It was hot at 8am when Munir, our guide for the day, picked us up at our Muscat hotel in his 4×4. Hot enough, in fact, for my camera lenses to fog when we went outside. Summer temperatures in Oman can reach 50°C (122°F), and air-conditioning in vehicles is a necessity rather than a luxury.
Our stay in Muscat was short, so we’d opted for a day trip: the private 4×4 Mountain of the Sun tour. This took in the town of Nizwa (Oman’s former capital) and Jebel Shams – Oman’s very own Grand Canyon.
Onward to Nizwa
We drove inland towards Nizwa and the region known as the Dakhiliyah (interior). The trip now takes under 2 hrs. On the previous road, it took 4 hrs. Before that (when there really wasn’t a road to speak of), the journey from Muscat to Nizwa was an expedition that lasted a month!
Oman is undergoing huge developments, but don’t confuse it with its neighbours. “Not like Dubai” was a frequent refrain. There are no high-rise buildings, few shopping malls and no mega-hotels, but Munir pointed out the sites for the new airport and hospital. Tourism is expanding here, but it’s still pleasantly low-key.
The rocks changed from yellow to red as we left the coast. There were a few small shrubs, but this is the arid zone, where rain fall averages 100mm (4in) a year. Cultivation and vegetation occurs around the wadis: the rivers that only flow during times of rainfall.
We passed one such wadi – a dry stream of stones and pebbles. Acres of date palms stretched along both banks, with fields and homes visible in the distance. Date palms are an important cash crop here. “We need the 50°C temperatures in the summer” said Munir. “There are no good dates without the heat”
We stopped to walk in a small village, built close up against red hills. The smart white houses had shady courtyards, small windows and shutters to keep out the heat. These modern homes sat comfortably alongside the more ancient aspect of the area: mud buildings 1000 years old which merged into the hills. The village itself was almost eerily quiet, a reflection that it was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
Markets & Souks
Friday is the big market day in Nizwa, when it’s the place to come if you’re in the market for some livestock. We were there on Monday, when there were only a few goats and cows on display.
Munir took us through the souk. Each section is devoted to a particular kind of produce: meat, fish, fruit & vegetables, dates and spices. A few old men were shopping for vegetables, a reminder of the time when Omani men preferred their wives not to be seen in public. (Judging by the number of women shopping in the Muscat souks, this is no longer the case!)
As for our shopping, the Iranian saffron and the range of cashew nuts seemed particularly desirable. We entered the souk’s spice section and Munir was soon chatting to one of the stall-holders:
“Good morning. You are well?”
“Yes, thank you. And you? And your family?”
“Very well, thank you. We shall see you again soon?”
Not for nothing are the Omanis called the Gentlemen of Arabia. We were addressed as “Sir” and “Madam” everywhere we went.
Nizwa: A Little History
Nizwa’s main attraction is the 17th-century fort, dating back to the period when Nizwa was Oman’s capital and held a strategic position on the caravan routes. The fort is surprisingly large and has been extensively renovated. We admired the display cabinets downstairs, with their jewelery, traditional clothing and artefacts.
The fort was laden with traps for unwary invaders, which Munir pointed out as we climbed the tight staircases to the roof. Defending soldiers could pour vats of boiling date oil over their heads, or open trapdoors to send them plunging to the depths!
The roof of the fort is a circular terrace, with a ledge running around the rim. The view from the top is absolutely stunning. The mosque with its yellow and blue dome and minaret is next door, then the white buildings and green trees of Nizwa spread into the distance. Through the haze, we could just make out the red outlines of the mountains.
Lovely as this all was, we were relieved to leave the fort. Ramadan restrictions meant that we could only drink water in the car. This was probably the only downside of the day, as we missed the opportunity to indulge in Omani food and drink.
Shortly after leaving Nizwa, we stopped for fuel. The pump price was 17¢ (30p) a litre. Munir could not understand our amusement:
“Why are you laughing?”
“You just spent 2 Rials on fuel. We spent 5 Rials on saffron and cashew nuts” I explained.
Then it was time to head off into the hills. The road emptied out and grew steeper as we climbed higher. Munir stopped by the side of the road opposite a great chasm between two hills: “This is the start of the hike into the mountains. I leave people here and then meet them the next day”.
Hiking and camping are popular activities in Oman, but the climate means that they are mainly confined to the cooler months.
By the side of the entrance to the canyon, there are the abandoned remains of a village. The stone huts are now roofless and empty, crumbling remains of the village that has now moved across the way, closer to the water supply.
A bit further up the road, and it was time for the 4×4 to be put to good use. The road surface vanished completely and we were driving on rough stones and sand. It was hair-pin bends and low gears all the way until we reached the plateau. By now we were at a height of 3000m and the outside temperature was a mere 28°C!
Up at Jebel Shams, we had the plateau to ourselves. A hot breeze blew, and a few small birds flew about, but otherwise there was just rock and sand. I stood as close as I dared to the edge and peered down. Deep down at the bottom, I could just see a tiny village. “It’s 1km down,” said Munir. He pointed over at the stall-holders. “They walk up every day to work here”. We could just about make out the tiny path that wound its way down into the gorge.
We ate a late picnic lunch in the car, and then it was time to start the drive back to Muscat. Back at the hotel, we jumped straight into the hotel pool for a very welcome swim! Did I mention that it was a hot day?
This was definitely our best day in Oman. Ramadan restrictions obviously affected us, but the upside was that the roads and sights were very quiet. It gave us a real taste for the country, and a tiny indication of how much more there is to see.
There’s no getting away from the fact that any travelling in Oman involves a lot of time spent on the road. A comfortable vehicle definitely made all the difference to us, as did our extremely friendly and knowledgeable guide.
We will be back – inshallah (as they say in Oman)!