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Tony Wheeler on Oman

TIME : 2-23 16:04:18

Tony Wheeler on Oman

Hidden villages, giant canyons and ancient forts are just some of the mysteries you can uncover in enigmatic Oman

"Now go to Oman,” the immigration official commanded. It was a welcome order, since we’d turned up at the Oman/United Arab Emirates land border unsure if we would be allowed in. We didn’t have a visa and were desperately hoping that the visa-on-arrival service that operates at Muscat airport would be available here at the Hatta checkpoint.

Luckily it did and, without filling out a single form, we were accepted into Oman – which is when we hit the next problem. It seemed we’d failed to depart the UAE. In order to go forwards, we had to U-turn back to the Departures building to officially leave the UAE and head back for a second try at Oman.

This time, under the magnificent marble dome of the immigration hall, we passed through without a hitch and, five minutes later, were heading off into one of the Middle East’s most enigmatic countries.

From ultra-conservative to ultra-fast change

 

Thirty-five years ago Oman was probably the most backward corner of the Arabian Peninsula. There was a handy oil income, but Sultan Said bin Taimur was so concerned that development would corrupt his country that he simply wouldn’t have any. At that time Oman possessed only 8km of asphalt road and not a single secondary school.

Then in 1970 Sultan Qaboos, the ruling sultan’s son, decided enough was enough and staged a family coup. It was such a peaceful affair that the only injury was to Sultan Said, who shot himself – not too seriously – in the foot. He was speedily spirited out of the country and lived out his dotage at the Grosvenor Hotel in London.

Sultan Qaboos quickly ensured that Oman’s development caught up with any other petro-rich sultanate, but the country remains a fascinating little mystery. Start with Muscat: hemmed up against the coast, the town is composed of a host of small enclaves, each separated by a jagged and rugged stretch of mountain range and joined by a sweeping multi-lane motorway. Until Sultan Said’s departure, the city gates were still shut at dusk each day.

We’d rented a 4WD at Dubai airport, intending to explore some of the back roads of Oman. Road building is continuing at such a pace that there are unlikely to be any back roads left in a decade or two, but it’s still possible to find yourself on some interesting mountain tracks.

Wadis and wonderment

 

We followed the winding road across the top of the Hajar Mountain range and down to the coastal plain. En route we paused for a look at Balad Seet, a multi-tiered village so completely hidden you could easily skim straight past it.

We walked through wadis (dry riverbeds), some little more than a dip in the desert; others ran through deep canyons. We ended up at the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Oman, in the Jebel Akhdar range. From the dirt-poor village of Al Khateem we followed a trail that clung precariously to the wall of the canyon. A stone’s throw away, the gorge wall plunged 1,000m to the dry riverbed below. The trail ended at a deserted village that looked like it was ready to slip off the canyon wall and hurtle down to the bottom.

Oman may have plenty of wadis, but forts are available in even more generous supply. On our last night we ate shwarma (kebabs) at a pavement café looking across to Nizwa’s magnificent fort. Just 50 years ago, Nizwa was so fiercely conservative that Wilfred Thesiger’s Bedouin companions wouldn’t let him take the risk of entering the town at the end of his epic crossing of the Empty Quarter. Butnow it was a good place to ponder the changes Oman has gone through. As I sipped my lemon-mint juice and looked at the imposing building in front of me, I felt immensely glad that this mysterious country had let me in.

Maureen and Tony Wheeler founded Lonely Planet in 1973.