There’s more to Oman than beaches and Bedouins. To get to the heart of this fascinating country, you need to take a bumpy ride though desert dunes and wadis
No trip to Oman would be complete without experiencing what is locally known as ‘wadi bashing’. For the uninitiated, a wadi is a dried-up river bed, and in the blistering heat of this Middle Eastern sultanate, where temperatures in the summer months frequently nudge a bone-melting 50°C, river beds are more often found cracked and parched than flowing with life-giving water.
While you could hire a 4x4 yourself and set out into the desert unaccompanied, it’s highly advisable to go with a local guide who’s familiar with the area. It’s all too easy to get lost in the swirling sand dunes, which shift and change shape in the wind, and in the rocky moonscape of the wadi beds, where navigation, even with a sat nav, is almost impossible. More than one over-ambitious, ill-prepared western visitor has perished in this unforgiving terrain, so to ensure you’re not the next victim, a driver is a pretty good idea.
We set off early from the ancient walled capital, Muscat, in an immaculate 4x4 Nissan – it’s an offence in Oman to have a dirty car and the police can pull you over and fine you on the spot – en route to the village of Mazara, through wadi Adai. The Omanis are a friendly bunch, and our driver, Mohammed, kept us entertained throughout the day with his local knowledge, as well as his witticisms.
Mazara is set in an oasis of swaying date palms, and this picturesque settlement is almost biblical in appearance, with locals wafting around in their crisp white dish dash, herds of goats and kids skittishly leaping around, and grubby wide-eyed children smiling and practising their English on you. After a brief stop-off to stock up on more water, we pressed on through the foothills of the jagged Eastern Hajar mountains, through wadis and dramatic stark landscapes.
Leaving the tarmac road behind, we hit the coastal off-road path, lurching across ancient dried-up sea beds and dusty red mountain tracks towards Dihab. Soon we come upon a huge natural waterhole known as Bait Al Afreet, with its clear, emerald water. Further on, we arrived at Wadi Shab, which means ‘gorge between the cliffs’. This wadi rarely completely dries up, which makes it the perfect spot for taking a cooling dip in the heat of the day. Situated in a deep ravine, the wadi is a lush oasis of trees, date palms and grass, and makes a welcome contrast to the surrounding harsh desert landscape. It’s a lovely picnic spot as well, where you can take refuge from the sun under the palms and admire the shimmering water.
Make sure you spend some time in the desert, too, to experience some dune bashing. Rub Al Khalil, more commonly known as the Empty Quarter, straddles the border with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in the southwest of the country, and is a remote and beautiful place, with sand dunes shifting as far as the eye can see. But this is not just a place for soulful contemplation: modern-day Bedouins like to have fun by driving their 4x4s across the desert. First, they let some air out of their tyres, which helps to avoid getting stuck in the soft red sand. Then, cranking the vehicle into low gear, these Arabian boy racers roar up enormous hair-raising steep dunes and plunge down the stomach-lurching drops the other side. With your heart in your mouth and your driver whooping with glee, it’s great fun as long as you don’t mind being bumped and jolted around until you’re black and blue.
After the exhilaration of roaring around the dunes, we staggered out of our vehicle and slumped down on the sand, savouring the glorious silence and stillness of the desert. This part of Oman isn’t known as the Empty Quarter for nothing, but the silence is almost otherworldly. Bar the odd passing Bedouin and his caravan of camels, it’s unlikely you’ll see another soul. If you want to soak up more of this solitude you can camp out overnight, or make for one of a couple of permanent encampments that offer basic facilities for visitors, including small rooms, showers and a restaurant. Lying on a pile of blankets in the balmy evening air, and gazing at the inky sky ablaze with stars, is one experience you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Where to stay
The Chedi was the first of a new breed of boutique hotels to open in Oman. It marks a real style departure from the handful of corporate chain hotels that were previously the only places for visitors to stay. Sleek, sophisticated, and without a trouser press in sight, the Chedi is a successful fusion of traditional Omani and Asian style. It is seemingly constructed from a series of dazzling white cubes, with Arabian-style arches thrown in for good measure.
Al Bustan Palace
Imagine a hotel designed by an Arab prince. Add a bit more gold, a load more bling, and throw lots of rials at it and the result wouldn’t be far off the Al Bustan Palace. The hotel, complete with 250 rooms, sits against a dramatic mountain backdrop on 200 acres of private beach and lush, verdant gardens. It’s recently been refurbished, and some of its worst excesses have been reined in, to be replaced by more elegant, stylish interiors.
The four-star ‘Intercon’ was one of the first international hotels to open up in Oman back in the 1970s, and while it’s a bit dated, it offers a comfortable and affordable stay.
Gulf Air, Emirates, British Airways and Oman Air all fly from the UK to Oman.
One-day wadi bashing trips cost from OMR145 (c£250) for the hire of a 4x4 with guide, lunch and soft drinks. For each additional person, it's an extra OMR25 (c£43), up to a maximum of four.