Beyond Muscat - A guide to Oman
By Iain Mallory
Discussing the Sultanate of Oman with fellow travellers, it often seems that many don’t get beyond the attractions of the capital, Muscat. It is a visually appealing city with plenty of modern buildings, many of which have been designed by architects sympathetic to the authenticity of the region. The skyline isn’t dominated by skyscrapers, which seem to reach successively higher as each one is completed, but instead by impressive buildings like the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the Royal Opera House, which retain the cultural identity of Oman.
There are genuine souks near the waterfront at Old Muttrah, where haggling and getting lost is the order of the day. Alongside the busy harbour, traditional dhows are anchored close to the larger, ocean going vessels and cruise liners. There is plenty more to experience in the Sultanate. Attractive coastal towns dot the shorelines, impressive wadis and gorges slice the landscape and towering sand dunes dominate rural settlements, stretching as far as the eye can see.
It is not necessary to go far to enjoy the culture of this friendly country. Seeb, is a small fishing village located less than forty minutes from Muscat, which appears to have been unchanged for many decades. Take a walk along the sandy beach at the right time and the colourful old wooden boats of the fishing fleet will be lining the shore while fishermen sit mending their nets, preparing for the next voyage, their eyes squinting in concentration and against the wind, weathered faces and hands like leather. They are friendly, smiling, willingly posing to have their picture taken and laughing when the results are viewed on the small screen of the camera.
Venture to the small but traditional souk with its fruit and vegetable merchants, their vibrant stalls piled high with limes, oranges and strange almost alien-looking exotic fruits. When I visited, there was only one western family present; all the others were local and immersed in browsing the stalls, feeling the ripeness or quality of the produce and negotiating the best prices. You will also find cobblers and tobacco vendors, expressive hands working their goods, almost as dry and tanned as the items they produce. The faint smell of tobacco mingles with the aromatic scents drifting from the spice merchants, teasing the nostrils to follow them to their source.
Pause outside a family residence to chat and it’s likely you will be made to feel very welcome; in fact there’s a good chance they will invite you to join them for dinner. This happened to me and my friends several times, as the locals are even more curious about us than we are about them, and asked many questions about our way of life.
Further afield there are more opportunities to discover the friendly culture of Oman. Niswa, is an old fort town, well known for its souks. Along with pottery and fruit, there are stalls selling old rifles, swords and knives that would give Crocodile Dundee some serious blade envy. The fort dominates the walled town, and the view from the top of the fortified ramparts is well worth soaking in. If you are lucky the coffee shop might be open, but otherwise a cup of java at a traditional roadside café is a worthy substitute.
The towering dunes of Wahiba Sands are simply stunning, especially when the sand is undisturbed, without a single footprint and only the gentle patterns left by the wind marking them. They are also a major recreational hub, as a variety of four-wheel-drive vehicles arrive throughout the day, their owners testing their skill by attempting to climb the steep slopes, the loose sand sliding under spinning tyres, traction rapidly deteriorating. Many try; most fail.
Those riding camels are always successful! A dinner of succulent slow-cooked lamb, roasted overnight in nature’s oven (a dusty sandpit), is just reward for the successful and ample consolation for the rest..
The high mountains of the Jabal Akhdar conceal Oman’s own ‘Grand Canyon’ - Nakhar Canyon. An impressive gash in the crust of the earth, its rugged, precipitous cliffs, scar the rocky landscape of the country’s mountainous region.
Near the seaside town of Sur, there are several more gorges cutting into the coastal cliffs. Perhaps the most impressive is Wadi Shab, a steep walled cleft of coloured rocks with emerald pools scattered down the river running through its base. Remove your boots and dip your feet in a pool and they will soon be tickled by the fastidious wild ‘doctor fish’, picking off the dead skin from weary soles and between toes.
An ancient irrigation system follows the path, crossing it at several points, though it is now dried out, the builders and farmers having probably moved on long ago. There is, however, an irrigation system in perfect working order in the village of Misfat, located a little way from Niswa. Water flows down the steep hill on which the village is built, and it is possible to follow the route the water takes as a path of narrow steps takes the same steep climb down. Along the way, you will probably encounter locals wearing loincloths while washing their clothing or donkeys looking for a place to quench their thirst.
South of Oman is the region of Salalah, which could almost be another country it is so green and lush. The climate is more temperate here; it even has a monsoon season and is sometimes described as the garden of Oman. Plentiful fruit trees and bushes line the roads of the authentic small towns, and vendors sit at the roadside selling ripe fruit and organic honey.
The coastline here can be rocky and rugged, but there are small bays, such as Donkey Head Beach, with white sand and gentle surf, acting as a beach oasis among the rocks. Further inland wild camels roam, grazing on small, scrubby, thorny bushes amongst the dust, with only the occasional sign of habitation to be found, often many miles apart.
In Oman, travel is varied and exciting. It is a diverse country, with an authentic, friendly culture. Muscat is certainly worth visiting, but there is so much more to recommend. Allow some time to experience a little more of what the Sultanate can offer.
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