10 UAE Dirhams, the meals can be very expensive – especially when any alcoholic drinks are factored in. The food is not to be faulted – our dinner was delicious, and a plus for the hotel is that the buffet breakfast is included in the room tariff – and the breakfast is amazing!

SATURDAY
Up again early, as we had to be in Muscat at the Oman Dive Center at 8:30am, and Muscat traffic is just slightly better than rush hour in Dubai. We had a gorgeous breakfast – lots of fresh fruit and yoghurt, fresh breads and pastries. There was also a large choice of cooked food which we didn’t sample.

Winding our way through the traffic, we made our way into Muscat. The Omani driving habits are certainly better than the UAE standard: they can actually use indicators, and don’t push into lanes, or weave in and out of lanes in an attempt to get another few metres ahead!

Muscat is built in the valleys of the Hajjar Mountain range – little pockets of suburbs surrounded by high hills and cliffs. The construction of the roads is an artform – we marveled at the magnificent engineering.

The new road to the Oman Dive Center has only been open for a few months, and as we descended towards the beach, the road felt more like a ski-slope – so steep was the angle.

Oman Dive Center
They’re a friendly lot at the dive center, and there is a cute resort next to it where we would prefer to stay the next time. A few of our fellow divers were staying there, and said that the chalets were very comfortable and modern. The beach was great too, and has very shallow water for quite some distance. We were quickly kitted out with our dive gear, and then walked in thigh-deep water to the diveboat which was anchored about 100m off the beach.

Diving off Muscat
All aboard, and we were racing out of the bay and along the coast of Muscat to a little island where we would do our 2 dives. Watching the oil tankers coming into berth at the remote filling stations off the coast was very interesting.

The first dive was onto a couple of pinnacles sitting in about 30m of water. Here, the dive crew knew the location of a frogfish, so J and I were treated to our first sighting of this seemingly prehistoric creature. There were also lots of honeycomb moray eels, lionfish, tuna, mackerel and other smaller reef fish. The visibility wasn’t that good, but we had a great time, and M took a few more images to add to her underwater collection.

After a brief rest back onboard the diveboat, with hot coffee and biscuits, we descended on our second dive. This was at no more than about 8-10m, and there was so much to see on one of the biggest hard coral reefs that we have ever seen. The plate coral stretched as far as the eye could see – and beyond. Here we saw more eels, scorpionfish, and M’s favourite – anemone clownfish. We saw the tiniest baby clownfish that we had ever seen, and as M took photos of it, the motherfish was attacking her camera and banging it with her nose!

We headed back to the dive center – happy that we had managed to go diving again.

Muscat
We drove around Muscat for the rest of the afternoon – stopping to view the fort at the entrance to the harbour and the Sultan’s palace.

Being a bit weary and cool from our diving, we stopped at the Starbucks on the large stretch of public beach, and sat outside, sipping hot drinks, watching the sea and the people cruising by in the cars. We really enjoyed ourselves – Omani people driving by, car windows down, and returning our smiles with no inhibitions – we could see their eyes smiling as well as their mouths! The Omani women are beautiful, and have no problem with making eye contact and smiling at you. We find this with the Emirati women too – it’s just that we don’t see too many, and we certainly can’t see into their heavily tinted car windows!

The beach area is fantastic – and open to all people in Muscat. An area like this is something that we really need in Dubai – we’re in danger of losing all the easily accessible beach areas to hotels. We watched groups of young men ignoring the “No soccer on the beach” signs and playing on the hard sand at the water’s edge. Everywhere where there is a stretch of flat land in Oman, you’ll find a graded area with 2 goals that has been marked out as a soccer pitch – they’re football crazy in this country!

We had made dinner reservations at the Al Bustan Palace for 9pm, so we headed back to the hotel to shower and change, and head back into the old town of Muscat to visit the Muttrah Souk.

Muttrah Souk
Located by the harbour on the Muttrah Corniche, the souk is an amazing labyrinth of alleyways and corridors with tiny shops laden with clothing, perfumes, fabrics, carpets, silverware, frankincense and all sorts of souvenirs. We loved it – it was so much fun to walk down the alleyways and barter for lovely pashminas and for bags of frankincense and bottles of perfume. We quickly spent about 2 hours here before having to leave for dinner.Al Bustan Palace
We had made dinner reservations at the Beach Pavilion restaurant at the Al Bustan Palace. Earlier in the day when we had stopped in to book our dinner appointment, the hotel was tranquil and quiet. When we pulled up just before 9pm, it was a different story. It appeared as if the whole Muscati police force was in attendance, and there were mostly Mercedes and BMW limousines with diplomatic plates parked everywhere. Valet parking had been cancelled for the night due to the influx of VIPs! We finally found a carpark, and trudged back to the main entrance, only to find it blocked by 2 very BIG bulletproofed Maybach Mercedes limos with gold crowns on the numberplates. We quickly surmised that His Royal Omani Majesty, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, was in attendance!

Inside the hotel, the security was thick. We first encountered a group of armed Omani policewomen clustered around the entrance of a ballroom, and after exchanging smiles with them, we quickly headed into an elevator to the beach level. On the way down, our elevator opened on another floor, where a group of heavily armed Omani policemen could be seen, looking into the elevator to see if we were a dangerous threat! Nervous now, we smiled at them as the elevator doors closed and we descended to our floor!

Walking out to the restaurant on the beach, another event was happening on the front lawn – Porsche was revealing their 2006 lineup with cars surrounding the dinner tables, and all the prominent clients were in attendance.

The dinner at the restaurant was delicious – we pigged out on Arabian lentil soup for entrée and then a grilled seafood platter to share for mains. The diving had made us weary, so we skipped dessert to head back to the Chedi to get some sleep – because we had another early start in the morning!

SUNDAY
Another delicious breakfast and back into the car to head along Highway 1 for a while, before turning off for Rustaq. This was going to be one of our more adventurous days and we were to experience some of the most incredible terrain that we have ever driven on.

Nakhl
The first settlement we stopped in was the village of Nakhl. The fort wasn’t yet open (before 10am), so we ventured through the village to find the hot springs. The road wound through date plantations, and it was evident to us that there was a lot of wealth in this area – the houses were large and very beautiful. We’ve noticed that the Omani country women wear very colourful clothing, and they look beautiful with the bright colours contrasting with their dark skintones.

We found the springs and got out to look around. A woman was washing clothes in the stream, and a goatherd stood on the bank, being fed by the owner before being driven further up the hillside for the day.

The water was warm – it was beautiful! The wadi was very green, and with the early morning light filtering through the trees and the mountains, it was magical too. We found the source of the spring – bubbling up from beneath the earth’s surface. 3 young men stopped to have a chat with us before they drove off with waves and toots on their carhorn.

As we stood by the stream, we could see little fish living in the warm water. I wondered if they were the same type of fish that were found in warm waters in European spas – where the fish nibble on the skins of people who suffer from psoriasis, removing the dead skin and leaving the new skin to heal. We dipped our feet in – and yes, along came the fish to nibble on our feet! They tickled - and our feet felt refreshed for the rest of the day!

Nakhl Fort
Yet another fort! This one was interesting because there was evidence that children lived here – there were bedrooms for the children as well as schoolrooms. The towers in this fort were solid – and the ladders were interesting – wooden logs stuck into the walls and poking out so that the soldiers could climb up them into the ramparts.

Leaving Nakhl, we drove closer towards Rustaq.

Wadi Mistal, Gubrah Bowl
About 16kms from Nakhl, we turned left off the main road onto a gravel road for Wadi Mistal. For the first few kilometers, the road is straight and smooth, and the Honda’s handling gave M the confidence to try it out at speed on the gravel. We set up quite a dust trail and it felt like we were on the Paris-Dakar rally! Slower speeds were required once we reached the foot of the mountains, in order to wind our way through the narrow gap into the Gubrah Bowl. The Bowl is enormous – a big flat plain with mountains on every side – it feels like a volcano crater. M had taken an odometer reading, and although we felt like turning back, we had only traveled for half the distance. We decided to drive deeper into the bowl. It was one of the best decisions that we made on this trip.

Travelling through the bowl, we’d passed many side roads with signs pointing to villages that were dotted around the area. Coming closer to the end of the bowl, we passed a school that we assumed serviced the whole area. Later, we were proven to be correct in our assumption.

Hadash Village
The road forked at the foot of the mountains, and we chose to go left. For a few kms, we had been following a rental car driven by a couple of German tourists, and after the first incline, they conceded defeat and turned back – their normal car couldn’t handle the road conditions. We travelled on – and the road became a narrow and very steep set of curves that wound up the side of a very high mountain. At 1500m, the road came to an end – we had reached Hadash Village, a beautiful green settlement with towering mountains behind it going up for many more metres than where we were. As prevalent in all Oman, there was the ubiquitous watchtower perched on a hilltop overlooking the village. Hadash is the start of one of the official walking tracks through the area. It is a 7 hour hike around the mountains to another village called Wakan, on the other side of the bowl. A schoolboy came running down the path with his books strapped into a belt to make it easier for him to carry. As he got closer to us, he became shy, and climbed into the back of a 4WD van that belonged to the village. After exchanging a few words with him, we got back into the Honda to descend back down into the bowl. We couldn’t believe that we had driven up such a steep and mountainous road!

Wakan Village
When we reached the bottom, we then turned up the other road to the right, and this took us up an equally steep road to some villages on the other side of the bowl. This time, we encountered the school vans coming down the roads, taking the boys to school. We loved this part of the journey! The boys literally hung out of the vans waving and shouting hellos to us as we drove past – it was a very welcoming feeling! Again, at 1500m, the road ended in a small village called Wakan. The watchtower is being restored, and there is evidence of some tourism being established here with guest houses. This is the other end of the 7 hour walking track from Hadash – where we had been 1 hour earlier.

Descending the mountain, we travelled back out of the bowl, and past the school, where as the boys were just starting their lessons, the girls were getting into the vans to go home. We found the young girls to be more reserved than their gregarious brothers – we did get waves and smiles, but they were less flamboyant! We followed about 4 of the vans and buses out of the bowl, and they certainly weren’t slow – M was having a hard time seeing through the dust clouds. Gradually, all the school vehicles turned off onto the various roads leading to the villages, and as we reached the winding road that led through the narrow pass out of the bowl, we were alone again. Rounding a corner, we encountered our only camel on the whole trip – standing in the middle of the road eating out of a tree. She stopped eating as we stopped the Honda- unable to get past her. She wandered up the track towards us and passed by without batting an eyelid at us – too funny!

Back onto the main road and off to Rustaq.

Rustaq
A quiet little town – and yes – the obligatory watchtowers and…..a fort! By this time, M was making comments about what an effort it was to visit the forts, it took fortitude and perhaps was better with a little fortification to make the tour more comfortable!

We did the tour up and down countless stairways, through prisons, bedrooms, kitchens, storerooms, school rooms, bathrooms and towers, stopping to visit the more modern lavatories, before getting back into the Honda to head back to Dubai. This was our last tourist stop!
Back to Dubai
Heading out of Rustaq and turning left, we drove for Al Hazm where we rejoined Route 1 and followed the signs for Sohar and beyond to the UAE border. Just as we were beginning to think that we had missed a turning, a sign for Dubai to the left came into view – we had made it! This time, we were crossing back into the UAE at Hatta which is the more popular crossing for tourists between the UAE and Oman. They’re used to tourists here! 2 Riyals (or 20 Dirhams – whatever you have) for car tax, stamp in the passports and you’re on your way again – this time, we didn’t have to leave the vehicle! At the UAE crossing, J got out to get the passports stamped. In front of us, we had seen a black Mercedes turn from the checkpoint booth leading into Oman. The guy was standing in front of J with 3 American passports, telling the officer that they no longer wanted to go to Oman - they had changed their minds and now wanted a visa to go back to Dubai! According to J, he didn’t sound like he was very American! Luckily, another booth opened for J, and we continued leaving an irate man trying to get stamps in his passports, with the guard insisting that he now had to go to Oman!

We hit a little rain as we drove past the Hatta Fort Hotel, but the rest of the trip was uneventful, apart from knowing that we were back in the UAE by the telltale signs of sheer lunacy and idiocy in some of the other drivers around us!

We’ll go back to Oman to do what we didn’t do on this trip. There’s still so much to see in Muscat, and Salalah beckons too.

We love to visit Oman!

7 comments:

moryarti said...

You should be Blogosia's minister of tourism

(read Emarati's latest posts) :)

nzm said...

Moryarti

Emarati's post is hilarious! Haven't had time to comment on it as we're in Germany and stuck in meetings for 2 days.

But I can see myself as Minister of Tourism for Blogosia - I could probably recommend an appropriate Pacific Island to invade too!

cheers
nzm

MamaDuck said...

This is fantastic! I've been reading bits out to Habibi (designated driver). He thinks we should go NOW. Gotta stop before your Sunday - cliff hanger!

nzm said...

It really is an awesome trip to do - we had so much fun and the Omani people are simply wonderful people.

Arabesque said...

Im happy you liked Oman; why not read more on our blog http://blog.omanholiday.co.uk

Nicki said...

My husband and I want to thank you for posting such a detailed blog. We are currently living in Abu Dhabi and found out at the last minute that he would be able to take a long weekend from work, so we quickly got online and looked for information on Oman. We followed your directions for excursions, which were so detailed, down to the km in between destinations, that it saved us having to buy the Off Road Guide to Oman! We followed your exact trip almost to a tee and absolutely loved it! With it being such a spontaneous trip, I know we wouldn't have seen as many things along the way if we hadn't found your post. Thanks again.

nzm said...

Nicki: Thank you so much for leaving your wonderful comment! I'm so happy that you managed to see all the wonderful things that we saw. Oman is a favourite place of ours.

I hope that you continue to visit there and see what we missed too - Salalah would be one of them!