We were driving out of the Wadi Al-Seen and, reaching the crossing towards the asphalt road, we noticed that the driver of a car on the other side of the road was making excited hand signs. Yes, the signs pointed to our rear left tire, now entirely reduced to ... single stripes of rubber. So begun a most surprising experience with the Omani people, which we would remember for a long time.
We had spent the morning touring the wadi and its gorges via rather steep and rough roads. It was the first time we drove a full-size Land-Cruiser and were quite happy with the feeling of "perfect" safety one gets from driving such a large car. Perfect or not, a tire is a tire and wadi roads in Oman are tough. I already knew that getting the car back on track would be a challenge --having to deal with a tire sized one meter and all. Especially, when the car sinks into the ground on the side of the missing wheel and you find no space to position the jack. Obviously, me standing there grasping the misery of the situation and scratching my head, must have triggered some special kind of amusement and compassion, as the driver of the other car got out, called a friend, and he another friend, and in no time we had a handful of people helping to change our tire. I don't know where they all came from so quickly, but having them around us, all discussing among themselves, was somehow comforting. Communication with us was reduced to hand signs, as we couldn't sport any Arabic, but hands can be very expressive and so I learnt that you can raise the car by simply putting a larger stone under the now naked wheel and driving the car “over” it. Once that was demonstrated they went on and fixed the replacement tire as well —all that in less than 20 minutes. They left with the same speed as they came and left us just trying to figure out what had happened. All the more as they refused, with a disconcerted face, to accept any money for the work. Omani people are friendly, helpful and open; they are also discreet and never intrusive. We would experience that many more times during the trip.
Touring through wadis gives one also a rare chance to get to see a little of Omani rural life and its population. And that can be sometimes quite surprising. It was the early afternoon of a normal weekday. We had spent most of the morning driving through the mountains around Jebel Shams when we saw, low beneath us at a dry riverbed a line of white jeeps driving by. We hadn't met a soul in hours and the sight of the cars made us quite curious. It turned out to be the school “bus” service returning kids to home. Indeed, education is considered to be important in Oman and resources are deployed to make sure that children of even isolated settlements have access to schools. This rather progressive philosophy becomes also apparent in other areas of Omani life, such as the occasional appointment of female ministers in the government, which stands in strong contrast to the prevailing culture in Oman’s neighbouring countries.
One of the most stunning places we visited was the Wadi Shab. The entrance to the wadi is located about 70Km south of Muscat, close to Tiwi where the water joins the sea. Land inwards lie a narrow gorge with plenty of vegetation, date plantations, rock formations and colourful pools. Which, combined with the sounds of a very active sub-tropic fauna, makes walking through this Wadi quite a sensational experience.
A trip to Oman cannot miss a tour to the Wahiba Sands. Named after the ancient nomad tribe Wahiba, the sand dunes in the south-west part of Oman represent one of the largest wandering sand regions in the Arabic peninsula. The fine sand and the always burning sun transport you immediately into the atmosphere of an ancient caravansary. Most surprising was the approach to dunes, when you suddenly find yourself in front of a mass of sand, towering above you some eight to ten meters high. In that moment we started to absorb the term “wandering dunes” —as in rolling and shifting.
Did I mention that driving a four wheel drive jeep through these sands is far more challenging than I had expected? Where the bedouins do it every day, I failed miserably, and only the helpful hand of a local expert brought us back on track :-)