The best places to spend your money in Muscat

It’s hard to not spend money in Oman. Things here aren’t cheap, but there are definitely some places where your money is better-spent than others. So, without further ado, here are the top places where we will happily part with our hard-earned riyals.

Things to Ingest

Best pizza: Tomato
Expensive, but worth it. Located at the Intercontinental Hotel

Yes, that is real pork on the pizza from Tomato

Best burgers: Park Burger
15% discount for US embassy employees

Best Omani Food: Bait Al Luban

The alleyway to Bait Al Luban

Omani dates and coffee

Best Indian food delivery: Begum’s
phone number for the branch that delivers is +968-9307-4000

Best vegetarian Indian restaurant: Saravana Bhavan
Inexpensive and amazing. the Ruwi branch is the best

Best Japanese food: Tokyo Taro
Located at the Al Falaj Hotel

Best seafood: Turkish House
The grilled shrimp, fried calamari, mixed appetizer and freshly baked bread are fantastic

Enormous grilled shrimp at The Turkish House

Best breakfast sandwich: The Zed at Al Hawas
The spicy version is the best. Good greasy shawarma too

The halal breakfast sandwich that dreams are made of

Best craft cocktails: The Chedi
Bring bug spray if you plan to sit outside

Best cocktails with a view: The Edge
Pool bar at the Crowne Plaza Qurum

Things to Take Home

Bespoke tailor: Western Tailor
Mukesh +968-9637-4537: Inexpensive, high-quality tailoring. You must provide your own fabric. One of the few tailors that is not shy about taking female measurements.

Pork: Duty free in the international arrivals baggage claim
It sounds strange, but it’s true! The pork you can buy elsewhere is extraordinarily overpriced, not to mention freezer burnt.

Frame shop: Ibn Al Farsi Trading Co.
Very inexpensive. Make sure to specify exactly what kind of glass you want and mat width.

Rug shop: Kashmir International
Shah +968-9589-3899: Beautiful rugs and weavings from Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Iran. Shah is extremely knowledgeable and friendly and will happily show you carpets for hours. Lots of beautiful scarves, blankets and other textiles and trinkets as well.

It’s hard to not buy one of everything

Carpets too beautiful to step on

Omani trinkets: Bait Al Zubair gift shop
Lots of good books on Oman, Omani handicrafts, prints, etc.

Things to Do

Best Daymaniyat Island snorkeling company: Daymaniat Shells

Yes, the water really was that color

Best scuba diving operator: EuroDivers

My kind of view!

Best adventure tourism operator: Twenty3Extreme

There you have it! I’m sure there are some I’m forgetting, so I’ll update this list if anything comes to mind.

The waterfalls of Salalah

There’s more to Salalah than Wadi Darbat

Around Salalah, you’ll see many sights called “ain“/”ayn”-something, which means “spring” and sometimes “waterfall.” We decided to spend our time around Salalah checking out all as many of the natural water features as possible. I mean, if we made a return trip and it wasn’t during the khareef, they won’t be there anymore! As with Wadi Darbat, you should not go in the water at any of these sites due to the prevalence of schistosomiasis.

The beautiful water looks inviting and you want to jump in, but don’t do it!

After going to Wadi Darbat, our next stops were Ain Tabruk and Ain Athum. Ain Tabrukwas unimpressive, but Ain Athum was really something. It’s basically just a granite wall with water cascading down the sides in a waterfall curtain. M enjoyed throwing rocks into the stream and I could have spent hours there taking photos. There were plenty of snack vendors around, but no public toilets.

Nice, but not awesome, Ain Tabruk

Ain Athum

We also drove to Ain Humran, which was more of a stream than a waterfall. It was pretty none-the-less and if we hadn’t been so tired by then we probably would have explored it a little more. M clambered on the rocks and wanted to go swimming. We called it a day and went back to the pool for some swimming in not-parasite-infested waters.

Muddy, green mountain roads

The next day we went to Ain Khor. Around half a mile from the actual waterfall, the gravel road was flooded and we didn’t know if our car could make it. Turns out, it definitely could have, but we erred on the side of caution. The last half mile wasn’t a terrible walk, and it was nice to stretch our legs. Once you reach the waterfall, be sure to climb the rocks over on the right side to get some nice photos! This was another spot where M wanted to swim, but that was, once again, a no-go.

Ain Khor

If I’m being picky, like, very picky, I’d say the water at this waterfall wasn’t as pretty as the others. But it still made for a great day trip!

If you only have time for one, go to Ain Athum. You won’t be disappointed!

What I’ll miss the most about Oman

The bluest of water at the Daymaniyat Islands

I’ve been writing a lot of introspective and reflective blog posts lately. Our two years here are nearly over, and I’m coming to terms with leaving and what that means for me, on a personal level, and for our family. It’s a lot to process, honestly.

Now, reading my own words, that sounds ridiculous. It’s only been two years, and I’ve moved a lot. I should be used to this by now.

On the other hand, I’ve never loved living anywhere like I’ve loved living here. Oman is an incredible place.

Lots of people have asked what our favorite thing to do here was or what we liked the most. It’s a hard question to answer. We’ve done so many amazing things, and but there are a few things that stand out as my absolute favorite things about Oman.

The undersea life: Snorkeling and scuba diving are at the top of my list of favorites. Imagine swimming alongside a 100-year old turtle slowly making his way to the surface, or finding yourself in the middle of a school of baby barracuda encircling you peacefully, or swimming along and suddenly finding a brave little clownfish in your face telling you to back off. Or kneeling in the sand 50 feet underwater next to a sting ray who just can’t be bothered to wake up from his nap (Who, in my defense, blended in so well with the sand that I thought it was the imprint of a ray who had just swum off. Then I saw it’s blinking eyes. Wow.) Absolute favorites: snorkeling at the Daymaniyat Islands and scuba diving just about anywhere.

A beautiful turtle at the Daymaniyat Islands

A juvenile emperor angelfish! (plus some brown fish)

Watching this octopus swim away was pretty cool

Camping: In Oman you can camp anywhere that isn’t private property. And that means you can camp pretty much anywhere. We’ve camped in some seriously amazing places, and some of the most fun I’ve had here has been while camping. From Masirah Island to the Salma Plateau to a random beach in Dhofar, nothing beats cooking dinner watching the sunset and curling up in (or on top of, depending on the weather) my sleeping bag under the stars, listening to the waves crashing 30 feet away. Absolute favorite: The Sugar Dunes (Nate) and Masirah Island (me).

Beautiful scenery at our Sugar Dunes campsite

Sunset from our Masirah Island campsite

Wadi hikes: I’ve done a lot of hiking, but, prior to Oman, I’d never done anything even remotely similar to a wadi hike. Bouldering, swimming, rock scrambling, hiking, and then doing it all over again for several hours was a completely new, and kind of frightening, experience. I was hesitant jumping from boulder to boulder, not trusting my feet to land where I needed them to so that I wouldn’t break a leg. These days, I have more confidence and I’m not as worried about compound fractures. I know I can pull myself up a rock and jump of a ledge. And there is nothing like climbing up a boulder or rounding a corner to find an untouched crystal blue pool just beckoning you to jump in. It’s an unbeatable experience. Absolute favorites: Wadi Al Arbaieen (Nate) and Snake Canyon (me).

It’s impossible to take a bad photo at Wadi Al Arbaieen

Hiking Snake Canyon was so much fun!

The do-it-yourself-ness of adventuring: If there’s one thing to know about exploring and adventuring in Oman, it’s this: the route to that trail head, or that UNESCO World Heritage Site, or that other supposedly-amazing thing that you’re trying to find will never be well-marked. I can’t even count the number of times we’ve driven or wandered around aimlessly trying to find something. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don’t. Frequently, we don’t, we go home,  I research it some more, we go back, and then we find it. The amount of effort that goes into doing most things around Oman just makes the adventure, and the pay-off at the end, all the better. And, honestly, it keeps away the casual lazy tourists who just want instagram photos. If you really want to experience Oman, you have to work for it. And I love that. Absolute favorite tricky-to-find places: Ain Sahban Sulphur Springs and the Al Ain Beehive Tombs

The baby blue, cool water at Ain Sahban is worth the drive

These beehive tombs are easy to see, but tricky to actually get to

Our Grand Road Trip to Salalah: This was definitely our top multi-day experience in Oman. It incorporated all our favorite things to do (with the exception of snorkeling or diving), and it was truly epic. This road trip was a great way to experience and see so much of Oman, and I would not change a single part of what we did.

I’m not going to mention how much I’ll miss our friends because I don’t have time or the emotional bandwidth to deal with those waterworks. Luckily, when it’s time to leave I’ll be saying “See you later!” rather than “Bye” because so many friends have promised to visit us in Windhoek.

Thinking about my favorite things has also gotten me thinking about what I won’t miss about Oman. I’ll have to write another blog post about that!

Camping in Oman and our camping checklist

Our Masirah Island campsite

Camping in Oman is a unique incredible way to experience the country. Whether you’re falling asleep listening to the waves crash on the sand or watching the sun rise over the rim of the Grand Canyon of Arabia, there are some things that you can only experience if you go camping!

Most visitors to Oman don’t know that it is actually possible to camp in Oman year-round. The winter is the best time to camp at the beaches, and summer is the best time to camp in the mountains.

Sunset over Fins Beach (#1 in the map below)

Dhofar beach sunset

Here’s a map of all our wild campsites in Oman (wild, as in out-in-the-wild-not-formal-grounds, not “Spring Break!!” wild):

Camping here is very easy to do. You can basically camp anywhere that is not private property or military land. You literally drive down a road, find a spot that looks good, pull over and set up your tent. It’s awesome.

Camping under a random tree in Jebel Akhdar

Sand dunes and the sea at the Sugar Dunes

Jebel Shams campsite

If you have lightweight camping gear, you can bring it to Oman in your luggage and then buy whatever else you might need at The Sultan Center in Muscat. Most major stores in Muscat, like Lulu and Carrefour, have camping supplies, but The Sultan Center has the best selection and carries firewood (which can be impossible to find).

Salmah Plateau campsite

I have a comprehensive camping checklist document that I print before each camping trip, and we store most of our camping supplies in two big plastic containers. We go through the containers and make sure everything on the list is there, gather up tents and cots, fill the water bladders, buy food and firewood, and that’s generally it.

Here are the checklists we use:

COOKING

  • Coffee pot + coffee
  • Plates + cooking gear + utensils + cups/mugs + removable handle
  • Bottle opener + corkscrew
  • Aluminum foil
  • Grill glove + hot pads + trivet
  • Cooking utensils (knife, scissors, potato peeler, spatula, serving spoon, wooden spoon, tongs, cutting board)
  • Dish soap + sponge + wash basin
  • Paper towels + cloth towels
  • Salt + pepper + olive oil
  • Water bladders (full, at least 2)
  • Trash bags
  • Wood + charcoal + newspaper
  • Long lighter + matches + chimney starter
  • Cooler + food + ice packs
  • Extra plastic containers + Ziplocs
  • Grill grate + skewers
  • Gas canisters
  • Gas burner + jet boil

SLEEPING

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bags (2)
  • Sleeping mats  or cots(2)
  • Pillows (2)
  • Pack n play + sheet + blankets
  • Dust pan and hand broom

GENERAL

  • Head lamps + flashlight + lanterns
  • Tarp
  • Camp chairs (3)
  • Table
  • Good camera
  • GoPro + accessories
  • Portable charger
  • Speakers
  • M toys and books
  • Towels
  • Hatchet
  • Sunscreen
  • Kindles (3)
  • Clothes + diapers + toiletries
  • Sun shower
  • Oman Off-Road
  • 1st aid kit
  • Trauma kit

MAYBE

  • Hiking backpack
  • Beach tent
  • Plastic beach mat
  • M floaty + swim suits + hat + swim diapers
  • Toilet tent + toilet

IF BRINGING ATHENA

  • Athena bed + food + meds + bowls + toys + e-collar + leash

Obviously, you don’t need to bring this much stuff. But if you follow these lists, you will generally find yourself to be well-prepared for almost any situation with both a dog and a toddler.

Beach camping in Dhofar: one tent for sleeping, one as a beach shelter, plastic bins, plastic beach mat or tarp, and water bladders

A note on toilet facilities while camping: there are NONE. So far we haven’t had to use a toilet tent, but there were some situations when it would have been nice. Your mileage may vary depending on where you are and how many other people are there. Mostly we’ve been lucky because we’ve camped in places when no one else was there. But any time you expect other people to be anywhere nearby, you’ll need a toilet tent. Particularly when you’re beach camping because there are no gullies or bushes to hide in.

Fins Beach campsite (#2 on the map above)

It is possible to go camping during Ramadan. Chances are you’re in a remote place, not in the middle of a village, so music, food and drinks won’t bother anyone. However, keep this in mind when you’re picking your camping spot.

Also: creepy-crawlies. You will find bugs and insects, like scorpions and camel spiders. The latter, while appearing ugly and terrifying, actually eat scorpions and are not poisonous to humans. So don’t kill them! We have yet to come across a scorpion, but almost everyone else who’s gone camping, particularly in the mountains, has seen them, so be careful.

Can you spot the camel spider?

If you have any questions about camping in Oman, please feel free to reach out!

Hiking on Jebel Akhdar

Beautiful panoramic views abound on  Jebel Akhdar

If you’re looking for something to do near Muscat during the summer months, the mountains are your answer! The temperatures are literally 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler and there are lots of neat places to explore.

We’ve done a number of different hikes on Jebel Akhdar. None of them are flat, but some are easier than others. Here are five hikes that we’ve done on Jebel Akhdar, listed in order from easier to hardest.

  1. Wadi Bani Habib: This is a good, easy hike for exploring abandoned villages There is a public bathroom (it’s in rough shape) and go down the stone stairs. There’s an abandoned village immediately in front of you as you go down the stairs, but if you turn left and walk through the wadi a little ways, you’ll find a better one to explore. Turn right when you’re across from the well-maintained pomegranate farm, by a stone structure. The trail is a little tricky to see, but it climbs up the mountain with some rough stairs, and you’ll reach the village. Depending on how much time you spend exploring the abandoned villages, this takes between 90 minutes to two hours.

    The first abandoned village you’ll see at Wadi Bani Habib

    The second abandoned village, which is more fun to explore

    Windows in village #2

  2. The Village Walk or W18b: This takes you through farmland and villages and has terrific views. If you want the stereotypic Jebel Akhdar views, do this hike. Drive to GPS 23.0722, 57.6666 to start the hike. When you reach a point where you’re hiking through a rocky little gorge and the trail markers seem to end, turn right by the mosque and go up the sidewalk to the road. If you go all the way to Sayq, it takes about 2:30 hours.

    Sights along the Village Walk

    Village Walk views

  3. Mirage in the Mountains: This hike starts right across the street from the Alila entrance gate. There’s not a lot of steep climbing or drop-offs, and it ends at an abandoned village. This hike is more undulating than most. You’ll reach a point in the wadi bed where you can turn left or go straight. Turn left and you’ll go up a mountain, from which you’ll follow the ridge line to the village. Go straight and follow the wadi to the village (we didn’t take this route, but I imagine it’s less physically strenuous, although the views wouldn’t be as nice). The entire trail takes about 3:30 hours.

    What?! Legible, accurate information about a trail? A definite first

    The view on the hike back to the trailhead

    Desert roses along the trail

    The view towards the trail end, where the Discovery Trail (next on the list) also ends

  4. Discovery Trail: This one starts up towards the Alila and it is completely downhill, until you turn around and it’s all uphill. I’ve ranked this one as harder than the others because there are some pretty steep drop-offs with nothing below. Take one wrong step and you fall off a cliff. But the hike itself is not too steep. The whole thing takes about three hours.

    We found two trail maps in two days!

    The hike winds out down along the wadi

    Just follow the painted flags and/or the green dots. Why they chose green trail markers in a place known as “The Green Mountain” is beyond me. They might as well have picked tan markers.

    The view in the other direction from the last photo in the “Mirage in the Mountains” hike

  5. W24: This hike starts at GPS coordinates 23.092656, 57.730965, and you basically just follow the white swatches on the rocks. It’s a 3 kilometer hike to another trail that will take you to Wukan or Hadash. This is definitely more a trek than a walk. You need to be very careful where you step so you don’t break an ankle. The first half is unrelenting and up a mountain (which is where we turned around), and from here it follows the side of a mountain to the other trail. If you hiked to the other trail and back, it would take about three hours.

    Up, up, up, following the painted white swatches. Oh, you don’t see the white swatches? Welcome to this hike.

    The view out over the valley from a mountain halfway through one-way of the hike

    The hike was largely made of rough volcanic rock, which would tear your knees and hands to shreds if you tripped

    The hike back down the mountain. The starting point is the village in the middle of the photo

There are lots of other hiking trails on Jebel Akhdar! These are just the ones that we’ve done and enjoyed. The best way to explore Jebel Akhdar is hike during the day and then camp or spend the night at a hotel. This way you can get as much enjoyment as possible out of the cooler temperatures, plus you get to see a beautiful sunset and sunrise!

Jebel camping and PCS feelings

Sunset over Jebel Akhdar at the Alila

Oh, man. Things here have been nuts. I’m apparently terrible at following my own advice, and I’m scrambling to get everything done. In addition to stress-shopping at the souk whenever I get the chance. I just bought eight hand-painted (supposedly) Turkish bowls and plates that I don’t really need. But they’re very pretty and I will eventually use them, I swear.

Which one should I buy? How about all of them?!

We’ve been filling up the time with squeezing in as many more Oman adventures as we can. We recently got back from a four-day trip to Jebel Akhdar, and it  was more incredible than I’d even imagined. We spent the first night camping and then we spent two nights at the Alila, which was running an insanely awesome special. If you spent two or more nights, it was 99 OMR (about $250) for the room, plus breakfast and dinner. This is a hotel where the rack-rate for the cheapest room and just breakfast is over $700. It was easily one of the most delightful hotel experiences I’ve ever had, and definitely the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever slept in.

Endless skies at Jebel Akhdar

I think sometimes people tend to forget that the mountains are so much more temperate than Muscat, because when we went to both Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar there was hardly anyone there. The temperatures were downright pleasant and it was perfect hiking and camping weather. I even had to wear long sleeves at night!

Sunrise over Jebel Shams

Our campsite on Jebel Shams was stunning. We were perched along the rim of the canyon, but with enough rocks and ledges just over the side that  the kids weren’t in danger of immediate death if they went over the side. The views were incredible, and everyone had fun keeping the goats away from our campsite. The goat deterrent methods of choice where to run after them banging pots and pans, or to just throw your arms in the air and run after them screaming bloody murder.

Goats and tents on the edge of the Grand Canyon of Arabia

The only problem came around 10:30 pm when a raging wind picked up and started battering our tent. Nate and I are not small lithe people and our tent and cots, plus M in his pack and play and our bodyweight was easily  more than 400 pounds. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel the edge of the tent picking up and moving my cot. It was terrifying. I was so worried that our tent was going to be blown over the side of the canyon. Nate assured me that that was physically impossible unless a tornado picked us up, but I lay there watching the wind rattle our tent like a salt shaker and resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t going to be able to sleep that night.

Eventually I did fall asleep, only to be woken up by the sunrise at 5 am. Fun times. At least there was hot coffee and sausage gravy with croissants for breakfast! We don’t kid around when it comes to camping cuisine. That reminds me: I should do a post on all the incredible campfire food we’ve made.

Breakfast with a view

Anyhow, the following weekend we camped on Jebel Akhdar, where there are a number of areas for camping. We chose one with higher elevation because it would mean cooler temperatures, and we found a plateau area with huge trees perfect for camping. We positioned the tent so that it would be shaded in the morning, and the tent stayed cool until we packed it up around 10 am. First time that’s happened in Oman!

Our tent is in the shade!!!

M loved this campsite because it was full of flat rocks and creepy-crawlies. Spiders, lizards, butterflies, beetles, ants, etc. We let him run around, jumping from rock to rock and exploring while we cooked dinner and finished off some of the wine we brought back from France last year. We all slept like babies and woke up at 5:45 am when it sounded like a herd of donkeys was running around outside our tent. I sat up and looked out the window, and this was, in fact, the case.

Donkeys, taken through the tent window at 5:45 am

With these camping trips behind us, we’ve basically finished all our big Oman adventures. We’ve checked almost everything off the bucket list, and now we’re wrapping things up. We’ve sold our cars and our nanny has signed a contract with a new family. We got our Windhoek housing assignment, made a downpayment on a car, and we’re interviewing housekeepers/nannies.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been sucked up into a whirlwind of crazy forward momentum when all I want to do is slow down and savor everything. We have such a short amount of time in the States, it’s going to be utterly insane, and before I know it we’ll be in Windhoek. There’s a certain amount of excitement and giddy anticipation that comes with any move, but also trepidation and dread. Moving to a brand-spanking new country is scary: making friends, finding new favorite restaurants, figuring out what you can buy at which grocery store, finding the best routes for walking Athena, driving on the other side of the street, adjusting to new jobs, getting M situated at school, etc. At least in Windhoek I’ll be able to comfort-eat bacon whenever I want. And there’s a wine bar five minutes from our new house.

Oh man, Oman. We’re not done with you yet! I plan on squeezing as much awesomeness as I can out of this incredible place.

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!

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!

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.