Perched on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman might seem an unlikely adventure travel destination. In contrast to most of its neighbours the Sultanate is small, stable and safe, and consequently receives little attention. On the rare occasions that Oman does feature internationally it is often closely associated with the sterile skyscrapers and shopping tourism of the United Arab Emirates.
But in the past few years a new breed of visitor has been drawn to Oman in search of adrenaline and adventure. The country is rapidly emerging as an outdoor playground for those with excess energy, and for some very good reasons…
It’s a mountain runner’s paradise
The Al-Hajar Mountains stretch for hundreds of kilometres across northern Oman. From the sky they appear as a vast dividing line between the coastal plains and the desert plateaus. From the ground the rocky, barren landscape is as stunning as it is unforgiving. At more than 3,000m, the highest peak, Jebel Shams, occasionally sees snow.
Until recently the network of rugged mountain trails was mostly used by the occasional goat herder – but in 2018 the country’s first mountain ultramarathon, UTMB by Oman, was launched and the popularity of the sport has been soaring among both international visitors and locals. Anyone looking for a technical endurance challenge will not be disappointed. The line between trail-running and climbing is often blurred and in 2019 there were just 31 finishers in the headline 170km race. Fortunately, there also a more inclusive shorter version, at a mere 50km.
There are cycling climbs to die for
So steep are some of the roads leading into the mountains that four-wheel drive vehicles are mandatory and enforced at checkpoints. There is of course an alternative for the adventure traveller – one can pedal up.
In 2020 Oman will again be hosting the Haute Route, a multi-day amateur cycling event that brings together competitive mid-life crisis sufferers from around the world. Lycra-clad enthusiasts can look forward to gruelling climbs, terrifying descents and, if they have the energy to appreciate them, spectacular views stretching all the way down to the sea. Even Jenson Button, a competitor in the 2019 event, described the experience as ‘breath-taking’, and that is coming from a man who drove Formula One cars for a living.
Anyone attempting to self-organise a cycling tour would be well advised to avoid the hottest summer months, take plenty of water – and fit in some hardcore hill-climbing sessions.
You can camp nearly anywhere
Outside Scandinavia there are few countries that allow travellers as much freedom to camp as Oman (it helps that Sultan Qaboos effectively owns much of the country). Except for a handful of nature reserves, you are basically allowed to pitch your tent anywhere. This enables independent travellers to rent a car or a motorbike and explore the vast and varied beaches, mountains and deserts of Oman on a modest non-oil-exporting budget.
The camping is certainly wild, with few facilities, a scarce population and occasional wolves. But the country’s many wadis offer an excellent alternative to a shower and there are plenty of incongruous looking French hypermarkets where campers can equip themselves for self-sufficient adventures.
There is sea everywhere
Oman has a long history as a naval empire and sailing is a central part of the country’s culture. For centuries simple wooden Dhows have set off from Muscat towards Zanzibar and the rest of East Africa on the monsoon winds (The National Museum in Muscat provides a fascinating overview, albeit with any mention of the slave trade notably absent).
Today the 2,000km of coastline host a thriving racing scene and Oman is hoping to see its first sailors enter the 2020 Olympics. Speaking as an accident-prone novice the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Oman certainly trump the Solent as a learning ground.
For those who prefer to be under rather than on the water there are plentiful opportunities to snorkel or dive alongside Mobula Rays, whale sharks and sea turtles off the Daymaniyat and Al Fahal Islands.
And there is luxury when needed
Any fool can be uncomfortable, a maxim that I have often proved on my holidays. But after a few tough days of endurance or exploration there is nothing like a bit of luxury. When it comes to opportunities for self-indulgence, Oman is well served. Of the many high-end hotels, The Alila Jabal Akhdar is possibly the most stunning, blending perfectly into the cliff on which it is built. Surrounded by pomegranate trees, the infinity pool offers one the ideal opportunity to appreciate rather than confront the harsh Arabian landscape.