Road-tripping the mountains, deserts and coast of Oman
From camel-strewn dunes to wild swimming spots, Oman is a hotbed of jaw-dropping landscapes that's ripe for exploring. We took it on in a 4x4, obviously
By Lizzie Pook
Published: Monday 3rd April 2017
There must be thousands of sardines in front of me. Neatly laid out in rows like soldiers, beady eyes flashing towards the gods, so their silver bodies wither and dry in the sun. I’m in the small fishing village of Taqah in subtropical Salalah, on the southwest coast of Oman. Villagers here catch and desiccate these fish to sell them to the sparse mountain communities, who share their territory with leopards, hyenas and Arabian wolves.
“We feed the sardines to our family cow,” says our guide Hussain, nodding earnestly. “It makes her strong. When she eats the fish, instead of producing eight litres of milk, she produces 14.” He makes a gesture to suggest he has udders – bloated, heavy and swaying beneath him.
The Sultanate of Oman – bordered by the UAE to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Yemen to the southwest – is experiencing a huge surge in popularity right now. Not least because of its carefully nurtured tourism industry (it is accessible, safe and extremism-free), but luxury is cropping up here too – even beyond the capital, Muscat.
Two Anantara hotels have recently opened: Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort near the Grand Canyon-esque Jebel Shams (which, at an eye-watering 3,000ft above sea-level is the Middle East’s highest luxury hotel) and Al Baleed Resort Salalah on the Arabian sea.
But still, most people that I mention it to don’t seem to know that much about the country (except my mum, who of course knows everything, but also whose father was stationed here on an army airbase in the seventies – sleeping under the stars and making friends with the locals).
Compared to Dubai’s flashy excess and Abu Dhabi’s dazzling skyscrapers, Oman is generally better known for its gem-coloured sinkholes, Bedouin camp grounds and almost prehistoric-looking wildlife – from the long-horned oryx to the Egyptian fruit bat.
Twice daily direct flights from Oman Air mean it’s only a seven-hour trip from London too. Hence why I’m here, with a well-thumbed map in hand, ready to get my fix before the crowds inevitably flood in.
My route has taken me from Muscat in the very north of the country to Salalah, which is situated some 1,011kms away – gobbling up the beautiful beaches, Mars-like mountains and Mad Max deserts. To say it has been an easy trip would be utterly misleading.
Every single person out here who found out we – yes, including me, a woman – were planning to drive the length of the country dismissed us flat out. “Too far,” they’d say with the flick of a hand and phlegm-rattling sniff.
Perhaps I should have taken a little more heed. While its luxury hotel game is certainly on the up, ever-changing infrastructure and a painful lack of road signage mean that it’s not yet a ‘simple’ destination to travel by road. But that’s just all part of the fun, right?
The very first thing we did when we arrived here was head straight for the mountains. Two hours out of Muscat airport you’ll find the Al Hajar range, home to Jebel Shams, the highest peak in the country, looming at an impressive 9,872ft.
It’s perched up here that you’ll also find Anantara’s Al Jabal Al Akhdar hotel, which is where I’ll be resting my head for the night. But we have to actually get there first.
Leaving the lights of Muscat behind, we climb slowly into the mountaintops (you can’t get up these vertiginous roads in anything less than a 4x4 – and you’ll be stopped at the police check-point if you try anything different).
In the inky blackness, the road ahead of us spirals high. A huge yellow slice of moon sits low on the horizon. Bright stars scatter the sky like pin pricks in black linen. And with the screeching of the gear box and popping of ears, we wind our way up the rocky mountain pass to the hotel, which sprawls across the lip of the canyon like ivy.
We’re put up in a clifftop pool villa, which seems almost obscenely nice for two people who haven’t washed in a long time, and in the morning I wake up to a small nosebleed and one of the most powerful views I have ever witnessed – mountains thundering into the distance for as far as the eye can see, like rolling banks of fat storm clouds.
We spend the morning rock climbing – huge steppe eagles wheeling overhead; hairy mountain goats bleating below – then set off to walk the three villages that sit in the valley below the hotel. They have the sum population of just one person – an upbeat elderly man who simply refused to pack up and leave when everyone else left in search of better prospects.
But as we pass the abandoned mosques, dilapidated houses and crumbling walls, we spot hundreds of fossils in the surrounding rocks – millennia-old fish, leaves and shells; a sign that life was here well before humans arrived.
The next day, we hit the road early to make it to our next camp, slap bang in the middle of the wild interior desert. About 300km in, a camel lurches into the road in front of our car. We see it coming, lolloping towards us like a mal-co-ordinated colossus, and pile on the brakes. Thankfully it passes unscathed, free to terrorise other motorists.
We spend the next two days in Desert Nights Camp, an isolated warren of beautiful tented rooms tucked into the golden sand dunes. By day, eagles cruise overhead looking for lizards. By night, owl calls echo ghoulishly through the desert.
It’s from here that I also visit my first wadi – the name for any sort of geographical formation that can collect water; valleys, ravines, sinkholes and channels. Crimson dragonflies buzz about my ears and lizards scurry over the rocks as I pick my way towards the water. As I submerge myself in the sun-warmed pool, tiny black fish nibble at my calves. It’s a serene yet utterly exhilarating experience, and gives me a taste for the ocean.
So next, we head due east, towards the coast. The recently built coastal road – some 1,000km long – winds along the edge of the country from Sur, the capital city of the Ash Sharqiyah region, to Salalah, past unspoilt beaches, craggy mountain passes and marshy lagoons festooned with huge flocks of water birds – gulls, terns and curlews that congregate in rowdy chorus- lines.
At Ras al Jinz – the only place in the world where endangered green turtles return night after night to nest – we witness the spoils of pillage. Grabbing our torches and clambering over undulating sand dunes in the moonlight, we come upon a nest that’s been raided by foxes, headless baby turtles littering the ground like used shells.
Our final day demands the most driving, as we set out to travel the full length of the country, heading inwards and southwards before peeling off to pick up the coastal road for the final few hours of our journey. At least that’s the plan.
We set off at 5am, as soft clouds paint iron oxide smears across the dawn sky, but with only a paper map for guidance (real adventurers don’t use sat-navs, right?), the roads all seem to blur into one. It quickly becomes clear that it’s quite easy to get lost in Oman. Which is exactly what we do. We get catastrophically, unreservedly lost and end up driving for three hours in the wrong direction. By the time we right ourselves and join highway 31, which barrels through the centre of the desert, it’s already pushing noon.
The next several hours pass in a blur of trucks, goats, animal bones and lonely Bedouin tents. From my window I spot dumpsites, burning oil farms, car wrecks, camels squashed into the back of pick-up trucks and machine-gun-mounted military tanks. Halfway through the desert we come upon a massive monolith of a truck, which is more like a small city on wheels. Dozens of cars hover off the back of it like feeder fish behind the gills of a huge shark. We have no option but to hang idly behind it for the next couple of hours.
Eventually we arrive, spent and raspy, in Salalah. From my resplendent suite I watch prehistoric-looking herons picking their way through the reeds, and shower with a floor-to-ceiling view of the sun going down over the sultry lagoon.
As I look down, I see trails of sand disappearing down the plug hole. But it will take more than water to wash away the memory of the vast, sprawling deserts. Plans are in place to spend $35bn on tourism here in Oman and to double visitor numbers over the next 20 years.
But there’s still something wild about the country, which is embracing modernism but preserving its ancient traditions. It’s quite special, really. Get here before everyone else figures that out too.
Nightly rates at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort start from £369. jabal-akhdar.anantara.com; nightly rates at Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara start from £264. salalah.anantara.com. Scott Dunn offers ten-night Oman itineraries from £2,600 per person based on two people sharing including all accommodation, flights and transfers. scottdunn.com Oman Air offers twice daily direct flights from Heathrow to Muscat, from £400. omanair.com