Oh, man!

So you think rid­ing in a desert is go­ing to be just heat and sand? Wel­come to Oman, where rugged land­scapes, awe­some gravel tracks, smooth tar and ma­jes­tic moun­tains make for an epic three­day trip.

Bicycling (South Africa) - - Inside - By Kati Csak

The chal­lenge: cy­cle the best routes in the Sul­tanate of Oman. In three days. Here’s how it’s done.

This ad­ven­ture was sup­posed to be an­other girls’ trip with my trusted cy­cling buddy Kimi, un­til she in­jured her knee ski­ing. Search­ing for a last-minute re­place­ment, I had to field ques­tions like: “Will you wear a scarf? Will you cover up on the bike? Will we be al­lowed to share a room if we’re not mar­ried? Are women al­lowed to drive?” But it was easy to per­suade work col­league Neil to stand in for Kimi, and we were back on track for an­other ad­ven­ture in one of the most un­likely places you’d ever think of rid­ing a bike.

I was there to file yet an­other story for XPDTN3.CLUB – a web­site ded­i­cated to three-day tour­ing ad­ven­tures from around the world.

As it’s lo­cated on the south-east­ern end of the Ara­bian Penin­sula, with the United Arab Emi­rates, Saudi Ara­bia and Ye­men as its neigh­bours, it’s no sur­prise that the Sul­tanate of Oman is of­ten over­looked as a travel des­ti­na­tion. But put aside any pre­con­cep­tions of the re­gion, and you will find a tran­quil, peace­ful coun­try – a true trea­sure chest of ad­ven­ture, hos­pi­tal­ity and scenery.

A short six-hour di­rect flight from most ma­jor Euro­pean cities to the cap­i­tal, Mus­cat, makes Oman the per­fect win­ter es­cape. It’s a jewel of the Mid­dle East.

The Al Ha­jar Moun­tains lie to the north-west. Some 70km from the coast, Jebel Shams is Oman’s high­est moun­tain, peak­ing at an im­pos­ing 3 002m. In the sum­mer months, the area is pop­u­lar with Oma­nis look­ing to es­cape the bru­tal heat of the low­lands. Ideal con­di­tions for cy­cling oc­cur in the Euro­pean win­ter, through De­cem­ber and Jan­uary.

It proved trick­ier than an­tic­i­pated to work out the per­fect three-day trip: it had to al­low us to travel light while tak­ing in the high­lights, and pro­vide max­i­mum va­ri­ety. And though the area fea­tures plenty of vil­lages for fill­ing up on wa­ter and food, ac­com­mo­da­tion is se­ri­ously lim­ited out­side the ma­jor busi­ness cen­tres and away from the few tourist hubs.

Re­search­ing route op­tions ex­haus­tively on Google Earth, I felt more like an as­tro­naut than

a cy­clist – but after sev­eral nights of por­ing over my PC, we were fi­nally ready to em­bark on our ad­ven­ture: “Ground con­trol to Ma­jor Tom… take your pro­tein pills and put your hel­met on…”

DAY 1: MURRI-JEBEL SHAMS 101.2km 2397m

It was still dark as we drove to Murri, a tiny vil­lage tucked into the moun­tains just off Route 10 be­tween Rus­taq and Ibris, to strate­gi­cally park the rental car for our re­turn three days later. This was go­ing to be our big­gest day; and with some­what un­re­li­able es­ti­mates on what ter­rain and just how much climb­ing was to be ex­pected, a dawn start made sure we had a buf­fer.

Which turned out to be a good call. Shortly after rolling out of Murri, the ter­rain changed to a nar­row wadi with lots of short, sharp climbs that didn’t fea­ture on the pro­file, mak­ing for slow progress. Was Google, which no­to­ri­ously over­states the climb­ing me­tres, go­ing to be ac­cu­rate after all?

As the wadi widened and the sun be­gan to peek over the moun­tains, we ap­proached a small town

– and a wide tar road, with al­most no traf­fic other than a few con­struc­tion ve­hi­cles. As the road carved through the moun­tain­side, our GPS log drew a straight, thick line over the for­mer wind­ing track – a telling clue as to the rate of de­vel­op­ment in Oman. The coun­try con­tin­ues to in­vest bil­lions of US dol­lars in road in­fra­struc­ture; and at the rate they’re go­ing, I rec­om­mend you visit Oman sooner rather than later, while there are still gravel roads to en­joy! With the light wan­ing, and the fi­nal 18km and 1 300m as­cent up the Jebel Shams Road ahead, we wisely de­clined a cof­fee in­vi­ta­tion from a friendly lo­cal, who was in­trigued by our tyre-fix­ing ef­forts. Ini­tially, we were dis­ap­pointed that the first 10km of the climb is now tarred, but we soon thanked our lucky stars – this as­cent ri­vals iconic Euro­pean climbs such as Mont Ven­toux and Alpe d’Huez. After lots of gri­mac­ing and zigzag­ging across the (thank­fully) wide road, we even­tu­ally made it to the top just be­fore sun­set. Want­ing to catch the last rays, we rode on to the clos­est view­ing point for the ‘Grand Canyon of Ara­bia’ – Wadi Ghul, drop­ping a thou­sand me­tres into a stun­ning abyss. Also drop­ping dra­mat­i­cally was the tem­per­a­ture, and by the time we fi­nally reached our ac­com­mo­da­tion we were frozen solid. The in­cred­i­bly hos­pitable staff at Sama Heights couldn’t be­lieve that any­one would ac­tu­ally cy­cle up their moun­tain. Highly im­pressed, they promptly up­graded our ac­com­mo­da­tion. A scrump­tious buf­fet din­ner in the cosy ho­tel restau­rant made us feel on top of the world. Oh, wait – we were. On top of Oman, any­way.

DAY 2: JEBEL SHAMS-WADI BANI AWF 96.2km 1991m

We spent the morn­ing ex­plor­ing the mag­nif­i­cent view­ing points along the rim of the canyon. The ‘bal­cony trail’ is pop­u­lar with hik­ers; but don’t at­tempt this on a bike, with lug­gage, un­less you’re Danny MacAskill. Or sui­ci­dal.

After the sun pushed the tem­per­a­ture back into the dou­ble dig­its, we claimed our re­ward for the pre­vi­ous day’s ef­forts – the de­scent to­wards Al Hamra.

Which was amaz­ing, but there were noises com­ing from our disc brakes that I’d never heard be­fore. Neil as­sured me the noises would go away if I just braked less (huh?), and that they were to be ex­pected when one’s brakes run very hot. We used them as an ex­cuse to stop for more photos.

Al Hamra is one of Oman’s old­est towns, with won­der­fully green palm trees and rows of tra­di­tional mud-brick houses. It’s also the per­fect spot to re­fuel be­fore tack­ling the next climb, from 700m alti­tude right back up onto the ridge to the Shar­fat al Ala­mayn view­point at 2 000m.

The road to the top is tarred and of­fers a pleas­ant gra­di­ent, com­pared to the pre­vi­ous day’s as­cent. At the top, how­ever, this all changes. Out next sec­tion of ‘road’, we dis­cov­ered, is graded four-wheel-drive only, and it plum­meted (at some scary gra­di­ents) to the tra­di­tional moun­tain oa­sis of Hatt, and into Wadi Bani Awf.

In moun­tain bik­ing, you’re of­ten told to ‘get your ass be­hind your sad­dle’ when de­scend­ing steep sec­tions – but it’s not that easy, when you’re car­ry­ing a sad­dle pack filled with gear…

On the one hand we just wanted to blast down, all white knuck­les and pump­ing adren­a­line. But this sec­tion is a

above: The climb up to Wadi Sah­tan was hell on the way to heaven. Steeper than it looked on the map, it proved one of the big­gest chal­lenges of the trip. left: The Al Rus­taq Fort, which dates back to the 13th cen­tury. op­po­site: The climb up Jebel Shams.

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