Driving in Oman: rules, rules and more rules

View from the Muscat Expressway on a Friday morning

The best way to experience Oman as a tourist is to rent a car and hit the road. This is a very easy country to drive in, and most of the roads are really well-maintained. However, we have made some mistakes and picked up a few pieces of info along the way that might be helpful for anyone planning to do some driving in Oman.

First, car rentals. There are several car rental companies at the airport and if you want to really explore, make sure you rent a 4WD vehicle. However, make sure you get unlimited mileage. Lots of companies impose a 200 kilometer per day limit, and if you exceed that amount you have to pay out the nose. For example, if you rent a car for seven days, you get 1,400 kilometers. We learned this the hard way. Europcar is one of the few companies that does not have a limit, and you have to book online in advance.

Khor Najd, with its fun twisty crazy road

Second, driving in Muscat. There are a lot of rules/guidelines which you need to always follow, and the consequences can be serious.

Here are the biggies:

  1. NEVER EVER RUN A RED LIGHT. You will have to spend a night in jail. When the light starts flashing green, prepare to stop. (I’m not kidding)
  2. ALWAYS FOLLOW THE SPEED LIMIT. If you don’t know what the speed limit is, follow the speed of traffic. (There are traffic cameras everywhere)
  3. NO ROAD RAGE ALLOWED. No flipping the bird, no hand gestures, no yelling, etc. (The police will get involved and you will go to jail and be deported. Once again, I’m not kidding.)
  4. ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR ANYONE TO PULL IN FRONT OF YOU.
  5. PRACTICE DEFENSIVE DRIVING.
  6. DO NOT PULL ALL THE WAY UP TO STOP AT A RED LIGHT. This is considered running a red light. You’ll notice that the locals stop a good distance back; follow their lead.

Here are some other helpful guidelines:

  • At traffic circles, those entering the circle need to yield to those already in the circle
  • For most lights with right turns, there is a designated right turn lane and you can turn right even if the light is red
  • If you come to an intersection without lights, drive like you have a stop sign
  • Watch out for maroon and white striped cars: these are student drivers
  • There are speed bumps everywhere
  • Just because there are arrows in a lane pointing in different directions doesn’t mean you can go any of those directions from that lane. It means you can get to lanes from which you can go in those directions from that lane. So for instance if you need to turn right, get in the far right lane.
  • Waze, maps.me and GoogleMaps give turn-by- turn directions here. Maps.me is helpful if you don’t have cell service because you can download the maps in advance.
  • On narrow, twisty mountain roads, honk your horn when you’re going around a turn to warn anyone coming in the other direction

Traffic can be a little more lawless outside of Muscat and away from the traffic cameras. Also, watch out for camels. They do whatever they want, including walk through the middle of the highway. Donkeys and goats also do this, but camels are the most dangerous.

Camels don’t care

Third, I also recommend buying a copy of “Oman Off-Road.” It’s available at Border’s (there’s a shop in just about any mall) or at Al Fair grocery stores. The book costs about 20 OMR ($50) and is definitely worth it if you plan on doing any exploring.

Lastly, if you really want to explore, you need a four wheel drive vehicle, and you need to be comfortable using the four wheel drive capabilities. If you want to drive in the sand you also need to have a gizmo to let air out of your tires down to 20 PSI and also an air compressor to put air back into your tires.

Now, go forth and explore! It’s going to be incredible!

Nate drove down this while I hyperventilated and swore.

The Sugar Dunes are impossible to reach with a 4WD vehicle

Good luck exploring this road in a sedan!

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Athena’s life lately and PCS plans

Athena looking sheepish because she knows that’s not her toy

Some of you might not know, but this blog is named for our dog Athena. Back when I started According to Athena in 2014 she was the center of our universe and my initial intention was to make the blog largely about our life with a dog and her life in the Foreign Service. Looking at my posts over the past few years, obviously that hasn’t really happened. Heck, part of that time I wasn’t even living with her when she and Nate were living the single life in Dhaka after we got evacuated out. But, rest assured, Athena is doing well, and I think she’s going to be very happy when we PCS and she (hopefully) has a huge yard to call her own.

Our plan is to drop Athena off at our favorite boarding facility here in Oman, where she will stay for at least two months while we go back to the US for a few weeks of training and a month of home leave. Then one of our friends will bring Athena to us. There’s a direct flight from Doha to Windhoek, so the travel time won’t even be that long. This way we are able to avoid a lot of stressors for her, including two very long flights across the Atlantic and back, jet lag (yes, dogs get jet lag and it’s miserable), traveling at peak summer heat, and figuring out what to do with her during home leave. Plus we only have to pay to ship her once, rather than twice.

We know Jebel K9 will take excellent care of her, and hopefully our grand plan works out! It’ll make life a lot easier for everyone, plus our friend who is bringing us Athena gets a free ticket to visit us in Windhoek. We are taking care of as much of the veterinary side of things right now as we can, including updating vaccinations and rabies shots, and hopefully she’ll be squared away by the time we leave in July.

As she’s getting older, I worry about how she’ll handle 24+ hours in her crate without being let out, especially when it gets hot, and I’m really glad we’re able to (hopefully, fingers and toes crossed) avoid that this time around.

Athena had lots of adventures over the winter, including camping trips, time at the beach, and cozying up to visitors. We also discovered that her stomach can no longer handle chicken, which was a bit of a puke-filled wild ride. She’s not allergic to chicken, she just can’t eat it without throwing it all up. Luckily we got that resolved quickly and relatively easily, and our house has been dog vomit-free since.

The weather is getting hot these days, and our walks are becoming shorter. She’ll only walk so far before she just plants her feet and won’t walk any further unless we turn around. I’m not one to argue with her, since I’m usually miserable outside too. (As you can imagine, the days of lovely morning runs on the beach are over.)

She knows change is coming, maybe because we’re sorting through boxes, or she can just sense it in the way that dogs are able to know these things. I’ve felt bad for her with the lack of easily-accessible outdoor space here in Muscat. In Dhaka we had an apartment, but at least we had that lovely rooftop grassy area. Here’s there’s literally a cement carport and a tiny patio off the kitchen.

It’s not easy having a dog in the Foreign Service, and we’ve been lucky to have a good support network for Athena at both our posts so far. Windhoek seems like a relatively dog-friendly place, as long as she doesn’t get too close to the huge spiders and snakes we’re probably have in our theoretical yard. She’s done a surprisingly good job at handling change, and she’s learned to love her alone time in her crate. She knows it’s her safe place where no one can bother her, and that makes traveling with her much easier.

Good girl, Athena!

Stopping to smell the flowers

Relaxing at the beach

Posing with one of her favorite toys

Athena and her buddy (who we’ve named Ginger)

Basking in the carport

Keeping the donkeys away from the campsite

Hiking up Sa’al Mountain

View of the sunset on the hike back to the car

On a cooler-than-usual Friday we finally hiked up Sa’al Mountain! We’ve been meaning to tackle this hike for some time, but it’s not long enough to make a full day of it and it’s too long (and tiring, in my opinion) to do during the week after work or after you’ve already gone on some other adventure.

This is a rewarding, but challenging hike. OmanTripper, my favorite blog for exploring Oman, has a good post about it. Basically, you hike about 2 kilometers up, the first half of which is a dirt path and the second half is about 600 cement stairs, and then you hike back down. It’s unrelenting and the dirt path is steep and slippery. But the view from the top is stunning, and it’s one of the best places near Muscat to watch the sunset!

The view from the parking lot as you’re starting the hike

Getting closer to the stairs!

The starting point for the hike is about 45 minutes from Muscat, towards Nizwa. If you type “Sa’al Stairs” into Google Maps or Waze it will put you near the hike starting point. I wish I had dropped a pin at the hike starting point for exact GPS coordinates, but you’ll eventually end up on a dirt road and when you reach what looks like a parking lot, you’ve reached the hike start point! It’s a dirt path leading up initially, and you can actually see the steps curving up along the side of the mountain.

This dude was carrying a walkman blaring Ace of Base.

A village below the mountain

The only flat chunk of the path on the whole hike

The ascent, until we reached the part where the stairs ended, took us about 45 minutes with frequent breaks. Then it’s about another five minutes to reach the satellite dishes at the very peak. You’d think the hike down would be a lot faster, but it’s not because you need to be so careful where you put your feet. Nate slipped and fell once, and I definitely skidded along on the loose rocks several times.

The sun setting over the towns and mountains

We went all the way to the satellite dish at the very top!

This hike is a popular place for exercising. We were passed by several groups of men basically racing to see who could get to the top fastest. I wish we’d discovered the trail sooner because I would have loved to hike it regularly during the winter. Better late than never.

Definitely bring plenty of water on this hike. Also make sure you bring a headlamp or flashlight if you’re starting the hike less than 90 minutes before the sun sets! The hiking trail is in the shade in the morning, and in the sun during the afternoon. I think it’s best if you take it slow and steady, and enjoy the beautiful panoramic views!

Lights started popping up as the sun sank lower. Not a bad way to end a lovely hike!

Clean-up scuba diving at Bandar Al Khairan

It’s time to get this fishing net out of the ocean!

Last month, EuroDivers led a day of no-cost scuba diving at Bandar Al Khairan to clean up some popular dive and snorkel sites, and it was awesome. As I was reading through the April EuroDivers planner, I saw “FREE DIVES” and I signed up immediately. It meant taking the day off work, but would you rather sit in your office all day or go scuba diving for free to help the environment? The answer is obvious.

I was able to recruit one friend to come with me, and we piled into the dive boat at Marina Bandar Al Rowdha at 8 am, along with six other divers and two dive leaders, to make the short trip to Bandar Al Khairan. We reached the dive site, where we were given scissors, knives, and mesh bags, and then the real work began! Our goal was simple: remove as much garbage and nets from the ocean as we could before we got low on air or had been underwater for 60 minutes.

Nets and ropes

Working on cutting the net apart

The team found an enormous fishing net underwater, resting on the reef, and we got to work cutting it into segments and carefully removing it from the coral. We were intentionally over-weighted because we knew we’d be spending most of the time at shallow depths. When you aren’t very deep and your air tank is less than half full, staying at the bottom can be a challenge. So, maintaining a neutral buoyancy in this case was a little challenging.  We had to hover over the spiky coral and sea urchins, taking shallow enough breathes that we wasn’t moving up and down constantly, while hacking at this fishing net and dissecting it away from the coral. It was like doing hovering underwater coral surgery.

We filled up the mesh bags with garbage, large segments of fishing nets, ropes, plastic bottles, and anything else we could find. Once the bags were full, we took them to the surface and handed them off to the boat captain, who would empty them out and give them back. Then we’d go back down to pick up even more. It was challenging, tiring, and rewarding work!

Yes, that’s a shoe.

Our maximum depth was about 8 or 9 meters for each dive, and each dive was about an hour, and everyone was making multiple trips to the surface to drop off the garbage. After my last trip up, I descended where I thought I saw bubbles (which means other divers are below you). But the current was so strong, it had pulled me away from everyone else and when I got to the bottom, all I could find was a sting ray. I watched the ray glide away and then I ascended.

One thing to note: the water is warm enough that it’s possible to wear a shorty instead of a full wetsuit. I opted for the full, which, in hindsight, was a smart choice. I spent a lot of time kneeling in the sand, and several of the other divers wearing shortys cut up their knees and elbows. The full wetsuit zipped up in the front, I just unzipped it after I put on my BCD and there was enough water circulation that I didn’t overheat, even though it was physically strenuous work.

If you like the idea of scuba diving for free to help the environment, you’re in luck: EuroDivers is planning to do clean-up dives once a month. They are during the work week and you need to be Open Water scuba qualified. Contact EuroDivers at eurodivemuscat@gmail for more info.

A red-toothed trigger fish and Arabian butterfly fishes

A juvenile yellowbar angelfish

It looked like they were having a meeting!

Ain Sahban Sulphur Springs

Surreal Ain Sahban

I’d seen photos of Ain Sahban but I could never figure out 1) what it was called, or 2) where exactly it was. But then one day some friends mentioned it, sent a GPS point, and invited us to go on an adventure. We can’t say no to that!

The drive there went great until we were literally a mile from the springs. We reached a point where the road was blocked by a bulldozer and a rock cutting tractor-thing. A rockslide had completely blocked the road and these guys were working on clearing it. We had driven 2 hours and 45 minutes, and we were not giving up. So we parked the cars, gathered all our water bottles, slathered ourselves in sunscreen and walked towards the springs in the hot 100 degree mid-day sun. Luckily after about five minutes of walking an Omani driving an SUV came towards us and told us he’d give us a ride. Woohooo! It was about a 5 minute drive to the springs, and we were all very grateful to not have had to walk the whole way.

Along the road to Ain Sahban, before we encountered the rockslide

The springs are a beautiful light blue, like cotton candy. The water was nice and cool, and it didn’t smell bad, which was surprising since it’s a sulphur spring. There’s clay in the rocks and M got his first-ever spa treatment! We spent over an hour exploring the spring, climbing around, floating in the crazy-colored water and coating ourselves in clay.

The view looking up Ain Sahban

The water looked like cotton candy

All that white residue made the rocks really easy to walk on and not slippery

One thing that I loved about Ain Sahban, especially compared to every other rocky place with water in Oman, was that it was not at all slippery. The sulphur left a chalky residue on the rocks, and you could literally walk up the little waterfalls. It’s also mostly pretty shallow, so it’s a great spot for kids. The water gets deep in the narrow part between the spring walls, but otherwise it’s no more than three feet deep. But M wore his floaties as a precaution, just in case.

We walked up these little waterfalls!

This narrow section is the only deep part

Floaters!

Now, how to get there. Plug “Ain Sahban” into Google maps and you’ll drive north towards Sohar, turn left towards Al Buraimi, and eventually find yourself on a dirt road. If you follow that road until the end, you can park, and carefully climb down through the terraced farmland into a wadi. Turn left (away from the ruined watchtower to the right) and follow the wadi upstream. You’ll eventually reach the springs, after maybe a 5-10 minute walk. Apparently there are also beautiful deep pools by the watchtower.

The view towards the watchtower from the parking area if you decide to hike in

The relatively-dry wadi hike

Conversely, while driving on the dirt road that ends by the wadi, you’ll see a sign for Ain Sahban telling you to turn right. You can follow that sign (and a few clearly-marked others) and you’ll find yourself on a road right next to the springs. If you’re not up for adventure, this is the easiest route. The other route is definitely more fun and interesting. You could do the first route in a sedan, where you hike in to find the springs, although you’d have to take it pretty slowly. The second route has a wadi crossing, which was dry when we went, but it could involve crossing some water, so I’d recommend a higher clearance vehicle for that one.

I’m glad we finally had a chance to explore Ain Sahban, which is now one of my favorite surreal spots in Oman!

Cramming it all in

I already miss my morning runs along the beach.

In my last post I mentioned making a list of all our remaining weekends so we can make sure we cross everything off our bucket list. At this point that strategy has been paying off and we’ve been able to visit several old favorites and also cross some new destinations off the list! I’m not letting myself go down the “this is the last time I’ll ever see x, y, or z” path because that would just be too depressing. Instead I’m enjoying every minute and soaking in as much as I can.

One of my favorite views in Oman: The Al Ain beehive tombs and Jebel Misht

A few weeks ago we went back to Wadi Damm and I was reminded of why it’s easily one of my favorite wadi hikes. It’s not too challenging (in fact, every time we figure out how to make the hike even easier) and the payoff with the beautiful pools at the end is top-notch. This last time we went a week after some big rain storms and I’ve never seen that much water in the wadi before. It was incredible. What’s usually a dry drive was full of splashing through puddles and streams. On the hike out of the wadi we got to talking with some young Omani men and they invited us to share lunch with them. Two hours later, we left the wadi stuffed with watermelon, rice, and chicken. We topped if off by stopping to explore some new ruins that, somehow, we’d never noticed before. The road that leads to Wadi Damm is quickly becoming one of my favorite roads in Oman, there’s so much neat stuff to do off of it. Plus, there’s a really nice clean public toilet that even has toilet paper!

Wadi Damm

How had we never noticed this huge ruined village right beside the road?!

Date palm plantations and a small stream behind the ruins

We were planning to go to Thailand over Eid, but instead we’re going to stick around and squeeze everything we can out of our remaining time in Oman. We’ve done a lot of exploring, but it’s shocking how many new places there are to see! Last weekend we went to Ain Sahban, which deserves its own blog post. That place was incredible. We have plans to finally go camping at Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar, and to stay at one of the fancy mountain resorts. There are dive sites I haven’t been to yet that I want to try, ruins to wander through, and a few forts that look interesting.

Sunset by the Mutrah souk

The most scenic chunk of sidewalk in Muscat

I finally printed some of my favorite photos from our time in Oman, and I have plans to go to a framing shop. We’re so used to electronic copies of photos, sometimes it’s hard to remember to actually print them. I also finally took the gemstones I bought in Sri Lanka to a jeweler in the souk to get set and made into jewelry. I don’t know why I decided to save all these things to the last minute, but better late than never, I guess.

Taking care of business at the jeweler

We’re lucky we have an amazing onward assignment to look forward to. If we were going someplace crappy I don’t know I’d manage leaving here. I’d be an emotional basket case.

It can be hard to be present in the Foreign Service, and that’s something I’m really mindful of.  It’s easy to get caught up in the future and what’s coming, sometimes even if it’s a long ways away. But we haven’t left Oman yet: we are still here. I shouldn’t be sad about leaving when we still have 10 more weeks to make the most of and enjoy with our friends.

We are trying to eat as many masala dosas as we can before we leave

Departing means cleaning out the pork drawer in the freezer! Carnitas tacos, yummmmm.

PCS tips from someone who may or may not know what they’re doing

Dhaka pack-out: Just a few of the boxes 
 PCS, or permanent change of station, time is upon us! We are leaving in Oman in less than three months. Yikes. We are preparing for our third PCS and, while I am by no means an expert, I have some helpful advice for folks that are PCSing, especially for the first time. This is mostly in chronological order, and I hope it’s helpful!
Make a bucket list and strategize to get it all done. For me this meant that in January I made a list of all our remaining weekends in Oman and started planning what we were doing when. I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted to make sure we could fit it all in! Or maybe you have several big purchases to make, like art, furniture, or carpets. Make a budget and start finding the best places to procure what you’re looking for.

We made sure to find time to go back to Wadi Damm

Start sorting through your stuff several months ahead of time. This way you can sell things of value that you don’t want any more rather than frantically giving them away a few days before your pack-out.

Order the essentials and ship them several weeks before you are scheduled to arrive. Do an Amazon or jet.com box full of Tupperware containers, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, parchment paper, fluffy toilet paper, and whatever else you think you might need. Along these lines, change the address for your Amazon subscribe-and-save well in advance and then your subscribe-and-save items are there waiting for you.

Don’t spend too much time prepping for your pack-out. Yes, you should carefully consider what you want to put in UAB, but that’s about it. Put your UAB in a separate, easy-to-identify location and then let the movers do their thing. In normal circumstances, there’s no need for colored post-its, a careful labeling system, or any of that. Ultimately, all your shit will get packed and it will arrive where it’s supposed to. Unless the boat sinks or something.

Pack your suitcases and then shove them away in a bathroom with a sign on the door telling the movers not to enter. This way you know how much will fit in your luggage and you have all the necessities (for us this means passports, VPN router, my favorite kitchen knife, AppleTV, expensive jewelry, clothes, etc.) all in one place and you know they won’t get packed).

Watching all our stuff get packed up during our very first pack-out in Alexandria

Ship your mattress. I am so glad we did this. Nothing is worse than sleeping on a bad mattress for two years or more.

When you arrive, say “yes” to everything. Even if you’re tired or it seems like something you might not enjoy, do it anyways. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet the community members and learn more about life in your new location. It’ll be exhausting and sometimes challenging, but you never know when you’ll meet your new best friends.

Let the movers unpack the boxes. Put all the leaves in that dining room table and be prepared ahead of time! When things are strewn all around your house and everything is covered in stuff, you are much more likely to put everything away than you would be if it all stayed in the boxes. Also, it is so much easier when the movers take away the boxes and packing materials versus having to do it yourself. Maybe the idea of strangers touching all your stuff makes you uncomfortable, but at least have them unpack anything breakable. Otherwise you can’t document what arrived broken and you won’t be able to submit a claim.

Our kitchen in Dhaka after our HHE was delivered. Believe it or not, we were able to make dinner in our kitchen that night

Our kitchen in Muscat following HHE delivery. This is a great way to make sure everything gets put away as quickly as possible. As someone who likes an organized kitchen, this is hell.

Hi, my name is Kathryn and I have a china/glassware problem.

I hope this was helpful, and it’s time for me to start following my own advice!