Simon Calder: Our man in Oman is driven to distraction
Saturday 16 May 2009
Mr Meticulous was halfway around the car when his phone rang. Given our location, deep inside in the Terminal 1 car park at Dubai airport, I was surprised it worked. And startled when he said "It's for you."
I never found his real name, but Mr Meticulous will do: he was well dressed, fastidiously polite, and painstaking about leading me around the car. He was not explaining how it works, but pointing out several minor imperfections on the surface of the blue Chevrolet. The implication: if I were to add to the tally of about six tiny dents and scratches on the bodywork, the cost of my rental would increase sharply.
He smiled as he handed his mobile across. It was the woman I had spoken to just a few minutes earlier at the rental desk. "I just wanted to check that you are not taking the car into Oman."
On the shifting sands of the Arabian peninsula, frontiers can be hard to identify. The border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, for example, comprises a jagged clutter of straight lines that are meaningless except for the purposes of "my square mileage is bigger than yours" debates; the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula is a valueless void. But as the north-east tip of the Arabian peninsula curves around to point menacingly at Iran, there is no mistaking the boundary between the UAE and my destination, the Musandam Peninsula of Oman.
This exclave of Oman makes a fascinating target for travellers in Dubai who are anxious to reconnect with real life for a day or two. But when I asked the lady at the car-rental desk if I could pay a levy to take the Chevy across the line, she looked as though I had casually mentioned I was driving to Afghanistan. The subtext: dragons, demons and damage await north of the border. I promised I would not stray across, and signed the contract for an implausibly cheap day's hire for £25, including everything except new blemishes.
I had evidently looked shifty, which explained her follow-up call via Mr M. Even so, I unreservedly endorse her company, United Car Rentals (00 971 4 285 7777).
At the arrivals hall of Terminal 1 at Dubai airport, the technique I used to choose from the array of desks was to pick the car-hire company I had not heard of. "Walk-up" rental rates at airports are normally lousy; so I surmised that if I chose a firm without an international reputation, it might be cheap and nasty but would also undercut the majors.
Cheap, undoubtedly; nasty, not at all. Indeed, it was easiest car pick-up I have experienced. Because United has no stable at the airport, you are invited to sit and wait 10 minutes while Mr Meticulous arrives with your car. The arrangements for returning it are equally undemanding: "Ten minutes before you reach the airport, call us and we will meet you at Departures."
Two hours after bidding farewell to my scrupulous new friend, I arrived unscathed at the frontier with Oman, asked the friendly border guards if I might leave the car there for the day, and sighed with relief.
On the long, winding and these days very bumpy road through life, you are either a driver or a passenger. And with a few uncomfortable exceptions I have happily spent my time away from the wheel. Perhaps I could blame the vehicle I learned on, in the late 1970s: an Austin Allegro with a square steering wheel.
Against all laws of nature and motoring, I passed a driving test, but did not drive for another six months later, when I got a job working for a car-rental company at Gatwick. Considering my career lasted only three days, it was eventful: on day one I drove on a motorway for the first time, and received my first tip: 50p, from the American customer who probably suspected that I had never tackled a motorway before as I drove him to the terminal. And I also had my first prang, in a car with just 32 miles on the clock, which I managed to reverse into another vehicle in the parking lot.
At the border, after a baffling amount of border bureaucracy, involving quite a lot of cash in two different currencies for a selection of documents and passport stamps, I entered a land harsh in gradient and desolation, but kind to the hitcher. A man named Abdul provided a ride down the road to the fort at Bukha.
It must be a full-time job looking after Oman's many forts, I mused as I waited for another vehicle to appear. As luck would have it, it belonged to the man with that very job, Mr Hassan of the Omani Ministry of Heritage, who came along right on time after his inspection visit and ordered the chauffeur of his immaculate Toyota Land Cruiser to stop. As I sprinted towards the air-conditioned 4x4, I briefly inspected its immaculate exterior. Mr Meticulous would have approved.
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