I have never been to the desert. I also can’t imagine how we can be in a desert less than two hours from our current location; 2,000 metres above sea level in the middle of a mountain range, with a comfortably cool climate oft around 21 °C. However, leave we must, as after two nights at the blissfully luxurious Alila Jabal Akhdar hotel, we are due to embark on the second leg of our Oman road trip.
We had travelled to Jabal Akhdar from Muscat, taking in the ancient city of Nizwa, visiting Birkat Al Mauz and Wadi Bani Habib, as well as having the absolute pleasure of so many beautiful views.
This next trip would take us to spend a night beneath the stars in Oman’s Wahiba Sand’s desert before embarking on the final leg of our journey back to Muscat and a few days of intense relaxation on the beach at a rather lovely luxury hotel.
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Jabal Akhdar to Wahiba Sands
We used the excellent Zahara Tours in Oman for all of our day trips. We had the best driver, Mohammed, that did all three legs of our Oman road trip with us. He was great at answering all my endless questions, as well as being super flexible around what we did and saw and giving us lots of suggestions to choose from. I highly recommend them if you are looking for a private tour in Oman.
Wadi Bani Khalid
Rather than making lots of stops today like we did on the way to Jabal Akhdar, we decided to just stop at Wadi Bani Khalid, which is regarded as being one of the best wadis in Oman.
What is a Wadi?
I find many articles don’t explain this and assume you know! I don’t know whether I had been living under a rock, but I had never heard the term prior to planning our trip to Oman.
A wadi is effectively just another word for valley, gorge or ravine. Some are dry, some have water in them and some depend based on what season it is and how much rain they have had. Wadi Bani Khalid is wet all year round as it is fed by a natural spring.
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Getting to Wadi Bani Khalid
From where we were in Jabal Akhdar, the journey took a little over four hours. However, visiting this wadi is also a popular day trip from Muscat, where it takes around a three hour drive.
If you are driving outside of Muscat around this area and aren’t planning to take one of the main highways, make sure you are a confident and competent driver, the back roads in Oman aren’t something to take on lightly. It is a very mountainous landscape and consequently there are some very narrow and steep roads with sharp drops.
Parking at Wadi Bani Khalid is easy and plentiful, either in the main car park or on the road itself (which is what we did). It was about a ten minute walk from there along a flat and easy path. It’s in part this easy access that makes this one of the most visited wadis in Oman; some, such as Wadi Shab, require a forty five minute hike to get there.
Exploring Wadi Bani Khalid
I’ve never seen an oasis, but Wadi Bani Khalid is exactly what I imagined one to be like, clear sparking water and shady date palms set against a backdrop of dry, craggy mountains. I get quite excited when I see the water, I love to swim!
Now Mohammed recommended sturdy shoes as he was going to take us on a walk through the wadi to some caves the other side (about 1km). Being highly organised, I had obviously come with my bag that also contained flip flops and multiple changes of clothes as well.
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We set off, but soon realise that we need to walk through the water several times to get there. No bother for me, flip flops come out! Danny, on the other hand (not so organised), only has socks and trainers that are not easily removable! A ten minute walk takes almost thirty as he takes his shoes and socks off repeatedly; Mohammed looks baffled and I laugh hysterically.
When we got to the cave, some very wet people emerged which looked exciting, but my rather health and safety conscious husband (I am a tad clumsy) was worried I would slip in my flip flops down the rather steep dark slope. Fine by me, I’m looking forward to swimming! We head back (cue shoes and socks saga on repeat and more hysterical laughing from me) and it’s finally time to swim! I get in carefully, appeasing the health and safety police; the water is crystal clear and not at all cold.
Swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid
I swim through the narrow channels with huge rocks either side that have big chains nailed to the top for people to climb up (I haven’t ever possessed that level of upper body strength), until I get to a larger area and sit on a rock in a shallower part of the pool. As I sit there, a weird, mini electric shock feeling keeps creeping up my legs; I look down and some small black fish seem to be attached to my feet and legs.
In the slight pause before I launch into a full blown panic, it clicks with me what they are; Garra Rufa fish, the ones that are used in fish pedicures! I am not sure how I feel about it but I sit and watch them for a bit until Danny joins me. One swims up his shorts and he jumps out the pool and declares he’s done with swimming in any natural environment ever again. Honestly, this trip had me laughing the whole way through!
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After a leisurely hour of so of swimming and with baby soft feet (at least for me anyway!), we hop out and clamber back over the rocks (I have opted to retain my flip flops), towards the open air restaurant at the main part of the wadi that serves local food.
The food is ok, nothing special, but the view is spectacular overlooking the rocky desert mountains with dates palms clustered around the clear blue green waters of the wadi. My peaceful “I’m on holiday” feeling is back and we sit and chat on our plastic chairs for half an hour or so before making our way back to the car.
- There are bathroom facilities, although make sure you bring your own tissue and hand sanitiser, these are not provided. You can change here if you are not already wearing your bathing suit under your clothes.
- The open air, very casual restaurant on site charges 4 OMR (cash only) for a plate from the buffet which consisted of chips, rice, curry and dahl. They also sell takeaway drinks from here. A few people had brought picnics, which is something to consider as well.
- Bring both sturdy shoes (trainers are fine) and flip flops, hopefully my story above has demonstrated why!
- In the main area of the wadi, i.e. anywhere that is visible from the restaurant or the bridge, you must cover up to swim; ladies, this means t-shirt and shorts (not super short ones please!).
- If you walk past this point though, almost everyone had bathing suits on, which is perfectly acceptable as it is quite sheltered. It still isn’t a place to wear your skimpy bikinis though, there was a fairly even mix of tourists and locals when we went and the latter won’t like it.
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An Oman Road Trip to Wahiba Sands
Shortly after resuming our Oman road trip into the desert, I finally saw a camel! I have never seen one outside of a safari park before and wasn’t quite sure how I’d imagined seeing one in its’ indigenous country, but it certainly was not riding in the back of a jeep as this one was…
Mohammed explained that camels are kept for their milk, meat or for racing, the latter being very popular in Oman. Over the next hour I see more camels riding around in the back of various vehicles than I do milling around on the roadside, I can’t say I’m entirely sure where all these camels are going….
Wahiba Sands Desert in Oman
Excitingly, the surrounding landscape, while still mountainous, is getting distinctly sandier; we pull in to a local village to let our tyres down ready to drive on the sands and then promptly drive off road.
The sand is gritty and dirty with cassia trees dotting the landscape, not quite what I was expecting, but we bounce around for a bit passing through several small villages. Then Mohammed suddenly takes a sharp left and it’s like we passed through some secret portal into another world.
There are no man made structures of any type, no plants and the sand is red hued and in rolling dunes, this is the kind of desert I have seen in photos. We move through the sand at quite a pace given there is no road (I have no idea how Mohammed knows where he is going, there are not exactly any markers to navigate from) until we get to a village nestled between the dunes.
Here, there are camels and goats roaming around traditional Bedouin style houses. The Bedouin are a historically nomadic people from Middle Eastern and North African countries that lived in the deserts. Their houses are traditionally made from woven goat or camel hair and are relatively transportable to fit in with their traditional lifestyle.
We whizz by and start to climb the dunes ready for some dune bashing!
Dune Bashing in Wahiba Sands
Mohammed (and the car) seem to be coping well with the constant shifting of the sand beneath us and driving fast over the dunes with the intermittent feeling that your going to slide all the way to the bottom at any minute is quite exhilarating! We drive/slide sideways down one at such a speed that everything goes red as sand covers every window (luckily there is nothing for miles around) but when we get to the bottom is becomes apparent that something has happened to the car.
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We get out to inspect and find that the tyre has come off one of the wheels….not so lucky that there is nothing for miles around then! “Never fear” Mohammed declares, as we are not too far from our accommodation for the night, he will call and get the hotel to collect us while he changes the tyre.
He pulls out his phone, zero signal. Danny and I pull out our phones, no signal. Excellent. Mohammed says there is a spot about half a mile away where he can usually make calls, so we hop back in the car and limp over with our phones in the air.
A Desert Rescue
Eventually the magical bars of life appear and calls are made while I go out and walk in the sand. It’s not like beach sand at all, it’s really fine and up close it looks more like a mix of red and yellow grains of sand which gives it that orange hue.
The temperature is warmer than the mountains, but still comfortable, I think it’s the dry air that makes it a pleasant kind of heat. I would not like to be here in the summer though, here it gets up to 50°C and most tour operators shut down for these three months as there are no tourists and no one wants to comes to the desert (the drivers included).
I lie down on the sand and start to wonder how many hours I’ll be stuck in the middle of the desert for when we spot another 4×4 zooming towards us.
It’s been four minutes, not quite as dramatic as I was half hoping for! We transfer over to the new car, the driver is going to take us to our accommodation and then return to help Mohammed fix the tyre.
High speed desert driving ensues and it feels super sonic, the sun is starting to drop in the sky, the colour of the sands becomes a bit more vibrant and looking out over it all, it’s hard to believe we were high at the Alila in the Jabal Akhdar mountains that very morning.
The peaceful bubble is coming back and I can’t wait to get to Desert Nights camp to watch the sun set over the dunes and have some dinner under the starry sky!
Our Oman road trip is set to continue tomorrow as we head back to Muscat!
– View & book tours to Wadi Bani Khalid or Wahiba Sands, either as a multi stop road trip or a day tour from Muscat.
– Check flight routes and prices with Skyscanner. Oman Air fly direct from Manchester and London Heathrow on a daily basis and British Airways fly from London Heathrow three times a week between October and April.
There are currently no direct flights from the USA, but there are lots of connection options; Muscat is only an hour’s flight from Dubai.
– View and book accommodation in Oman with Booking.com, Agoda or Hotels.com.
– Click here to buy your Lonely Planet Guide for Oman.
– Apply for your Oman Visa here. Read my full Oman Itinerary for more visa information.
– You can check out my full list of tried, tested and recommended Travel Resources here.