Editor’s note: in his last article, writer Sam Spector told us the story of Muscat, Oman’s capital. Today he takes us outside the city to explore some of what seems like an incredibly cool country! For more of Sam’s adventures, be sure to click here to visit his index page.
Think of the most beautiful, diverse landscapes in the world that people travel just to experience. There is the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the fjords of Scandinavia, and the sand dunes of the Sahara. Now imagine that you could find all of those components in one part of one country. Welcome to Northern Oman. An hour and a half drive away from the capital Muscat (click here to read about Muscat) you will find yourself near all of these landscapes and also some of the most incredible and beautiful towns. The first city that is worth stopping in is the city of Nizwa. In the middle of the town is Oman’s most visited national monument, the Nizwa Fort. At 30 meters high and 36 meters in diameter, this fort is circular, smooth, and geometrically gorgeous. The fort needs an easy hour to explore and to appreciate the views from the top. Inside the fort is a maze of rooms and tunnels, which also include boobytraps that would cause invaders to be crushed or sent to drop to a long and painful death. The Nizwa Fort was built in 1650 on top of prior forts dating back to the 12th century. Make sure to check out the two cannons guarding the front entrance, one of which was a gift to the Omani sultan in 1840 by the United States and was made in Boston. In Nizwa there are is also a great souk market worth visiting with various foods, meats, and souvenirs for sale, including traditional Omani swords and handicrafts. Early on Thursday and Friday mornings, the town square hosts a goat market where vendors trade and sell goats. The town also has an oasis that has a petting zoo and ethnographic outdoor exhibits.
Half an hour from Nizwa is the town of Bahla. Bahla is not visited nearly as much, and people do not realize they are missing out. While Nizwa has the more aesthetically pleasing fort, the fort of Bahla is more historically significant and is the only one of the region’s forts to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort was built between the 12th and 15th centuries by the tribe that controlled the frankincense trade for Arabia. Within the fort are the ruins of practically an entire ancient city. Though the Bahla fort is further away from Muscat, I recommend visiting it first because it is only open two days a week: Friday mornings and throughout the day Saturday.
A popular day trip from Nizwa is visiting Jebel Shams. I unfortunately did not have time to do this trip and it requires a guide with a 4×4 to be able to go on the adventure. Jebel Shams is the highest mountain in the Hajar Range at nearly 10,000 feet and has a canyon often dubbed the Grand Canyon of Arabia, with many people believing it is better than the Grand Canyon in terms of scenery. The mountain and canyon have forts and huts, as well as goats that have the ability to climb trees.
Instead, we went to the Sama al Wasil Desert Camp in the Wahiba Sands Desert. I will confess, this was the only time I felt scared in Oman as our car could not make it through the sand dunes and we had no reception at night. Omanis in pickup trucks charged us an overpriced rate to have us park our car in the desert and then drive us to the camp. We were pretty freaked out not knowing if we were being kidnapped or if the person was actually taking us to our destination, but there was not any choice but to trust him and hope for the best! The camp had a large tent where we sat and ate and listened to music. From the camp it was as though we could see every star in the sky. We stayed in a comfortable and beautiful omani mudbrick hut and awoke early the next morning before sunrise to be taken to the sand dunes just beyond the camp. A short while later, we witnessed one of the world’s most beautiful sunrises, illuminating the bright orange massive sand dunes. Looking down, we saw herds of camels and our camp and realized that it was surrounded by these mammoth dunes several hundred feet in height. In this morning desert safari we went dune bashing with the jeep going up and down and zig zagging through the sand dunes on a roller coaster adventure. Having been to the Sahara dunes of Morocco, I can say that the Wahiba Sand Dunes rivaled their more famous North African counterparts. Back at the camp, there was breakfast and a barbeque that served a local delicacy, camel kebabs.
One of the biggest surprises of Oman is that it is known as the Norway of the Middle East because this country on the Arabian Peninsula is home to many fjords. While the largest and most famous fjords are in the Musandam Peninsula near the border with the United Arab Emirates, there is a gorgeous fjord-like oasis not far from Wahiba Sands called Wadi Bani Khalid. With limestone cliffs and a wadi, or valley, that is full of date palm trees and the dramatic surrounding of the Hajar Mountains, a short hike leads one to the narrow pool of water. A stream of water winds through the limestone into the main pool. The stream has a light blue the color of the waters of the Caribbean and the main pool’s waters are an enchanting blue-green. Especially with the hot Arabian days, there is nothing more refreshing than taking a swim in Wadi Bani Khalid and exploring up the fairly deep stream and the thousands of caves that are formed within the limestone.
Northern Oman is truly one of the great gems of the world; if you are looking for culture, history, architecture, breathtaking landscapes, and fun outdoor adventures, this place has it all and is worth spending several days. While I want to go to every corner of the earth, by going to this one region of this one country, it is possible to get the experience of the best parts of multiple continents.
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