Oman conjures images of colossal ochre desert dunes and crescent-shaped whitewashed coastlines, as well as luscious aquamarine oases bejewelled with date palms and bordered by craggy mountains.
If you are a first-time visitor to this part of the Arabian Peninsula, we have good news for you: there’s a plethora of adventures to be had within easy drive from the capital city of Muscat. Whether you hire a car for a self-drive road trip, or undertake a tour with an expert local guide, here’s Culture Trip’s itinerary for a one-day adventure from the city. Expect traditional desert activities, a dramatic drive and an afternoon swim to refresh yourself, all before heading back to Muscat in time for dinner.
To try a range of typical desert activities, start your trip by heading to the Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp, just two hours’ drive south of Muscat. Head to Al Wasil, where the paved road turns to fine golden sand. This is the gateway to Sharqiya Sands, formerly known as Wahiba Sands. From here you will need a 4X4 to cross the four parallel sand dune corridors that cover 12,500 square kilometres (4,826 square miles) which are sparsely populated with Bedouin settlements and desert camps.
“The activities we offer at our eco-friendly Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp, from camel back riding and sand boarding to sunset dune bashing, are all outsourced to these neighbouring Bedouin communities,” says Marlene Moras D’souza, Sales Executive at Sama Resorts and Spa. “We also pay rent for the land to the local villagers and tribes. All of this financially empowers them with additional wages alongside their other daily activities, such as camel breeding and racing, as well as selling camel milk and meat at the market.”
In line with traditional Omani hospitality, guests are welcomed at desert camps in the majlis (an open-air reception and refreshment area), where traditional cardamom-infused coffee is served in small cups alongside dates, which balance the bitterness of the coffee with their natural sweetness.
Be sure to advise the desert camp that you’ll be staying for lunch if you’re road tripping independently and a scrumptious Omani meal will be laid out for you. It will most likely comprise of camel meat skewers and freshly caught fish that’s served with rice and unleavened bread, as well as a side of labneh and hummus. If you choose to extend your stay, the three-star Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp is a good choice if you’re conscious of your environmental footprint and want to get a sense of a traditional Bedouin tent or desert homes.
The serpentine road through the Jebel Akhdar Mountains to Wadi Bani Khalid is an hour-and-a-half long geology lesson and offers stunning views, with some of the world’s oldest mountains to be found in Oman. Take your time and pull over in lay-bys to see the colourful, layered rock formations close up, with dramatic patterns of dark iron ore and emerald-green copper oxide. Volcanic lava flow can also be seen along this stretch of the Eastern Al Hajar Mountains, which offer breathtaking backdrops for photos.
As your mountain drive comes to an end, palm plantations and road signs will mark your arrival at Wadi Bani Khalid, a beautiful desert oasis just north of Al Kamil town. Ancient irrigation channels, known as falaj, radiate from this year-round oasis to the surrounding farmlands, terraces and villages. The first set of fresh-water swimming pools at this free-to-enter wadi are overlooked by picnic areas and a restaurant, which means they are usually busy with locals, especially at the weekend. Don’t forget to bring something to dress modestly when swimming in public.
For something a little more secluded, follow the marked footpath for 10 minutes and you will find a second, smaller and more peaceful set of rock pools. The footpath is a little rocky and uneven, but you will be rewarded with refreshing mountain water at these upper rock pools. The rocky ravines and steep cliffs make for perfect bomb dive launchpads. A tiny waterfall cascades into a pool and chains secured by boulders allow weary swimmers to rest by floating in the water.
Once you’ve dried off, it’s just a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Muscat, so you can be back in time for dinner.