Last year I felt the strong desire to go on a road trip with my father. We hadn’t seen each other much over the pandemic period, and he had just had a hip operation. The events prompted a reflection within me and I felt that we needed to do something together. I had also bought Dad a gift and I wanted to find a meaningful spot to present it to him.
Our original intention was to drive from the north of Oman right down to the south of Oman but after dad had spoken to some friends in Oman, we decided that it might be a bit too ambitious right now. The north-to-south route had a few stretches where we may need to camp overnight, and, in any case, the scenery wasn’t as beautiful as the North, so we plotted a short round that stayed in the north of Oman, but covered mountains, oceans, wadis and desert.
I took many photos along the say with my Panasonic Lumix only to discover upon my return to the UK that all the photos had disappeared from my SD card, leaving me disappointed and annoyed. I did take some photos on my phone camera, but only a few. Hopefully the memories and tales with suffice.
Doing a road trip was important for both of us for another reason. We used to live in Oman and my parents spend a good amount of time there still. We lived in Oman back in the 90’s when it was just starting as a new country and developing its infrastructure. It was quite a momentous time for the country, but for me as well. At the time, it was a unheard of hot, dusty country, but there were already glimpses of the prosperity that awaited the country and its people. There was a real sense of adventure at the time, and many of the Westerners who arrived to work or build up the infrastructure in the country, were often a certain type of adventurer who enjoyed taking a 4×4 out to the desert at weekends.
I suppose we wanted to relive that feeling together; take a 4×4 and travel out into the remoter and wilder parts of the country.
Of course, we weren’t going to be going to far. It was more about doing a trip together.
Dad had looked at car rentals prior to our departure and said that there were two options: a Hyundai Creta ‘softroader’ or a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4. In my mind, there was only one choice. Even though it was twice the price, we had to go for the Mitsubishi Pajero.
So we rented the Mitsubishi and I began to compile a track list for the trip. I started downloading songs, mainly from the mid-90s: Rolling Stones, REM, Grateful Dead, Vangelis – all songs that I actually associate with growing up in Oman, because those songs were released at the time. I suppose it was quite nostalgic, but why not. I only wish we could’ve rented a 1990s Nissan Patrol or Toyota Landcruiser.
We set off pretty early and the first stop was Wadi-al-abrayyan.
The first track to be played had to be the opening song from the Voodoo Lounge album.
It was a couple hours drive from Muscat along the main highway which became increasingly empty the further we left the city behind.
We followed the satnav until the tarmac and the satnav both ended. After that we needed to follow the signs. Then the signposting stopped and we followed a dirt track through some muddy dark ravines.
The road hugged along the mountain within the wadi then dropped down towards a stream in the middle of an oasis. No adventure has begun till we drive a 4×4 through some shallow water. It was a joy to sense the stones and water splashing under the wheels, and wtinessing the spray of water to the side of the car.
We revved up the other side of the river bank and parked up in front of a village. Dad unfolded his camping chair, unscrewed the thermos flask, whilst I went to explore the wadi.
After a short walk through the wadi, I came across a pool of crystal blue water surrounded by hot light grey rocks. The pools had been carved out into the rock over the course of, presumably, millions of years.
It was already quite warm when I arrived, and I sat there in the still quietness.
After a while, I got changed and immersed myself into the water. It was warm water. There was also something deeply ritualistic about immersing myself into the water, as if the beginning of a new chapter. I noticed a stone at the bottom of the blue water and dived down to grab it. In fact, I had even dreamt about diving into a pool of water some days previously. With my new stone, I perched myself onto the side of the pool and with my wet hand stamped a handprint onto the smooth light grey rock, an ancient signature of sorts. In the heat of the sun it faded away quickly. My presence just a fleeting moment in these ancients mountains.
It was remarkably quiet in the wadi. The mountains around by jutted up sharply and the sky was a very light blue.
I looked around this mini eco-system around me. The water from the stream poured into the pool, at a steady rate, seemingly endlessly. Dragonflies circled around above the water and small fish nibbled at green algae on the smooth rock. Their whole world was contained just here. Nothing else existed for these dragonflies or fish, and they would stay here the whole existence. But there was something delightful about watching this small universe.
I wandered back over to the 4×4 and found dad reading something and consulting a map. The map we were using was almost 30 years old and many of the new roads didn’t exist then. The main roads still existed, but were often expanded.
We made our way back out of the wadi and headed towards our next destination which was Tiwi.
Tiwi is another wadi with a famous waterfall inside a cave. This was a place we had been to when it was practically unheard of. To our dismay, when we arrived, there was now a car park, cafe and tour guides. Walking up the wadi with dad’s new hip was out of the question so we went to the cafe and, with a chai in our hands, perched ourselves on some stools, and watched the tourists begin their journey up the wadi.
An English voice from behind us asked if we were British, to which we nodded. It was a young Englishman asking us if the hike up the wadi was suitable for someone in a knee strap. We looked down, and saw a blue strap round his knee. Evidently, he had strained his knee whilst playing football on the beach against the locals. We informed him that the last time we went up the wadi, was thirty years ago! It was well worth the hike, though. In fact I came back about a week later on my own.
After drinking up our chai we continued our journey to Sur
Sur is the old dow-building town on the coast.
We arrived in the afternoon and unloaded our bags into the hotel, which was situated next to a petrol station. This was a hotel that had never heard of interior design. The theme was: Tiles, floursecent lights and leatherette.
We went for a walk around the old souq. There wasn’t much to see in the souq, unless one was looking for an arabic wedding dress, so we circled back to the hotel, since it was getting dark anyway.
The bright, tiled hotel restaurant was as brash as the rest of the hotel. Plastic chairs, plastic sheets over the tables and a view of a petrol station. We ordered a fish biryani. To our surprise it was an authentic Luknow style biryani, cooked on a fire and with bread on top. It turned out to be the best biryani we had eaten.
We left Sur in the early morning, driving past the old fortresses and across the new bridges.
We were headed to Ras Al Jins, the Turtle beach, famous for being the nesting grounds for millions of turtles.
We drove up towards the beach. It was empty when we got there. Dad unfolded his camping chair and relaxed in the an I, again, explored the beach. It was a golden sand and the water gently lapped against the shore. The cliffs must have been a soft sandstone for they looked easily disintegrated by the saltwater.
Where are we!
Who knows how many of millions of turtle eggs lay below our feet, as we sat on a beach on the edge of the Indian Ocean.
A crab was also busy digging sand out of his hole, again a self-contained little universe. At that moment, I received a message from my five year old daughter, asking me where I was! Here I was on the remote edge of the Arabian peninsula, looking out towards the Indian Ocean, but the phone kept me close. I sent her a video of the crab digging his hole and she was delighted!
After drinking our chai, we packed up and headed off in search of a hearty lunch. We drove along the single track tarmac roads until we came upon a small village. It’s often difficult to know where the ‘centre’ is, because sometimes, it’s just a collection of houses with a few shops or eateries on one of the main roads going through the village – perhaps more reminiscent of a village in the Wild West, than an English village with a ‘centre’. The mosque is always a good place to aim for though.
We arrived bang on midday, as the call to prayer blared out from the minarets. There was a small fort nearby too and we decided to poke our heads in.
The front door was a huge and ancient arched wooden door, with a smaller 4 foot x 2 foot door within the main door, which was slightly ajar. Dad pushed the small door open and attempted to clamber in. With his sore hip and reduced flexibility the entrance wasn’t easy, The doors were clattering and Dad started cursing. As soon as we got into the hallway, we noticed three men on rugs attempting to pray.
Embarrassed by our loud and obnoxious entrance, we sat quietly in the lime-plastered hallway and politely helped ourselves to the Omani coffee and dates, which are customarily available in all public spaces. When the praying had finished, we asked permission to view the fort. Of course, was the response. It was beginning to get hot and the fort offered no shade. After walking around briefly, we became increasingly hungry and impatient.
We drove up the main road looking for a place to eat. The ‘Matams’ (restaurants) were all fairly similar: they were glass-fronted buildings, sun-bleached curtains, and covered with pictures of fruit juices and grilled chicken. The tables are always glass covered with the obligatory tissues, ketchup and chilli sauce to reassure guests. The quality of the food can be mixed: sometimes it’s authentic, other times completely greasy and average, and there were no external indicators to gauge the quality of the food. One of them looked fairly busy, so we chose that one. To our delight, it had an outdoor seating area with canaries and parrots.
We ordered the usual Mendi. I had recently figured out how to make my own Chicken Mendi in the UK, using a pressure cooker for the chicken and the rice!
Our onward journey to Ashkarah was still a few hours away.
The roads were empty here. The scenery was flat, with only a few mountains visible in the distance. At time we were driving along the coast. It was remarkable how hostile the water looked. Although the water was blue, I don’t think anyone would want to go swimming in the water.
As we listened to the music I had downloaded, but the nostalgic vibe started becoming a bit out of place. In many ways, it was bizarre to be driving along a road in the Middle-East and listening to music from America and the UK from 30 or 40 years ago. The times had changed enormously and the music, too.
At times, the environment looked so hostile, we could have been driving on Mars. Driving in an airconditioned 4×4 presented no sense of fear at all to the outside elements. We were perfectly relaxed in our little space ship, and it was easy to forget that we were miles from the nearest civilisation. In terms of walking, it would be hours, possibly impossible. But there’s usually sufficient passers by so there was nothing to worry about (no doubt mum worried anyway).
I thought we would spend more time chatting together, but as it turned out it was actually very pleasant to just be driving together. Dad was content looking at the scenery out of the window since I was doing all of the driving.
We did of course reminisce about the time in Oman.
We talked about projects we done, and good times. We also talked about what’s still important. It’s rarer these days to get time alone with dad for a few hours, let alone a few days, so a road trip was a good excuse for us to be together and doing a mission of sorts.
We rolled into Ashkharah in the late afternoon. The hotel looked like what you might find in a military complex – a sand coloured building in the middle of nowhere, but with good new facilities. There was a modern restaurant and a pool.
We jumped into a cool 8 metre pool and caught the last moments of the sunset before it disappeared behind the buildings, leaving a bright pink and orange sky. We had a light dinner. After that, it was quite nice to switch on the TV in the hotel room and ‘switch off’.
To the desert
The next morning, we drove inland towards the Al-Wahiba Sands, a huge sand desert covering a large part of Eastern Oman.
We headed towards a camp about 30km into the desert.
Before we entered the desert we stopped at a ‘last stop’ town on the edge of the desert where we could let our tyres down, and shift the car into the 4×4 setting … finally!
After picking up some two more take-away chais, we drove through the old part of the town, took a turning – drove down a narrow road between some old mud buildings, past some palm trees, then another turning, past a few last wheelie-bins and goats to see us off, and then the tarmac finished. Open land with the orange dunes on the horizon! We drove for a few minutes along a grey gravel sufarce. The gravel road had become corrugated, shuddering the car. The suspension in the Pajero is notoriously hard so every bump cold be felt and heard.
As soon as we ascended the first dune onto the soft sand, the noice stopped. All that could be heard was the humming of the engine as we glided along the sand tracks.
This was by far the most enjoyable and thrilling experience of driving so far. There were a few signposts to various camps in the desert and other than it was just endless dunes and some camels walking around lazily.
Driving on the sand track was a new experience; it was a bit like aquaplaning especially when entering a previous car’s grooves. It was important to keep the speed up. It certainly required more concentration.
After driving for about half an hour into the desert, we came the desert camp. We were only going to stay for the afternoon. It appeared to be quite empty (again making me wonder where all the tourists are) and after looking around, we settled down into cool of the majlis. It was so still, so quiet and so comfortable, that after resting my head on the cushions within about a minute I was gently snoring. This time it was Dad who went to explore around the camp a bit.
When I awoke, I realised that this was the spot to present Dad with the gift I had bought him. Originally Dad had bought a Seiko diving watch in Oman in the 90s. He gave it to me whilst I was at uni. I had dropped it, breaking the glass and then before being able to get it fixed, I lost it. It had been bothering me ever since so I bought an almost identical replica and had it with me.
We grabbed some Omani coffee and I presented Dad watch the watch to mark my gratitude. The watch is something he can wear and remember me and think about the nice times.
He was both very touched and very pleased to have a new diving watch. He won’t be doing any scuba diving but he can use it for swimming along the beach.
At this point, it was time to make our way home. We were both actually quite tired from the journey. It was only three days but we covered over 1,000 km and had seen mountains, oceans, and deserts.
Before leaving, I gladly told many of my friends about my intention to do the roadtrip with my father. I noticed many realised the significance and I hope they do similar trips and journeys.