As most borders are now being shut, businesses are entering a state of temporary hibernation and with social gatherings a big no no, we write to you from our apartment out in Dubai. Although we are still yet to experience any form of a lockdown, measures here in the UAE are however being implemented in order to help suppress the spread of such a pandemic.
Despite Dubai International Airport usually being one of the busiest on the planet, and a common connection between Europe and Asia, flight cancellations have unsurprisingly become a common call across all terminals. The affluent hospitality industry, which is so attractive to visitors chasing some of that winter sun, has inevitably been hit and is something of a rare sight. Land borders between Oman and Saudi Arabia have also been given the nod to suspend all movement.
Although travel has become a prevalent feature in most modern day life, the industry has however come to somewhat of an abrupt standstill and sensibly so. Despite it being a major part of our life, we ourselves are using these times of distancing in a positive manner; an opportunity to reflect on our most recent adventures and some time to appreciate what we have, the people we meet and how lucky we are to explore the awe-inspiring planet we live in.
Despite being faced with a time of global uncertainty, we do however feel panic and fear is the kind of negativity that will cloud out the optimism and positivity that is all so essential in order to ride out such a storm.
“You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you can imagine”
Last week we were meant to head over the border across into Oman for a second time in as many months to further discover the Middle East. With this on the back burner for the time being, we have instead decided to take you on our short trip across the North of Oman.
In a region dictated by excessive wealth and a continual growth in extreme flamboyance, Oman offers a rare change whereby they pride themselves on their abundance of extreme natural beauty, rich heritage and cultural charms. In great contrast to their extravagant neighbours of the UAE, this quiet nation has successfully retained its traditions, strong sense of identity and pride.
As a modern nation with an ancient soul, Oman is the perfect destination for travellers who are seeking out that true sense of Arabia without having its excessive wealth deflect you from its cultural DNA and that true natural beauty.
We know for many, ourselves included, Oman has rarely climbed the heights on many bucket lists but having had the opportunity to visit, we now find it hard to comprehend as to why. In addition to its golden wind-swept desert, stunning gorges and immaculate coastlines, such welcoming communities and fantastic infrastructure does also make it effortless to travel around. And if this has still not quite convinced you; along with the opportunity to lap up the comforts of the high-end hotels, you can also fully submerge yourselves in the natural beauty as Wild Camping is very popular with visitors.
For most visitors arriving from outside the Middle East, Muscat is likely to be your Omani welcome and as far as a welcome goes, few capital cities offer quite a warm embrace. Nestled between the surrounding mountains and the stunning coastline, this low rise city has a very unique charm in a distinct world of its own. Attractive, uniform, tidy and elegant are just a few superlatives that best describe a city which has embraced modernisation, albeit without overshadowing their rich heritage. This harmonious combination of their modern infrastructure with their traditional Islamic architecture and values, creates a functional and affluent, yet striking capital city.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque very much highlights Oman’s approach to modern Islamic architecture and is at the centre of the capital’s charm. This stunning architectural masterpiece was a gift from Sultan Qaboos to the people of Oman in celebration of his 30 years of reign and is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity and elegance. Despite not being a nation to boast many “largest”, “biggest” or “firsts”, at the time of completion in 2001, the mosque did however house the largest Persian hand woven rug and largest chandelier in the world. With this being said, it probably does not come as much of a surprise that their competitive neighbours in the UAE soon took away those titles.
As one of the oldest and most historic places in Muscat, Muttrah is a fine example of how Oman has retained its historic charm whilst still advancing with the current times. This tightly packed port town is one of the capitals most enticing areas, especially when you consider that it has one of the most magnificent traditional markets in the Sultanate. Like most traditional souqs, the Muttrah Souq is an untidy tangle of narrow alleyways which has the power to draw in even the most reluctant guests. With such a pride in an ancient, frankincense-trading past, the poignant scent of frankincense acts as a lure through the characteristic chaotic scene that is so dominant with a middle eastern souq. Despite being unable to pinpoint the fascination, there is however something about these scenes that is able to seduce such curiosity. Straight off the Muttrah corniche, these tightly packed shops overflow with bright and colourful pashminas, abayas, embellished cushions and even a mesmerising display of decorative lighting. As not just a tourist attraction, amongst the more vibrant shops are also a number of hardware stores which may be of interest to the much more practical travellers.
Unlike some other souqs across the Middle East, the locals here are far from pushy or in any way aggressive, so having a generic chit chat about where you are from or even what celebrity you may look like, can be fairly common and rather enjoyable. Don’t get us wrong, they will want you to have a look through their store but are in no way bad-mannered when you show little interest.
With travel a major part of our life, one of our great enjoyments when visiting a country, and especially places like these souqs, is being able to find a little something to occupy a special place in our home. As such a fascinating world we live in, reality has it that there will be places that we may never return to and it is these items which will offer more than just an ornament, but rather a constant living memory of a time otherwise gone.
One of Oman’s Greatest Treasures
As you make your way out of the capital and along the Northern coastline, you will find that the main coastal highways continuously meander along the impressive Hajar mountain range for kilometres on end. It is thanks to this terrain that Oman is inundated in impressive gorges known as Wadis. As such a prevalent feature within the country’s natural beauty, no trip is quite complete without visiting at least one of them. With some offering as perennial water sources for surrounding communities, whilst others in contrast rarely see the sight of water, these overwhelming formations offer a great source of adventure; however care must be taken as they are subject to flash flooding during the heavy rains.
Loosely translated from Arabic as “Gorge Between Cliffs”, Wadi Shab is one of the most impressive, and easily accessible Wadis across the northern terrain. Only accessible on foot, the start of the trail begins from the coastal town of Tiwi. With it also under two hours away from Muscat, and considered a relatively non taxing hike (approx. 45mins – 1hour each way), it is therefore popular with both visitors and locals.
Wadi by name, wacky by nature; even the most literate of writers would struggle to embellish such a commanding passageway. As the gorge winds its way deep into the mountain, visitors are able to enjoy a 3km trail and rewarded at the end with the opportunity for a swim in some mesmerizingly crystal clear turquoise pools.
In order to start the journey through Wadi Shab, it is essential to take a short 2minute boat ride across what can best be described as a pea green pond. From here you will make your way through this formidable passageway, passing through clusters of palms, numerous terraced plantations and alongside a fascinating network of ancient irrigation water channels, known as a falaj. As the impressive gorge cuts its way through the mountain, you will find yourself walking along the iridescent white, bone dry pebbles of the river bed, followed by somewhat of a clamber over and amongst a section of large boulders. Before getting a glimpse of those turquoise waters which you have all been after, you will also pass a number of other catchments of water along the way which are deeply imposing and impressive but not quite as vibrant as the ones you will finish off with.
Exposed to morning sun, the final stages of the walk are likely to be a little tiresome and somewhat sweaty, however you will soon catch sight of what makes Wadi Shab so special. A flourish of colour soon bounces off the commanding rock faces, where vibrant clusters of flowers bloom along the edges of the dazzling pools of water. For even the most jaded of visitors, this stunning natural formation offers a new lease of life and an instant surge of energy and excitement. For us, it was only a matter of minutes before we took the plunge into such inviting waters.
Whether it be the radiance of such colours or the nature of such an imposing formation, whatever it may be, there is something quite inspiring about such a wonder and what is probably one of Oman’s greatest treasures.
Long believed to be the cause of a meteorite, Bimmah Sinkhole is a fascinating natural formation and one that is worthy of a visit when on route to Wadi Shab. Despite the name Haweat Najm or “The Falling Star” given to the surrounding park, experts don’t quite agree with this traditional belief and are more inclined to confirm it being a natural occurring sinkhole. Although some may not agree with each other’s opinions, one general consensus is the beauty of it. At 65 feet deep and occupied by vibrant emerald green waters, it is a stunning phenomenon no matter the angle … If you are able to ignore the eyesore of the concrete steps providing access to the water that is. However, despite the blemish within its beauty, this installation does offer the opportunity for a refreshing swim and a surprising but welcome fish administered pedicure.
Wild Camping is your answer!
Whilst travelling along Oman’s Northern coastline, you may ask, “Where is best to stay?” and this is where the country comes into its own as you are able to fully submerge yourself in its beauty. No bookings, no specific allocation and up to you where you stay; Wild Camping is your answer! Many a time when on our travels, we find sometimes that less is more, where you strip things back, lose the gimmicks and take some places for what they truly are. As admirable and enjoyable a luxury hotel on the beach front may be, there are certain times and places where they are best replaced. The constant drone of voices, an undeniable persistent draw to that relentless wifi connection and a need to constantly look so fine are some of those modern world distractions from an otherwise fascinating natural world. Despite the basic nature of camping, it does however enable you to spend prolonged periods of time amongst some of Oman’s natural beauty which is surely what initially drew you to visit. The rugged coastline offers the opportunity to spend a couple of nights on some pristine beaches, detached from all things materialistic and simply appreciate and admire your untouched surroundings.
The Pearl of Islam
As you begin to make your way inland, the natural draw will inevitably be towards the historic town of Nizwa. Once a former capital of Oman and as one of the country’s oldest cities, its strategical location put it at the centre of trade interconnecting the countries rugged interior to its northern coastal regions. Also known as “The Pearl of Islam”, this conservative settlement lies on the plains of the Hajar Mountains and therefore also acts as a natural gateway to some of the highest and most majestic mountains in the country. Surrounded by a sea of palm plantations, this intricate city, still to this day, retains its historical and cultural charm with it being home to the country’s most visited national monument, Nizwa Fort.
Dating back to the 17th century, this fortification is a great example of Omani architecture and is unique in its construction. At 32 metres tall and with a 43 metre diameter, the Nizwa fort tower scales above the low rise city offering visual explanation into its significance. Surrounding the defences is the equally impressive castle which dates back as far as the 9th century. Interconnecting the two portions of the fort is a labyrinth of intricate passageways and narrow stairwells which add to the fascination as you navigate around such an extraordinary complex.
If you have ever wondered what it is like to find yourself within a sand castle, this is probably the closest you will get! This simplistic but commanding fortification, along with its sandy colour, offered glimpses of our childhood where we spent many an hour as a child building our very own defences on Gibraltar’s beaches.
Along with its own unique beauty, due to Nizwa’s deep connection to the roots of Islam, there is also the presence of the Al Qala'a Mosque’s impressive dome and minaret which scales the walls of the fort. This only just adds to the overall impression and significance of the city, emphasising its historical importance and offering some remarkable iconic vistas.
Considering its size and splendour, Oman has the potential to suck you in for weeks, however a concentration of Northern highlights does pose the opportunity for these shorter ventures and a stunning introduction into such a fascinating nation!