UAE and Oman

Azerbaijan was cold (it was November after all) and we had very limited luggage allowance for our flight over Iran to the UAE. We had to include our bikes, all our clothes, as well as cooking and camping equipment, so it made sense to wear as many layers as possible. With our long sleeves, jumpers and down jackets on, hats and underwear in our pockets and our heaviest, thickest socks on our feet we boarded the Azerbaijan Air flight to Dubai.

Within minutes of landing we were hit with a wave of heat and it was straight into t-shirts and shorts. Travelling by bicycle means that progress is slow, but also that transitions (either with the culture or the weather) are steady. With this being our first flight of the trip, we had forgotten how quickly things can change!

We were lucky to be collected from the airport (complete with handmade painted banner!) by our very dear friends Ben and Holly, who have lived in Dubai for the last few years. Just by walking into Ben and Holly’s house we felt reset. Conversing in full English without having to gesticulate, eating homecooked familiar food and being thoroughly spoilt, the previous 3 months of travelling washed away very quickly. The only bike related activity involved dropping our bikes off at Cycle Hub who gave them a superb service and being interviewed on the Dubai Eye radio show about our journey so far. Our time was otherwise spent relaxing with Ben, Holly and their lovely girls, watching some of the Race to Dubai golf and washing all our kit. As a result of their hospitality we spent longer than anticipated with them (10 days in total) and with super food and great company we felt completely refreshed when it was time to leave.

We presumed cycling in the UAE was going to scary, what with busy 5 lane highways as the default road. However the designated cycle lane towards Al Ain proved the perfect getaway. Dead straight and separate from the main road, the cycle lane seemed popular with expats training for an upcoming multi distance road race and we had a few bemused looks at our fully loaded bikes!

Along the highway there weren’t too many options to camp at the end of the day, so we aimed for a mosque by a turn off. We settled on a sandy spot on top of a dune behind a few shops that was quiet enough for us to feel safe. The next day we headed through Al Ain and towards the border. Having our evisa already in hand, it was a relatively straight forward crossing and we were soon into country number 16.

We spent just shy of a month in Oman in total and absolutely loved it. The people were gentle, friendly and genuinely curious as to how we were finding cycling in their country. We were given bottles of water by passing cars, welcomed into houses to eat with local families and generally felt warmly treated by everyone. The food was simple yet delicious (grilled spiced meat on rice, and more curry-like the further south we travelled) which we learnt to enjoy sitting on the floor and without cutlery (although we were given the occasional spoon out of sympathy!). The weather was seriously hot but we found spots of shade and every mosque and the occasional house had publicly accessible chilled and filtered drinking water.

At the end of every night we pulled over when we felt the time was right and set up camp. Wild camping is legal in Oman and wherever we ended up we got to witness brilliant sunset, moonrise and often sunrise too. We felt incredibly safe, and Verity even got to meet a few camels as we cooked dinner.

We headed towards Jabal Shams, the “grand canyon of Oman”. Almost all the roads in Oman were beautifully smooth asphalt but here there were some unpaved parts and it was just ridiculously steep. We managed to hitch hike a lift up the final section to the top in the back of a ute with bales of hay. It was a joke in a car, let alone on a bike and we are not sure if anyone has ever managed to pedal to the top, let alone in one day! The views were breathtaking and shows the diversity of the geography that Oman can offer. We camped right on the edge on the abyss and the following day spent four hours trekking along a tiny track down into the canyon and back again in the heat.

We managed the descent on our bikes. Although the majority was on tarmac, enough was on a rough dusty track to make life difficult. Add to that some serious uphills (despite it being the way down) and the ludicrous gradient, it took us all afternoon and our brakes were scorching by the bottom (as Verity can testify to – she touched them by mistake and burnt two of her fingertips off!).

From the mountains we headed towards Muscat, going via Al Hamra, and Izki. Highlights included the old fort and souk in Nizwa and joining locals bathe in the falaj (a man made waterway) at Birkat al Mawz, where we were relieved to jump into the warm flowing water at the end of a hot sweaty day.

After eight nights wild camping, we found ourselves a little apartment in Muscat. We had a couple of restful days off the bikes and visited the breathtaking, white Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque with its intricate carving and huge crystal chandelier (although it needs to be said, every mosque in Muscat seems to be almost as impressive, they are all so serene and wonderfully calm).

We then headed down the coast towards Sur, a beautifully chilled traditional seaside town. Along the way we camped on the beach every night and stopped to visit (and swim in) the cool clear waters of Wadi Shab and the Bimmah sinkhole. Wadi Shab was particularly fun – swimming through the narrow passages to reach hidden caves with an ortlieb pannier acting as a dry bag!

The next spot to mention is Ras Al Hadd, the most easterly tip of Oman. This area is known for its turtles, as thousands come ashore to lay eggs over the summer. Despite it being at the end of the season, one evening we came across a large turtle on the beach. We were really moved by how human she was, from her dark twinkly eyes to the heavy breathing as she struggled to get back across the sand to the sea. We also saw nine tiny hatchlings which were going the wrong way towards car headlights. With the help of a local, Fahil, we picked up the hatchlings and put them near the waters edge. The next day, Fahil took us out on his boat to catch tuna and do some “snorkelly” in the incredibly clear sea.

We were lucky enough to be hosted by Turtle Beach Resort for one night. Having wild camped for a number of nights in a row, a shower was very welcome to clean our salty, sticky and sandy skin! We are very grateful to the staff for letting us stay and providing us with delicious food and some luxury.

We then headed on further south and into Wahiba Sands, an area of desert and very little else apart from the odd wild camel. The dunes were shades of red and beige which stretched as far as the eye could see. We had days where we wouldn’t pass any shops, so had to carry enough food and water supplies to keep us going. Despite feeling fairly exposed, the view of the sea to our left helped us to never feel too claustrophobic! Joe celebrated his birthday in the desert with a candle popped in a slice of prepacked cake Verity had hidden in her pannier since Dubai.

Our most southerly point in Oman was Masirah – a small island an hour and half boat ride from the coast. Whilst there is a scheduled ferry, we were able to hitch a ride for free on a small boat with some locals that simply went when enough cars had been squished on like a tetras game.

We took 3 days to circumnavigate the island – taking the single road following the coast. Once we left the little town where the boats docked, we saw hardly any people at all. We camped on the beach every night, falling asleep under the stars and listening to gentle knocking of hermit crabs. We rationed well, our food and water supplies kept us going until we found ourselves back at the dock to get a boat back to the mainland.

It was a very special, peaceful time with multiple dips in the sea each day and pedalling with sandy feet. At night you couldn’t tell where the horizon was – the many stars merged into a sea full of sparkly plankton. The only downside was the amount of plastic we came across on the beaches. A short 10 minute clear up produced a huge pile of bottles, rice sacks and buckets.

In researching Masirah, we came across a news article about a bus which had been launched between the mainland ferry dock and Muscat, in a bid to raise visitors. When talking to the bus office in Muscat, we had been promised this bus was big enough to take our bikes. Sure enough, a coach appeared and we had a very easy seven hour ride with only a handful of other passengers.

We then had a couple of days back in Muscat, exploring the old part of the city and packing the bikes ready for the next chapter: India!

Oman is definitely one of our favourite countries so far (even if there was a daily battle of keeping sand out of our tent!). It offers wonderful landscapes, roads, camping and food of which the Omani’s are rightly proud.

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