"Since the time I was replanted to Dubai, it was the road trips that watered the life in me. Quite a lot of them, across the length and breadth of this country, more often equipped with my camera. This time, on this new route, I took my notepad (yes, the one made of paper) and a pen along, having vibes of scribbling out the interesting story on the desert roads of Oman."
3 days, 2138 kms, a Honda Accord sedan and this traveller friend.
(When we realised that the story moves on the same track for both of us, we decided to write the rest of it together.)
It was a Thursday summer night, and when we hit the road, we weren’t literally freed from the fatigue of the day’s work. The thoughts on destination kept us awake and alive though we knew that new destinations would evolve once we reach one. It took hardly an hour and half to reach the Hafeet Border of Oman from old town of Dubai.
UAE residents can enter Oman (via road) at any of the 6 border crossings namely Hatta (Dubai), Kalba (Sharjah – Fujairah), Hafeet, Hili, Buraimi (Al-Ain) and Khasab/Dibba (RAK/Fujairah, to Musandam). Buraimi border is reserved for GCC citizens whereas the rest of border posts serve expatriates too. An on-arrival-visa stamped for 28 days is easy to obtain at a charge of 5 Omani Riyals or 50 AED. The exit emigration charges at UAE border shall be 35 AED except for Hatta border where it is free of charge. Before you leave, please ensure with the Oman Consulate that your profession as stamped on the UAE resident visa can fetch an on-arrival visa. Also make sure your car has Oman insurance for the period of stay and a No Objection Letter in case you are using a rent-a-car service. Finally and most importantly, your passport and resident visa should have a minimum of 6 months validity.
We were hurrying to reach the Nizwah Souq by 7 am, to not miss the chaotic dynamics of the goat market there on Friday Mornings. Killing the ease we often had to pedal the brake; the road works limited our speed to as less as 60 km/hr (normal highway speed is at least 100 km/hr on GCC roads). Nonetheless we made it in time.
A souq or souk is the arabic word for a marketplace or commercial quarter in Middle Eastern and North African cities.
Nizwah Souq breaks all upheld prejudices conditioned by Dubai living. Here is the Middle Eastern souq that you have been searching for. The ones that only existed in your imagination lavishly fuelled by cinema and reading. This market seemed to be straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights with its withered clay-clad walls and Persian architecture
Triggered by that incredible feeling of time travelling, we wandered through the nook and corner of the souq like a 3 year old kid lost in a chocolate forest. By the gateway, across the lanes, under the banyan trees; no place failed to mesmerize with that other worldly charm. A lost world. Within moments of reaching there, you get that stark perception of touching real life ‘offline’.
Niswah Souq is a good relief from Pakistanis and Indians trying to sell their wares, mostly Pashmina, perfume or souvenirs, to tourist folk. Here natives sell essential stuff to fellow locals. When they appear in the traditional Omani attire; men with their Taqiya or skull caps and Khanjar, the traditional dagger, women in veils and bright red gowns, it is another day of routine trading goats, spices, pottery, knives and whatever one could sell or money could buy.
You are lucky if you can locate the kebab shop in the middle of the souq. They offer fine delish sandwiches of mutton kebabs and fresh veggies rolled in Arabic bread, the best in town.
Thermometer reading shot up as the day approached noon and we had to check in our hotel room for a shower and an essential power nap. ‘Noor Majan Camp’ is a cottage resort/hotel fifteen kilometres off Niswah City on the way to Salalah. They are finely equipped with wifi, hot shower and clean beds. They also house a restaurant that serves, let’s say, ‘not-so-bad’ food. The rent includes complimentary breakfast. Twin beds cost us 250 AED a night.
Post lunch, we drove uphill Jabal Shams, the breezy cool peak which is also the highest in Oman (Jabal in Arabic means mountain). Sparsely green terrains on the road uphill induced a slightly relieving feel in our minds than what the otherwise barren coffee tinted mountains would have done. It was rather surprising to see that we were the only sedan in the convoy of SUVs raving up.
An avid traveller won’t rate Jebel Shams as spectacularly scenic. If you are short of time, do avoid going all the way till the top which is best done in a 4x4. The drive till where the asphalt road ends is a pleasure. Better still if accompanied by a good friend and some refreshing music. We hired an SUV driven by an native, charging criminally high with the promise of an exhilarating experience. However, the best part of our visit to Jabal Shams was not the view of the neighbouring peaks or the deep gorge sheltering a village down in the wadi. But a small team of North Pakistanis spending their weekend on the hill top with some soul stirring Pashtun and Qawwali music. Had our driver not pressed us for time, we would have sat all day with them.
On the nearby peak was ‘Misfat Al Abrayeen’, an ancient oasis village perched on the mountains. The place is a maze of ruggedly constructed houses aligned at different levels on the rocks. The cobble stoned labyrinths smoothened by thousands of footsteps across generations suck you into the mysterious truth of desert living in the past. The clay plastered wall often holds above you more storeys of houses, all thatched with date palm leaved roof. On windows hung are the jahla, the earthen pot holding cold drinking water in its pure and traditional way. One would be surprised to know that life on this hill top still continues in its very natural way. The governorate deserves an appreciation for not transforming the place to an air-conditioned spotlighted museum preserved in glass boxes.
Walking in the awe-driven air of the past, one would reach an orchard of date palms, mango trees, lemon, pomegranate, oranges, plantains and what not. That is Misfat oasis maintained with hard labor on arid mountains. Water from a far away spring is uncompromisingly preserved and driven through thefalaj or water channel system for irrigation. If you are an explorer, follow the falaj, climb on to rocks, and you would reach a Wadi or bigger water pools near to the spring. A dip in the cold water would drive off all the physical weariness of climbing uphill. Though we visited the place twice in this trip, we are yet to contain its heritage in its fullest. Our second trip to Misfat Al Abrayeen drew to aclose after we shared the pleasure of a few local kids along with their big brothers dipping in a pool completely and continuously watered by the falaj. By continuous watering, the pool stays fresh and excess water continues to flow out to further channels of the falaj.
With us recharged, it was time to hit the road again. Sur from Nizwah is roughly 380 kilometres and is best transited via Izki. The road, for three quarters of the distance, is a dual carriageway and mostly free of radars. At just over 120 kilometres an hour, we cruised through vast sandy emptiness and rocky mountain passes.
Sheer vigilance is essential behind the wheel as the signs displayed warnings of camels crossing, which can be fatal enough to crush the speeding cars as well as the crossing camel folk.
In that stretch, we could rarely spot a place to refresh. The lone coffee shops seemed like they hadn’t opened in a long time. As anticipated and unlike UAE, finding a joint on the highways in Oman (except the Sohar-Muscat route) seemed a tedious task. Amply stocked with snacks and biscuits, we crossed Ibra, Al Qabil and Bidiyah. In some parts of the route, the barren desert land seemed to contain green sprouts prompting us thoughts on the forthcoming khareef (monsoon) season and ensuring we plan a trip to Salalah a few months later.
Finally, we made it to Sur by around half past two. The town seemed to be sleeping at the afternoon hour. It took time for us to know about their afternoon break from 1pm to 4.30pm. No shops open during then.
We checked into a restaurant by the corniche which showed signs of being open. The waiter who also managed the place was in the midst of his slumber when we woke him up. While the location faced the sea and offered terrific views of dhows and the lighthouse, we were catered to rubbish expensive food which we had to gulp down without choice.
Finding restaurants in Oman on long stretches is a near impossible task. And finding good ones is one more far step beyond near-impossible. So stuff your car with enough snacks to kill your hunger till you locate a fairly good restaurant. It is important to have enough drinking water reserve in your car if you are driving in the summer heat. The air-conditioner would dehydrate you more than the summer does.
The rest of our day was marked for Wadi Tiwi. Wadis are narrow gorges formed between mountains by the flow of water. Oman has a lot of them, not all perennial. The year-long presence of water in the wadis aids the flora around and thereby human existence, right from historic times. Near Wadi Tiwi was Al Hosn village settlement, but not as old as Misfat Al Abreyeen. Between the mammoth sandstone mountain peaks, the villagers managed to maintain thick vegetation. Hailing from the once agricultural state of Kerala in India, it was a good moral for us how Omanis grow healthier food on this parched desert land.
With the sea so close by, the air was sticky enough to make us feel irritant. But within the inner self, we rejoiced breathing-in life. We swear, few days away from the LCD monitors were soothing for the senses. Blissfully, we turned our car back to highway alongside the luring pebble beach.
4 kilometres ahead on the highway is Wadi Shab, a similar and more popular water body. Wadi Shab doesn’t have a proper road running all the way.
Unless you have a sturdy 4x4, you may have to walk over gravel and boulders to reach the end of the trail where you can have a dip.
One should be aware of flash floods if the place you drive by has received a fair amount of rain in the recent past. Though the government has managed to fix signboards, it is always advised to be vigilant.
We were ignorant of the turtle reserve nearby Sur until a resident friend told us over a phone call. Ras Al Jinz Turtle reserve is almost 45 kilometres away from Sur and is a breeding coast for marine turtles. Turtles are expected to swim ashore in the night, lay eggs and return before the sunrise. The route to Ras-Al-Jinz curves through the uninhabited coast of the Gulf of Oman and as you reach closer, only your car’s headlights would drive you ahead as there are no streetlights. The turtle reserve authorities have guided tours at 8.30 pm and 4 am. Unfortunately, we missed the information and did not manage to reach there in time. Our adventurous minds couldn’t settle with the fate. We drove through an obscure path on the beach sands guided by Google Maps until we felt a high risk of the sedan getting stuck or having to leave it in an entirely isolated area far from where the turtles nested.
Oman is a relatively safe country and serious crime is rare. The Royal Oman Police are notably efficient and honest. Adding to that you would be surprised to receive Omani hospitality. Most of the locals whom you meet or even pass by wave hands in greeting. However, take permissions before you click close-up photographs or portraits of locals.
The day started with the 203km long drive along the coastal road to Muscat(from Sur). At the 77th km is the Bimmah Sinkhole, smaller and appealing of the two sinkholes in Oman. The teal crystal salty water tempting one into its depths, the limestone layers above sandwiched between the sky and the waters. Its rather a chunk of the bigger gulf saved in within the land.
A sinkhole also known as a sink-hole is a depression in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer or the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks
The engine raved again. Traffic piled up as we entered Ruwi (Muscat) and it was near to noon when we reached Muttrah. Before the shops close for their afternoon break, we had a quick walk through the Muttrah souk. Though about 70 years old, the souk has undergone many stages of maintenance resulting in air-conditioned shops and well lit interiors. One would still love walking through the narrow busy lanes to buy crafts, perfumes and jewellery. Before you leave the souk, make sure you taste the traditional Omani Halwa flavoured with saffron, cardamom, nuts and rose water.
Post a quick lunch at Fazal’s (our friend in Oman) place in Muttrah, we started our long way back home. It was another 450 kilometres from Muscat. But we couldn’t miss to be at the majestic Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Fortunately for us, it was en route Dubai. The mosque opened in 2001 after six and a half years of construction. It’s mainly built from Indian sandstone and houses the world’s second largest hand woven carpet and chandelier. It should be noted that the largest similar carpet is in the not-so-distant and fairly recent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi. The most interesting facet of this mosque is its square prayer hall which can house nearly 6500 worshippers. The walls beautified with intricate floral design, 50 metre high dome and a very aesthetic Imam area. We offered our afternoon prayers in a delightfully tranquil ambience, thanks to Muscat working on that day.
Without further ado, we hit the road again. The 4 lane highway cruising through the capital seemed risen from the ground and finds its way through mountains, allowing a speed limit of a max of 120 kmph and a minimum of 80. As mentioned earlier, the road to Dubai on this route offered plenty of options to refresh. In no time we reached Sohar where we refilled our tank and the car’s. The stretch along Sohar offered views of thick plantain vegetation, one that would put a forest shade to shame, while also sadly reminding us that greener places like Kerala seem inching towards desertification. The social forestry efforts alongside the highway deserve praise. Neem, Banyan and other branching trees have taken over the median and sidewalks.
After Sohar, along the route is the town of Liwa, which practically looked neither busy nor green. A rather impromptu passing town. If you are heading towards Dubai, a left turn after Shinas would take you to the border crossing near Hatta. This one cuts the distance versus the standard crossing before Kalba. One familiar with the route would be well aware of the further Oman border (a part of Oman peeps in again) crossings within UAE. This would mean some delay because of formality checks by the Oman border Police/Military though it requires no additional passport stamps. This portion of Oman also offers a couple of petrol stations on either side of the road, the last chance to fill the tank at a cheaper cost (almost 70 fils lesser per litre). Unfortunately, ours was closed. Lesson being not to wait till the last station.
When it read 2138 kilometres on the trip meter, we found ourselves hitting the sacks slipping to the memories of this time travelling.
PS: And while we were climbing down Misfat Al Abreyeen way past dusk, the stars shone, a treat very difficult to see in Dubai and other illuminated metropolises. We stopped at a view point downhill to capture the small town of Hamra in distant gaze. We parked our Accord next to an SUV, which suggested a group of locals. Interestingly, it was a group of young local women having a good time sitting on a mat, cracking jokes and sipping tea. I was sceptical if our presence would disturb and make them leave. Totally unbothered by our antics of setting up the tripod to find the right angle, which also suggested that we were in no mood to leave soon, the women went by their own business. That to us was the freedom and security of women that we are all craving and advocating for. And here it is in an otherwise insignificant hamlet called Misfat Al Abreyeen or a small country like Oman. This was beyond the mere cries of expression of women’s freedom by western notions which is mostly the right to wear anything but the Abhaya. This notion put to testimony by the many videos which seem to suggest ‘real freedom’ by what Afghan and Iranian women wore in the early 70s. And as we write this piece, the whole of India woke up to this horrific news in another sleepy hamlet in Northern India.
Checklist for a long drive
- First and foremost, ensure the fitness of the car, including presence of spare tyre and tool kit.
- Well and good if your car has a cruise control. It would help save gas and your energy as well.
- Ensure right papers both for yourselves and the car.
- Make a proper route plan before you leave. Stuff yourselves with water and food as required.
- If you don't possess a through data connectivity, set your route in Google Maps before you leave. The google map would act as an offline map with location pointer. This would be handy if you are lost.
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