“It doesn’t look like a place to camp,” I say hesitantly to Bruno. “It looks like we’re coming up to a village.”
“I know, but the GPS point from the French couple says they camped up ahead,” he replies. “Let’s check it out anyway.”
It’s late in the afternoon, and Bruno and I are engaged in our usual afternoon search for a campsite in Oman. Just like the United Arab Emirates, there are no real campsites in Oman, but wild camping is allowed almost everywhere. It’s just a matter of finding a spot.
That has been a challenge. When your criteria include Bruno’s desire to be hidden from the locals, my need for a private place to do my morning “business,” and our [almost-futile] attempts to protect ourselves from the merciless elements, finding a campsite has proven not-so easy. Most days, it’s nearly dusk by the time we find an “acceptable” spot – a spot decent enough for one night, but too rustic or exposed to stay longer. We’ve slept along wild beaches, in rocky hills, on islands, in desert dunes, and along wadis, sure, but I can count my proper showers this month on three fingers. I’ve had to do my morning business behind rocks, trees, and sand dunes, in inlets, wadis and caves, even in a sand-filled bucket in the car. I’m tired.
Sometimes it feels that we are moving so fast from place to place, checking sites and to-dos off our list, but with little time to stop and appreciate the surprises in between. In Africa, where campsites allowed us to stay a while, most of our best travel experiences were those in-between surprises. Here, I feel like I’m merely scratching the surface of a region that promises to be fascinating if only I had the time to stay longer.
“Hey, there’s an oasis,” I point out to Bruno, spotting the tips of palm trees over the village houses and mosque. We follow the track with growing optimism.
“It’s a wadi!” cries Bruno, as the track ends between two tall rock walls. We had no idea this random GPS point we’d picked up online led to a wadi.
“What a great place to camp! Such a pleasant surprise!”
We’ve been in the Jebel Akhdar mountain range for a few days. The region reads like a tourist brochure – Oman’s highest mountain, its deepest wadi, its best fort, best cave, oldest ruins. Tourists flock here (in astounding numbers, in case you didn’t know yet that Oman was an it destination) because it’s a way to see the greatest variety of Oman concentrated in a single region. We’re two more tourists here to check these sites off our list.
It was the moments in between the sites, though, that surprised us most.
Built in the 12th century, Bahla Fort is one of Oman’s oldest. It has undergone an extensive renovation, and the entire walled town of Bahla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the number one fort to visit in Oman, says the guide book, and there are a lot of forts in Oman.
It was nice. The residential castle section was filled with little hallways and staircases, narrow passageways, tiny rooms and dead-ends. It was like a labyrinth, and the claustrophobia it induced was unique (most forts have high walls, big rooms, and large halls). From the highest towers, we spotted remnants of the city wall, and scattered around the fort were tombs and gravestones.
But Bahla Fort wasn’t as impressive as nearby Nizwa Fort. Nizwa boasts the largest (actually the only) round tower in Oman, with impressive views of the surrounding palm-dotted plains and Jebel Akhdar Mountains. To get to the tower, you must go up a stairwell, past six trap doors, and through six locked doors where boiling date juice would have been thrown down at you from above in times of war.
But neither Bahla nor Nizwa could compare to little brother Jabrin Fort, which we visited on a whim while waiting for Bahla Fort to open. Built later than most Omani forts, it felt more like a castle than a fort. Its high ceilings reveal flowery decorations and Islamic calligraphy that make its interior an absolute delight for the eyes. It contains a horse room (for storing the horse – on the second floor, strangely), a library, the tomb of the Imam who lived here, and a “Sun and Moon room” with seven windows to let in the moonlight, and seven windows to filter and dilute the sunlight. It’s designed like separate jigsaw puzzle pieces whereby, to reach an adjacent room, one has to go down the nearest staircase, cross the hall, and go up another staircase. All in all, Jabrin Fort was a fascinating surprise that hadn’t even been on our to-do list.
At just over 3000 meters, Jebel Akhbar is the tallest mountain in Oman. You can drive almost to its peak, and from there glimpse down into Wadi Ghul, the so-called Grand Canyon of Oman. When we reached the end of the road – which was about 2000m in altitude – we spotted a rounded peak, barely taller than the surrounding mountains, and weren’t sure if this was, in fact, Jebel Akhbar. We had to confirm with a hotel manager, that’s how underwhelming the peak itself was.
The view into Wadi Ghul was, thankfully, more impressive. The canyon walls flowed down in jagged lines, and the few houses at the bottom were miniscule. The view was enormous, so we pulled out our table and camping chairs, whipped up a salad, and had ourselves a picnic at the edge of the precipice. The local goats joined us, surrounding us and edging themselves closer and closer, trying to steal bites from our meal. It was the best picnic we’ve had in months.
But the most unexpected surprise was when we spotted the old uninhabited village of Ghul at the base of the ascent to Jebel Akhbar. The ruins of rock homes are built into the side of the rocky hill so that you almost can’t distinguish between them and the natural rock formations. How they have held on for hundreds of years to the side of the ledge, with the mouth of the wadi just below, I have no idea. It was a striking view, especially with the verdant plantations below the town, still being harvested as they have been for centuries.
The ruins of Ghul – which we hadn’t even known about – turned out to be better than the ruins of the beehive tombs we’d planned to see. The beehive tombs (so-named because of their beehive shape) of Bat and Al Ayn are almost five thousand years old, a mysterious piece of history that archaeologists can’t quite explain. They know the rock structures were some kind of mass burial tombs, but beyond that, they haven’t made sense of their purpose.
The beehive tombs of Bat are scattered in a sizeable area on several hillsides. Some of them still have their beehive shape – a few are white like the white mountains nearby – but most of them are just piles of rubble that hold no interest for the layperson. In Al Ayn, there is a single line of tombs on a single hill. But they are better preserved, and you can see the triple layer of rock walls that were built around the inner chamber through a tiny doorway.
We arrived in Al Ayn by accident – Bruno’s GPS was set to bring us only to Bat – so when I spotted the beehive tombs on a hill, we pulled right over. It was lunchtime, so, once again, we brought out our table and chairs, and had a picnic at the base of the tombs. It just so happened that a beautiful, crown-shaped mountain was on the horizon, perfectly centered behind the tombs, so for the second day in a row, we had an excellent lunchtime view.
Even more unforeseen, however, was the wadi campsite we stumbled upon a few kilometers before the tombs. We’d only plugged in the GPS point because it was close to the ruins. The ruins had unexpectedly brought us to this wadi.
“Let’s hike into the wadi,” I suggest to Bruno, as soon as we’ve set up camp. We pull on our hiking shoes, grab our water and camera, and take off to explore. We don’t know the name of the wadi, how long it is, if it has any pools, waterfalls, or palm trees. But that’s just it – this wadi is a surprise, just like Jabrin Fort and the abandoned village of Ghul, just like the goat-infested picnic overlooking Wadi Ghul and the lunch in front of the beehive tombs of Al Ayn. While we were busy checking sites off our list, the Jebel Akhdar region had been busy unfolding its own plan before us. This journey had been about more than the destination – it had been about the refreshing surprises in between. I don’t feel so tired, anymore.