Sultanate of Oman
Written by Lucie Cruickshank
The Sultanate of Oman is home to many natural riches, and you don’t have to be royalty to experience them for yourself. Muscat resident Lucie Cruickshank grabs her GPS and camera, and uncovers Oman’s hidden gems.
As a new visitor to Oman, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a relaxed and unassuming place, because you would be right. But open your eyes a little wider and you will find many natural wonders waiting to be explored and many thrills to be had there in the process.
Oman has a unique geography, flora, and fauna, not to mention the weather. Year-round sunshine makes for happy holidays, but the more wintry months of November to March are ideal for off-road adventures.
If you have access to a car, you might head out west to the Al Hoota Caves, at the base of Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun) in the Hajar mountain range. From the visitor centre, an electric train takes you into the mouth of an underground cave network, a tunnel 2.7 km long. Bats flutter by at head height as you climb past stalagmites and stalactites on the stepped walkway. A pool of translucent, blind fish sits
The Balcony Walk at the top of Jebel Shams is, however, an experience best reserved for the strong of heart and reliable of car. It is the highest mountain in the Hajar mountain range and reaches 3,009 m at the peak.
Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) can be traversed on a mountain bike or easily explored by trekking. You can witness breathtaking views of the steep terraces which cascade down the mountainsides. The fertile land produces apricots, almonds, pomegranate, wild olives, and roses, and it is typically 15˚C cooler than the city of Muscat. If you are feeling brave, you could take a drive up to the top from Snake Gorge
Come out of the clouds and drop down to sea level to experience some natural highs in Oman’s clean blue waters. Diving, kite surfing, fishing, and sailing will enable you to explore the pristine coastal areas.
After about a 90-minute drive east from Muscat on the new highway you will encounter a long stretch of deserted white beaches near Tiwi, a favourite spot for weekend campers. The nearby sinkhole has been made safe and accessible for visitors to descend down into the salty lake below. Cliff jumping is quicker than taking the steps if you are feeling courageous.
While you’re in the area, have a go at wadi bashing – driving a 4WD through dry riverbeds, negotiating boulders, pools, and other hazards in the process. Wadis such as Shab, Bani Khalid, and Dayqah are great for a day trip.
Keep on driving south and you will reach the beaches of Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz. These are well known for playing host to the giant Omani turtles that lay their eggs in the sand – summertime being the peak season. Book in advance to secure a ticket from the visitor centre for a guided night-time tour of the turtles in action at their nesting sites.
If you enjoy off-roading in the wadis, there are more motoring thrills to be had in the desert with dune bashing. A little instruction will have you flying over the steep sand dunes in no time. Make your base at one of a number of desert camps in the Wahiba Sands and you could also enjoy a night camping under the stars – millions of them. Zero light pollution ensures that every shooting star is yours to wish upon.
If all that sounds too exciting for you, then maybe some historical and cultural exploration will appeal instead. A trip to Salalah in the Dhofar region of Oman will take you to the frankincense trees in Wadi Dawkah, one of Oman’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. From April until June you can see the local people extract the sap from the trees to make the aromatic incense.
Salalah transforms into something quite magical in the khareef (monsoon) season, from June to September each year. Rain, rolling mists, and cool temperatures could fool you into thinking you had instead landed in the Highlands of Scotland. During this time the blowholes in Salalah are incredible. The waves forcing water through the narrow rock channels are extremely powerful and a spectacular sight.
At the other end of the coast the landscape is very different. Musandam is perched alone at the tip of the UAE, so you will leave Oman before re-entering it again. Khasab, the main town, is around 525 km from Muscat. Musandam is where you will find what are known as the ‘Fjords of Arabia’. It is truly a land untouched by time and development, an area of stunning natural beauty. Your journey from Salalah to Musandam encompasses nearly every type of Omani geography: sabkha (salt flats) mangroves, gravel plains, desert, and mountains, giving you the perfect opportunity for some stunning landscape photography.
The Royal Opera House Muscat
The construction of the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) has not only created an iconic building in the capital city but has, importantly, created an opportunity for local people to enjoy a diverse selection of music and arts for the first time in Oman. The architecture of the building is modern, yet echoes ancient Islamic influences and utilises traditional craftsmanship. The highly decorative wooden panelling and the chemisana plasterwork are examples of the fantastic detailing that has been applied to every surface. The exterior is clad in gleaming white Omani marble, clean and perpetually polished.
Traditionally applied as decoration on ladies’ hands and feet in Omani weddings, henna designs can nowadays be seen sported by females year-round like a fashionable temporary tattoo. Swirling lines and floral patterns creep their way up to the elbows and peek out from sandalled toes. The henna paste is made from ground henna leaves and applied in much the same way as a piping bag is utilised for icing cakes. Various depths of colour can be achieved with different qualities of plants and production methods.
By the numbers
The area of the single-piece Persian carpet in the prayer hall of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is 2,200 sq. m, and it took 27 months to make.
Oman has over 1,700 km of coastline along the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Gulf. The topography varies from endless white sandy beaches to dramatic fjords.
Renowned for its handmade pottery and its ancient fort, the town of Bahla is one of the oldest inhabited places in Oman. A 12 km-long wall protects it.