The Sultanate of Oman abounds with off-the-beaten-track activities, from fossil-hunting hikes and dolphin dives to kayaking and turtle-spotting.
OCHRE-hued undulating desert sand dunes. Check.
Carrara marble mosques with vertiginous minarets dramatically “piercing” the blue sky. Check.
Neatly laid out manicured gardens with geometrical symmetry. Check.
While the Sultanate of Oman has all the aforementioned Middle Eastern clichés in ample supply, there is more to it than meets the eye. This, I had been told time and again by those in the know of its “inside story”, as it were.
So, eager to get a glimpse of the other side of this country by the mighty Arabian Sea, a five-member group of adrenaline-addicted friends and I recently decided to hop on a plane and “do” Oman like it probably needs to be done.
Not wanting to completely ignore the much-touted charms of Oman’s capital, Muscat, we decided that a day in this city with a small town vibe wouldn’t put a dent into the prospective Omani adventure we would soon partake in.
And the bustling Mutrah Souk (market), just off the winding Corniche in Old Muscat, proved to be the perfect base for a slice of local life. From the intricately decorated curved dagger called the khanjar, that is the symbol of Oman, and fragrant frankincense stalls, to others peddling soft Pashmina shawls and colourful Belushi dresses for women, this souk has it all.
With its labyrinthine lanes and alleys, the souk is a treasure trove for souvenir hunters, with its hundreds of shops selling multi-hued glass lamps, shisha (hubbly-bubbly) and other metallic curios and trinkets, like typical Omani pendants and lockets.
But the piece de resistance, for us, was the rather serendipitous discovery of the Omani halwa shop tucked away in the heart of the souk. Here, we got to try some free samples of the terrific (if a tad calorific) fudge-like halwa. Made from wheat flour, ghee (clarified butter), sugar and pistachios, this sweet is scented with rose water.
We also saw the master makers toiling over humongous vats of bubbling halwa that needed constant stirring.
After what seemed like hours getting lost in and around this mind-boggling vortex of commerce, we decided to call it a day. After all, we did have the next five action-packed days to deal with.
Giant green turtles and the Middle East? There couldn’t be two more incongruous images. But it takes a place like Oman to harmoniously put the two together – providing us with a true vacation with a difference!
Around 65km east of the city of Sur, the wide stretch of white sandy beach extending from Ras Al Hadd to Masirah Island in Oman’s Al Sharqiyah South Governorate, a spellbinding sight unfolds in March each year. And after a short (and bumpy) flight from Muscat, we were in Sur to witness this phenomenon.
Here, thousands of green turtles return to lay their eggs on the same beach where they were born decades ago. And around 50-70 days later, the tiny hatchlings would set off on their perilous journey into the blue ocean.
One can witness this phenomenon, like we did, from the Ras Al Hadd Turtle Reserve on Ras al-Jinz Beach that provides a quiet sanctuary for the entire process, thus securing the continued survival of the species and protecting them from extinction.
Back at our camp at Sur, a traditional Omani feast of sorts was in the process of being laid out before our famished selves. The star of the evening was grilled local hammour (a sort of snapper fish) – anointed with olive oil and lemon juice – served with vegetables.
An assortment of dips, like velvety chickpea and beetroot hummus (made of chickpeas), muhamarra (hot pepper dip) and cooling labneh (strained yogurt) scooped up with Omani breads like lavash, khobz and pita filled in as worthy seconds. Other dishes – an assortment of mezze (appetisers) with grilled lamb chops, cous cous and kebabs with saffron pilaf – were a fitting finale to a royal repast. We sealed it with copious amounts of sweet khalas dates and potent shots of black, unctuous Omani coffee called kahwa.
Oman, they say, is packed with secrets that are simply waiting to be shared – and we couldn’t wait to get in on a few of them. And here is one that will surprise you, as it sure did us!
The Majlis Al Jinn Cave, located in the village of Fins in Wilayat Quriyat near Muscat, has the distinction of being the second largest known cave chamber in the world, with a floor area of 58,000sqm. Its deep, dark womb-like bowels welcomed us as we dodged the guano (bat droppings) assault from the resident bats, clearly disturbed with our intrusion into their sanctum sanctorum.
Besides this natural wonder, we also visited the Al Hoota caves at the base of the Jebel Shams Mountain nearby. Home to two lakes, one of which has rare blind fish, these caves abound with stalactites and stalagmites that will stun you into silence with their eerie beauty.
And no less spectacular is the Teeq Cave in Dhofar that truly had us gob-smacked for a good 10 minutes or so. This cave has six entrances, with the western entrance being particularly impressive from where we could see the legendary “Well of Birds” or Tawi Atair Sinkhole in all its other-worldly mysterious charm.
Laying claim to over 3,000km of rugged coastline, Oman hugs the Arabian Peninsula with all its might. And one of the country’s most spectacular natural wonders can be found in the Musandam Peninsula up north. Taking a 45-minute flight from our base in Muscat to the region’s capital – the quaint little town of Khasab – we found ourselves a veritable slice of paradise.
An area separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates, the peninsula’s mighty fjords are the reason why the area is often referred to as the “Norway of Arabia”. And it was also the reason why, within minutes of checking into our digs for the day, we hit the cool waters, slicing through the crashing waves, all set for some sun and surf.
With the brightest of lapis-hued waters meeting the dramatic limestone cliffs – that in some areas drop 2,000m into the ocean – the vista Khasab offers is unparallelled. The sight of fishermen bringing in their daily catch of hammour and the constant squawking of the resident cormorants as they searched the soft sandy beach for a few fishy remnants from the fishermen’s bounty were elements of everyday life in the peninsula that only added to the earthy appeal of the place.
But the true beauty of the fjords lies beneath the aqua that is teeming with exotic marine life. After a tranquil ride in a traditional Omani wooden boat called a dhow to Telegraph Island – a few hundred metres or so from shore – where it dropped anchor, we set off in different directions.
Some of us chose to go deep sea diving. While others, like myself, preferred to go on a snorkelling expedition for a tryst with the friendliest of dolphins that cheekily followed us while making clicking sounds, providing the “soundtrack” to our day of pure bliss.
At 2,087m above sea level, Jebel Harim – which means “mountain of women” – is the highest peak in Musandam.
This was the place to satisfy all our dormant Cliffhanger fantasies as we scaled its razor-sharp slopes in search of fossils, early the next day.
Yes, you read right – fossils! Once a sub-oceanic mountain, Jebel Harim has plenty of rocks and boulders where one can easily see some superbly preserved fossils, affording us the chance to play discoverer as we tried to make sense of how ancient sub-marine creatures – like molluscs, fish, clams and numerous trilobites – lay plastered across the mountain’s surface.
Offering another great facet to the mountain is the fine collection of petroglyphs. They depict ancient agrarian and cattle-herding scenes of daily life that were carved into the mountaintop boulders thousands of years ago, yet remain vivid and striking today.
The highlight of the hike for us, though, was a visit to the many cave dwellings – that lay scattered along the mountain’s slopes and come complete with bedrooms and kitchens – used by people as homes right up until the 1940s.
Back in Muscat and at the end of our adventure-packed week in this stunning country, we simply couldn’t resist sneaking in this little Middle Eastern adventure sport cliché. But the way it is done in Oman is truly different.
The undulating desert area of Wahiba Sands, two hours out of Muscat, is perfect for a bit of sandy action. Here you can go on a 4WD dune-bashing safari or have a go at quad-biking or, better still, try sand-skiing, the newest desert sport to take Oman by storm.
But if you prefer a more leisurely pursuit, then a camel ride that takes you to a Bedouin village tucked away in the middle of the desert is a great way to get a glimpse into the nomadic lifestyle of the desert tribes.
On the way back to Muscat, we took a detour to the Wadi Bani Khalid oasis for our final sunset in Oman. This water body surrounded by swaying date palm trees is perfect to try your hand at diving from the short cliffs into some of the bluest waters you will ever see.
A picnic on the shores is what most local Omanis enjoy when at Wadi Bani Khalid, and so should you, once you’re done with your aqueous adventures in the cool waters.
THERE are a number of daily direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Muscat. Visas are required. Apply for one at the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman in Kuala Lumpur. It takes three or four working days to process.
When to visit
The months from October to April are the best time to visit Oman, for the climate is pleasant then. May to September are the hot and humid months.
There is a good range of accommodation options that suit most budgets. The average cost for a four-star accommodation is around 50 Omani Rials (RM413) per night for two, inclusive of breakfast.
What to buy
> Tubs of saffron-rich Omani halwa
> Dates, especially the juicy khalas variety
> Hand-blown, multi-coloured glass lamps