Oman: The 1st bite
My wonderful readers, I am back from my two week break, a little more tanned, a little heavier and a whole lot happier! I have so much I want to blog about that I’ve had to condense it into a few chapters so let’s begin with part 1.
To kick off my holiday, my friend Expat Bee and I flew two hours south of Kuwait to Oman. I have to confess that I’m one of those annoying people that like to explore the place I am in as well as countries around me before heading off to further destinations. So I decided to kick off my explorations in Oman and I am so incredibly glad that I did.
Oman, like Kuwait, is a country that most people haven’t heard of but to those in the know, Oman is known as The Pearl of Arabia. I couldn’t understand why until I spent a few days there. First of all I have to say that Oman is a very “new” country in that the infrastructure was only built in the seventies. As a result, everything in the city is well thought out and planned exceptionally well. Every street light, flower and road is perfectly positioned for both aesthetic and functional value. What a pleasure to be in a place like this where everything made sense and looked beautiful! (So unlike another GCC country I won’t name *ahem*).
To make a comparison between Muscat and Dubai, Dubai would be the pretty but shallow prom queen with glitter in her hair but no knowledge in her head. Muscat however is the humble yet shy cousin of said prom queen with aspirations to one day join Doctors Without Borders. (Kuwait would of course be a homeless hobo in this comparison but let’s not go there).
We experienced our first taste of Omani hospitality when we were on the plane and a kind Omani man gave us a SIM card to use while we were in Oman. He expected nothing in return which I was a bit skeptical about but he was simply being kind.
Bee and I rented a car which made for my first time driving on right hand side of the road. It was nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be and the smooth Omani highways helped with that a lot. I would say that it’s possible to get by in Oman if you don’t rent a car but if you have a driver’s license then why not? It works out way more economical than taking cabs especially if you want to do a few day trips out of Muscat like we did.
After a night where Bee enjoyed her first proper alcoholic beverage after 4 months in Kuwait and I watched with bemusement, we woke up well rested and ready for action on day two.
We began the drive to Wadi Shab (150kms out of Muscat) around 8am while the roads were empty. Blasting Taylor Swift on the radio, enjoying the warm Omani weather through the windows and driving along the coast through winding mountain passes… it was a very pleasant drive.
When we arrived at Wadi Shab (around 10am), there was plenty of parking and I was confused… was it closed? But no, it was just a quiet Saturday morning. We jumped in a little boat that took us across a small lagoon (1 OMR per person). When we disembarked, our boat driver (captain?) jumped off with us. We were a bit surprised but he started walking and beckoned us to follow so we did.
He led us up and down mountains, places where we literally had to slide down rocks and use our hands to grip rocks and pull ourselves up. It was intense… I loved it. In Wadi Shab the sky vanishes almost completely, only a few fragments of blue remain- like scattered pieces of an impossible jigsaw puzzle. The air was rich with the fragrance of leaves and loam, damp too. We walked along in noon daylight, the powerful rays of a Middle Eastern winter, but in the Wadi, everything was cool and the colours had the softness of that time just before twilight. The only movement was the occasional bird, flying above or a small unidentifiable creature dashing up a nearby rock. The sound of running water had the same hypnotic quality as music and as I stopped to take photos, I drank in the sound.
After around an hour we reached a gorgeous emerald green pool with a few people swimming in it… it was really stunning and I thought that was the end destination but no it was just the beginning of our adventures. After the heat of the hike the pool looked like a basin of balm. Its water was entirely without motion, and despite the relentless sunrays the green-tinged water would be cool, this basin was likely as deep as the mountains around were tall.
Hussein (our “guide”) convinced us to try some cliff diving from very specific places along the cliff face. As a person who just learnt to swim earlier this very year, I was SOOOOO SCARED but I faced my fears and it was INCREDIBLE!
We swam through the pool past the people around us and then we stopped. It seemed like we were at the end of our pathway but Hussein assured me that we were not. We swam through the narrowest gap I’ve ever seen and even when it was pitch black and I was panicking (on the inside), he urged me to put my hands on his shoulders and we kept swimming through. Eventually we emerged from the darkness into the most beautiful cave and waterfall area. Words are useless and pictures don’t do justice to its beauty… but I took my GoPro and I tried…
If I think that just a year ago, I would never have been able to swim that far in such terrifying conditions but this year I was finally able to do the things I had dreamed of doing… it’s an amazing feeling…
After swimming until my fingers wrinkled up, we started the long trek back and finally made it back to our car. Hussein made us promise that we would explore two new places tomorrow and told us that he would meet us at the first one. Just so you know, neither of us asked him to be our tour guide or anything… and he wasn’t creepy as if he was expecting something more from either of us… he was just kind.
After a delicious lunch at a quaint local establishment, we were approached by an elderly Omani man who gestured to us to follow him. Now I’m not in the habit of following men (as you have probably guessed) but when in Oman you know?
He led us to his house and made us sit on his carpeted floor where he proceeded to show us photos of all the tourists he has hosted in his home. He also gave us fresh fruit and date cake to eat. The weirdest thing was that he spoke no English and Bee spoke no Arabic… my Arabic was so limited but somehow we understood that he wanted us to take a picture with him and post it to him just like the other tourists did. It was a strange experience but again, another experience that highlighted the kindness of Omani people.
Day 2 of our Omani adventure started with another long drive but by this time I was so used to driving on the “other” side of the road and so relaxed on the Omani highways that it was an utter pleasure. This time our first destination was Bimmah sinkhole.
According to legends, a meteor fell from the sky and caused this huge crater. Scientists have another explanation about it but either way, it’s pretty awesome with crystal clear water and some great cliff faces for… you guessed it… more cliff diving!
Again, since we headed out early and arrived at the sinkhole to meet Hussein at 9am, it was absolutely empty and beautiful. We had the place to ourselves and we could explore every nook and cranny unencumbered by the sound of annoying French tourists.
After a while Hussein told us he would take us somewhere even better. Even better? Better than Wadi Shab? Yes it was, he assured us. We headed out in his 4 wheel drive (again, I don’t just get into cars with strange men but there must be something in the Omani water) and we drove to Wadi Tiwi.
Along the way we spotted camels and donkeys in abundance just roaming freely. It was like I was in a totally different world…
Wadi Tiwi can be found by driving through narrow and precarious roads through a few mountains. It was hair raising and I am so glad that I wasn’t driving. It reminded me a bit of driving through Sani Pass on the way to Lesotho but with a more rugged landscape as you can see.
When we disembarked, we were greeted by the local village kids and I was so surprised to see how people lived in these villages. Animals everywhere, not a mall in sight and people living off the land… I was so confused… were we still in the Gulf?
The pathway to Wadi Tiwi was even more intense than the pathway to Wadi Shab. I was literally on my hand and knees for a good portion of the route and I thanked myself for all the gymming I’ve been doing since the upper body strength came in handy when hanging from one precipice to another. I would have taken more pics but you know… my hands were otherwise occupied.
Bee was freaking out at the heights and the physical exertion but eventually she and I made it down to this beautiful sight… well worth it I would say!
On the city streets I am a walking wallet, a consumer, a citizen. There are rules of conduct any which way you go. I must cross the street at the lights on command, I must wait in line-ups in the stores and be courteous. But here in nature I was just another organism, another animal, albeit one with pretty clothes and cameras in my bag. There’s something liberating in that. If I wanted to I could shout my lungs out, and no one would cast a disapproving glance or whisper doubts as to my sanity. In nature I can run, walk or turn cartwheels. I’m not really a camper, I like a nice soft bed, but perhaps the urge to keep on walking and climbing the outdoors will get the better of me one day and I’ll need a tent. We’ll see…
What an incredible kickstart to my vacation… if you asked me 4 months ago where I would be spending my Christmas holiday, I would not have said Oman. It’s amazing the things you learn as you move and travel around the world. After visiting the Philippines in 2011, no country ever came close to being as perfect as that in my eyes until now. Next part of my Oman adventure will be in the next blog post so stay tuned!