Off-road the only way to really see the wilds of Oman
Mar 8, 2011
Now might not be considered the best time for planning a trip to an Arab country but Oman has largely remained calm throughout the recent upheavals convulsing the region.
Considered a paradise for nature lovers and the ideal destination for a road trip, Oman is one of the most developed and stable countries on the Arabian Peninsula.
Muscat, the capital city of Oman, is the starting point for most holidaymakers. Described as Arabia's jewel, the quaint city is surprisingly green and lush for the capital of a desert country, located in the middle of a mountain range that stretches down to the Arabian Sea.
The city still oozes old-world character so it is no surprise that Muscat is increasingly becoming an attractive tourist destination. Of particular interest are the Jalali and Mirani forts, which flank the Al Alam Palace while the Corniche, with its promenade and souks (markets), is another highlight.
Oman is working hard on its image as a tourist destination and this effort clearly manifests itself in the flexible attitude displayed in solving any problem that a visitor might encounter.
Car rental changes are easy while the reply to issues such as lost luggage or last-minute hotel bookings seems to always end with the words 'no problem.' A solution is always found in welcoming Oman.
The country is not only tourist friendly, it is also extremely safe. Crime rates are low, the political situation stable and unlike neighbouring Yemen, there have been no kidnapping stories to report.
A lot of money has been pumped into Oman's tourist industry in recent years but despite the number of new luxury hotels and large infrastructure projects, mass tourism has yet to reach the country.
Oman's beauty is best experienced and explored by setting out on your own in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Unexpectedly, there is refreshment everywhere thanks to Oman's countless streams, waterfalls and natural pools.
Nizwa, located about 140 kilometres from Muscat and the largest city in the Ad Dakhiliyah Region, is the ideal starting point for any road trip. The city's main attraction is its souk, with vendors selling everything from meat, fish, fruits and vegetables to spices, dates, gold and silverware.
Silver jewellery is Nizwa's speciality and is considered to be the best in the country, making it the perfect place to buy a Khanjar (curved dagger) or sword.
The entire souk smells of incense, which seems to smoke at every corner from incense burners made from clay, porcelain or silver. Incense, or bokhur as it is also known, is made from the resin of the incense tree and is used in most Omani homes.
Each village has its own bokhur maker who produces an incense unique to that area using various ingredients, such as rosewater, sugar, ambergris, sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh. Incense resin is mainly harvested in the south of the country and shipped all over the world.
Next stop is the Jabal Akhdar (Green Mountain) region, which is one of Oman's most spectacular areas and only about a two-hour drive from Nizwa. The area is part of the Al Hajar Mountains range and its highest point, Jabal Shams, is reachable by car.
Located on top of the famous Grand Canyon (Wadi Ghul), Jabal Shams offers amazing views and is one of the nicest stops in the region. It is even better to hike through the canyon as the path is situated halfway up the cliff face of about a thousand metres.
It's also an adventure to spend a night camping here while pitching a tent in the more sheltered Wadi Bani in the canyon's interior is certainly more pleasant.
The rolling dune fields of the Wahiba Sands lie further south and epitomise Arabia for all visitors to the Sultanate. Although a harsh environment, the desert is home to a huge variety of wildlife as well as the traditional and hospitable Bedouin people.
Some of the dunes reach 100 metres in height and the area can only be explored in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Sands are best crossed longitudinally, from north to south or vice versa.
There are numerous desert and nomadic camps where tourists can enjoy some sandboarding or camel rides. Dune bashing, which involves driving through the massive sand dunes on a quad bike, is also an increasingly popular pastime.
However, the sport is not only dangerous but is also having a detrimental effect on the area's unique wildlife.
The Sultan of Oman has noted the potential drawbacks of mass tourism, not least in Ras al Jinz located in the east of the country on the edge of the Arabian Sea. The area is the world's most important nesting place for giant green turtles, which arrive in their tens of thousands each year to lay their eggs.
Until just a couple of years ago, camping was allowed on the beach, causing fewer and fewer turtles to lay their eggs. The practice has since been banned.