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March 04, 2014, Oman

On the highway

Ryandall Lim turns emotional while driving through Oman

Ryandall Lim

THERE is some magic in travelling solo — you’ll discover yourself and the world in a different perspective, and gain courage to do things you would normally never do.

On a recent trip to Oman, I rented a car on impulse. Never mind if I had not driven in years, let alone experienced right-hand driving before or that this country is infamous for its dangerous speedsters. I just felt an inexplicable urge to get out of my comfort zone and explore Oman on my own.

Armed with a tattered road map and a trusted GPS, I mustered enough courage to drive out of the car park. I was nervous beyond words, but the annoying voice calculating my route every 50m as I approached Muscat’s countless roundabouts proved to be some comfort — that is, until the single, tree-lined lane I was driving in merged into an intimidating highway.

Scenic highway

Within minutes, my initial fears dissipated as the undulating highway connecting Muscat to the coast began to meander between gently rising rocky hills. Very soon, I was driving beside steep cliffs, which blocked out the sun’s rays. It was as if the road had been intentionally — and masterfully — carved into this jagged terrain so that drivers could experience the very best of Oman’s beautiful scenery. As I drove on, the majestic Al-Hajar Mountains peered from afar, their massive peaks casting greys of a thousand shades upon each other. Then like a message sent from above, the English radio channel I had tuned into began playing Tom Cochrane’s Life Is A Highway. Tears welled up in my eyes. I sped down the highway with windows half wound down, propelled suddenly by a gush of freedom.

After an hour of ascents and descents, my drive took me to the top of a hill when I was rewarded with a stunning v i ew of the Gulf of Oman. In the horizon, I witnessed two of the bluest blues as sky met ocean head-on like cut sheets joined perfectly by nature.

Nature’s plunge pool

My first stop was Bimmah Sinkhole, a naturally eroded, 40m-wide hole in the ground along Oman’s coastal drive. Finding it wasn’t easy. There were no signs and I lost my way at first, driving into a goatherd’s backyard, and causing a number of his animals to bleat and run about hysterically. Ali the goatherd became my vehicle commander and directed me to a park on the opposite side of the highway where the hole was located.

We reached there just in time to watch a plump kid jump into the sinkhole’s emerald waters almost 30m below — Fear Factor style. He did this several times, and even somersaulted in once for me so I could video him with my phone. It was quite hilarious as we signalled and shouted from across the sinkhole’s rim to coordinate the shoot, with passers-by looking on. On the way out, a few friendly park wardens insisted we join them for chai (tea). In Oman, always oblige to a chai invitation because you never know what you’ll miss out on; one of the park wardens shared a heavenly cake his wife had made for him that day.

Visions of paradise

A half-hour drive on, I reached the first of Oman’s beautiful wadis — the Arabic term referring to valleys with streams. It was interesting that there were numerous “Beware of Wadi Crossing” signs along the way, just before small streams of water flowed across the road — as opposed to signs warning motorists of crossing pedestrians or animals. Luscious green date palms grow in these wadis, and massive boulders in the path of streams allow natural swimming pools to form. The pools, with water so clear and still, mirror their surroundings like duplicate visions of paradise. I visited Oman’s two most attractive wadis — Wadi Shab and Wadi Bani Khalid; each offered a unique sightseeing experience but both left me equally spellbound.

My final stop on my day-long road-trip was Wahiba Sands — Oman’s majestic desert, home to the Bedouins, and where dramatic dunes rise up to 100m. I had never experienced a desert before, so being there at sunset in the middle of its quiet vastness (even if there were more than a dozen tourists nearby) and surrounded by sand waves of varying reds was just awe-inspiring. In the distance, I spotted the silhouette of a wild camel under a tree.

As the cool, powdery desert sand found its way into my shoes and tickled my toes, I suddenly felt so incredibly minute, and wondered how little we knew of, and appreciated our beautiful world. I let out an audible gasp and the tears welled up again.

GUIDE LINES

Several Middle Eastern airlines fly to Muscat via the airlines’ respective cities. There are numerous reliable car agencies based in Muscat.

■ Oman is best visited from October to March; at other times of the year, it gets unbearably hot.

■ Sightseeing tour options may be limited because there are few tourists; self-drive is not cheap but it’s the best way to explore Oman’s many attractions.

■ A 4-Wheel-Drive desert dune bashing experience should not be missed. If you’re self-driving, it is advisable to go in two cars for safety, and because desert tracks can be confusing.

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