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The Great Omani Coastal Route

Route 15 : Muscat-Nizwa

The parents, seemingly forever, had been planning a trip to Oman. Why Oman? Well, that’s a question I asked myself too. My dad, in the 90s, spent close to a decade in the UAE but barring a work trip, had never visited Oman. Fast forward to the 21st century, countless Oman Air flights from India to Europe later, he found himself stranded in Muscat. A ‘technical difficulty’ they said. He visited the Sultan Qaboos Mosque but didn’t get to see much more – it was only a 24-hour layover. However, the constant propaganda he was subjected to via the in-flight entertainment, and the cabin crew he made conversation with, convinced him that the country has a lot to offer. A friend from the UAE, who spoke highly of Oman, apparently also played a role. 

 

The parents had their mind set on Oman. The stars aligned and clubbing together a bunch of bank holidays in India, they decided on visiting in April. Unfortunately, or fortunately (the jury is still out), their son, living in London, expressed his desire to visit India in April. He was, perhaps begrudgingly, invited as a plus one on the trip. Etiquette demanded that the sister was also invited. She accepted the offer. The parents’ trip had been gate crashed by the children. Well, tough luck. 

 

Four diaries were synced, and the dates were finalised. The parents would be flying in from India. The son, from London. The sister, from the US. The son, after Oman, would fly to India with the parents. The sister, having sacrificed 50% of her annual leave, would fly back to the US. The itinerary was drawn up. Flights were booked. The rental car was booked. Visa requirements were checked. What could go wrong? 

 

Weeks after booking our tickets, we realised that the first few days of our holiday would be clashing with the holy month of Ramadan. Not a problem – except that food wouldn’t be available during the fasting hours (from sunrise to sunset) and we couldn’t, publicly at least, drink water, chew gum or eat food. Well, not much we could do now. You’ve got to respect the local customs. 

 

Boarding my Qatar Airways flight to Muscat, via Doha, I was lucky to have an empty middle seat. My seatmate at the window was a former Al-Jazeera employee who had retired two years ago. It was his first time going back to the middle east since retiring. He made the 7-hour flight more interesting – supplying me with stories about his time in Qatar as a British expat during the Saudi-Qatar standoff and cribbing about how, now sitting in economy, he missed the high life he was accustomed to in Qatar Airways’ Q-suites. Noticing my bottle externally attached to my backpack, he provided me with a handy tip – “during Ramadan I keep my water bottle inside my bag so that I don’t drink water by mistake”.  Very useful. I landed in Doha and had a long layover. As it was past the fasting hours, food was openly served at the lounge. Alcohol was nowhere to be spotted - or so I thought - until I saw a lone sole, seated discreetly in the corner, drinking a glass of wine. I made enquiries and got myself a glass, or maybe three of wine. Very soon, almost everyone around me, including those who were there way before me, got up and brought themselves their poison of choice. I'm quite the trendsetter.

 

Sleep deprived, I boarded my connecting flight and landed in Muscat. Border control was chaotic. After first being misled and asked to stand in a line meant for those who had to pay for an e-visa, I was told to head directly to immigration. 15 minutes wasted. 35 minutes later, I found myself lecturing the border control agent that the Omani Foreign Ministry had recently changed their visa policy and I no longer needed a visa to enter Oman – I was exempt. He was not convinced. He asked me where I lived and I said, “the UK”. He stared at me blankly. I repeated myself. He had clearly never heard of this tiny island country. I was not ready to be deported. I said “London” and flashed my British Residence Permit. It suddenly made sense to him. He was convinced that I was no longer planning to illegally immigrate to Oman. Zero questions were asked about what I actually planned to do there, but my passport was swiftly stamped and I was permitted to enter for 14 days. I needed only 7. I quickly shot off a message to the rest of the family, telling them to not waste their time at the e-visa counter and to stand their ground at border control. This came in handy. The sister got in by asserting her 'right' to enter as a US resident. The parents, with their long-term US visas, managed to get in too. Farcical, because Oman, unlike some other GCC countries, does not mandate Indians to be holders of such visas/residence permits to gain visa-free entry. It’s a simple, no riders attached, visa free regime. 

 

Soon after I landed, my sister arrived. A short eight hours later, my parents landed. Pleasantries were exchanged, but not with us. Indians always know someone in the ‘Gulf’ – and we had two such souls at the airport welcoming my parents to Oman. One was my mum’s former colleague, and another was my dad’s classmate from university – someone he had not seen in at least a few decades. Both came with local currency that was paid back in Indian rupees to circumvent bureaucracy and hefty foreign transaction fees – god bless the Indian government’s complicated tax regimes, and, simultaneously, Indian networks that provide a workaround. 

 

The rental car was picked up, of course, not without drama. The guy had to be a given a good, long lecture on contractual obligations, license requirements, and how he is potentially opening the door to litigation. Thank god I took a module on ‘Thinking Like a Lawyer’ at university! We got the car, and Europcar was not sued that day. Onwards to our first stop!


With the siblings terribly sleep deprived and mildly jet-lagged after a 14 and 25 hour long journey respectively, the parents promptly plonked themselves in the backseat. The children were tasked with getting us all to Nizwa, the former capital of Oman. Set among the mountains, Nizwa was the former epicentre of religion and education. The town's beautifully restored buildings took us back to the past. Barring the coffee offered by Tim Hortons at the airport (god bless the Canadians), no food had been consumed for over 12 hours. As the sun set and the call to prayers was heard, an outstanding iftar (a meal consumed at the end of the fasting hours) was gobbled up in seconds. I ate like there was no tomorrow. 


Nizwa - city view

A restored building in Nizwa


The next day, we had breakfast in the hotel room - supermarket bought kuboos (Arabic bread), hummus, cheese, and fruit. Shortly after, we visited the town’s fort and set off for Salalah in the south – a 900km drive on the internal route. The plan was to drive south on the internal route and make our way back up north via the coastal route. 

The roads traversed through the desert country – long, flat, and straight. Cruise control was set to 120 kmph and we drove along the single carriageway to the south. The drive was monotonous, and the father, 45 minutes into his driving shift, promptly declared his retirement from driving. It was “too boring”, he said – we were down to three drivers. None of us complained. Three petrol stops later, caffeine and food deprived, we reached Salalah just in time for iftar. The next day we set off for Ash Shuwaymiyyah, stopping at the Al Baleed Archaeological Park (a UNESCO world heritage site), an ‘anti-gravity hill', and a waterfall that had no name. The coastal route part of our trip officially began. The drive was beautiful and solitary – at one point, we did not see a single car for 1.5 hours. Along the way, we stopped at different viewpoints that  provided breathtaking visuals of the mountains juxtaposed with the sea. Many hours later, we reached Ash Shuwaymiyyah, only to discover that the hotel we had booked (via Whatsapp!), was nothing like it looked in the pictures. Thankfully, it had not been paid for. We made a swift exit and found what I strongly believe was the only other hotel in town. It was very basic and borderline unclean but sufficed for the night. On the bright side, we were a 30 second walk from the beach. 
The Coastal Route begins!
 

The next day, the dad I and woke up early and had some time to kill. Eager to test the limits of the 4x4 we had, we drove onto the beach, only to realise that our meek 4x4 could not brave the loose sand. Having sort of predicted this, we had, thankfully, not driven deep into the beach. With a bit of pushing and swivelling around of the steering wheel, we managed to get ourselves un-stuck, and instead decided to go looking for a more suitable off-roading experience. Heading towards the mountains on a dirt road, after passing a stray camel that I can swear stared me down, we found ourselves at a quarry. Feeling somewhat accomplished, we turned back to our hotel and found that the rest of the family had woken up. 

 

Route 41: Ash Shuwaymiyyah-Duqm


Pink Lagoons

Our route to Duqm, on Route 41, was arguably the most picturesque. We drove through isolated, windy mountain roads and stopped at the famous pink lagoons. En route, we had to often give way to the only other road users - camels! Duqm, a newly minted Special Economic Zone (SEZ), was undergoing a massive infrastructural upgrade. The roads were brand new – even google maps, not knowing of their existence, often failed at providing precise directions. While at the hotel, scrolling through X (formerly Twitter), I read that the Sultanate had declared Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. The sister and father set out to spot the crescent moon, but to no avail.  


Give way to camels!


 

The next day we had a long drive to Al-Hadd, a small town at the entrance of the Gulf of Oman. On the way, we visited what was marketed as a pink lake, but the pinkness was not apparent. The drive was otherwise alright – for the first time since landing in the desert country, we saw proper sand dunes – silky and smooth. The roads were straight, visibility was high and there were little to no cars. While I, as a law-abiding individual am certainly not able to comment on this, if one wanted to test the top-speed of their car, I would guess that these roads are where that can be done. But, as I said, I wouldn’t know.

 

Al-Hadd intrigued me for a couple of reasons. Our hotel was located off a wide, run-down piece of tarmac that we later found out was the landing strip for the British RAF during World War II. Today, Al-Hadd, houses an Indian listening station. Starkly contrasting the military and intelligence image of this otherwise uninteresting town, a twenty minute drive away is a turtle conservatory - one that we visited in the early hours of the morning. Being the low season, we unfortunately only spotted its tracks. Having no plans for the rest of the day, we made an impromptu plan to sign ourselves up for a boat ride. The two and a half hour long trip took us out into the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman - we saw dozens of dolphins and even some turtles, busy mating!


One of the many dolphins we spotted

Snorkelling in the Gulf of Oman

The hotel we were staying at had just six rooms. Two were booked by us, and the other four were all occupied. As the sun set, we sought the permission of the manager to drink alcohol on the grounds of the hotel. Our fellow guests looked at us with envy – alcohol was naturally not easy to come by. Two fellow guests - a Canadian and an Australian travelling together - struck up a conversation with us and we invited them to join us for drinks. The two, both working for the UN, were craving alcohol – which we had in plenty. The father, mother, sister and I, knowing very well how difficult coming by alcohol would be, had maxed out our duty-free allowances. The UN officials were desperate for a drink, and we were desperate for a conversation with someone apart from each other – it was perfect. The Canadian, who had spent some time in the US, was delighted to see that we had Kirkland (a Costco brand) whiskey, and the Australian was nothing less than shocked that my dad had visited Albury (a non-descript Australian city) and cycled to the neighbouring town, Wodonga, where she was from. Small world.

 

Hiking through Wadi Shab

Two days after reaching Al Hadd, we left for Tiwi. We visited Wadi Shab – a ‘wadi’ being a ravine or a valley. A very short boat ride, a 45-minute hike, a 30-minute swim, and squeezing ourselves through a narrow gap that served as the entrance to a cave, we reached the ‘secret waterfall'. We unfortunately do not have pictures of the cave and the waterfall inside it because we did not take our phones with us on the swim. It was lovely, a unique experience and was totally worth it. We swam back, hiked back to the start point and checked-in to our hotel in Tiwi. 

Returning from our hour long swim to the secret waterfall

Our hotel room overlooked the sea on one side and the mountains on the other, and the father decided that he wanted to climb one of the mountains. After a bit of driving around, we found the base and being the two brave souls we are, my father and I decided to hike up the mountain despite there being no marked trail and the mountain having a very steep incline. We did not regret it. The views were fantastic. 

 

The next day, we had a lot of ground to cover and things to do. We set off for the Bimma sinkhole, a water-filled naturally occurring structural depression, scored a free pedicure from the fish in the water, and then headed to our final destination – Muscat. Having so far spent no time in Muscat (apart from the 10 hours in the airport), we visited the Mutrah Souq, about 20 minutes east of the city, had breakfast, bought souvenirs to gift friends and family, and made a dash to the hotel. While the parents waited to be checked-in, the sister and I ran to a carwash to wash our now dusty rental, fearing a stiff penalty for returning a dirty car. Car washed, we dashed back to the hotel, freshened up, changed into suitable attire, and made our way to an official engagement that was scheduled. Official engagement done, we visited a perfumery, bought oudh perfumes, did some more shopping, and dashed to Ferdowsi, an amazing Irani restaurant we had a reservation at. Meal over, we dropped the sister back to the hotel (as she was flying out the following day) and made a dash for the airport to return the rental. Rental returned, we checked in and had two hours to kill - we found ourselves a spot to have dinner and drinks to celebrate the end of the trip.


The Bimma Sinkhole

 

My phone buzzed. It was (yet another) notification from the Financial Times. Iran had launched missiles against Israel. The war was worsening. I did not give it much heed. The couple behind us was listening to the news on their phone – I was mildly irritated that they were not using earphones. A friend texted me, frantically asking whether I had left Oman. I opened The Times and tuned into to the BBC’s radio. Many middle eastern airspaces were closing. Biden was returning from his home state of Delaware to DC. NATO was on high alert. There was a risk of drastic escalation in the middle east. Panic struck.

 

I looked at the departures board and most flights, including ours, were flying east. They were all on time. The only one flying west, a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, was delayed. My sister, scheduled to fly later in the morning, was booked on Turkish Airlines. My dad made enquiries at the Turkish Airline’s boarding gate and found out that while that flight's passengers had been ‘pre-boarded’, the pilot had not been given permission to take off. None of the passengers had been permitted to board the aircraft. 

 

Our flight to India was boarding. I checked with the gate agent and she said that the Omani airspace had “not yet closed down” and we were expected to depart on time. Phone calls to the sister went unanswered – she was asleep. We left her with a string of messages updating her of the geo-political happenings, along with a bunch of emergency contacts to reach out to, should the situation worsen. Our flight took off on time. We landed in Bangalore, only to hear that her flight had been delayed. Hours after the scheduled departure, she managed to take off, only to miss her connecting flight to the US. Thankfully, she was rescheduled onto a flight for the next day and was offered a hotel room in Istanbul for the night. She flew out to the US the next day, only for her checked-in bag to not accompany her. Border agents in the US were confused about what she had been doing in Oman and then Turkey. She was sent to secondary screening and quizzed on her PhD of all things. They wanted to check her bag - unfortunately for them, it was still stuck in Muscat airport. They let her go. A day and a half later, the bag was delivered, marking the official end of this chaotic and unpredictable trip that has nevertheless left us in awe of the country and its natural beauty – unexplored and untapped by the masses – as it is perhaps best left. 


Our meek but reliable rental - a Kia Sportage 4x4

The route map - 2,700km in 7 days

The dad shopping for trip 'essentials'

 

The four of us!


In Duqm, the morning of Eid



Spotted at a perfumery in the Mutrah Souq

Turtle tracks with the sun rising over the Arabian Sea


Hazard en route

Comments

  1. Funny, humorous, sweet sarcasm, super description and end to end happenings so well traced. Was an utter delight to read!!!

    ReplyDelete

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