Oman: Arabian magicPosted on: 16 May 2018 by Michael Edwards
Exploring a magical Arabian Nights land of medieval forts, magnificent mountains and fascinating souks, Michael Edwards receives a warm welcome in Oman
Until the late 1970s it was nigh-on-possible to get a tourist visa for Oman. Since then, the Sultanate has planned the expansion of tourism wisely. Tourist numbers have been restricted and a superb road structure has been created. A beautiful unspoilt land of deserts, oases and mountains awaits explorers beneath a sun that nearly always shines.
"Over there!" said Anwar, our guide and driver, pointing to an unremarkable area of sandy desert and scrub, as we headed away from the construction sites of current capital Muscat and towards the ancient capital of Nizwa.
Anwar explained that the Sultan, in his younger and healthier days, providing the ultimate example of glamping, used to set up a tented court in the desert for two or three weeks. Omanis would travel unto their leader and he would listen to their requests.
"Perhaps a new road to their village. Maybe a school or library," expanded Anwar. Hard as I tried, I just couldn't imagine Theresa May camping on Sonning Common, with camels, and listening to her people's pleas for a new bypass.
The Sultan seems particularly good at new roads: tarmac super highways cutting through the desert. When it came to rugged, red-tinged mountains there was always a pass for our immaculately clean 4 x 4 to race through. Car-washing is something of a national sport in Oman: in fact, you may be fined for having a dirty car.
Tourism is relatively new to Oman and until the late 1970s visas for visitors were a rarity. With fast roads and few cars, it is possible to cover vast distances on the tempting exotic day trips that fan out from Muscat: once you've broken through the red-tinged Hajar mountains that form a protective wall between desert and a cobalt-blue coastline.
Although much of the landscape seems arid and barren, the remnants of the Indian Monsoons frequently sweep across the Arabian Ocean to water the roses harvested for rosewater. The falaj system, centuries old irrigation channels, running past terraced villages, then carry these rains to apricots, grapes, peaches, pomegranates and walnuts - it is these crops which give the Jebel Ahkdar mountain range its surprising green tinge.
Nizwa is an Arabian Nights medieval town with its white dish-dashed men and full-veiled women wearing abayas answering the call-to-prayer from the Mosque. Behind them stand the immense walls and impenetrable fortifications of Nizwa. Recent decades have been a rare peaceful interlude in Nizwa's violent history.
"This is my cousin," Anwar said, introducing us to a man slicing a mega-tuna into succulent steaks in the fish market.
"This my friend Abdullah," said Anwar introducing us to a date seller who maintained age-old hospitality by sharing mint tea with us. As we walked through the souk, Anwar introduced us to more family and friends. Beyond Muscat, visitors are rare, they are guests to be welcomed.
Then it was on into the mountains again, stopping to take pictures of the millennium old village of Misfat. Amidst dense palm trees and agricultural terraces, brick-built Misfat, with its narrow winding alleys, precariously clings the side of a canyon.
Yet this was not the most spectacular canyon of the day. When the tarmac road finally ran out and Anwar's 4 x 4 came into its own on a rocky track, we climbed and climbed to reach Wadi Ghul. It is Oman's Grand Canyon perhaps lacking the awesome scale of Nevada's immense gorge but this deep canyon is still breath-taking.
And as with so much of Oman you struggle to frame a photograph that can capture is beauty.
Oman Air fly direct from London Heathrow to Muscat
Visit www.newmuscatcaravan.com to discover a range of tours.
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