Muscat, Oman: An Exotic Adventure

Dhow in Muttrah Harbor, Muscat, Oman.
Dhow in Muttrah Harbor, Muscat, Oman.

An Adventure in the Middle East

By Max Johnson

The Muttrah Souk IV. Max Johnson Photos.
The Muttrah Souk IV in Oman, UAE. Max Johnson Photos.

Travelling to Oman seemed so exciting and demanding; careful planning for visas, car insurance, hotels and every other facet of travel was indicated. However, as it turned out,visiting The Sultanate of Oman is a true joy, simple, and an experience like no other.

From the welcoming message I recieved as I crossed the UAE border to the universal greetings I received from everybody I met, I was completely mesmerized, and astonished to find outjust how little I knew about this surprising country.

Oman is old; very old indeed, and was once a great geographical power throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond. Indeed, its last major dependency was the island of Zanzibar which was only merged with Tanganyika to create Tanzania in the mid 1970s. It was a formidable country.

Yet in 1970, there were only about five paved miles of roads in Oman, four schools and consequently little or no development. But there was oil, and in the personage of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Saed, a mind focussed completely on developing his country. He spent the decade of the 1970s travelling through the land talking and listening to his people, and in about 1980 embarked on a thirty-five year (so far) development scheme the like of which it is impossible to imagine.

Nakhla Fort I in Muscat Oman.
Nakhla Fort I in Muscat Oman.

Unlike the neighbouring Emirates, Oman’s way is to do things quietly. They join no wars, they fight no battles; they are the region’s peacemakers and political dealmakers; one imagines that its corps of diplomats are kept very busy indeed. Quietly and with dignity is the Omani way.

And unlike its neighbors, Oman was not turned into a theme park.

Adhering to strict regulations about the style of architecture, the country grew. Massive six-lane highways link the major centres, tremendous ports were built, cities designed and created and infrastructure laid to every corner of the nation. But first, before any of the major construction work, schools, hospitals, water and electricity were spread throughout Oman, because without the basic ingredients of education and health, it would be impossible to develop the nation.

Fascinating Souks

And so today, as this herculean achievement has been quietly evolving, Oman has become a wonder for visitors. Its cities, while new, are fascinating; the old port towns still retain a strong air of historical continuation, and their souks are fascinating places to explore, haggle and buy. The community of Muttrah, adjacent to Muscat, is delightful, and a fine place to get a feeling of this unique part of the world.

Muscat itself is a long, long city; stretching about 40 miles from Old Muscat, the small, original capital to the Seeb International Airport, is evolves from old to new, from craggy hills to flat shoreline. There are fine museums, opera houses, beaches, parks and shops; there are numerous restaurants and magnificent public buildings. No expense has been spared, and a remarkable restraint on eccentricity has been observed.

The Al Hajar Mountains from Nakhla II near Muscat Oman.
The Al Hajar Mountains from Nakhla II near Muscat, Oman

To leave the city and head in to the hills is to be transported to another era; small villages with their characteristic Omani houses, unorthodox collections of shops and imposing mosques are most interesting, and evoke images of a strong cultural continuity. The weather, sadly, was not the best, and a dust haze obscured the mountains from any distance, but even seeing the Al Hajar range through this dust was impressive. As we approached, and headed to Nakhal Fort, the sheer power of this commanding range became most evident.

A Reasonable Facsimile

The fort, built some time between 600 and 700 AD is impressive; there is little visible of the original site, but through lavish application of appropriately colored plaster, a very reasonable facsimile of the original is there for one to view. I am actually pleased that they have gone for a complete makeover, and the site is most impressive.

It sits, predictably, on a Wadi (or river), and close to the site are the springs that feed this vital watershed; the waters are unusually hot, and pour endlessly from a small opening in the rock, and presumably have been doing this for millennia. There are many forts, many castles, many wadis and oases to visit, and I am already looking forward to returning to Oman to explore much more of this hidden gem.

The Muttrah Gate.
The Muttrah Gate in Muscat Oman. UAE.

My guide for the afternoon excursion was Suleiman, a young man with three children, the youngest of whom was three weeks old. I mention this only because as I heard this as we drove hastily through the singular Omani traffic, I hoped that he wouldn’t fall asleep. His knowledge of Omani history was encyclopaedic, and while I can remember little detail from what he told me, I recall enough to make me want to learn more before my inevitable return.

Taking a day tour made the country come alive, and it was the perfect balance to the independence of a self-driven car. Driving in the region is not difficult; road signs, as is the way of the world, are erected by those who live in the area and know where every place is, and this generated the odd frisson as one’s exit whizzes by.

However, in general, a car hire in combination with one or two guided tours is a fine way to explore and learn about this remarkable country.

Oman is a little reticent, a quality that has kept this nation strong, and that has allowed it to develop away from the world’s gaze. It has allowed Oman to become a real treasure, and a destination that will only become more popular as time goes by.

Max Johnson

Max Johnson is a Winnipeg-based writer and traveller who delights in visiting the world's more unusual corners. Having operated a travel-company for over thirty-five years, a career that was mostly based around enabling his habit, the business is now sold and Max now spends his time wandering and consulting for community-based tourism programs. Since he started travelling (with his parents) at the age of five, he has visited about 130 countries, and has little intention of stopping. He blogs regularly about his adventures at www.maxglobetrotter.com.

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