After leaving the mountains, we headed for Muscat, to the Mercedes dealer for repairs and service. This would be the third time being in Muscat. We arrived in time to discus the different items to be fixed and serviced. The manager was so kind to drop us off at the hotel afterwards.
We had a different hotel this time and the temperature was much better than during the previous visits. It was now also much busier with foreign tourists. It’s high season and again the temperature lures the “comfort” tourist to Oman. After 2 months in the camper, it was strange to be in a bigger space again,. A bigger bed, bigger shower, more space to walk around. But also a big buffet breakfast and restaurants. And actually, I still cannot make up my mind if I really enjoyed it. We are getting so used to our “tiny house” on wheels. Its comfortable for us, we have everything with us and can move to any place we want. Also the fact that you are between “regular” tourists who come for a limited time and see Oman via booked guided tours, doesn’t make us one of them to connect easy.
Keeping up with our tradition of a G and T happy hour, we enjoyed a very nice sunset from the poolbar restaurant of the Crown Plaza Hotel, one of the best located hotels in Muscat (at least to see the sea, town and a great sunset).
Next day we used the day to do some shopping in the largest shopping mall of Oman, the Mall of Oman. The malls are so different from those in Europe. They are super clean, it smells nice everywhere. It’s quiet, often not busy with people, no loud music and the shops are very different. You will find a lot of parfum and essence stores, plenty coffee shops and fake looking jewelry shops. The Mall of Oman – being the more upscale one – also offers nice clothing stores (of which you wonder, whether they sell anything at all, looking at the local dresscode…..). A Declathon was just opened and we bought ourselves a nice tandem inflatable kayak, in case we ever reach the sea again. We visited some other necessary stores and were able to complete our list that afternoon.
Next day was a complete restday. Finished my blog story, enjoyed the pool and made a nice walk on the beach.
Wednesday we heard that the truck was ready for pick-up. The taxi brought us to the workshop and the truck was nice, clean and serviced. Unfortunately, the part for which we came (the pressure control valve for one of the back tires), was not the right one and could therefore not be changed. Luckily, along the way it seemed the problem of the valve solved itself (most probably it was caused by the desert dust). The new replacement valve would take about 2 weeks to arrive from Germany and we did not want to wait for that. The workshop did also some paint touch up on the big scratches from my Mirbat roof incident. Not perfect, but it looks a lot better. With all that, we were confident, we would be able to continue our journey for the next 4 to 5 months. The manager was so kind as to drop us off at a large supermarket this time (because at these malls it was not possible to park the truck). After picking us up again, we took some time to stock and re-organize our supplies.
That evening there was a friendly soccer match between Oman and Germany in the Muscat stadium. We were unable to buy the tickets ourselves on line, but we still drove towards the huge Sultan Qaboos Sport Complex and Stadium. There, on the parking, the parking attendant was so kind to assist us with obtaining the tickets. The problem was that we do not have an Omani tell number. By taking an elderly Omani guy from the street on his way to the stadium, the attendant was able to use his phone and credit card and via photos, airdropping etc we finally got our digital entree tickets. It all took a good hour, but we were in time. Walking between thousands of enthusiastic Omani supporters, you could easily pick-out the couple of western football fans, of which – of course – most were German. We had to split up, since there were different lines to enter for women and men. Actually, one (very short) line for women and 20 (very long lines) for men. Well, and one relatively short line for the husbands of the women in the women line…. Yes, it was very clear that this kind of events is for men, and the women who did attend, where mostly European.
Since we got our tickets so late, we had seats in the Oman section, since the (small) German section was sold out. Having never attended a football match and knowing from TV what football hooligans are capable of, we preferred to find a seat in the German section (which being Dutch in football world is really not done). This was not that difficult, since all the security and police officers, where convinced that we were German (tall, blond and blue eyes, can’t blame them). We took some seats and hoped we could keep them. During the match, the zone got slowly filled up and actually most supporters were not German at all, but Omani’s with Germans flags, supporting the German team (still don’t know why they were not supporting their own team). It was an interesting experience, being at an international soccer match in an Arab country. But the nice thing is, people are the same when it is about sport. We all enjoy the match, the same rules are applied and for a moment, people forget about their daily stress.
Even the fact that Oman lost with zero to one from Germany, there was a very good vibe. No angry drunk hooligans, just happy people who looked at a nice football match. Again we were surprised how behaved and polite people are, also in big crowds as we were in. We walked back to the truck, went inside, switched on the AC, made a good cup of coffee, while outside the thousands of fans, slowly drove off from the big parking. Within an hour we were all by ourselves on the huge parking. We had a very nice and quiet night.
Next morning we drove out of Muscat towards the Jebel Akhdar mountains. Before reaching the foot of the mountains, there is a police check-point, which is only there to check whether your car is capable of climbing the mountain. And we discovered that indeed it was not a bad idea that they check the cars. The 2300m climb over a well paved road, is one of the steepest roads we have driven so far. I have never seen a mountain road with so many escape lanes for cars and trucks who loose their brakes (which by itself looks already very discouraging). With a snails pace of 10km/hr, we climbed higher and higher, passing broken trucks (boiling radiators or burst engine blocks), or being overtaken by fast driving Toyota Land Cruisers. Along the road we saw big bottles of water, to be used for those with a boiling radiator. The climb, however tough for the truck, was rewarding from the amazing views perspective. We reached the top and started to look for THE places which make the Jebel Akhdar so popular among Omani’s and tourists. Again, not many signs pointing towards interesting locations, so we had drive from road to road. One of these roads was a dead end road, which stopped at a packed little parking area, where it was impossible to turn the truck around, so we decided to park the truck and check out why these cars were parked there. A small path lead into a hidden canyon, full of fruit trees (mainly pomegranate) and 2 abandoned mud house villages, beautifully located on the edges inside the canyon. During our walk down into the canyon a local guy start talking to us and accompanied us on our walk and actually became our guide. He and his family used to life in one of those villages and he told us a lot about the village, village life, the fruittrees etc. He later showed us even old pictures from when the village was still inhabited. There was a small one room hospital with a nurse, a little school, a tiny mosque and a communal kitchen, in case of festivities or unexpected guests. The last person to leave her mud house was about 20 years ago. If you see and hear all that, it’s really unbelievable the transformation this country has made in such a short time.
We were reaching the end of the day and now we had to look for a camp spot, which in the mountains is not always easy, since we prefer to have the truck a kind of level (no more sliding down in the bed). It was getting dark and still no good spot. On our Garmin we saw 2 camp spots popping up. We drove into a large reasonable flat area (in the darkness of night) with here and there a tree. We parked near a tree and after diner we went to sleep early. During the evening a number of cars passed by the truck, but very close. It kept me awake. Why so close if you have almost 4 soccer fields to drive thru? When we woke up in the morning again, cars were passing us very close again. It turned out we parked the truck on the middle of the road!!!!! Luckily, Omani people don’t get upset easily or start honking their horns (in all our time traveling in Oman I have never heard cars hoking in traffic, except for when they are in front of stores to get the shop attendants out of their shops.)
The Jebel Akhdar is a big area and we still had only covered a small part. So, we continued our exploration of the area. Large plateaus built up with small towns and villages are overlooked by high mountain peaks. In between deep stunning canyons with beautiful wadis at the bottom. A small narrow dirt road was leading into a narrow canyon with – again – an abandoned village (usually a new village with big and modern houses is built nearby). It’s a huge difference for these people to move from a mud house without electricity, internet etc to these modern homes. Since we expected a dead end with no space to turn (and it was going downhill), we parked the truck at the beginning of the road and started of a hike which would take us for 3 hours through a canyon, mountain ridges and secretive shepherds in centuries old rock houses. We got lost on the way back and had to find a way down in the canyon towards the truck. Loose stones and gravel, steep droppings and scrubs with large thorns did not make it easy, going down. But we eventually made it back, just in time to enjoy a very red sun going down behind the mountains.
We still had more areas to go to, so early morning we drove towards a spot where 2 luxury hotels are located on top of a large cliff. This was indeed the more touristic area of the mountain, with shops, restaurants and 2 large hotels plus one under construction. When passing the last one, a small steep road was going down into a kind of wonderland. No wonder, why these hotels are here! This was such a dramatic canyon and mountain view, hard to describe in words. The road down was the opposite from the climbing part we did 2 days before. And not only that, about 200 Omani police officers were walking up this steep road in full gear (with backpack) as a training exercise. We went down, but at a small T-junction, there were 2 very tide pin-bends, which were too difficult to take. Under the watchful eyes of 20 police officers (who were at the point of their climbing up), I had to turn, with another truck coming down and a car going up. Keep calm and stay concentrated is the only thing you can do in these situations. I managed and half way up the road again there was a small parking spot with a little hill next to it, where we found a super nice location. In front of us an amazing view of the canyons, behind us the marching police officers, left a big mosque on the cliff and on the right we looked at the mountain castle of the Emir of Qatar (who is a big friend of the Sultan)
It is an amazingly beautiful area of the Jebel Akhdar mountains. Due to the climate there are even grapes growing on farms (but wonder if they are transformed into wine in this country). On the way out we stopped at a very fresh looking coffee shop (L.A. Cafe). The owner came out and was crazy about our truck. A quick coffee stop became a whole afternoon of chatting, filming, photo shooting, lunch and later on, being joined by his wife as well. Ali – the owner – is also a fanatic 4×4 driver and likes camping out in the desert, so we had a lot in common. Other tourists and Omanis passed by and the truck received a lot of attention and Ali was super proud that it all happened in front of his great cafe.
The planning was to leave Jebel Akhdar today, but we had such a good time with Ali and his wife (Jumana), that time flew and the sun was starting to set. We went back to the first camping spot and this time parked nicely beside the road.
Today was the day I didn’t looked forward to. First of all, leaving the mountains (it will take a long time before we would be back in mountains again), saying goodbye to the cool mountain temperatures, but worst was the steep descent itself. Best is to go down, the same way, same speed as you go up, which was first gear and even low gear, and by doing so not putting too much stress on the brakes (and save the brake pads). So with a speed of 10km/hr, we went down, overtaken – again – by fast driving Toyota Land Cruisers. However, we made it down safely, without smoking breaks and had plenty time to enjoy the view at every corner we encountered.
Since a couple of weeks – through social media – we had been in contact with another couple, who has been driving around in a Zetros truck with a Bliss unit too. They were now in Saudi Arabia and on their way to Oman. We were now on our way from Oman to Saudi Arabia. You cannot really plan a rendezvous with total strangers and such big distances, but somehow destiny brought our paths closer and closer. So today we agreed to meet each other somewhere in Oman. In this case we picked the Beehive Tombs at Al Ayn.
These Beehive Tombs are an Unesco site. A site of tombs (scientists assume they are 5000 year old graves) which is hard to find due to a lack of proper signs, is not properly maintained, has no acces road nor parking area. The Omanis (which I have said before) are not so much into heritage appreciation or protection. We had to find our way to it, but the road nearby was washed away due a recent flash flood. We had to walk through a small village, farm land, bush and climb the hill on which the tombs are located from the back. Once reaching the top where the tombs are, we were surprised that at the same time a large group of tourists were coming up the hill from the other side. (And we thought we were all alone and found the only route). It turned out the be a group of geology students with a German professor, who were on a tour through Oman, visiting interesting geology sites. It was great, since the professor could tell a lot about the tombs and the surrounding mountains. The location of the tombs was not the best place for a camp, so we went to Wadi Dam, which is a well known spot for camping and hiking and nearby. The first route towards it was blocked for us by a low hanging power cable, which I almost overlooked, so we had to turn around and find another way in. As the name says already, it is a wadi and the road in and through it was a dry river bed with rocks and pebble stones and a lot of trees. It was almost not suitable for a big truck, but we made it through and reached a beautiful large open spot at the end of the canyon through which a stream of water flows. Lined with large date palm against the straight vertical cliff of the canyon, we had a wonderful spot. A French couple on bicycles were camping nearby. We informed our new friends with their Zetros that we found a great spot to camp and that also they could camp there as well (though their truck was even bigger than ours).
They unfortunately had a flat tyre and had to drive through the darkness to reach our spot. It was almost magical to see their big Zetros arriving in the wadi through the bush, trees and rocks with all their beamer lights on. We were so happy they made it! It was for us the first time to meet with other overlanders since our trip. Overlanders are different from the “regular” tourists we meet. We travel for longer time, unguided, openminded and with our “homes”. It’s almost like a different culture group. We depend on ourselves, we have to solve our own problems (no travel agency or what so ever you can fall back on). We had a good click right from the beginning and exchanged nice stories.
As usual, we woke up without a strict plan for the day. We enjoyed a long breakfast together and before we knew it was already noon, so we all decided to stay for the day. We went on a beautiful hike through wadi Dam, which has a number of nice small pools, some with turquoise colored water. When we returned we quickly got our bathing suites, took some cold beers and rushed back into the wadi the take a dip in on of the little pools. It was such a nice thing to do after an extensive hike. For the evening Marja made some very good pizzas and again we had a great evening with our new friends. I must admit that traveling together for a prolonged time is nice, but as “normal” human beings, you tend to start missing nice conversations with other people and in this case it was like a re-charge of the brain, to listen and absorb but also to release and reflect.
Next morning Marja (like the day before), made a nice fresh fruit smoothy for all of us for breakfast. We finished our meet up with a photo shoot of the trucks (it may not happen anytime soon that we meet up with another expedition truck again, let alone a Zetros expedition truck). After saying each other goodbye, out paths split. They moved on into Oman and we followed our road towards the Saudi border.
To get to the border, we passed through the city of Ibri, which we used as our last stop before leaving Oman. We dropped off the laundry, stocked up with our last food supplies and filled up the watertank. Nearby Ibri you find the last (low) parts of the Jebel Akhdar mountain range and there is where we camped the night with a nice and quiet view on the city. Next morning we picked up our cleaned laundry and drove the last 150km towards the border. Once you leave Ibri you enter into the flat plains of the Empty Quarter again. The road towards the border and onwards is pretty new, was opened in 2015 and became the first land border access road between Oman and Saudi Arabia. The Empty Quarter has always been a big barrier between the 2 countries. The discovery of huge amounts of oil in that part of the desert by Saudi Arabia and Oman, did speed up the process of making the area accessible.
Like all public buildings in Oman (especially those related to security), the border station compound was huge and beautifully designed. There are a number of gates you pass through, but they are unmanned except for one. You can see that it’s all built for future huge volumes of traffic, which is not yet happening right now. There are multiple lanes, immigration and customs booths, but only one of each is in use. Actually, the officials have not really much to do. The check out of the truck went fast and smooth, but the immigration was different story. Although we have a multiple entry visa for a year, we were told we overstayed and that was a problem. It turned out that with this type of visum, you can only stay in Oman, 30 days max at the time, which was not the way it was explained to us, You have to leave the country and come back in, even if it is on the same day. The logic of it goes beyond my understanding. So finally the immigration guys had something to do. From every office in the huge building, uniforms showed up and started to look at our passports and the visa stamp, as if they had found the Rosetta stones. One by one passed by to explain our problem. Computers were activated and like space control, the guys were clued to the screens, to figure out what to do with us. They were all busy on their cell phones, calling superiors in far away offices. After almost 2 hours, one officer came forward, almost shaking, to give us the bad news that we had accumulated a fine of almost Euro 3.000.00! Well, that is a nice way of saying thank you for visiting our beautiful country. Of course I totally disagreed with this message. It was never explained or told to us that we had to leave and come back after each 30 days. It would also be very inconvenient for us to drive all the way down (almost 3000km) from where we were, to the border of the Emirates or Saudi and go back to pick up the tour we were driving. I was unable to convince the officers, or actually, they were unable to overstep the boundaries of their responsibilities.
At the end I received the advise, to talk to the Immigration manager and he was located in…………..Ibri. It was almost the end of the day and now we had to drive back to where we came from, Ibri. (Another 150km drive). When we arrived, we first checked out the location of the police station (where the immigration manager has his office). There were 2 stations and the first one was in town. A big police officer on guard duty with a huge machine gun hanging on his shoulder, explained in Arabic that we were at the wrong station, but at least he could explain where we had to go instead. This would be for tomorrow since it was now already evening and dark. We headed back to our camp spot from the night before, at least we didn’t have to look for that.
Next morning we drove off to the police station outside of town. It would be the third time for me in Oman, that I visited a police station. As said before, spread over the country huge brand new police compounds have been constructed, which house all law enforcement departments. They look like fortresses with high surrounding walls, watch towers on the corners with big search lights and heavily guarded entrance gates. We reported ourselves at the gate, where 3 police officers stood guard and listened to our reason for visiting. We receiced the approval to proceed and walked towards the main building over a large landscaped square with flagpoles. The entree doors were like those of a church, huge (about 3 meters high) and made of heavy wood. Inside there was a frontdesk, which could confuse you. Am I in a police station or is it the Ritz Carlton Hotel? Marble and granite floors and columns all over. We were directed by the 2 officers at the frontdesk towards the office of the Immigration Manager. The building is huge (and its a paste copy design, for the stations all over the country). Many small offices, with desks and computers, but few people, I saw hardly any paperwork. Does the Government expect a population explosion in the near future so they make sure they have the infrastructure in place to police all the additional people? Or is it a matter of just grandiose thinking? I don’t know, but impressive it is, for sure!
We finally reached the office of the Immigration Manager. A large office, with a huge desk, an ordner cabinet with a handful of ordners, no statistics papers on the wall. But what do you expect in a country which is ranked among the top 10 of safest countries in the world (with a very, very low crime rate). Behind the desk was the Immigration Manager, in full uniform, in his late 50ties, large dark eye brows and heavily decorated with stars and medals. Another uniformed high ranking officer was sitting next to him, and on a couch was a non-uniformed official. In front of the couch another chair and in the middle a round table , with……..coffee, tea and dates (what else can you expect). When entering we felt like being presented to a military tribunal, but all gentlemen stood up, greeted us with warm welcome, offered us to sit and drink coffee and eat dates. At least the ice was broken. What followed was an hour long chit chatting about everything except our problem. It was hard to determine if they were all there because of us (had the border post actually informed them that we were on our way?) or that they were all there by coincidence. However, after a certain moment the chief (the manager) through the other two gentlemen, (his English was minimal), asked the purpose of our visit to his office, so there I finally could explain our situation. Again our passports were subject to extensive research and they all started calling with their cell-phones. It also looked like that our case was a unique one, since they also had to go through the manuals “what to do with people out of Sint Maarten, who stayed longer then 30 days”. My main argument of the wrong procedure being followed by immigration officers at the airport upon our arrival at the beginning of September (where the visas were issued), was holding firm. After extensive deliberation among them and the “mysterious” persons or person (maybe the Sultan himself), the verdict came. We are now made aware of the procedure concerning our visa officially and the fine was deleted. Wauw, that was good news, and at least we didn’t drive all the way back for nothing. We also realized now, that it is was quite unique what we have done looking at our tour through Oman, driving through this amazing country non stop during 2 and half month, was technically not possible any other way.
After making the usual jokes about camels and wives, Amsterdam and the Red light district, we said goodbye to our new friends and drove again the 150km towards the border. In the meantime, the immigration manager had called the border office, telling them what was agreed upon and told them to cooperate with our easy departure out of Oman. Well indeed, they were informed, but before they had figured out how to put our fine waiver in the system, we were again 2 hours later. (But this was understandable, the system is made to avoid corruption, so many stamps and signatures were needed). For now this was our last day in Oman, we passed another couple of gates and left the beautiful border compound into no-mans land. (The area between the 2 border posts). We were now on our way to the Saudi border.