Getting around Oman: Transportation Tips
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There’s very little public transport in Oman. Buses will, at a pinch, get you between the main towns and cities, but to really see anything of the country you’ll need your own transport, either by signing up for a tour, hiring a guide-driver, or getting behind the wheel yourself.
Driving yourself is far and away the easiest way of getting around the country. An extensive and ever-expanding network of modern roads now reaches most parts of the country and driving is largely straightforward, although not without a few challenges.
Standards of driving leave a certain amount to be desired, and the country’s level of road-traffic accidents and fatalities is depressingly high (albeit not quite as bad as in the neighbouring UAE). Drive defensively at all times, expect the unexpected and be prepared for some lunatic in a landcruiser to come charging down on you at 150km/h.
Vehicles drive on the right in Oman. The usual speed limits are 120km/h on dual-carriageways, 100km/h on single carriageways, and either 60km/h or 80km/h in built-up areas. Cars are fitted with a speed alarm which will beep at you (irritatingly) when you reach 120km/h. A few of the main highways are monitored by speed-cameras.
Common road hazards include vehicles driving after dark with no lights on; vehicles cutting suddenly in front of you without indicating; and livestock wandering onto roads, particularly goats and (in Salalah especially) camels. Rain often leads to flash floods which can cut off roads within a matter of minutes. Driving around you’ll see endless signs saying “Stop when water is at red!” whenever you pass through even a slight depression in the landscape, meaning stop if the water level reaches the red paint on the poles on either side of the road. Keep a lookout too for speed bumps. These are found in towns and villages all over the country, but in many places the paint has peeled off them and there are no warning signs – a nasty surprise if you hit one at 80km/h.
Penalties for traffic infringements are often stringent. Jumping a red light, for instance, leads to a mandatory two-day jail term. Wearing a seat belt is also obligatory, with an on-the-spot fine of 10 OR if you’re caught without one on. Oman is also famous for its law requiring drivers to keep their vehicles clean; driving a dirty car can technically land you with a fine, although in practice the police will probably just direct you to the nearest car wash.
If you have an accident you’ll need to inform the police (emergency number t9999). It’s best, if possible, to leave your vehicle exactly where it is until the police have arrived and had a look at it. Moving it before they reach the scene can be construed as an admission of guilt.
Car rental is reasonably inexpensive. The international car-rental agencies can provide cars from around 13–15 OR per day, rising to around 35 OR for a 4WD. Local firms may be able to provide a vehicle for as low as 10 OR, although, obviously, such vehicles may not be in such good condition as those hired from a more reputable company. Collision-damage waiver costs around 2 OR per day – you may consider it money well spent for the extra peace of mind it gives you. Your national driving licence should be sufficient documentation, although if in doubt check in advance with the car rental firm you intend renting from. Note that most car-rental firms won’t hire vehicles to those aged under 21. Petrol is extremely cheap by European standards, at roughly 20p per litre.
All the major towns in the country are connected by bus. These will do at a pinch to get you between the country’s major towns and cities, but no more. Buses are mainly operated by the government-run Oman National Transport Company (ONTC; wwww.ontcoman.com, although the site wasn’t operational at the time of writing), along with a few private operators on the Muscat–Salalah route.
Buses are reasonably fast and comfortable, although there are only two or three departures daily, and getting information about exactly where they depart from and when can be difficult (although if you use buses much you’ll learn to recognize the distinctive ONTC concrete bus-stops-cum-shelters). Fares are extremely modest – no more than 2–3 OR for most inter-city journeys, rising to 6–7.5 OR for the long journey to Salalah.
Within larger towns (Muscat especially) local transport is provided by taxis and micros (also known as “baisa buses”) – basically minivans painted white and orange and seating up to around fifteen passengers, at a squeeze. These are mainly used by low-wage expats from the Indian subcontinent and are easily the cheapest way of getting around, although it can often be difficult to work out where micros run. Vehicles aren’t signed, so it’s just a question of asking around (or waving at anything that passes) until you find one going where you want to go to. Outside Muscat, drivers are unlikely to speak more than a few words of English.
Within larger towns, the easiest way of getting around is by taxi. These are easily recognizable thanks to their white and orange livery, and usually fairly easy to find – just flag down one at the roadside. All Omani taxis are unmetered, meaning that you’ll have to agree the fare before you set out – bargain hard. Locals would expect to pay no more than 1–2 OR for trips within most cities (or up to around 5 OR for long trips within Muscat), although foreigners are likely to pay significantly over the odds – anything up to double these prices, depending on your bargaining powers. All taxi drivers are Omani (the profession is reserved for Omani nationals). In Muscat, virtually all speak at least basic English; outside Muscat, they may speak Arabic only.
Taxis can also operate on a shared basis, with three or four passengers splitting the fare. Shared taxis operate both within towns and also on longer-distance routes between towns, offering a convenient alternative to buses. The system works on an ad hoc basics, however, so you’ll have to scout around locally to find out where the best places to pick up a shared taxi are, and you may feel that it’s more bother than it’s worth.
There are only two domestic air services within Oman at present, between Muscat and Khasab in Musandam, and between Muscat and Salalah – both of which offer convenient alternatives to the long journey by road.
There is currently only one long-distance boat service in Oman: the high-speed ferry service between Muscat and Khasab in Musandam, operated by the National Ferries Company (NFC). A new NFC service around the southern coast between the Khuriyah Muria islands, Shumwaymiyah and Hasik is also in the pipeline, scheduled to come into operation by 2013 – although don’t be surprised if it actually takes a year or three longer.