The drive down from Jebel Shems highlighted how little I knew about the geography of Oman before arriving. Where I had expected the sand dunes, and though I had read about the canyons and mountains leading up to the coast, I wasn’t prepared for just how rugged the mountains were; there’s a reason you really need 4WD vehicles to get around the mountain roads. With the cooler temperatures after the previous day’s rain it was great to have the windows down and feel the breeze as we drove along the winding roads.
When we got back to the paved roads and the highway, we stopped at a gas station to change vehicles. Our new driver was Sultan. Like many of the Omani’s we met, he was very friendly and quick to offer a big smile. While we waited for everyone to take advantage of the gas station toilets and grab some treats at the store, he introduced himself and offered me some of his snack. I naively thought, “great, I get to taste a local snack” and happily accepted. Of course, this is a globalized world, so his local snack was actually breaded peas from Japan. They were tasty though.
Driving Oman’s most dangerous highway with “Sulmacher”
It didn’t take long after we hit the road to realize that Sultan liked to drive. Despite the fact that we were in a 12 person van that didn’t make you think Formula 1, Sultan was flying down the highway. One thing you notice quickly if you drive around in Oman is that all of the cars start beeping once you hit 120 km/h. With Sultan, the beeping was ever present. At one point, as we weaved through traffic, including on-coming traffic, Alex, our guide, leaned back to let us all know that this was Oman’s most dangerous stretch of road. Reassuing to say the least.
Eventually, Katy and I decided to give Sultan the name Sulmacher, after F1 driver Michael Schumacher. When we told this to Sultan he smiled, but was a little disappointed. As he pointed out, “Schumacher’s not so good any more”.
Building boats by hand in Sur
Thanks to Sultan’s fine driving, we not only made it to Sur safely, but also in record time. Sur is a town of just under 60,000 on the coast with a beautiful corniche and a long history dhow-building. It’s also a great place from which to visit one of the many sea turtle nesting grounds in the area. With recent development of the natural gas the area is going through a rejuvenation of sorts.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant along the coast with a view of the harbour. Despite the heat, we decided to sit outside on the patio to enjoy the view while sampling some of the local fish. Fortunately, the view was good enough to make up for seafood that left something to be desired.
Before leaving Sur we had a chance to stop by one of the Dhow yards. Dhow “is a generic name given to a traditional sailing vessels with one or more masts with lateen sales used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean”, at least that’s how Wikipedia describes them. Though there are now some more modern tools to speed the process, the ships are still made basically the same way as 100 years ago. At a cost of $100,000, a team of 10, mainly Indian craftsmen, can build one of these large boats in roughly two months.
Bathing suits? We don’t need no stinking bathing suits!
From Sur we started towards our final destination on this trip, Oman’s capital city, Muscat. Between Sur and Muscat, just off the highway, there is a massive sinkhole filled with water from the nearby Gulf of Oman. I don’t know about you, but I don’t come across giant sinkholes all that often so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
It was much bigger than I would have thought and we were able to climb down to the water level. It was really peaceful down in the sinkhole and with the temperature still blistering hot, we couldn’t resist jumping in the water for a swim. Of course, we hadn’t expected to be swimming, so none of us had a bathing suit with us. The guys who had made the climb down didn’t hesitate long before stripping down to our underwear and hopping in. Fortunately, we were all wearing boxers.
Katy hesitated a little longer, but in the end she was the only woman to join us. Being in the Middle East, she couldn’t just strip down to her underwear, so she did the only logical thing, jumped in with all her clothes on.
It was incredibly refreshing to float around and cool down in the water. At the opposite side of the sinkhole, someone had put up a little rope so you could climb up to a little ledge and jump in. So continuing in the theme of testing the state of my collarbone, I joined Patrick and jumped in. (If you’re reading this Dr. McKee, my arm is still attached so you really had nothing to worry about when signing that medical release form.)
I thought the little cliff we jumped off was fun. Then I saw this video and realized that I am in fact still a big wimp.
After doing our best to dry ourselves off we hopped back in the van for the rest of the drive to Muscat. Along the way, we were supposed to stop and see the ancient city of Qalhat, located 20 km north of Sur. Sadly, while were able to see the BiBi Maryam mausoleum from the highway, it turned out that the rest of the site has been razed to allow for new developments. I guess that fell outside of what was nominated to be a World Heritage Site in 1988. It’s currently a Tentative List site.
Arriving in Muscat
After a long day on the road, we finally arrived in Muscat around 6:30pm. Thanks to Sultan, that was about an hour ahead of schedule so we had time to check into the hotel and change into some yet to be sweat-in clothes before heading off for dinner and a visit to the souk in Mutrah.