After relaxing into Oman at a resort on the coast, it’s finally time for us to leave the comfort of Muscat and set out on our road trip. Oman’s geography makes road tripping an enticing way to see the country, with many of its notable features reachable only by four wheel drive. In addition, Oman offers up all of its terrain for “wild camping” – we are welcome to pitch our tent anywhere we like, so long as we’re not on anyone’s private property. I presume this liberal and welcoming attitude is a product of the Bedouin lifestyle that has existed in Oman for centuries. Land here isn’t fenced and defined – rather it’s open for wandering and camping, to whomever or whatever passes through or stops to rest.
This principle is illustrated immediately upon driving out of Muscat. Countless goats, and even a few camels and donkeys, roam freely over the landscape – even along the edge of the highway. We realize keeping our eyes on the road is especially important in Oman. Regardless of our caution, cars rocket past us on the highway. Smooth roads and insanely cheap petrol have made driving fast de rigueur.
We cruise along in the slow lane, heading south toward Sur. We’ve heard good things about Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi so we intend to find a place to camp for the night and hike into one of the wadis tomorrow. A wadi is a watercourse — sometimes dry, sometimes holding water, and never a good place to be when rain falls. Luck is with us today and December skies are clear.
We arrive at Tiwi in the afternoon. This sleepy seaside village is practically in a coma since everything in Oman shuts down between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. Within 20 minutes we’ve seen the town and move toward the shore to survey our wild camping options. Unfortunately, the beach runs adjacent to the highway with enough noise and exposure to make us doubt we’ll enjoy camping here for our first night. We decide to drive into Wadi Tiwi and explore other options.
Tiwi greets us with a dirt road and a deep canyon and we’re immediately intrigued. We pass a series of small villages and the road narrows to a skinny lane. Date palms fill the canyon, full and green against the sheer, weathered walls. We shift into four wheel drive and climb the road to a small plateau above the villages – camping paradise found.
We unpack, pour some wine, put on our warm clothes and toast to our first night of wild camping in Oman. Not bad for not having much of a plan! But that’s the fun of this vacation — we can make it up as we go along.
We wake up in the morning to sunlight hitting the canyon walls, thankful for an uneventful night. But I take a walk with my morning coffee and begin to suspect we’ve camped in the village cemetery. Oblong circles of stones, about the length of a person and marked with one prominent stone standing upright, cover the ground next to our tent. Hmmmm.
We pack up our camp and drive further into the canyon until we’re too scared to push the Pajero any farther uphill. We set out on foot and discover another small village built into the hillside. The trail skirts the canyon wall offering spectacular views of the nearly-dry riverbed.
We descend to the river, noticing the well-constructed irrigation channel serving the village, and encounter several workers who are reinforcing the hiking trail. One of them asks where we’re from. I reply that we’re from the U.S. and then ask where he’s from.
He is thrilled that I know where he’s from.
The man directing the trail work asks if we’d like some coffee. A group of Omani men lounges nearby, filling their cups and talking in Arabic. We feel so foreign – especially me, as a woman, dressed in western hiking gear without anything covering my head, amidst men who are clearly my elders. We hesitate to answer, realizing in the moment that it’s so much easier to say no than it is to say yes. But we say yes, not wanting to refuse this gesture of goodwill. We kick off our shoes, take a seat and are offered Omani coffee, a dish filled with dates (and swarming with flies) and, from what little we can understand, talk of Pakistan.
After finishing our coffee and thanking our hosts, we hike back to the Pajero, stopping along the way for a quick swim in the clear water of the riverbed. It’s midday and we need to move on to Sur and find our next campsite.
The Gulf of Oman glows sapphire blue next to the chalky landscape of the coast. We arrive in Sur at 2:00 p.m., once again greeted by the silence of an Omani afternoon. We briefly explore the area, but our need to find camping before dusk pushes us on to Ras Al Jinz. We hope to see nesting turtles here, but an employee of the reserve tells us the season is just about over and there is no camping allowed.
We drive farther toward the coast and arrive at Ras Al Hadd. The wild camping options are looking favorable with two beaches to choose from – somewhat busy and deserted. We choose the latter, just the two of us setting up camp as a dhow cruises by and the sun drops toward the western mountains.
With the tent up and a drink almost in my hand, I look to my right. I see a white SUV driving onto the beach, coming full speed directly at us. In the fifteen seconds it takes to reach us, I think about all the possibilities of this situation. We can only hope, as we would in any country, that whoever is coming at us with such urgency has a good reason, as well as good intentions.
The male driver turns the car to his right, bringing us face to face with him, leaning out the driver’s side window.
“Hello. I am a guide.”
“I just came to tell you this beach is closed. You cannot camp here.”
J and I exchange glances.
“If you pack up your camping gear I will show you where you can camp. You can follow me.”
Inhale. More exchanged glances and thoughts, reading each other’s mind. Follow him? Is that a good idea? Should we trust what he’s telling us? Shit! This is such a perfect campsite!
“Okay. Thank you. We’ll pack up and follow you,” I reply.
We say this knowing there’s only one other potential beach camping option and that we can stop following him if we want to. We cram the Pajero with our gear and try to leave the beach and get stuck in the sand in the process.
“Please. Will you allow me to help you?” he asks.
We exchange glances again.
“Sure, thank you.”
He gets in the Pajero, confidently turns the wheel, pushes the gas with the finesse of a race car driver and takes the Pajero right out of the deep sand. Omanis make it look so easy.
We drive five minutes down the road and he brings us to the busier beach where locals are enjoying a beautiful Thursday afternoon.
“You can camp here. It’s a good place. Just don’t go closer to the water. There may be turtles nesting.”
Exhale. Breathe. Please pardon us for expecting the worst, and thank you very much for helping us find a good place to sleep tonight.
We set up camp for the second time and talk about these chance encounters that happen every time we travel, near and far from home. We’re grateful this man came to help us with good intentions, and we’re happy we enjoyed the genuine hospitality of the men we encountered in Wadi Tiwi.
We start to relax and think about what to make for dinner when a pick-up truck comes driving across the sand, straight at our campsite. Again?!
The driver stops and shouts through the passenger window.
“Hello! Where are you from? I want to show you something. Come over to my vehicle!”
“You want us to get in your vehicle?” We are, again, a little bit freaked out.
“No, just come look!”
He jumps out of the truck and motions us to look inside the bed. We walk over to the truck and cautiously peek into the bed, having no idea what to expect.
Here lies a massive yellow-fin tuna.
“I just caught it! I’m going to sell it at the market!”
This is the second post about touring Oman. You can read the first post here.
Next up… Road Trip Oman: Foray Into the Desert