DOWNTOWN // Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Returning to Dubai felt a bit otherworldly after the quiet and traditional villages and mountains of Oman. We decided to break up our trip with another night in Dubai, and spent the afternoon we had in the city to explore downtown Dubai.

Compared to the older areas of Dubai, the downtown area felt like the Dubai I imagined – shining skyscrapers, malls, and endless roads. Though not the most walkable city, we walked the last few kilometres from the metro to the Dubai Mall to get a feel of the city.

Oh, and to get a view of this tall building!

We visited the Dubai Mall purely for thrills, and it was exactly as we imagined – swarms of tourists, every shop conceivable, and ridiculous extras (exhibit A: ice rink).

The biggest bonus was the air conditioning – a welcome escape from the relentless heat outside.

Somehow we ended up stumbling upon a viewing deck for the Burj Kalifa that was located in the Apple store of the mall. It provided a great view of the surrounding downtown area, though it was a struggle to get a shot that fir the whole Burj in!

Success!

After all our walking in the heat we decided to head back to our hotel in the afternoon. Perhaps we were both just a bit tired, but downtown Dubai didn’t really do it for either of us. Sure, it was worth a visit, but it wasn’t really our type of destination.

We kept it an early night, catching up on washing and planning ahead for the next leg of our trip (which at this rate, is going to take me the rest of the year to type up posts for!).

– Reanna

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NOT SO SECRET CAVES // Wadi Shab, Oman

If you search anything along the lines of ‘top sights in Oman’, chances are you will come across pictures of the blue pools of Wadi Shab. We visited on our final day in Oman, whilst driving back along the coast from Wahiba Sands to Muscat via the town of Sur. And this place totally lived up to the hype!

A few notes on visiting Wadi Shab:

  • Getting there: as with most things in Oman, driving is best. Located just off the main freeway, Wadi Shab is a 1.5 hour drive from Muscat, or 40 minutes from Sur. The entrance and parking to Wadi Shab is located directly below the main freeway, near the village of Tiwi. It is well signed.
  • Accessibility: The full experience of Wadi Shab involves taking a boat across a river, hiking about 2km (on way), and the swimming a few hundred metres to a very end. As such, some level of fitness is required. If you decide to swim, you will need to be able to swim at least 50 metres unassisted and tread water comfortably.
  • What to bring: Towels, comfortable (or even waterproof) walking shoes, clothes/swimming gear, water, and only the bare necessities in terms of valuables. If you swim, you will need to leave your bag unattended. Oh, and 1 rial per person for the boat!
  • Swimming in Oman: Even as we were walking into Wadi Shab I was not sure what I was meant to wear swimming. However, apparently all the tourists we encountered had no issues with wearing bikinis and other Western swimwear. Keep in mind local customs and wear what you feel comfortable in.

Locates on the coast of Oman, Wadi Shab is no longer a hidden gem, but a hugely popular place to visit among both locals and tourists. We went on Friday, which is the start of the weekend for Omanis, so it was very busy.

If you can see the bridge in the above photo, you have found the entrance to Wadi Shab! Inconspicuously located underneath the main freeway, the gorge doesn’t look like much to begin with. We managed to park along the road. From here, we followed our noses through the car park, past the toilets, to a makeshift dock where some local men gave us a paper ticket in exchange for 1 rial and directed us on to a small boat!

The boat ride took all of two minutes to get to the other side. Chris read somewhere that it is possible to swim across, but it is probably frowned upon by the boat owners!

The hike through to gorge itself began by following a clear path through what appeared to be a small piece of farm land!

 

Not much further along, the path became rockier and beautiful blue pools appeared. We passed a number of picnicking families, and groups of young boys jumping into the water from the cliff face. We also encountered the most tourists we had seen all holiday!

Eventually, the track ended somewhat and we arrived at the above pool. From here, you can either swim in the shallow pool, or wade and swim further into the gorge. After a bit of deliberation we decided that our bag would be safe if we left it, as there were plenty of other bags and towels lying around without owners. We somewhat expected this, hence I didn’t bring my camera, relying on my old (probably worthless) iphone for photos.

I don’t have any photos of our swim through the gorge, but it was absolutely one the highlights of our trip to Oman! After swimming through the initial pool, we hiked a little bit further, before jumping back into the water alternating between swimming and walking over rocks for a few hundred metres. Eventually, we reached a much longer narrow, deep stretch of water, which finally lead to a dead end – or for the more adventurous, an entrance to a ‘secret cave’.

If you are curious to see what the cave and swimming sections were like, check out here and here to see photos from other bloggers who were wise enough to bring waterproof cameras.

I can’t really put into words the experience of swimming through these stunning pools, and I don’t have the photos to do it justice either, so instead I will have to make to by insisting that everyone adds Oman to their travel bucket lists immediately!

The walk back to the entrance to Wadi Shab was just as stunning. What a gem.

On our final leg on the road back to Muscat, we made a quick detour to the Bimmah Sinkhole. The photos I had seen online of this natural wander were a lot more stunning, but if you have time it is worth a quick stop.

And with that, my Oman posts finally draw to a close!

Oman was one of those destinations that I went into having ridiculously high expectations, and they were all completely exceeded. A year ago I knew nothing about this country, but it really is such an untouched gem full of natural wonders, beautiful cities, and wonderful people. What’s more, is that it was incredibly accessible for traveling, and it has opened my eyes to visiting more of the Middle East. Western media often portrays this area in a negative light, but honestly, Oman was just incredible.

– Reanna

DESERT DREAMING // Wahiba Sands, Oman

When I was first getting my head around visiting the Middle East, I had pictures of arid landscapes and endless deserts, rather than the mountain regions and hidden oases we ended up visiting on our trip. But the desert is certainly there!

We visited the most accessible part of the Omani desert, Wahiba Sands. Whilst now formally renamed as Sharqiya Sands, this desert region continues to be occupied by bedouins, offering a glimpse into the traditional ways of living in the endless dunes.

A few notes on visiting Wahiba Sands:

  • Getting there: Wahiba sands has numerous access points, which will be dependent on where you are staying. Many of the desert camps have their meeting/pick up point in the village of Al Wasil, located 2 hours from Muscat or 1.5 hours from Sur.
  • Accommodation: There are numerous desert camps in the area, ranging from resorts to more basic options, such as the Nomadic Desert Camp we stayed at. It is also possible to free camp in or near the desert.
  • A note on cars: If you want to drive in the desert, you will need a 4WD. We drove into our desert camp with the assistance of the camp host, who arranged for our car tires to be adjusted to a lower pressure for driving on the sand.

We drove from Ibra to the small town of Al Wasil, located on the edge of the desert. It was amazing watching the landscape change as we drove, from dark mountains to towering dunes in the distance.

At Al Wasil, we were instructed by the hosts from our camp to meet at a mosque. This was easy enough to find, as several other tourists were hanging out at the neighbouring coffee shop waiting as well! Our host soon arrived, and set about greeting us and arranging for the tires on our cars to be deflated slightly for driving in the desert. I was expectantly awaiting a briefing session about how one should actually drive in the desert, but as soon as our cars were ready our host directed us to jump in our cars to follow him!

Driving in the desert was a terrifying, exhilarating, but worthwhile experience. It felt like driving on water, with the car constantly sliding our beneath us. My arms were aching by the end of our half hour drive to the camp from gripping the steering wheel so tight out of sheer terror!

Once we arrived at the camp, we were shown to our accommodation for the night – simple huts made out of date palms, with the desert for the floor and candles for lighting. Simple, but beautiful all the same. I had barely recovered from the drive in before we were jumping back into our cars to drive further into the desert with our host!

After getting bogged a few times whilst driving (we were no professionals), our group stopped at a small fenced area to visit some camels, including this little fella!

Only a few days old, this little baby camel was already up and walking on it’s too big legs!

After everyone had finished admiring the baby camel, we jumped back into our cars and drove up a few steep dunes to a sheltered area. From here, our host explained we would wait for the sunset, and we were free to climb the towering dunes in the mean time.

Clambering up the dunes was such a surreal and beautiful experience. The desert looked endless, no matter which way you looked.

Chris and I kept climbing higher and higher, sure that the next dune would be the peak. Eventually we accepted that there was no end to the dunes, and spent the remaining daylight time sliding down the dunes we had climbed and taking in the whole experience.

The sunset was stunning. The whole experience of being in the desert made me feel so small and humbled.

Eventually it was dark enough to head back to the camp, where we spent the evening enjoying Omani hospital in the form of cardamon infused coffee, endless dates, and delicious food. Another highlight was lying on mattresses our hosts set out around the campfire after dinner and staring up at the stars. I don’t think I have ever seen so many in the sky.

The next morning we were up early for breakfast – more coffee, bread cooked on the fire, and camel milk! After eating our fill, we were advised to head outside the camp for a camel ride. This is not something Chris and I would have normally signed up for, but it was included as part of our stay at the camp.

Full tourist mode!

Before long it was time to pack up our car again and return back to the reality of the road for our final leg of the roadtrip.

We had to make our own way to Al Wasil from the camp – thankfully the track in the desert follows a valley of sorts, so we were able to make our way back without any dramas.

Looking back on these photos, I honestly don’t think my words can do justice to this experience in the desert. It was such a vastly different environment to anything I have ever been in, and it is moments like this that remind me how lucky we are to be able to explore this world.

– Reanna

HIDDEN GEMS // Ibra, Oman

After exploring Bahla Fort we hit the road again. When researching places to stop for lunch on the way to our next destination, Ibra seemed like a logical destination. A few more minutes of searching later and I found a few blog posts indicating that the city also featured a few ruined villages that were worth the stop. By the end of our trip Chris and I ended up exploring quite a few village ruins, and Chris commented that it was amazing that such places were so untouched. In more touristic countries such places would surely be fenced in, with tours and an entry ticket! It made being able to explore these hidden places by ourselves all the more special.

We only briefly stopped in the city for lunch and to explore the ruins, but here few notes on visiting in Ibra:

  • Getting there: Ibra is located in central Oman, about 1.5 hours from Muscat, or just under two hours from Nizwa.
  • Al Munisifeh ruins: Difficult to find! We tried to vaguely follow directions from the Lonely Planet, which suggested that the turn off was past the market/souq, and the directions from this blog post. Put ‘Old Mosque of Ibra’ into google maps, drive along the river bed and park near a paved entrance to a group of buildings. Follow this paved path and you will find the ruins.

What road trip would be complete without random road photos?

Once we eventually found the ruins of Al Munisifeh, we parked our car near the entrance and wandered in on foot. Apparently someone had take the initiative to pave a path through the village, which we followed through crumbling buildings and crooked archways.

Parts of the village closer to the dry river bed appeared to still be occupied. For the most part, the village was completely abandoned, and we didn’t encounter anyone. Above, you can see what I assume to be a former market place.

A few buildings offered what looked to be good viewing points, however we tread with caution, occasionally turning back if the path seemed too treacherous. We did manage to climb a couple of walls for views back across the open mud brick ruins.

Even in ruins I still find Omani doors beautiful and so diverse!

We managed to spend about about half an hour exploring the maze of laneways through the ruins, before we had to hit the road in order to reach our destination.

– Reanna

CITY OF MAGIC // Bahla, Oman

Located at the base of the Al Hajar Mountains, Bahla was initially more of a stop of convenience for us. However, this small city was well worth a visit, especially for the UNESCO Heritage listed Bahla Fort and the beautiful views over the town. Said to be the home of djinns and sorcerers in times past, the city is also known as the ‘City of Magic’.

A few notes on visiting Bahla:

  • Getting there: Bahla is 40km from Nizwa, and about 200km from Muscat. Most visitors stay in the bigger city of Nizwa and visit Bahla as a day trip.
  • Accommodation: As most visitors stay in Nizwa, there is limited accommodation in Bahla. We stayed in the Jibreen Hotel, which was tacky but comfortable.
  • Visiting Jibreen Castle: Also spelt as Jabreen/Jibran/Jabrin etc. Located on the outskirts of Bahla, to the south of the freeway. Entry was 0.5 OMR, and included an audio guide.
  • Visiting Bahla Fort: Located in the centre of town, opposite the Bahla Souq. Entry was 0.5 OMR.

After a couple of hikes in the mountains, and a long drive back down, we were pretty tired by the time we arrived in Bahla in the early afternoon. We lazed around our hotel for a bit, before heading off to Jibreen Castle.

Jibreen Castle is quite small, and we comfortably walked around the entire complex in around half an hour. Audio guides are included in the entry fee, but we declined to take one and instead just followed our noses around the castle.

Built in the 1600s, this castle features some original carvings and paintings in addition to the traditional curves of Islamic architecture.

Our night in Bahla admittedly ended in a very early bed time due to sheer exhaustion (and jet lag!). We made up for our pathetic attempts by waking up early and taking in the below spectacular view from our hotel window.

After checking out we drove into the centre of Bahla with the intention of visiting the souq before heading to Bahla Fort. However, the souq appeared to be in the middle of a renovation, with parts of the market cleanly renovated and apparently unoccupied, whilst older sections looked too run down to be inhabited. As we had arrived too early to enter Bahla Fort, we sat out the front of a local coffee shop sipping Omani coffee and people watching.

Bahla Fort was hands down the best fort we visited in Oman. Besides the fact it was ten times cheaper than Nizwa Fort, we had the place almost to ourselves, and there was so much to explore.

There was next to no signage at the fort, so one is left to wander through the maze of rooms, precarious staircases and laneways on their own. But that was all part of the charm of this place. Oh, and the views over the town were an excellent bonus.

If you are going to visit one fort in Oman, I would thoroughly recommend Bahla Fort, and skipping Nizwa Fort completely. The one in Bahla, besides being UNESCO listed, felt a great deal more authentic then the Nizwa Fort, which had been heavily renovated for tourism.

I guess it was all down to the magic of the place!

– Reanna

NOT QUITE THE SUMMIT // Jebel Shams, Oman

Hiking is certainly the main attraction in the Al Hajar Mountains, so on our second day we were up and out in the morning to explore some more of the area.

See my first post on Jebel Shams for some more information about the region.

Here are a couple of snaps of our ‘tent’ at Sama Heights Resort. It was hardly camping – the tent was connected to power, had proper beds, and a bathroom attached!

Besides the ‘balcony hike’, another popular hike in the region is the ‘summit hike’, W4. After some initial confusion on our behalf (ie. completely missed the sign) we worked out that the hike started directly next to our resort.

The full W4 hike is 9km one way, and takes you as close to the summit of Jebel Shams as you can get. It is intended as an overnight hike, or at the bare minimum a full day trek. We didn’t have the time or resources for such exertions, so decided to follow the track for a couple of hours before retracing our steps.

This hike was far less stressful and exposed than the ‘balcony hike’ from the day before, as we were safely away from the edge of the gorge on the plateau. However, the track did occasionally come close to the edge and offered some stunning views back down into Wadi Nakhr.

Looking back across the plateau, we could see our accommodation and the main road in the distance.

For perspective, the ‘balcony hike’ is situated on the cliff face you can see above, but about 100 metres down into the gorge!

Oh, and by trail, I mean that we were following the coloured squares you can see above! The track was essentially non existent, leaving us often lost for periods of time until one of us was able to locate a faint patch of paint in the distance! It kept us occupied from the continual uphill walk.

After about 4km we turned around, and retraced our steps back to the car.

The drive back out of Jebel Shams was less stressful now that we were 4WD pros (joking).

However, instead of following the main road back to Nizwa, I directed Chris (who was driving) on a detour to Al Ayn on the pretense of visiting so ancient beehive tombs. What I thought would be a quick side trip turned into some hairy driving along tiny back tracks through small villages, over mountains, and finally a decent into the above valley.

It was fun!

Thankfully google maps led us to Al Ayn, and we pulled over on the side of the road near where the tombs were marked on the map. I attempted to follow the directions to access them described in this blog post, but we ended up stuck several hundred metres away behind fences. At least we were able to see the beehive tombs from the distance!

From Al Ayn, we drove around an hour back to the main freeway on blissfully sealed roads, before heading to the city of Bahla for the night.

– Reanna

THE BALCONY WALK // Jebel Shams, Oman

Whenever I am asked what the highlight of our recent holiday was, my answer has been visiting Jebel Shams in Oman, and doing the ‘balcony walk’. It surpassed all expectations I had before visiting the mountains, and left me on such a high for the rest of our road trip.

Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun) is the highest peak in Oman, located in the Al Hajar Mountains. Hiking to the peak of the mountain is actually not possible, but the main attraction in the area is visiting the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Oman.

A few notes on visiting this region of Oman:

  • Getting there: Jebel Shams (also spelt Jebal/Jabal) is accessible by car from Nizwa, going through Al Hamra and taking around 1.5 to 2 hours. It is recommended you hire a 4WD as the last few kilometres of the drive are on an unsealed, very rocky, steep and narrow road. There are accounts from other travelers online that a saloon car will get you there.
  • Facilities: There is no town in the mountain region, though you will pass some small villages on the way up. Stock up on food and water in Al Hamra or Nizwa.
  • Accommodation: Campgrounds are available in the mountains, and camping is free. We stayed at Sama Heights Resort, one of a few ‘resorts’ in the area. Most bookings include half board (breakfast and dinner) and serve lunch at an additional cost.

The drive up to the mountain was simply spectacular, though at times a bit terrifying due to the narrow roads! Much to our amazement a group of German cyclists were riding up the mountain.

After checking into our accommodation, we jumped back into our car and drove a few more kilometres along a small dirt road, before stopping for our first view of Wadi Nakhr, the ‘Grand Canyon’.

The view was amazing, even if we were momentarily distracted by our first encounter with one of the many local mountain goats. This guy tried to jump in our car!

I had never seen anything so big or felt so small! I have no idea how long the drop was to the bottom of the gorge, but we certainly could not see the bottom.

After a few photos we drove the final kilometre to the start of the ‘balcony walk’. The walk is a 7km return hike, marked as W6 on hiking maps (if you can find one! This site has a very small map lacking detail, but it is all we had). The hike commences in the tiny village of Al Kateem. The road ends, with parking near the local residents makeshift market stalls – if you are in the market for a goat hair key chain, this is the place! The hike commences a few metres past here – follow the painted squares to the left. The track descends slightly into the gorge before following the cliff face around.

The path was narrow and rocky in places, but relatively clear and easy to follow. It started off tame enough, as could see it continuing along the cliff in the distance. There was certainly no shortage of views.

For the first few kilometres I was so caught up in the views that the height of the path didn’t bother me, though I was always conscious that the bottom of the cliff was a long, long way down.

We only encountered a few other hikers whilst we were walking. Our main companions were the goats – see if you can spot the goat in the tree above!

Every corner we came around revealed the track snaking further and further along into the distance.

As we progressed further along, the gap between the path and the steep edge of the gorge become a great deal smaller. Being a very (overly) anxious person, it was about this time in the hike that I began feeling incredibly exposed and unsafe walking on the track, to the point that I began to feel physically sick. After stopping a few times and talking my growing fear through with Chris, we decided that we would keep pressing forward, but taking the pace a lot slower to ensure I felt as safe as I could.

The cute goats also made me feel a bit better.

Just when I began to feel as though I was not going to be able to keep pushing forward, we arrived at the abandoned village that marks the end of the walk. I almost cried relief, but I focused my energies on questioning why someone would build a village on the edge of such a big cliff in the first place!

The village features some well maintained huts, irrigation systems, and of course, more goats. Reading about the village later that night, we learnt that the hiking trail is an ancient donkey track used by villagers coming in and out of their town. I suppose one of the perks of living in this location would be the spectacular views from your front door.

Hiking back was substantially easier mentally (the track felt less exposed walking the other way), but tougher physically, as it was a gradual incline the entire way back!

Arriving back at the car felt like such an achievement for me, as I had been certain at times that my fear would stop me taking another step. But I made it, and that sense of personal accomplishment alongside the simply stunning vistas made this day such a highlight on our journey.

– Reanna