By Marianne Gray
Photos by Dominika Trelinska
Oman hasn’t been long on the travellers’ map. Much of it is a magnificent wilderness called the Empty Quarter, which it shares with its neighbours in the Gulf, UAE and Dubai in the north and Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the west.
It’s a wealthy sultanate with a population of just four million. Its riches date back to when frankincense was a major export, traded for gold from its empire which encompassed Zanzibar and ports in what are now Pakistan and Iran. Now there’s oil and natural gas.
It’s a country lined by precipitous, pleated granite and sandstone mountains of different colours, a coastline of white beaches and clear blue-green sea and undulating orange sand-dunes where Bedouins live with their camels. (I believe Omani camels were the fastest at the Gulf Camels Races this year.)
The capital, Muscat (‘muscat’ means ‘anchorage’) lies in a volcanic bowl, more or less divided into four quarters by mountains. It is on the Tropic of Cancer, an elegant city – clean, calm and organised – with low-slung buildings and almost no crime.
Strolling along the downtown Corniche is the labyrinthinely winding souk at Old Muttrah selling everything from plastic rubbish to frankincense and honey – and the Fish Market where tuna the size of sharks lie on slabs, their huge, dead eyes watching you. There’s plenty to see, especially Old Town and the Sultan Gaboos Grand Mosque is quite over-whelming. (Ladies must wear a covering scarf/shawl and men trousers rather than shorts.)
Oman is a huge country. In the 70s there were just six kilometres of tarmac road in the entire country but that’s changed. Now you drive on perfect roads past watchtowers and 17th Century crenelated forts on every hill, date plantations in the valley, wadis, oases and clusters of flat-roofed villages, where ancient, bleached buildings stand silently, their sunken windows keeping them cool.
Nizwa, with its massive fort, is the capital of the interior and is full of small reminders of how rural things still are there, like a sign for the Goat Market or some glorious, very old wood-carving or traders on camels clopping into town.
Further east along the pristine coast, turtles breed, dolphins frolic, sharks cruise and hardy folk trek. Perhaps the prettiest town on the Sea of Oman is Sur, where dhows are still traditionally built and the port looks like a painting from another century.
There are several desert camps there, from glamping in sheikh tents with bathrooms or more basic camps. Whichever you choose, make sure you’re there for sunset and for sunrise. These are unforgettable moments. I could have stayed in the stillness of this nomadic Bedouin part of the country for much longer.
Further south, almost on the Yemen border, is Salalah, sub-tropical and lush, with coconut palms and banana trees. People from all over the Gulf go there because it’s very pretty and different. (Salalah means ‘the shining one’). It’s a two hour flight away from Muscat and two VERY long days by car.
We had no problems in Oman. It’s still a very traditional and old-world country. The people met were polite, friendly and very nice, usually speaking English. Many cups of coffee were offered with a smile. The coffee might have been strong enough to strip the enamel off your teeth but hell, it was good!