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Oman’s resources include warmth, adventure

By Molly Loomis
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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MUSCAT, Oman — Abdul Assis, normally a quiet, respectful 17-year-old, had turned insistent. He wanted us to come swimming. It was the third time he had mentioned it in 10 minutes. Never mind the miles of 4-by-4 terrain and hairpin turns we wanted to tackle before dark. We went swimming.

My husband, Andy Tyson, and I and our good friend Gabe Rogel had come to Oman not knowing what to expect, simply looking for adventure and a respite from the long, gray drudgery of winter. While friends and family questioned our decision to travel to the Persian Gulf region, the more information we received from expats and web forums about kite-surfing, climbing, canyoneering, and hiking in the country, the more intrigued we had grown.

A nonstop flight from Atlanta landed us in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where we hopped on a bus for the six-hour journey southeast to Muscat, on the Gulf of Oman. The Omani capital served as our base as we cruised the various car rental agencies searching for the best deal on a Land Rover and stocked up on groceries.

Oman is home to many attractions suited to visitors keen on history and cultural experiences. But we wanted to go rock climbing in the Hajar Mountains, which offer an incredible diversity of routes ranging from mountain scrambles to the highly technical. That was the plan — until at every turn chains of emerald pools tucked into boulder-strewn valleys distracted us. We quickly shelved our scheme to climb high and dry in the baking sun.

These seasonal pools, or wadis, at the bottom of deep canyons have been incorporated into a network of waterways, or aflaj. First introduced by Persian settlers over 2,000 years ago, these waterways still irrigate village orchards and fields and act as a supplementary water source for residents. In 2006, UNESCO placed five of them on the World Heritage list, as a means of representing the 3,000 aflaj throughout the Omani countryside.

Oman has long been overshadowed by the glitz of places such as the emirate Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital. Oman’s leader, Sultan Qaboos, has spent the last 40 years working to modernize his county. Before 1970, when Qaboos overthrew his father in a bloodless coup, Oman had 10 kilometers of paved road, two primary schools, no secondary schools, and two hospitals run by a US mission. Today the country of 2.9 million (about a fifth of whom are non-nationals) has many hospitals, schools, and universities, more than 11,000 kilometers of paved roads, and road construction chugs along at a staggering pace.

At each wadi we visited a crew of village boys, such as Assis and his friends, adopted us and we whiled away our days cannonballing and cliff jumping as if we were teenagers again. At Wadi as Suwayh, 81 miles southeast of Muscat, we spent hours swimming in the warm waters of a giant pool, consistent in shape and depth to a meteor creation. We slid down the waterfall and taught the boys the finer points of deep-water soloing (climbing up rocks, then relying on a splash into the water instead of a rope to arrest your fall). Cultural barriers washed away the longer we stayed in the water. They taunted Gabe, their senior by at least 25 years, when he hesitated a little too long at a jump. We didn’t speak Arabic. They didn’t speak English. It didn’t matter. We played for hours.

With the exception of one very remote pool in the upper reaches of Wadi Tiwi’s canyons, I always wore clothes, not a bathing suit, and didn’t swim if there were adults around. No one ever made me feel uncomfortable, but it seemed more appropriate. The few tourists we did see at wadis were with a guide and just popped out of a car to take a picture and left.

Eventually, the boys at Wadi as Suwayh donned their white robes and filed back toward the village shouting, “Coffee! Coffee!’’ and beckoned us to come along. We followed them through a labyrinth of hand-built irrigation channels snaking along the hillsides, which dripped water siphoned from the wadi to the date palms, orange and banana trees. The smell was intoxicating.

Once inside one of the boy’s homes, a woman passed a tray of dark coffee, orange slices, and dates from behind a filmy curtain. This ritual was repeated at almost every village we visited.

On another day, turning from the Gulf of Oman’s coastline, north of the town of Sur we bypassed the popular Wadi ash Shab and made a beeline for Wadi Tiwi in Mibam. We reached the end of the road and were spellbound. An ancient tower once used for guarding the aflaj stood sentry over the earthen homes. Sheer canyon walls over 2,000 feet tall rose up behind the village. After an afternoon spent following the warm green water up, over, and around white limestone boulders, we returned to the village, where a group of Pakistani men invited us for coffee. Like many laborers in Oman, the men were migrant construction workers. In broken English they explained how they work for two years, then return home to their wives for six months.

As it turned out, the Land Rover provided plenty of room to stash our camping gear. Instead of racing back to one of the bigger towns for a hotel room each day, we had the option to unfurl our tents alongside Omani families setting up camps on the beach or on unoccupied plots in the midst of palm groves.

One morning a boy we had befriended the day before woke us with a traditional Omani breakfast of thick pancakes and date honey. Another evening, a man set down the bundle of grass he was bringing his goats to join us for tea and an Arabic lesson.

That day with Assis in Wadi Bani Awf, a narrow gorge deep in the rugged terrain of the western Hajars, was our last in Oman. We accepted his invitation and followed him and his buddies along a dirt road leading away from the village. He led us down the narrow throat of a stunning limestone canyon. Assis stopped atop a gigantic boulder blocking the canyon and motioned us to follow. We scrambled up the smooth rock and gasped at the still, viridian pool 30 feet below. It was stunning.

The boys pulled off their robes and embroidered skullcaps and tossed them into a pile, revealing the other article of traditional Omani dress (albeit unofficial): soccer jerseys. They plunged in, each one trying to outdo the last with an outlandish midair pose.

In two weeks we covered a lot of ground, but it never felt like enough. Whenever we thought the color of the water, the texture of the canyon walls, the random perfection of waterfalls and pools or Omani hospitality could not be surpassed, it was.

Molly Loomis can be reached at www.mollyloomis.com.

If You Go

How to get around
It is possible to rent a car upon arrival at either the Dubai or Muscat airport. If you hire a car in Oman, you avoid the charge for taking the car across an international border. Make sure you have an international driver’s license.
Where to stay, eat
Muscat and the surrounding area have a wide range of lodging options ranging from luxurious, such as the Al-Bustan Palace Hotel, to international, such as Hyatt, to lower tier, such as Sun City Hotel, to camping on the beaches south of the capital.
In addition to traditional Omani food, there are many restaurants throughout Oman making Indian fare. Standard staples are available in grocery stores and corner markets.