It’s legal to wild camp in Oman. And, done responsibly, it’s one of the most rewarding ways to take in the country’s varied terrain. Fiona McAuslan pitched her tent in the mountains of Jebel Akhdar – and found some surprises along the way.
Of all the things I expected to find wild camping on an Omani mountainside, an invitation to dinner was not on the list. But finding the unexpected is what happens when you pitch a tent 3000ft high in the Jebel Akhdar mountains.
Their beauty is wild and austere. By day, you can see for miles and miles across hundreds of dragon-teeth ridges – but we had arrived after dark, following a drive along a dirt track with a hair-raising gradient. In the flickering glow of a single camping light, the mountains now appeared inimical and inhospitable.
Lost, we’d stopped the car to watch the sunset. Our feet crunching on rubbly grey gravel was the sole sound as we took in the crags beneath a citrine sky. The only way was up we decided.
A few miles further along the knife-edge track, a small compound erupted into view. A mother with children clutching her abaya covered her head as we approached and pointed out the direction we should have taken to reach the road. Far below us, the nearest town glittered on the slopes: too late to turn back, we forged on into the encroaching darkness.
Wild camping, pitching a tent on public land, is legal in Oman. And it’s the best way to explore. The sheer variety of terrain – the sculpted dunes of the desert sands, the jagged drama of the towering mountains – means you’re spoilt for choice.
Logistically it’s not difficult either: an infrastructure of decent dual carriageways, cheap fuel and plenty of companies from which to rent camping equipment make it eminently doable.
But best of all, away from the orchestrated experience of the much-promoted tours and beach resorts, you’re free to connect directly with the land and the real experiences hiding within it.
This was never more apparent than when my partner and I found ourselves battling to start our barbecue on our first night on an inky precipice in the Jebel Akhdar mountains.
Formed by the underwater tectonic push and shove of bygone millennia, the Al Hajar mountain range spans much of the country from east to west. Granite rocks are hoved into sharp peaks largely naked of vegetation.
Surprisingly, though, this seemingly inimical terrain is a popular spot for Omanis wanting to escape the city – and we were lucky that further up the plateau a group of friends had taken an interest in our plight. “We saw you pitching your tent,” said one of the men, Marhoon, who came down the slope to talk to us, “so we cooked extra food for you”.
If what we were doing was wild camping, what they were having was an extreme picnic. They’d arrived at the mountaintop kitted out with enormous cooking pans, gas cylinders, fuel-powered hob, wicker floor mats and a massive water butt.
Then they slaughtered a sheep, built a campfire and cooked up traditional lamb stew, barbecuing the offal. This was a lads’ night out Omani style and, as camping suppers go, we were in for a feast. Hospitality is intrinsic to Omani culture and they wouldn’t hear of us not joining them.
Internationalism sits alongside a patriotic traditionalism in Oman. Mahoon’s brother-in-law told us how much he misses his son, one of seven children, studying medicine in England.
“Every week we have a family meal and every one of my children is expected to come – they need a good excuse if they don’t.”
Others spoke passionately about recent advances in Oman society, brought in by Sultan Qaboos. “All of this was unreachable 40 years ago,” said Mahoon, gesturing across the hills and gullies. “No roads or electricity – nothing. He has changed our lives.”
The evening finished with dates and spiced tea. Then, with industrious alacrity, they packed everything away onto flat bed trucks and inched their way down the mountain road. And we were left, once again, to the solitude of the mountains.
Inspired? From mountain plateaus to sprawling deserts, these are the top spots to camp across the country:
1. For island life: Masirah island
Stunning and secluded, Masirah island, off the east coast, is a good option for the summer months, when temperatures rocket on the mainland. Sur Masirah is a haven of coral reefs, white sands, bird and turtle watching. Cool breezes have also spawned a kite surfing subculture.
2. For great hiking: Jebel Shams
This is the highest point in the mountains (and one of the most dramatic), with a view down a sheer canyon that plummets down over 3000m. There’s fantastic hiking all around this area, too.
3. For mountain views: Sharafat al Alamayn
This mountain plateau is easy to reach with a 2WD but has one of the best views over the whole Jebel Akhdar range. A wide flat plateau makes a good camping spot.
4. For towering sand dunes: Wahiba Sands
Use the Bidiya desert camp to orientate yourself, but strike off to the dunes to set up camp. It’s recommended that you don’t go into the desert alone – Nomad Tours leads expeditions here.
5. For a coastal escape: around Al Sifah beach
An hour’s drive from Muscat, this golden sand beach is ideal for an overnight trip from the capital. A short drive further along the coast is the picturesque fishing village Qurayyat.
6. For a far-flung adventure: Al Khalaf
Picture-perfect beaches, dunes and a fishing village await those who persevere to this far-flung point south of Muhut. The powdery sands have earned it the nickname sugar dunes, while the nearby beach is a glittering jewel. The only drawback is that you need a 4WD to take it on – but it will be the most rewarding camping spot should you do so.
Header image: Phil Norton/Flickr. Main body images top to bottom (left–right): Jeffrey Zabinski/Flickr; we_like_it/Flickr; ringogoingo/Flickr; Tristan Schmurr/Flickr; Tristan Schmurr/Flickr; Andrea Moroni/Flickr; Marlon Cureg/Flickr; Andrea Moroni/Flickr