This year, my family and I spent a less conventional Christmas enjoying the December heat of Oman. I knew very little about this country before going and, two months after returning, I am still struggling to describe what I saw of it.
Muscat’s clean streets, it ordered traffic, and manicured parks were unlike any Middle Eastern country I have been to before. White land rovers parked in front of towering equally white houses are indicative of a flourishing economy. The remarkable order and efficiency of this capital cannot go unnoticed. Even the old town centre, whose port has performed as a gateway for trade for hundreds of years, is calm and crowd free. There is no sign of the chaos and bustle of Marrakech, or Cairo’s Kahn el-Khalili. There is no need to watch the ground as you walk for fear of stumbling on foot holes or puddles of something or other. The recently tiled pavements and even walkways were one of the first things that I noticed. As we wandered through the gold souk, there was no grabbing or following potential customers or pushing to try things on. All the intensity and chaos that I had braced myself for was missing.
The narrow strip of city that is Muscat faces the Gulf of Oman. A historic coastline, that has been witness to centuries of trade and modernisation, sits with its back pressed against untouched sprawling mountains as far as you can see. As you drive through the mountains, you come across construction sites and modern buildings springing up from the earth. Collections of houses found in deep in the folds of the landscape. These are connected by well-kept stretches of road, where workmen with scarfs tied round their faces and heavy helmets on are hard at work, worker ants within the giant mountains that loom over them.
Undeniably, my favourite part of Oman was its striking and utterly unique landscape. Hidden in the mountains are multiple Wadis (dry river valleys). After about an hour and a half hike – which involved scrambling over boulders, jumping between stones and marsh, and several heated direction arguments – we reached the pools of Wadi Arba’in. It was then that we realised that on the other side of the dam there was a perfectly nice path we could have used… However, when we arrived all of our efforts became utterly worthwhile. Jade pools are nestled between rocks, their chilly waters welcomed after our walk.
Another day, we stopped off at Wadi Qari on the way back from Nizwa Fort. As we walked up the aqueduct, sheltered by the mountain either side, the absolute stillness was interrupted only by a herd of mountain goats, whose soft bells and occasional bleats echoed up the valley’s centre. Fairy sized waterfalls lined with mossy rocks provided an ideal scenic picnic spot.
Although the busiest, my favourite of all was Wadi Bani Khalid. You arrive at a large lake, brimming with fish and lined with tall palm trees. As you climb further upriver, you walk on tall smooth-faced rocks and look down into crystal clear streams. At the turns in the river, where the water is deepest, visitors jump and swim down to the lake.
Each time you arrive at one of these spots, the further that you are willing to explore, the more unique the scenery becomes. Perhaps it is the way the mountains conceal their features, and make you work to appreciate them, that is the most enchanting of all.