the Musandam Peninsula at the start of our trip
gave us a taste of the Sultanate of Oman.
After two more stops -- a
few days on Iran's Qeshm Island and a few hours in
Dubai -- we flew to Muscat,
Oman's capital and the starting point of the
outdoor-adventure main event of our trip.
Oman is more moderate than Iran but still a relatively strict Muslim society. Although head-scarves were unnecessary, it would have been rude for Emily or Jennifer to leave shoulders or knees exposed when in cities or villages. Alcohol is available for retail purchase only in special shops for foreigners, though many hotels have bars where it's not unheard of to find a few Omanis (males only!) enjoying a beer or two.
Muscat (photos 1-2) is a modern, friendly city with dramatic mountain-and-sea topography, plenty of ancient history, and a distinctly Arabian atmosphere that makes it feel quite different from other cities we've visited. We spent a day walking the Mutrah Corniche pathway along the shoreline, admiring palaces and restored forts, taking in the alleyways of Mutrah Souq, and enjoying yummy inexpensive Middle Eastern food.
Early the next morning our guide Ibrahim rolled up in a white Toyota Landcruiser packed full with food, water, tents, and other equipment. (We would soon discover that almost every vehicle outside the city is a white 4x4: white because of the incredible heat in the summer; 4x4 because of the incredible mountain roads.) Ibrahim's younger brother Mohammed joined in as official driver -- most of our hikes were remote and one-way, with a many-hour mountainous drive to get a vehicle from start to end points. Ibrahim and Mohammed were a great team: competent and personable, they clearly enjoyed each other's company, and they worked well together keeping everything running smoothly (photo 3) -- no minor feat considering the wide variety of locations and activities involved. As our trip unfolded we very much enjoyed learning about their home and family lives.
Nine days was long enough to explore a substantial portion of the stark and dramatic jebels (mountains) and wadis (canyons) of northeast Oman. Five of the days were challenging all-day hikes, up and down steep rocky canyons generally without an actual trail (photos 4-6). Ibrahim's guiding through the difficult terrain was impeccable, and each day he produced a delicious fresh lunch from his over-sized daypack (photo 7). Three other days were "canyoning," where we would proceed along the floor of a narrow canyon by clambering over large boulders and swimming in beautiful, refreshing, sometimes surprisingly long pools (photo 8). One of the canyons required us to rappel a few times (with the necessary equipment miraculously appearing from Ibrahim's pack), and all of them involved a few leaps (photo 9). On the day we hiked Oman's most famous short trail -- the precipitous Balcony Walk -- instead of returning the way we came as most hikers do, we exited the canyon vertically using a via ferrata (fixed cable) climbing route. Here too Ibrahim was an amazing guide, coaxing us up the difficult passages and taking photographs when Jennifer was too afraid to look down (photo 10).
Many nights were spent camping, in locations varying from high mountain ridges to small villages to sand dunes where we woke up surrounded by camels (photo 11) to the beach. With a vehicle along things were pretty comfortable: thick sleeping mats, roomy tents, and most importantly excellent food. In addition to camping, one night was spent in a mountain eco-lodge, and two nights in modest hotels allowing for much-needed showers. All in all the "trek" was an ideal combination of activities that kept us busy, physically challenged, and appreciating Oman's truly wild side. We didn't run into even one other hiker during our entire nine days, except on the Balcony Walk and the last bit of one canyon that had a beautiful aquatic cave popular with European tourists. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts are missing a gem.
Next: Alex and Jennifer head home so Jennifer can resume her instructional odyssey and Alex his duties as Computer Science department chair. Emily is studying abroad spring semester at ETH in Zurich, and since they don't begin until late February she's taking the opportunity to continue the adventure and travel on her own for a month in southern Africa -- a real chip off the old block!