The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Make a dash for the desert while you can
Keen to experience Oman before its fragile beauty disappears forever, Jeremy Taylor gets behind the wheel and goes off the beaten track
Wendell Phillips was an adventurous archaeologist known as “America’s Lawrence of Arabia”. Supposedly an inspiration for the fictional character of Indiana Jones, the image-conscious explorer wore aviator sunglasses, toted twin Colt pistols on his belt, and staffed postwar digs in the Arabian Gulf with a harem of beautiful women.
The daring fortune hunter first swept in at the head of a convoy of Dodge trucks in 1952. He was searching for treasure in the sand dunes, including traces of the biblical Queen of Sheba, when Oman was still very much a Middle Eastern backwater.
And though you might suppose the unspoilt Oman of Phillips’s day is long gone, you’d be wrong. Today’s travellers can still find plenty of undiscovered gems in this corner of Arabia – but you’ll have to hurry, as rampant development threatens to soon overwhelm the once sleepy sultanate for good.
I decided to do just that, going in search of mile after mile of rugged landscape outside sprawling Muscat – the starting point for most visitors – on a road trip punctuated with time-warp towns, vast desert vistas and eerily silent villages – the last mainly inhabited by marauding goats.
I too started in Muscat, where the international airport is polished evidence that oil-rich Oman is hurtling into the modern world with a building programme on an extraordinary scale. By contrast, large parts of Oman remain accessible only by four-wheel drive – as the kind people at the Europcar desk advised me when I picked up my motor.
My first destination, 6,500ft above sea level in the Jabal Akhdar mountains, was excellent evidence of this, with the second half of the two-hour trek from Muscat following a rollercoaster of switchback mountain road. A uniformed guard at the start of the climb stands on duty to check every vehicle is a four-wheel drive – not for the drive up, but for the harum-scarum ride back down, marked with emergency run-off lanes at every corner. The journey is, however, well worth the effort – for the views, and the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar resort, perched in an absurdly scenic spot beside a canyon on the Saiq Plateau, with a plaque marking the picnicking place of the then-Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1986.
Nevertheless, the following morning’s drive back down was every bit as hairy as I’d feared, and it was a relief to be returned to sea level. Then it was time to head south, to the wild outback of Wahiba Sands and a dogleg in the desert. The route began on Oman’s Highway 15, another construction project, before turning south on Highway 23 through shifting sands that spilt onto the tarmac. The dual carriageways were empty and immaculate, the temptation to make swifter progress only halted by Oman’s outbreak of speed cameras.
When I reached the desert camp of Bidiya, I was met by my escort, Abhijit, who reduced the air in my tyres to give the car a better grip, then guided me along snaking sand tracks deep into the desert – a place in which a lone traveller could so easily become hopelessly lost.
Eventually, we reached the Thousand Nights Camp, a Bedouin-style resort of basic tents and wooden structures in the heart of Wahiba Sands, where dinner was served around a campfire, before the sun sank dramatically behind the dunes.
Returning to Bidiya the next day, I turned east, passing countless shops with signs reading “sell meat” and “sell fish”, the distant spires of oil refineries, and yet more road-building at every set of traffic lights. There was at least one mosque at every settlement I passed – and usually beside each petrol station, too – and everywhere, the people were friendly and welcoming.
I followed the empty road that dissects the southern end of the mighty Hajar mountain range, until it brought me to the fishing port of Sur, once famous in the Persian Gulf for wooden-boat building. Trade sank with the opening of the Suez Canal, and now the old town is placid and pleasant, with a natural harbour filled with beautiful dhows.
Back on the road, an hour further south brought me to the village of Ras Al Hadd – close to a beach where turtle-watching has become an international pursuit – then to the Turtle Beach Resort, a traditional, Omani-style property a further 20 minutes up the coast, where my chalet room overlooked the mouth of a large inlet that was bathed in the morning sunlight.
I was now on the final leg of my journey, following Highway 17 north along the wild and rugged seafront to Muscat. Again, the roads were empty, the only hazards being driving past goats or Mercedes drivers pulling out from their gated homes on the headlands. In a little under three hours, I was on the outskirts of the capital, where I parked up and checked in to the Chedi, widely considered to be Oman’s first contemporary hotel, having pioneered minimalist chic on a private beach 20 years prior. There’s a no-children policy and a labyrinth of water features – including the Middle East’s longest swimming pool, at 340ft – but it was the pristine gym complex that left the strongest impression. Here was a display of row upon neat row of the most beautiful, well-polished and exotic workout equipment – yet not a single Lycra-clad guest to be found.
Instead, the hotel’s residents seemed to prefer huddling around its immaculate beach pools – a fitting analogy for my visit to the sultanate: quiet, fascinating corners untouched by tourism, while the majority of visitors flood the popular spots.
If you like your travels quiet with an air of discovery, it’s an opportunity not to be missed – but don’t wait too long. Grab your aviators, leave the pistols behind, and get there fast.