At the oa­sis

Oman is a sur­prise package of her­itage trea­sures and mod­ern plea­sures

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PICO IYER

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

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