Itinerary: Muscat – Bimmah Sinkhole – Wadi as Shab – Sur – Wadi Bani Khalid – Wahiba Sands – Bahla Fort – Jabreen Castle – Nizwa – Al Hamra – Jebel Shams
The Sultanate of Oman is located on the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, east of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and north of Yemen. On the north side, Oman borders the Gulf of Oman, which gives access to the Persian Gulf via the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. To the east is the Arabian Sea.
Oman has about 4.5 million inhabitants and the majority of them live in the coastal strip in the north of the country. That coastal strip is separated from the interior by the Al Hajar mountains. And that interior consists mainly of sand: no less than eighty percent of Oman is desert. Obviously, Oman has a desert climate. There are no rivers and lakes and it hardly ever rains, except in the mountains.
Oman is a sultanate, a monarchy with a sultan as head of state. Until 1856, Oman formed one sultanate with Zanzibar, the island off the coast of Tanzania. It is an autocratic system, with a directly elected parliament, the Majlis A’Shura, but that only has the right to consultation and advice. In fact, it is the sultan who decides everything. In addition, Oman is a traditional Islamic country. Ninety percent of the population is Muslim. Islam was introduced there in 627 CE and Islamic Sharia law governs almost all of daily life. The Islamic call to prayer sounds everywhere five times a day.
The area that is now Oman, strategically located on the trade routes between Persia and Mesopotamia and India, has been home to various rival tribes for millennia, led by caliphs, kings, imams and sultans. For a long time this led to conflicts and partly because of this Oman was a poor country well into the twentieth century. That only changed under sultan Qaboos bin Said, who united the country.
The economic development of Oman only started after the discovery, in 1967, of oil on Omani territory. The reserves are much smaller than in neighboring countries though, and Oman has therefore not experienced the enormous growth in prosperity as in the United Arab Emirates, for example, but partly thanks to oil revenues, the infrastructure has been modernized, schools and universities were built, modern ports and an airport have been built and the standard of living of the Omani has risen.
Nowadays tourism also contributes to Oman’s economy, but until the early 1990s it was not possible to visit Oman as a tourist. In 2023 there is still no mass tourism in Oman.
The capital of Oman is Muscat. The Muscat Capital Area consists of eight different city districts that lie next to each other along the coast of the Gulf of Oman. From the westernmost district, As Seeb, to the easternmost, Muscat Old Town, is a distance of about sixty kilometers and three quarters of an hour driving via Route 1 (large part of which is called Sultan Qaboos Street) or the Muscat Espressway. Most parts of the city are not really worth visiting, except for three: Al Gubrah (where the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is), Mutrah (an old port town) and Muscat Old Town (or Old Muscat).
I’m staying in Al Gubrah, a stone’s throw from the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This mosque was built between 1995 and 2001. Non-Muslims can visit the mosque daily from eight to eleven in the morning. This is also definitely worth it for non-believers because of the beautiful architecture of the mosque. Within the wall of the mosque is a beautiful courtyard with sandstone colonnades and four minarets at the corners. The mosque itself is made of marble and has a sleek and stylish design. The slender gates on either side are photogenic, especially with the 91 meter high central minaret in the background.
The prayer hall, with a huge Persian carpet on the floor, crystal chandeliers on the teak roof and a richly decorated mihrab, is impressive in size. Most impressive is the huge domed roof, fifty meters in diameter, with a huge Swarovski chandelier measuring eight by fourteen meters. The large prayer room is only for men, there is a separate and more soberly designed prayer room for women. Between the two prayer halls is a colonnaded courtyard (the colonades being called riwaqs). Early in the morning there is a serene calm.
After my visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, I drive twenty minutes to Mutrah, the old harbor town next to Old Muscat. The through-going Sultan Qaboos Road is fine and well-arranged and the traffic is remarkably quiet (as in: people are not in a hurry and sticking to the speed limit, perhaps also because of the many traffic cameras). It is a bright sunny day and a pleasant 25 degrees. It strikes me that the vast majority of Omani wear traditional clothing. Most men wear dishdashas, a long white (sometimes black) robe reaching to the ankles, and a kummah, a round headgear, or turban. Most women wear an abaya or niqab.
Mutrah is located on a circular bay, with barren chocolate-brown mountains in the background. In the past, Mutrah was an important hub for the camel trade. The white plastered merchant houses along the Al Bahra Road are reminders of this. The Al Bahra Road is better known as the Corniche, the road with a pedestrian promenade that runs along the bay. On the west side is a modern white building where the Fish Souq, the fish market, is. Freshly caught fish is traded here daily. From here you have a nice view over the curved Corniche, the white houses and the minaret of the mosque Masjid Al Rasool Al A’dhan, with the mountains in the background.
Perched on a bluff on the eastern side of the Corniche is the ancient Mutrah Fort, the only remaining of the two forts intended for the defense of ancient Mutrah. The small streets behind the Corniche form the Mutrah Suq, Oman’s largest souk, with countless shops that mostly sell the same things, from incense to toys and from cashmere scarves to football t-shirts. There are both tourists and locals. You are constantly approached by salesmen, but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
After an Omani lunch on the Corniche I drive to Old Muscat. Ancient Muscat was strategically located on the Gulf of Oman, but for a long time virtually inaccessible by land because it was surrounded by mountains. That is why Mutrah, which was more accessible, developed into a port city. However, Muscat became the political capital of the sultanate.
Old Muscat was surrounded by a city wall with three gates: the Bab al Saghir, the Bab al Kabir and the Bab Mathib. The city wall and most of the original buildings and houses have been demolished to make way for modern whitewashed houses and buildings. Only the two forts that were supposed to defend Old Muscat, Al Jalili and Al Mirana, still stand atop the waterside cliffs. The forts were built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Al Jalili has also served as Oman’s main prison for many years.
At the heart of compact Old Muscat is Al Alam Palace, the official palace of the sultan (but not his residence). The unusually designed building, with blue and gold colored columns, faces the waters of the Gulf of Oman at the back and a sprawling promenade leading to the palace at the front, which looks as if it was intended for large parades or events. The promenade, with colonnades on both sides, ends (or starts) at the sleekly designed building of the National Museum. Almost all buildings around the palace are government buildings, just like the gate of the palace with the golden coat of arms of the sultanate.
Bimmah Sinkhole, Wadi as Shab and Sur
The next morning I check out of my hotel and leave Muscat. As soon as I leave the city, I drive through a dry, barren landscape of rust-brown mountains. There are no trees and hardly any vegetation. From the town of Quriyat it becomes very quiet on route 17, there is hardly any traffic on the road. The road runs parallel to the coast and the landscape is more flat here. Occasionally I see some donkeys, goats and camels.
My first stop is the Bimmah Sinkhole, located in Hawiyat Najm Park. This park is not much: it is not much more than a few trees and picnic tables. The Bimmah sinkhole was originally an underground cavern formed by water flowing underground from the mountains to the sea. Eventually the roof of the cave collapsed et voilà: a sinkhole. It is forty meters in diameter and twenty meters deep, with aquamarine water and high sandy yellow rocks all around. There are quite a few tourists, some of whom take a dip in the water. I just look around for a while.
Then I drive to Wadi as Shab. Wadis are gorges and valleys in the mountains that have been carved out by erosion. They look a bit like dry riverbeds, but if it has rained in the mountains, they can suddenly flood. Because water flows through a wadi from time to time in this way, the soil is often fertile and you will regularly find green oases in wadis.
Wadi as Shab is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in Oman. For the payment of one Omani rial you will be taken to the other side of a small lagoon in a minute with a small boat. There you start a beautiful walk through a deep and narrow gorge. The sandy yellow rocks rise steeply. On the dry bottom of the wadi are palm trees, banana trees and along the way you pass several pools, with water that varies from emerald green to turquoise.
The walk is only three kilometers (one way, you walk back along the same route), but takes 45 minutes to an hour. The first half there is still a kind of path, along the rocks, the second part you have to find your way over large boulders. Partly because of the heat (it is around thirty degrees) it is a brisk walk, but absolutely worth it. Wadi as Shab is truly breathtakingly beautiful.
In the afternoon I arrive in Sur, where I will spend the night. Sur is a coastal town located on a lagoon, the Khawr al Batah. In the past, Sur played an important role in Oman’s trade with East Africa, with dhows carrying goods coming and going from here. Those dhows were and are also being built in Sur. A shipyard still stands on the south side of the lagoon. The teak dhows are built in a traditional way, without a blueprint.
A corniche also runs along the waters of the Gulf of Oman, although it is less photogenic than the one in Muscat. But unlike the one in Muscat, this one borders a wide sandy beach. On the Tuesday afternoon that I am there, it is wonderfully quiet. Across the lagoon’s entrance is the Al Ayjah district, with old whitewashed merchant houses and a stylish lighthouse. The dhow floating in the water completes the picture. This picture is also my view when I have dinner at the Al Hawash restaurant at the end of the afternoon.
Wadi Bani Khalid and Wahiba Sands
On my third day in Oman I leave the coast and head inland. The road leads through a dry landscape with chocolate brown mountains and little vegetation. There is also little traffic on this route 23. After an hour’s drive, the sand dunes of the desert loom in the distance. Here and there I see a few camels walking and goats regularly cross the road.
My first destination for today is Wadi Bani Khalid. From the exit of route 23 the road winds over the mountains and then into the wadi. After about thirty kilometers you can park the car and continue walking. Like Wadi as Shab, Wadi Bani Khalid also lies between sand-colored rocks, with palm trees at the bottom of the valley and here you will also find a series of pools. These are man-made and part of the irrigation system that supplies the palm trees with water. This is done with so-called aflaj, concrete irrigation canals, which you can see throughout Oman. Bani Wadi Khalid is more developed than Wadi as Shab, including a restaurant, which is a great place for coffee by the way.
In the afternoon I drive to the village of Al Wasil. Here is the meeting point for my transfer to the Desert Retreat Camp in the Wahiba Sands (aka Wihiba Sands). I leave my rental car behind and drive into the desert with the owner of the camp (in his powerful 4×4). The Wahiba Sands is a desert of about 180 kilometers from north to south and eighty kilometers from east to west. The wind has formed long sand dunes here, which are more than fifty kilometers long. It’s an impressive amount of sand.
It hardly ever rains here, with some rain falling on average once every three years, until 2022. Then it rained for three days in a row, with the result that the desert is partly green. The rain has brought up seeds and plants that were buried under the sand. Some parts of the sand dunes in Wahiba Sands therefore look a bit like the Dutch dunes.
The camp is located in a remote spot, at the bottom of a high sand dune. I will spend the night in a traditional Bedouin tent made of goat hair rugs. But one with a ‘normal’ bed and a toilet / shower cubicle behind the tent. After a welcoming coffee (coffee is an expression of hospitality in Oman) me and another guest (there are only four guests in total) are going ‘dune bashing’ with the owner. That is to say: we drive around through the beautiful desert landscape, take pictures of camels and sand dunes, and occasionally our driver drives up and down a steep dune with visible pleasure.
At the end I sit on the edge of a high sand dune to watch the sunset. It is completely silent, except for the wind. The sand is so fine, it feels like dust. After the sunset it is time to eat (the dinner in the camp is very good) and then I sit down at my tent, with thousands of stars above me.
Bahla Fort and Jabreen Castle
You know you’re a long way from home when you wake up in a tent in the desert, with some camels grazing and nothing else. After breakfast I am taken back to my rental car in Al Wasil. Then I drive to Bahla in 2.5 hours. The road is flat, through a very dry landscape, with some mountains in the distance and occasional grazing camels. Or a camel crossing the road. Needless to say it is sunny and warm (about 30 degrees).
Around noon I am in Bahla, where I first have lunch. I am in Bahla to visit the Bahla Fort. Bahla was the capital of much of what is now Oman from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. The fort originally dates from this time, it was probably built in the thirteenth century, making it one of the oldest forts in Oman. It has been (partly) rebuilt and expanded several times. Since 1987, the Bahla Fort is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The fort is located on a hill surrounded by date palm plantations. Bahla Fort is the largest mud brick fort in Oman. Many houses and buildings in Oman were built from it in the Middle Ages, but mud bricks are not very resistant to bad weather conditions. The fortress is more or less triangular in shape, with eight round towers scattered around the fortress, and defensive walls that are up to two meters thick. Within it are a courtyard, the residence for the ruler and his family, reception rooms, quarters for soldiers, a weapons store, and two mosques. The buildings all have several floors. It is a maze of spaces, passages and stairs and on top of the defensive walls and towers you have a wide view of the surroundings. The Bahla Fort is very photogenic and well worth a visit.
Just a few minutes drive from the Bahla Fort is the Jabreen Castle. This castle is a lot younger than the Bahla Fort and dates from the seventeenth century. From the outside it looks massive, with high walls and two sturdy towers. Yet Jabreen Castle was not intended for defensive purposes; it was built as a palace for the imam of the Yarubi dynasty. In the castle there are two courtyards surrounded by private rooms, reception rooms and also a library and a special ‘ladies suite’. Several rooms have painted wooden ceilings and carved arched doors and one of the staircases is decorated with Quranic verses. The Jabreen Castle is certainly interesting, but personally I find the Bahla Fort more beautiful and impressive.
Nizwa and Al Hamra
At the end of the afternoon I arrive in Nizwa, my next overnight stay. Nizwa is the largest inland town in northern Oman. In the sixth and seventh centuries it was allowed to call itself the capital of part of what is now Oman. The city is located at the foot of the Al Hajar mountains, at the intersection of two wadis (Wadi al Abyadh and Wadi Kalbouh), and is surrounded by an oasis full of palm trees.
The next morning I get up early to go to the local goat market. This takes place every Friday morning, next to the souk, and starts as early as seven in the morning. It is very busy (not least because many tourists also visit the market). Almost everyone is traditionally dressed and the women wear traditional face masks. The market is mainly for goat trading, but some traders have also brought some calves. It is not very animal friendly. At one point many men stand and sit in two circles around the central circular enclosure and the men offering goats walk in between, like a kind of parade of merchandise on offer. It is a special spectacle to see.
After the goat market I first have breakfast and then I go to see the rest of Nizwa. At the heart of the city is Nizwa Fort, built in the ninth century. The fortress has a huge massive tower, added in the seventeenth century to protect the strategically important Nizwa from attackers. The tower has a diameter of no less than 36 meters. The stairs in the tower have trapdoors to stop intruders and on top of the tower you have a wide view of the surroundings. The castle, which lies behind the tower, contains living and sleeping quarters, the kitchen, a prison and a mosque, all spread over several floors. Omani men perform traditional music and dance in the courtyard.
Next to the fort is the Nizwa Suq. The souk itself is old, but its current appearance dates back to the 1990s, when the fort and souk were renovated. The souk is divided into souks for meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, but you can also buy jewellery, pottery and many other products.
After spending the morning in Nizwa, I drive towards the Al Hajar mountains. On the way I stop in the village of Al Hamra. This is a seventeenth century village where the old houses are built of mud bricks. Despite being centuries old, many of them still stand between today’s houses on narrow streets too narrow for cars (which, of course, didn’t exist back then). Many of the old houses have turned into ruins, but some are still inhabited. Here, too, falaj run along the street, supplying the lower date palms with water.
From Al Hamra I continue towards Jebel Shams. Jebel Shams (aka Jabal Shams), which means ‘sun mountain’, is the highest mountain in Oman at 3,009 meters. At first the road is flat, through Wadi Guhl. From the road you can see the ruins of the old village of Guhl against the mountain slope. They are houses of mud bricks that almost disappear because of their color against the mountains of almost the same color. The old houses overlook the beginning of Wadi an Nakhur.
After about 45 minutes of driving, the road starts to climb seriously. The mountains have light and dark brown tones, the environment is dry and arid, with only some low vegetation and some goats here and there. The not too wide road winds steeply into the rugged environment with sandstone mountains. The first part is tarmac, but at a certain point the tarmac ends and I continue on the unpaved road. The road is steep and winding, which is doable, but I recommend doing this route with a 4×4.
Just after two in the afternoon I arrive at the Jebel Shams Resort. The resort is beautifully situated between the mountains, at an altitude of approximately 1,900 metres. It is wonderfully quiet and the temperature is ten degrees lower than where I come from. A wonderful place to relax for the rest of the afternoon.
The reason to come to Jebel Shams is the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman’, the nickname of the large, deep An Nakhur gorge. The rim walk, the W6, better known as the Balcony Walk, starts at the tiny village of Al Khitaym. I start the walk the next morning at a quarter to eight. At that hour, it’s not that hot yet. A narrow path runs along the mountainside, apparently quite flat, sometimes slightly up, but still gradually down. You walk about 3.5 km into the gorge and descend from 1,900 to 1,600 meters during the walk.
The view along the way is great. On your right is the more than 1,000 meters deep An Nakhur gorge, surrounded by rocks rising straight up. There are few people early in the morning, I mainly come across a mountain goat now and then. It is an out-and-back walk, so you walk back via the same path, but uphill. In total it is about three hours walk, a brisk walk, but doable.
In the afternoon I drive back to Muscat in three hours. My road trip through Oman is coming to an end. The next morning I fly back home via Dubai. Oman has turned out to be an interesting travel destination. It is surprisingly easy to travel there, the Omani are very friendly, the local food is nice and above all I have seen beautiful places in Oman; especially the capital Muscat, the beautiful Wadi as Shab, the sand dunes of Wahibi Sands, the mountains of Jebel Shams and the many camels and goats along the way. 🙂