off roading in oman
taking command in oman
Oman may not be the first destination that springs to mind when planning an automotive adventure but, as Andy Enright discovers, it has much to commend it
The first breath of summer's gharbi wind brings with it several thousand tonnes of dust. It's carried from the quarter-million mile expanse of Oman's Empty Quarter, carving intricate rock sculptures in the rocky interior before falling like pink snow on the waters of the Arabian Gulf. At the moment, it's shotblasting the back of my neck and sending the photographer scuttling for a lens cap. A minute later, the skies are clear and I spot the Jeep convoy making silent progress across the far horizon, its position betrayed by a lazily drifting cloud. There's no sound, the two dozen V8s being dulled by distance. I manage to convince myself I can hear myself sweating.
Photography duties over, it's time to rejoin the pack. Back home, I might feel a little guilty about caning this Jeep Commander's 5.7-litre Hemi engine quite so hard but when fuel costs 19p per litre and you're sitting atop one of the world's largest reservoirs of crude oil, it seems churlish to fret. We've ground to make up. According to the hand-held GPS, we're in the middle of nowhere, a section of the map helpfully marked 'Sand and Gravel' around eighty miles north west of the Omani capital Muscat. It's impossible to fault the description though. If you're looking for sand and gravel, it would tough to be disappointed here, visual relief being provided by the odd stunted frankincense tree and perpetually confused looking camels. This is probably the furthest I've ever been from a branch of Starbucks.
Aside from this local inability to get hold of a frappuccino, there's a lot to be said for several thousand square miles of sand and gravel, especially when you've got a Commander, a full tank of fuel, a back up team to bail you out if you spectacularly run out of talent and carte blanche to go wherever you want. My previous off-roading experiences had often resulted in being threatened with arrest or shooting but in Oman, the general philosophy is if it's navigable, drive on it. Even if it's not, give it your best shot. It's hard to imagine anywhere with this combination of easy access to astonishing terrain.
"If one was to design the perfect 4x4 playground, it wouldn't look too different to the interior of Oman"
Today was earmarked for dune driving. A gnarly route that scrawled its way across the map, taking in only the most vertiginous sand dunes had been traced by Duncan Barbour, the expedition leader. He's the man responsible for all the driving shots in The English Patient, The Mummy, and Sahara. He also coordinated all the running battle scenes in Braveheart so he knows a thing about 4x4 driving. Even the experts get things wrong though, and staring down this fifty-degree incline onto a pan-flat salt lick, I sense that Barbour may be having reservations about sending us down. Only when he gets into his Jeep and vanishes over the edge do I realise he has no such qualms. Select low range, first gear and keep the steering pointed ahead. The first second or so is utterly terrifying. It seems almost inevitable that the Commander's bluff grille is going to plough itself into the sand and send the vehicle onto its roof to toboggan down the incline but the big Jeep behaves impeccably. It's almost anticlimactic.
Oman is not what you might expect. In 1970, Sultan Taymur, who was opposed to modernization, was overthrown by his son Qaboos. Sultan Qaboos ibn Said introduced many socioeconomic programs designed to modernize Oman. He's also pretty serious about sweating the details. Advertising hoardings are forbidden; laundry may not be hung out of windows; building-sites have to be hidden behind tall fences; owners of dirty cars are punished with a stiff fine; houses must be painted in the traditional white or ochre colours; many ugly buildings dating from the early oil-era have been compulsorily demolished; and air-conditioners must be covered by wooden slats.
Wadi bashing is on the agenda for day two which sees us head south out of Muscat into more rugged basin and range scenery studded with disused forts, huge vistas, 6,000 foot peaks and river beds (wadis) that run from dry to raging torrents in a matter of minutes when rain hits the high peaks. The drive out of Muscat runs counter to all preconceptions I had of Oman. The city is almost eerily tidy with perfectly manicured grass banks on either side of the main road planted with hibiscus and date palms. A man-made waterfall only adds to the slightly surreal Vegas feel. The Al Qubrah mosque, a vast sprawling, modern complex is supersized too. We didn't have time to stop by and see the world's largest hand woven carpet. Maybe next time.
Right now I'm wondering how a Commander is going to climb a rock step that looks utterly insurmountable. Barbour talks us through placement of each wheel, the nearside pair billygoating along a narrow ledge, pitching the Jeep over at a drunken angle. This thing is going over. There's a feeling of helplessness as the angle grows ever larger, followed by a brief flash of resignation that you'd sooner put the Commander on its roof than lose your nerve in front of everybody else. The nearside front wheel is pawing thin air, giving the Quadra Drive II's software has something to chew on. Quite incredibly the Commander rights itself and hauls itself free. Even with the air conditioning on maximum cool, I can feel prickly heat down my back. I never knew 2mph could be quite so traumatic.
There's a huge amount of national pride amongst Omanis and it's easy to see why. Crime is virtually non-existent, the climate is fantastic, the cost of living affordable, the scenery is astonishing and the country is a progressive and pragmatic example of a modern Islamic state. Besides the almost unlimited off road opportunities, there's plenty to do and see. Dolphin watching is popular with pods of up to 100 easily located. Nature lovers will easily spot eagles and vultures although Arabian oryx and leopards are a little more retiring. The souk on the harbour front of Mutrah is a great place to shop for precious metals and local jewellery. Dates, Arab clothing, exotic spices and mother of pearl are also worth looking for. Just don't try to bring ornamental daggers back in your hand luggage. Equipped with a Jeep Commander, it's impossible not to feel the adventure rising in your blood. Just point the nose at an empty part of the map and drive.