Imagine Morocco without the tourists

Frank Giles stepped on to the sands of Oman and found his winter bolthole conjuring up images of the French Foreign Legion

OMAN, with its mud forts, long coastline, mountains and huge date- palm groves, is visually similar to Morocco. But there are two differences: Oman has (for the time being) only a trickle of tourists - few package tours, no backpackers, only the odd group of Japanese, a minimum of blue- rinse matrons from Milwaukee. Secondly, the Omanis, a quiet, dignified and friendly people, are not importunate with foreigners. They leave you alone, unlike Morocco, where crowds of youths surround you wherever you go, trying to sell you carpets and guided tours.

Oman's winter climate is like Upper Egypt: warm by day and ceaselessly sunny, cool at night - in fact a perfect bolthole from a grey, cold February in Britain.

But having flown to the bolthole (about seven hours away), what is there to do? You could be content to remain in the capital Muscat, the name for an amalgam of built-up areas rather than a single place. Full as it is of double carriageways, shopping malls, bowling alleys, and ice- rinks, it could be taken as an alternative version of Fort Lauderdale in Florida. But the sight of veiled women, souks, the occasional flock of goats nibbling at the grass-covered traffic roundabouts soon dispels that disagreeable illusion.

There are several first-class hotels, including the Al Bustani, one of the most flamboyantly luxurious hotels in the Middle East, if not the world. At all of these establishments, you can laze by the pool or walk along the beaches. But it would be a pity to miss the magnificent scenery which the rest of the country has to offer. With a four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver (you can drive yourself but with some sand-driving ahead we chose not to) it is all yours to conquer. The most frequently occurring feature is the fort: huge, pale brown crenellated strongholds which dominate the landscape and bear witness to an earlier age of strife and tribal rivalries. So fort-minded is the country that even the public telephone boxes are built to resemble miniature forts.

Originally constructed of mud bricks, many of these structures, having fallen into disrepair, have now been restored. They may look like the set for a film about the French Foreign Legion, but in fact the work has been skilfully done; most of them are open to the public. Jabrin, an easy drive from Muscat, is particularly fine, with its painted ceilings, and so is the fort at Nizwa, Eastern Oman's second city.

The mountains, which run down the spine of North-East Oman, have a splendour of their own. One of the experiences of a lifetime is to drive up the (unsurfaced) road to Jebel Shams, the highest point of the range. The track runs along a dried-up river bed, or wadi, until it begins to climb to a height of over 2,000 metres, where a giant fissure, or gorge, reveals itself in all its awe-inspiring dimensions. It bears comparison with the Grand Canyon in the US, or the Vikos gorge in Greece's Northern Epirus, and rates - or at least should rate - as one of the natural wonders of the world. The rock formation is studded with marine fossils - proof that this terrain was once the bottom of a shallow sea.

Camping in the desert is another invigorating change from ordinary life. The Wahiba Sands, a great sand sea inland from Oman's eastern coast, consists of wave after wave of precipitous ridges, leading to moonscape plateaux. Driving for the uninitiated could be hazardous.

Our expert Omani driver took a delight in scaring the wits out of us by suddenly stopping the car at the crest of a big slope of 45 degrees and then fearlessly plunging down it. There is no danger provided the vehicle begins the descent at a right-angle to the slope. If not...

Take woollies, all the books tell you, against the coldness of the desert at night. How right they are. It is not just cold but damp as well. Any clothes left out of the tent are soaking by sunrise. The compensation for these slight discomforts is the sensation of solitude and dead quietness. Even this is a delusion, because in fact the desert is rich in Bedouin settlements - huts made out of palm fronds, camels tethered alongside them, and, invariably, a red Toyota pick-up truck.

A thousand kilometres to the west lies Salalah, the capital of Dhofar, the region blighted in the Sixties and Seventies by a rebellion, supported by neighbouring Yemen, which caused the Sandhurst-trained Sultan to call upon the British for military aid. The landscape is less rugged, though still dominated by the mountains looking down on the fertile Salalah plain and the coastline, with its succession of sandy beaches. The best way to get there from Muscat is by air; the drive, though perfectly feasible on a good, hard road, is generally agreed to be stupifyingly boring.

Dhofar is the home of the frankincense tree, which gave rise to a rich trade in earlier times. It is uninspiring to look at, but its resin, when collected and left to harden, yields the wherewithal to burn and exude the rather sickly smell still sought after by oriental society. The trees, which grow naturally out of the arid subsoil in which they seem to thrive, have a quasi-mystical attraction, their name alone conjuring up associations with the three visitors to the Christ child and, earlier still, with the Queen of Sheba, the ruins of whose palace can (according to the guides) be seen on the sandy shore of a natural harbour east of Salalah.

At a point slightly inland from there is a stretch of track where, for inexplicable reasons, the force of gravity is suspended. The heavy vehicle in which we were travelling ran mysteriously backwards up quite a steep slope, with its gear in neutral and the engine cut. On the level ground beyond, it tooled along at 40km an hour, still with no engine.

Twenty-five years ago, so old Omani hands like to recall, the country was caught in a medieval time warp with only a few miles of hardened road, a minimal school and hospital system. Back then, the gates of Muscat town itself closed at nightfall and anyone still out and about had to carry a lantern and visiting foreigners were not encouraged.

Today, under the autocratic rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said (who has two royal yachts, a big and a small) Oman has been transformed into a modern state, though with enough of its past preserved (and of course its natural wonders unchanged) to excite the visitor's interest. This has been possible largely because of the discovery of oil, but also through the enlightened ideas of the Sultan. If the future flow of tourists can be controlled, if the building of skyscrapers continues to be prohibited, so that the ambiance of this delectable place remains unaffected, Oman will still be one of the most desirable hot weather destinations for the discerning traveller.

oman fact file

Getting there

Frank Giles is a former editor of the 'Sunday Times'. His Oman visit was arranged by Jasmin Tours Ltd, High Street, Cookham, Berks, tel: 01628 531121.

Jasmin Tours currently offer nine-day "safari" group tours of Oman (with several departures in February, March and April) which allow customers to camp out in the desert; price around pounds 1,100 based on two sharing. A five-day extension at a beach hotel in Salaleh can also be arranged for pounds 424, based on two sharing.

If travelling independently, the excellent Emirates (Tel: 0171 808 0808) can get you to Muscat and back for pounds 359 +pounds 20 tax, as long as you stay a Saturday night and complete all travel by 15 March.

Visas

Visas can be easily obtained from the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman at 167 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5HE, tel: 0171 225 0001.

Further reading

One of the few guide-books to include a chapter on Oman is Lonely Planet's 'Arab Gulf States' (pounds 12.99).

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