At the oasis
Oman is a surprise package of heritage treasures and modern pleasures
WITHOUT warning, our trusty white Mitsubishi Pajero was careening off the paved road, in the middle of sand-coloured Omani emptiness, and jolting, bumping, swerving over miles of off-road path, high into the country’s desolate mountains.
As Hilal, myloyal guide and driver, pointed out 300m drops beside us, he accelerated the four-wheel-drive Pajero up steep, one-lane slopes, stones slipping under our wheels as the vehicle zigzagged now towards the drop, now towards the mountain again.
We rounded a turn and I saw great crags and slatecoloured mountains across a landscape as barren and haunting as anywhere in the American west; road signs stood quixotically in the distance, pointing across the abyss to five or six towns I could no longer imagine, and goats occasionally bleated in the silence.
Every now and then we came across an oasis — the ancient mud-brick towers of al-Hamra scattered across a sudden stretch of green — and then we were in nowhere again, climbing towards a breathtaking new expanse of receding peaks.
It’s not often in the modern world you can chance upon scenes as unvisited, almost biblical as these; I’ve found an equivalent only in Yemen and Ethiopia, both desperately poor and often turbulent. But Oman is the rare country that is at once safe and very much itself, exotic and almost embarrassingly user-friendly.
I first stumbled on it after a harrowing trip across the mountains of Yemen five weeks before 9/11, and, fleeing a land of tribal kidnapping and boys with machine guns, came upon the pristine quiet of an ornate Arabian hotel on a beach and thought I’d arrived in paradise. Muscat, Oman’s capital, seemed as picturesque and pristine a vision of fairytale white castles as any romantic could hope for.
Around it, moreover, are the 3000m mountains I was visiting with Hilal (home to Oman’s own Grand Canyon), with the cosy, British-run Jebel Shams Resort near the top; 2100km of stunning coastline, with green turtles to be seen at Ras al-Jinz and dolphins frisking 15 minutes outside of Muscat; and not a single car to be spied across miles of clean modern highway.
One morning I found myself watching Bedouin women in hawk-faced black masks above their orange or turquoise dresses leading newly acquired goats across a crowded carpark w beards in white turbans limped down the nothing so much as retired mujaheddin. ‘‘S shopping,’’ said Hilal, as we passed a pick-up l vegetables, sacks of dates and a goat just pur about the price of an iPhone.
Pulling out of town, we drew up at a pet (complete with mosque) in the bone-white A camel sat placidly in the back of a Toyota tr station store there were DVDs ( Memorising for Kids) next to six-packs of pomegranate when the man at the cash register lacked sm to give me, he handed over some peanut stead. Like almost everything in Oma of halwa or curry, or both at once
When the Sandhurst-educa Qaboos bin Said displaced his and reclusive father in a pala 1970, he surveyed the countri him, beginning to take off in a frenzy, and realised what he d to do. Oil would not last inde knew, and if traditions were w new developments, his kingd find itself orphaned and beref
He set up schools and hosp