Today’s Itinerary

By Jacob Aldridge

We considered a self-drive tour of Oman, but being mindful that English is less common outside of the main cities (and we don’t speak Arabic) we decided to join a small group tour. And there are a surprising array of tour options and Oman holiday packages – including Turtle Watching! – as Oman aims to compete with (and outperform) the airport hubs of Dubai (Emirates) and Abu Dhabi (Etihad).

Textiles at the Ladies Market

Ladies Market in Ibra – the adjacent souq remains co-ed

At 8am the luxury 4WD arrives at our hotel. There’s a two hour drive ahead of us, as we leave Muscat’s waterside location and head south through the Harjar mountains and inland to the town of Ibra, in the Sharqiyah area. Now best known as a ‘gateway’ town, Ibra also boasts a weekly ‘Ladies Market’ – every Wednesday the souq is open only to women, and run by women, with a focus on household and textiles products.

Al Mansfah Ruins

Some of the ruined mansions of Al Manshah

As we drive away from Ibra the village of Al Mansfah is silhouetted on the horizon, a community of 19th Century mansions that fell with the fortunes of the region into disrepair. At this point we assume Ibra is a gateway to barren desert sands.

How wrong we prove to be, as the 4WD enters the Wadi Bani Khalid ! With several fresh water springs, and year round water, this valley (Wadi is Arabic for valley – we’re learning Arabic fast) is known for the deep blue water at the foot of the mountains. Experienced hikers would be drawn here for the opportunity to explore some of the largest caves in the country, including the underground chamber of Kahf Maqal. We stop for a more relaxed picnic lunch.

 

Desert oasis of Wadi Bani Khalid

Just what we imagined an oasis to look like. Photo by Andries3, licensed under Creative Commons.

And then it’s into the desert, and the Wahiba Sands. Covering 12,500 square kms (4,800 sq mi), what initial looks barren surprisingly reveals itself as an expansive ecosystem. The region is home to the Wahiba Bedouin tribe, and we’re staying here tonight in a desert camp. You may have been camping before – but you’ve never been camping like this!

Driving a 4WD through desert sand

Experienced drivers know how to maximise safety and fun. Photo by Erkan Pinar, CC License

We could spend a few hours enjoying the spacious tent and the food and drinks available in camp – truly, this must be how Bedouin tribal leaders lived despite the nomadic elements of their lifestyle. However, we have one more activity today – and it’s something Lawrence of Arabia could never have imagined: dune bashing in our 4WD! Definitely best led by an experienced sand driver, there’s a real thrill in racing up a mammoth sand dune, with no road in sight, and then cresting over and down the other side. This is why we travel.

So much fun can be exhausting, and dinner and bed beckon. But be sure to take a few minutes to drink in the night sky as the milky way reveals an expanse of stars known to every generation of humans except the modern city dweller. We will fall asleep feeling humble between the innumerable sands below and the infinite stars above.

 

Stars are visible even inside your tent

Night may be falling, but the wonder is only beginning. 4WD and Tent Phots by Erkan Pinar, Licensed under Creative Commons

Want to Go? Need to Know…

    • You can see a list of Oman Air’s holiday packages by clicking here
    • There truly are a range of tour options from other operators if you search for them, from 2 night to 2 weeks, and encompassing a lot more than we thought Oman would have to offer
    • December temperatures in the desert are reasonably mild, but the summer heat and the late winter evenings are especially dangerous – even experienced desert drivers and hikers are reminded to take precautions with water rations and recording your planned itinerary with your consulate or hotel in case of accident
    • Click here to stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily destinations email

Share your Oman thoughts or desert experiences in the comments below.