The Open Road Beckoned
When considering a new country there are some fundamental planning questions, which for me involves addressing the ‘big 5’ – when to go, what to see, where to stay, how to get around and with whom I might wish to travel. Adventuring over the Christmas period is not feasible for many people for many reasons; the final question is therefore always important.
This message to a fellow Canadian globetrotter friend also living abroad, got the ball rolling. Do you have plans for the Christmas break? If not, might you be interested in a road trip around Oman? In a matter of hours, a plan was formed for 4 of us – he had invited two of his travelling friends – to spend 8 days exploring Oman on the open road.
Perhaps a bit of context, Oman is not really a country that immediately pops to mind when a road trip is proposed. The seeds were planted following a conversation on a previous trip, with some folks who had lived and worked in Oman. The stories they told intrigued me. Such is the way with tall tales of travellers.
Diverse Omani culture
We flew into Muscat, the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman from different corners of the world. Three of us travelled through Dubai (UAE) and the fourth arrived via Doha (Qatar). As the only woman in the group, I was also an outlier in that I checked my bag. The others preferred to move quickly with carry-on luggage only. My packing decisions would later prove invaluable.
The former Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who died earlier in 2020, had a vision for the country to be modernised, which included the unification of spiritual and governmental rule. The architectural representation of this vision, along with the former Sultan’s support of the arts, is impressively evident across Muscat.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The Mosque is only open to the public on certain days and times, and we were fortune enough to visit this spiritual site on Christmas morning. The vaulted archways created shadows and textures, the polished marble stones transforming into reflecting pools when the rains fall. Or so I imagined.
With bare feet and covered heads, we first entered the smaller, less ornate women’s prayer room. Stepping into the men’s prayer room, we were immediately surrounded by intricate and ornate details from floor to ceiling. There was a stillness in the expansive room, despite the numbers of visitors, which brought me into mindful awareness to look not only in front of me, but all around including skyward.
Don’t forget the snacks
A Christmas tradition since childhood, wherever I am in the world, I will bring the box of Purdy’s chocolates sent from my aunt in BC, to be opened on Christmas Day. Preferably before breakfast. This trip was no exception, remember the checked luggage reference? This touch of ‘home’ was absorbed into the quintessential ‘we need snacks’ road trip experience.
For all the museums, markets and mosques, there is much to be understood about a country through a visit to a local supermarket. We regularly stopped to collect fresh and dried fruits, nuts, water and Omani treats from the endless aisles and ready-made food counters. Gluten free options required some investigating but were regularly located.
Gratitude for shared driving
Driving into the mountains is not for the faint of heart, either behind the wheel or as a passenger. In many places the roads are incredible narrow, windy, rocky and with steep drop offs into the valley below. There are videos online which serve to highlight the necessity of vehicles with 4-wheel drive and the confidence to reverse down such roads, should the need arise. Thankfully not our reality.
The nights are cool in the mountains, and despite heaters in the rooms, once again my Mary-Poppins inspired duffel bag produced sufficient warm layering accessories to be shared. I am not new to road trip packing. Nor am I opposed to shouting an enthusiastic ‘stop the car!’ We all agreed that this morning view within the collective Jebel Shams mountains was picture perfect.
Before leaving the mountains, we did the Balcony Walk above the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman’ (Wadi Nakhr). Marvelling at the colours and contrasts of the rock, we were gifted the surprise of an aria, sung in a rich tenor voice, echoing across the crevasse from somewhere beyond.
From mountains of rock to miles of sand, we hired a professional driver to guide us into the Sharqiya Sands. In his capable hands, we sped up, down and on occasion sideways across the dunes, in time to cut the engine and absorb the silence of the desert sunset.
Taking the plunge
Oman’s geographic phenomena also include wadi’s, a valley or channel that may be filled with water or remain primarily dry (though always with the risk of flash flooding). We did not ‘wadi bash’ in our vehicle, opting instead to visit one of the more famous sites – Wadi Bani Khalid. There are strict guidelines around what is appropriate bathing attire for both men and women who may wish to publicly swim. This includes the Bimmah Sinkhole, which is nearly 20m deep in some places.
The setting sun brought each day to a close. These last rays of light also marked the end of the year and this remarkable road trip to its final destination. We returned from whence we came, travelling home just that little bit lighter, in spirit and in baggage.
If You Go
Purchasing an e-visa online, in advance, might save lengthy delays when entering Oman.
Reading the details on any vehicle rental agreement or insurance policy is important. ‘Off road’ driving may not be included. If no GPS is available, MapsMe app is a good tool to use.
Mosques have limited times when they may be open to the public. Be sure you are aware of these times and also the dress requirements for entrance.
Christmas dinner at Al Bustan Palace Hotel – a special dining experience, eating outside under the stars with palm fronds rustling in a warm breeze.
As a woman, I found Oman to be safe and welcoming. Though in conversation with local men I recognised that I was frequently acknowledged but not directly addressed. A subtle head nod was offered, whereas my male friends received handshakes.
About the Author
Michelle Elliot grew up in northern British Columbia and has lived, worked and studied across Canada, in the USA and Scotland. She is presently working in Edinburgh as a lecturer in occupational therapy. Michelle seeks opportunities to explore near and far, looking to experience and document impressions, feelings, stories and images. She also enjoys conversations with strangers in familiar and foreign places.
Photo Credits: Michelle Elliot and Ty Chieu where noted (plus Feature Image)