Oh man, Oman- my week spent roaming around greater Oman was pretty much the bee’s knees. A few days after celebrating a still surprisingly festive expat Christmas, Gary and I made a beeline down the Gulf Coast, eventually crossing the border into mainland Oman and continuing south. To help pass the time we counted wild camels and donkeys along the way, pulling over after a long day of driving to set up our tent on a cliff above the ocean, where we watched the sunset and spent the night playing cards by the fire, listening to the waves crashing below us. The next morning the drive further south looked remarkably like the coastline in Southern California, until we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and big mountains etched out by deep canyons began rising up next to the sea. Our first stop was to explore the ruins in Qalhat, a tiny coastal town written about in its heyday by Marco Polo. We tried to imagine former splendor as we poked about Bibi Maryam’s tomb and an old graveyard before continuing inland towards Wadi Bani Khalid.
The drive took ages through what seemed like the absolute middle of nowhere, so it came as a bit of a shock to find the wadi packed with Italian tourists canoodling in pools and skipping about in string bikinis- the most people, exposed skin or PDAs we had seen in a long time. Despite the throngs of other tourists, we were still impressed by the pristine crystal-clear pools sandwiched between towering limestone walls, seemingly miraculous in the middle of an otherwise barren desert. Walking past the pools a little ways into the dried wadi bed we stumbled upon a cave, crawling in to discover an underground rushing river. We tried our best not to disturb groupings of tiny bats, giving up our attempted spelunking when the hot dog breath atmosphere inside grew too uncomfortable. After a bit longer exploring the wadi we went for a swim in the least crowded pool we could find, enjoying our narrow slot of clear jade water and polished rock towering above us.
After another long drive through not a lot, we stopped to stretch our legs in Sur. Sur was exactly how I had always imagined Arabia, a little town full of colorful domed mosques, tiny whitewashed homes and streets lined with date palms. Watchtowers perched atop orange cliffs maintained constant vigilance over the dhow boats cruising lazily past, while barefoot groups of kids played soccer on the beaches, pausing to wave animatedly as we walked past.
We left Sur later than intended, and after several attempts to find a deserted beach while racing the rapidly setting sun we settled for a night camping in a dried wadi bed. Resigning ourselves to walking a mile down a narrow dirt track to a tiny beach cove, we were rewarded for our efforts with the best bioluminescence I’ve ever seen. We cracked open a bottle of Root Bev (no beer allowed!) and a contraband bottle of terrible twist top red wine we’d smuggled across the border, both of which paired wonderfully with the pita, feta and zataar sandwiches we’d bought earlier at a Lebanese bakery. The noise from our crackling fire and the gently lapping waves seemed practically raucous, making us realize how we really were the only people around for miles in any direction. New Year’s Eve was celebrated perched on a log next to a fire sipping wine while witnessing real life magic, as each crashing wave lit up electric green, casting tiny glowing diamonds across the sand.
January 1st we drove up the coast to Muscat, where we hiked from Mutrah to Old Town via a canyon in the middle of the city, which managed to feel totally remote despite being in the center of a bustling capital. Muscat to me felt like being in Portugal or Italy, full of friendly people, charming narrow streets and blooming bougainvillea everywhere. When we got tired of exploring old town we sat in a park surrounded by other picnicking families, and just the feel and smell of grass was a thrill after being surrounded by so much sand and rock. That night we splurged on a hotel, enjoying a proper shower and sleeping in a real bed, plus the perks of a hotel bar with Gary’s friends from New York. The next morning came too early, as we rose with the sun to pack in a full day.
Our first stop was the Bimmah Sinkhole, where we shivered in the early morning sun after jumping into the turquoise pool, eventually trying to warm up with some deep water soloing. We then hiked into Wadi Tiwi, escaping the crowds (more Italians!) by clambering down to a secluded pool surrounded by giant boulders, where I found the perfect polished groove for a little nap in the sun. My favorite spot of the day was our last, Wadi Shab. After boating across a river we walked into the wadi, climbing gradually up the cliffside for dramatic views into the clear pools below. I opted out of swimming, continuing to scramble up along the cliff, my friends below growing smaller and smaller with each step.
Before leaving Muscat we visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, and then spent the day driving to the Wall of Shadows climbing area. Once again we underestimated our driving distances and arrived at the impressive crag with about an hour of daylight left. The entire area was freezing, and turns out climbing when I can’t feel my fingers is not something I enjoy. After my first ever semi-meltdown while climbing, a patient Gary coaxed a cranky me off the wall and we set up our tent in my favorite spot so far, a perfect little platform of rock high above the canyons and valleys below, distant mountains hugging us from all sides. We huddled next to the fire for warmth enjoying insane views of the Milky Way above before a miserable night spent shivering in our sleeping bags.
We emerged from our tent in the morning tired and mildly hypothermic, surrounded by a herd of goats also there to enjoy the view. Once we regained feeling in our phalanges we climbed a couple routes before driving to the Grand Canyon of Arabia. The original plan was to hike from the town of Ghul to the top of the canyon, but Ghul wound up giving us a very ‘Deliverance’ vibe, and rather than be murdered by hill people we decided instead to walk the more popular Balcony Trail along the upper rim. After the hike out we were sufficiently wowed by the canyon and the abandoned village at the end, deciding to jog the trail back to our car, once again racing the sun.
On the way to our last campsite we somehow took a wrong turn, white-knuckling our little Nissan Tiida up and down rocky, potholed dirt tracks. In the end the stress was worth it, as we accidentally managed to save the best for last. Our final day was spent exploring Wadi Damm, and damn, what a wadi (sorry, couldn’t resist). Massive grey slabs streaked with veins of white calcite, waterfalls, caves, and perfect aquamarine pools that wouldn’t be out of place in the tropics. We spent the morning happily exploring, pinching ourselves that we were somehow the only two people around. We were sad to leave, but stopped on our way back home at the 4000 year old Beehive Tombs in Al Ayn with Jebel Misht towering in the background, a picture perfect send off.
Returning to Dibba, we were dismayed to find that in the short week we were gone a pestilence of flies and mosquitoes had invaded, and they are the worst. They make it unbearable to eat in the courtyard, and somehow manage to enter our room on a nightly basis, we suspect through our shower drain. Additionally, the mosque on our street has decided to mix it up- new year, new call to prayer. Previously, I never minded being woken up by the call to prayer, considering it nothing more than an opportunity to get sung back to sleep for a few more hours. The new call sounds as if someone is putting his whole mouth around the microphone and screaming- the effect resembles something along the lines of a human bomb siren. It is absolutely impossible to sleep through, and I can’t think of a sound I would less like to be woken up to, let alone hear four more times throughout the day. Maybe February will be better? Inshallah.