Oman: The Jebel Shams Circle (22/02/19-27-02/19)

Oman has been on my radar for some time – ever since I was cycling in the Middle East, back in 2015. As I rode across Iran that summer, it started to seem more and more likely that I wouldn’t be able to get a visa for Turkmenistan. It’s a country that has always had strange entry restrictions, but they’d suddenly started tightening up and declining a large amount of applications for transit visas. In the end I got lucky, and I received a visa in Mashhad, but by that point I’d spent a fair amount of time looking in to alternative solutions. One of these was to get an Iranian visa extension, ride all the way back to Azerbaijan and take a boat across the Caspian Sea to Uzbekistan. That would have been a lot of faff. The other idea was to ride down into Afghanistan and east through Pakistan. That probably would have been a bad idea for numerous reasons. The third option was to head down to the southern coast of Iran and catch a boat over to the UAE. I could then have cycled to Muscat and flown to the west coast of India.

Of those options, the third always seemed the most appealing. Everyone I know who has cycled in Oman has loved it there. The descriptions I heard of the people, landscapes and people sounded like something up my street.

I haven’t cycled anywhere abroad since my ride around the world and I’ve had itchy feet recently. London is a rather miserable place in winter and February is surely the bleakest month of the year. I wanted to escape to somewhere warm while the British weather was crap, and Oman popped back on my radar. Initially my plan was to fix up the Dawes Galaxy I cycled around the world on (it’s been out-of-action and in pieces the last year), and take a couple weeks to do a 1,000km loop of East Oman. But, I never got around to the job and the weeks slowly passed by. Oman is an ideal destination in winter, but by spring it is already getting pretty hot. I didn’t think it would happen, but then my colleague Phillip suggested going for just a week and I didn’t require much persuasion. We packed up our mountain bikes (I took the Marin I’ve been using for off-road adventures over the last year) and I modified my route into something that could be managed in just a few days.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat

We arrived in Muscat, groggy after an overnight flight from Heathrow. I wasn’t a fan of the capital, so we may as well fast forward to the good stuff. I struggled all day to function properly after only a couple hours sleep and my body didn’t react well to the sudden heat. We took a cab to a cheap nearby hotel and asked them to look after our bike boxes for a few days. We then wasted the rest of the day riding around town in search of a threaded gas canister for our stove. That turned out to be a real mission. The Omanis love camping, so gas canisters are widely available, but they are all a different type than mine. The same type I had to deal with in Indonesia when I couldn’t find any compatible ones. Anyway, that’s a bring tangent. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, head to the big Sultan Centre in the middle of town. That’s the place to get them.

My planned route began at Rustaq, which is at the foot of the Al Hajar mountains. I wasn’t entirely sure how we would be get there; there’s a bus that runs to Rustaq from Muscat but I wasn’t sure they’d carry our bikes. We could have hitch-hiked, but we didn’t exactly have an abundance of time on our hands. I messaged a few Warmshowers hosts in the area to ask if they knew about whether or not the bus would carry our bikes, and one of the guys I messaged – Abdul – offered to give us a lift himself.

Abdul is the ‘trail angel’ of this chapter. He commutes more than 100km everyday to work in Muscat. We arrived on Friday (weekends are Fri-Sat in Oman) and he was still happy to come and get us. Amazing.

We sped towards Rustaq on the new 4 lane motorway that leads all the way into UAE, stopping briefly to watch some jeeps in the desert testing their engines by trying to drive up massive sand dunes.

At one point Abdul muttered ‘short cut’ and we slid off the tarmac, drove off-piste across a short distance of scrubland before rejoining a new road heading off towards his village. This is was what much of Oman is like – random, half-finished infrastructure in the desert.

We had a BBQ that evening in the desert with some of Abdul’s pals, after driving a short way across the dunes. The chaps rigged a light up to the car battery and we rolled out a mat on a hill top. Another of their mates came to join us, and we watched his car lights turn off from the motorway about a mile away and then slowly make its way towards us. Driving over the dunes, following a Whatsapp location at first and then our bright light. He had a desert ready 4×4 that didn’t need roads.

It was a lovely evening – the temperature was perfect and it was beautifully quiet. We drank spiced Omani Qawha coffee, snacked on endless dates and barbecued skewers of meat.

At one point a scorpion gatecrashed the party and everyone jumped to their feet. Someone smacked it with a sandal and flicked it way from our mat, before the picnic resumed.  

Abdul’s guest room

In the morning myself and Philip set off. The road heading west from Rustaq was busier than I had expected and it wasn’t until we had cycled about 15km that we had the first option to turn off onto a dirt road detour. The track didn’t exist on OSM (the map platform that I was using to navigate), but I’d saved the GPS line and it most definitely did exist. This was the Oman I had been looking for: peaceful double tracks that weaved through barren mountains. Rough riding, but nothing technical. Perfect for my fat tyres, which drag on the asphalt.

In the early afternoon we turned south, to follow a ‘shortcut’ through a gap in the mountains. It was another odd road, that existed only in part on on Google Maps. On OSM it was marked as having sections missing to cross the river, but there was no water and the road was perfectly fine. It was steep in places, but perfectly rideable.

We set up camp after 100km. Ironically, it started raining as we pitched our tents and we were forced to cram into my tent to eat dinner. It was ironic because we deliberately left England to escape the rain, and yet suddenly the south of England had an early summer and it was a dry 20C. This time a year ago we’d be in the grip of the Beast from The East. Well, not this year.

Picking thorns from my tyre

We cycled back to the main road in the morning, past camels that were hanging out by the roadside and along smooth tarmac for much of the morning. Some of the road was brand new, recently paved for the first time. However, it hadn’t quite been completed so no cars could make it through. We had it all to ourselves.

I hadn’t realised until a few days before leaving that we would be riding in Oman at the same time as the BikingMan Race. Bikingman have a series of bikepacking races around the world. All of them around 1,000km and unsupported while the clocks don’t stop. I did some calculations and guessed that the front-runners of the race would overtake us on our second day, so it was not surprising when we bumped into the first media crew around lunch time.

“Are you guys doing the race?” they asked. I should have lied and said yes. At this point we would have had a considerable lead – a totally illogical and impossible one, given our heavy loads and wide tyres. The leaders were carrying barely anything for the race, aiming to finish it within 3 days. We made small talk with the photographers, before continuing over the small pass.

The climb up Jebel Shams is real slog. The road is paved most of the way up, but winds upwards at a nasty gradient making it worthy of respect as a real mountain climb. It was a slow afternoon for us, sat in our lowest granny gears ascending gradually. As we neared the top of the climb another film crew had their cameras turned towards, having mistaken us for competitors until we were near. Philip suddenly stopped, pointed to the girl with a camera and said “I know you from somewhere!” Turns out they had studied together many years ago at Newcastle University. Philip lives in London, she lives in Jordan. They bump into each other on a mountain in Oman. Small world…

One of the guys racing in Bikingman Oman
A mosque in the mountains

After stopping for a chat, we realised that our legs had had enough for the day and we stopped to camp for the night. It was suddenly cold at almost 2,000m above sea level, but certainly not cold enough to warrant the thick winter sleeping bag and down jacket I’d be heaving around with me.

From this view you can see the gravel road climbing up the mountain. One of the race stragglers can be seen making their way up in the morning…

All through the night I could see the lights of cyclists making their up and down the mountain. Almost all the stragglers were walking, but who could blame them? They had reached a steep gravel incline after more than 300km cycling. I’d be walking too. The sound of spinning freewheels was strangely soothing, but that was interrupted rather frequently by a loud swear word from one of the racers who’d had quite simply enough for one day.

Hiking route along the canyon rim

We made a detour at the top to check out the view points along Oman’s ‘Grand Canyon’. It was probably worth the effort for these vistas alone, but the real reason we had climbed up was to to tackle the 25km dirt road loop up in the mountains.

This turned out to be an arduous detour. Originally we had planned to ride all the way up to the very top of Jebel Shams to camp for the night, but our legs were shot and it seemed like a pointless amount of additional climbing for a dead end – just to say we had reached the top.

The mountain-top loop was killer. It was hot and the roads were ridiculously steep. We were starting to crumble. My left knee had given up under the strain of ascending and was causing me a lot of pain. Philip’s rear hub had developed a concerning crack and the wheel was starting to wobble wildly.

After completing the loop, we re-joined the tarmac and flew back down the mountain. Philip took it a little slower than myself, but still made me nervous every time I saw his rear wheel sway from side to side. I had to stop at one point as I could smell my disc brakes smoking.

Typical Omani homes

We picked up some supplies in Al Hamra before making our last camp on the hill looking back across town. It was a beautiful spot, but the winds were unbearable. Neither of us slept particularly well, and I had dreams of my tent blowing off the mountain.

Campsite at dusk, overlooking Al Hamra

Each night it surprised me how quickly it became dark. By the time we get anything resembling such warm weather in the UK, the sun sets slowly and there is plenty of ‘warning’ that darkness is approaching. There weren’t that many more hours of sunlight in Oman, but every afternoon we cycled too long into the late afternoon and ended up cooking in the dark. I forgot to bring my headtorch. I regretted that.

Campsite at dawn
Shepherd in his crisp whites

It was one last long climb the following morning, another ascent of around 1,300m until we were back up at 2,000m above sea level again. The ride up was a gentle gradient on paved roads. My knee was really buggered by this point, so I was grateful the ascent wasn’t too steep.

The sealed ascent from Al Hamra

At the pass the tarmac suddenly stops and the road drops down into a sharp canyon. The view was insane and the track was thrilling. Rocky as hell, a deep washboard in places and full of sharp bends. On any other bike it would have been traumatic, but on my Marin it was sublime riding. Honestly – one of the best descents I have ever cycled (and I have done some good ones!).

Al Hajir

We stopped a few times to make way for 4X4s heading over the mountain. I would have been terrified driving a road like that. One slip and it’s game over for you. Some of the weaker vehicles needed a few attempts to get up and over the steeper inclines.

Phillip’s rear hub was looking more concerning every-time we stopped to check up on it. On the smaller climbs the torque pressure would be too great and it would make an unpleasant sound as it slipped without catching. I prayed that it would survive the rest of the day – there were so few cars it might have taken a very long time to get a lift out of the canyon.

The rest of the road was beautiful, but tough in places. The temperature was high in that thin gap between the mountains and some of the hike-a-bike’s were killer. My arms were aching from the pushing and we were starving. There were no villages with shops and we had run out of food.

Luckily we passed a guesthouse that found some food for us. It was crap and expensive, but those factors don’t matter too much when you are starving.

The iconic (ad totally bizarre) 5-a-side football pitch made for an Audi advert. (Give it a Google).

Food was a funny one in Oman. Supermarkets in towns like Mustaq, Rustaq and Al Hamra are plentiful and stocked with everything you could ask for (and included almost all Western luxuries). Shops in the larger villages were not quite as useful. They often only had dried goods, so we often resorted to Arabic bread and tins of beans in sauce for dinner.

There are ‘coffee shops’ in all of these villages too. They do sell coffee, but it comes in tiny instant cups, tastes horrible and has enough sugar to blow your head off. Their milky tea – Karak – is far tastier. It’s still ridiculously sweet, but infused with aromatic spices and herbs.

These ‘coffee shops’ also sell food. Usually just one item, like a ‘sandwich’ – a wrap with egg, chicken, veg and chilli sauce. Good for a small snack. The prices varied a lot. I paid about a fiver for an incredibly average sandwich at the Jebel Shams resort when there were no other options for food. Then, a couple hours later paid £1 for a huge meal at an Indian-owned cafe further down the mountain.  

‘Chicken sandwich’

The final day ended up being a very long one. We were going to stop for the night when we finally reached the main road, but decided to crack on for another hour or two so that we could get back to Abdul’s village. If we could get there, we’d be able to get a lift back to Mustaq in the morning. If not, we’d have to try and get on the bus or hitch-hike. That might have been a stressful end to the holiday.

I was ready to stop for the night (mainly because the batteries were dead in my front light), but Philip wanted to crack on. He made the right shout. I trailed close behind so that he could light up the road and we battled an awful headwind to escape the mountains. Under a star-filled night sky, we followed another brand new highway back towards civilisation clocking up more than 100km for the day.

We were embarrassingly filthy on our arrival back at Abdul’s village. Both of us had thick dirt-lines lines from where our socks rolled up to. My legs were a strange mix of blue from suncream, red from sunburn and brown from the dirt, combined over 4 sweaty and shower-less days.

The last piece of our logistic-jigsaw was completed when we received a lift back to Mustaq in the morning. We were dropped off back at the hotel, where we boxed up our bikes for the flight home.

Petrol station pit-stop on the way back to Rustaq

We spent that last afternoon sightseeing in Mustaq. I still didn’t like it as a town. I’m sure it’s great if you like driving around and visiting shopping centres, but I dislike both those pastimes. I came to Oman for the mountains, the desert, and the dirt roads – and they didn’t let me down.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

A few concluding practical notes:

I wouldn’t have fancied doing this route much later in the year. I’ve cycled through some horrendous temperatures in deserts around the world, but doing Oman in summer would be suicidal. There’s filtered water available everywhere (in almost all the mosques and sometimes just at the side-of-the-road) but I wouldn’t want to be cycling in 50C. We had temperatures around 30C, and as much as we’d have liked some more daylight I wouldn’t have sacrificed that for hotter days.

Camping was easy-peasy everywhere. Oman is an incredibly safe country and no-one cares where you camp. They love camping themselves, so as long as you are courteous you will not have any trouble anywhere. I’d have happily camped at the side of the road without fear of anyone troubling us.

I have no regrets over the route we took, it was a good mixture of everything: dirt tracks and tarmac roads, high mountains and deserts, villages and emptiness. The bikes were probably a little overkill, but I couldn’t have done it on road bike and the plus size tyres made the rough descents a lot more enjoyable.

There’s a write-up on the 3T XPDTN3 blog, which is actually a very similar route (I only discovered it after I’d made ours). That may be worth a read, if you’d like another opinion on the same ride. To be honest, a bike like the Exploro would be perfect on a route like this. An adventure ready gravel bike would be great on all the terrain as nothing is too rough. Keeping a lighter load would be more helpful on the rough stuff than suspension.

Oman is beautiful. I’d love to go back to explore more of the coast and some of the ‘proper’ desert. The country is accessible, and like everywhere it’s only a matter of time before more of those dirt roads get paved. The people are lovely. Never overbearing, and always conscientious and polite. The level of English was surprisingly high everywhere. The closest country I’ve cycled in was Iran, where the attention was overwhelming at times. I’m not naive enough to have thought that the two countries would be that similar (they don’t even have a land border) but the people couldn’t have been more different. Even when spotted camping in the most random places, the shepherds herding their goats past our tent wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at seeing two white foreigners loitering in the desert. They’d just wave and give us a ‘salaam alaykum’ before walking away. My kind of country.

 


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