LINDA JACKSON
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Oman - from Muscat to Nizwa

Arabian Adventure

(First published in KUDOS Magazine Travel Section)

Exploring the isolated and undeveloped interior of Oman

Traversing the Al Hajar mountains is anything but a smooth ride, and an absolute trust in the 4x4 driver is vital as the vehicle bumps, slips and slides along the dusty rock-strewn road that falls away to oblivion just feet from the wheels.

Far below, a village looks the size of a postage stamp: a minuscule green blot on a brown arid and vast mountainous landscape. In the shimmering heat of the day the towering stack of craggy mountains appears to the eye as if suffering from camera shake, each hazy outline a fraction different in profile to its neighbour.

Along the rocky terrain scurries a brightly-dressed peasant woman, a bundle of firewood balanced precariously on her head, her remote destination not immediately visible in the austere yet strangely captivating interior of the Sultanate of Oman.

Nizwa mosque

Rugmaker Ghul

Nakhal Fort

Nakhal Fort

A little larger than the UK but with a population of only 2.5 million, the Sultanate of Oman borders the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea: the north of the country backs onto the United Arab Emirates; Saudi Arabia is to the west and Yemen borders the southwest corner.

Oman’s diverse landscape stretches from the barren fjords of Musandam in the extreme north of the country to the lush green hills and frankincense trees of Dhofar in the far south, embracing plains, wadis (dried up river beds), jagged mountains, rocky red canyons, fine sandy beaches, and stony and sandy deserts.

Bedu boy making bracelets

Bedu camp Wahiba Sands Bilad Sayt Bedu woman

The coastal capital of Muscat (meaning ‘place of anchorage’ in Arabic), surrounded by mountains, was reached only with difficulty from inland pre-1970 (when the present-day Sultan, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, led a bloodless coup against his father). Today it is the political and administrative nucleus of Oman, modernity having been successfully amalgamated with tradition.

In the Muttrah district of Muscat, Souk Al-Dhalam, an ancient maze of alleyways lined with shops, has changed little over the centuries; here merchants sell everything from cashmere pashminas to the distinctively-styled hand-made silver khanjar (traditional Oman dagger). In the harbour wooden dhows will be seen, still hand-planed in the boatyards of Sur 100 miles southeast of Muscat. But on the outskirts of Muscat is an architectural feat six years in the building and completed in 2001: the Grand Mosque, with its shining marble courtyards, 8-ton chandelier cut from the finest Swarovski crystals, and intricately designed 21-ton Persian carpet that took 600 weavers four years to produce.

For many, Oman’s real treasure is the isolated and undeveloped interior, navigable by four-wheel drive, and choosing to traverse the Al Hajar Mountains via the ‘B’ road from today’s capital Muscat to the ancient capital of Nizwa is an adventure in itself; the vertiginous winding track is one of Oman’s most scenically spectacular.

About 75 miles from Muscat, before the tarmac road ends and the climb into the mountains begins, the route passes the restored Nakhal Fort (thought to be pre-Islam, restored 3rd and 10th century and built upon further in 1649) built to protect the oasis and trade routes through Nizwa to the coast.

Behind the carved wooden door of the fort, holding council, sits a village elder dressed in a traditional white dishdasha (robe). 

The road, a natural ‘rollercoaster’, climbs, falls and follows hairpin bends; to the left a narrow but gigantic canyon, Snake Gorge, drops deeply into the stony ground and snakes away into the distance. Then unexpectedly, far below, a breath-taking view unfolds of Bilad Sayt: a small village nestling at the valley bottom where houses merge camouflaged into the steep hillside. Old men tend their patchwork of green terraces fed by water from a falaj (irrigation channel); young children call out friendly greetings in English from flat rooftops, and in the shadows of a narrow street walks a lone woman barely visible in her black billowing abaya (cloak), her face veiled. Women are rarely in evidence in villages although young girls dressed in vibrant clothes play freely; men tend their date palm patches and fertile terraces and even weave rugs, as seen in a shaded yard in the nearby tiny hamlet of Ghul while their sons watch on. And, further south, in a traditional Bedu camp in the Wahiba Sands desert, the men are always to the fore: entertaining and serving food to guests, the boys tending the goats and making ‘friendship bracelets’ to sell, while women observe all through a small curtained doorway.

  

Women from the interior, masked and wearing abayas, accompany their men to the Friday cattle market in Nizwa (capital of Oman in the 6th and 7th centuries), set in the midst of a lush oasis of date palms in the Dhakhiliya region: the final destination of this journey. Men gesticulate, shout, bid and bargain for truculent goats and obstinate sheep, while under the shade of date palms turbaned elders clutch their assa (a stick used for controlling camels) observing the weekly lively auction. A stone’s throw away 17th century Sultan Bin Saif Fort towers over the town, souk, and Nizwa’s mosque - its rich blue and gold painted dome glistening in the early morning sun.

Guaranteed sunshine and luxury resorts springing up along the Muscat coast is attracting an increasing number of visitors to the Sultanate, but despite this ‘westernisation’ Oman is managing to retain its own distinct culture and strong sense of identity and offers an intriguing gateway through which visitors can glimpse a spellbinding world far older than their own. And for the adventurous visitor... a landscape more rugged, villages more remote; people more friendly and a journey more memorable will be hard to match; it’s a genuine Arabian adventure.

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For more information contact Oman Tourism Board, 020 8877 4524, or visit www.omantourism.gov.om.

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